DURING the Depression - long before she became one of the most famous copywriters of her day - Shirley Polykoff met a man named George Halperin. He was the son of an Orthodox rabbi from Pennsylvania, and soon after they began courting he took her home for Passover to meet his family. They ate roast chicken, tzimmes and sponge cake, and Polykoff hit it off with Rabbi Halperin, who was warm and funny. George's mother was another story. She was Old World Orthodox, with severe, tightly pulled-back hair; no one was good enough for her son.
"How'd I do, George?" Shirley asked as soon as they got in the car for the drive home. "Did your mother like me?"
He was evasive. "My sister Mildred thought you were great."
"That's nice, George," she said. "But what did your mother say?"
There was a pause. "She says you paint your hair." Another pause. "Well, do you?"
Shirley Polykoff was humiliated. In her mind she could hear her future mother-in-law: Fahrbt zi der huer? Oder fahrbt zi nisht? Does she colour her hair? Or doesn't she?
The answer, of course, was that she did. Shirley Polykoff always dyed her hair, even in the days when the only women who went blond were chorus girls and hookers. At home in Brooklyn, starting when she was 15, she would go to Mr Nicholas's beauty salon, one flight up, and he would "lighten the back" until all traces of her natural brown were gone. She thought she ought to be a blonde - or, to be more precise, she thought that the decision about whether she could be a blonde was rightfully hers, and not God's. Shirley dressed in deep oranges and deep reds. She wore purple suede and aqua silk, and was the kind of person who might take a couture jacket home and embroider some new detail on it. She was flamboyant and brilliant and vain in an irresistible way, and it was her conviction that none of those qualities went with brown hair. The kind of person she spent her life turning herself into did not go with brown hair. Shirley's parents were Hyman Polykoff, neck-tie merchant, and Rose Polykoff, housewife, of New York and Flatbush, by way of the Ukraine. Shirley ended up on Park Avenue at 82nd. "If you asked my mother, `Are you proud to be Jewish?' she would have said yes," her daughter, Alix Nelson Frick, says. "She wasn't trying to pass. But she believed in the dream, and the dream was that you could acquire all the accoutrements of the established affluent class. Her idea was that you should be whatever you want to be, including being a blonde."
In 1956, when Shirley Polykoff was a junior copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding, she was given the Clairol account. The product the company was launching was Miss Clairol, the first hair-colour bath that made it possible to lighten, tint, condition and shampoo at home, in a single step. When the Clairol sales team demonstrated their new product in the Statler Hotel, across from Madison Square Garden, thousands of beauticians jammed the hall and watched, open-mouthed. "They were astonished," recalls Bruce Gelb, who ran Clairol for years, along with his father and his brother. "This was to the world of hair colour what computers were to the world of adding machines. The sales guys had to bring buckets of water and do the rinsing off in front of everyone, because the hairdressers in the crowd were convinced we were doing something to the models behind the scenes."
Miss Clairol gave American women the ability to colour their hair quickly and easily at home. But there was still the stigma, the prospect of the disapproving mother-in-law. Shirley Polykoff knew immediately what she wanted to say, because if she believed that a woman had a right to be a blonde she also believed that a woman ought to be able to exercise that right with discretion. "Does she or doesn't she?" she wrote, translating from the Yiddish to the English. Clairol bought 13 ad pages in Life in the autumn of 1956, and Miss Clairol took off. That was the beginning. For Nice'n Easy, Clairol's breakthrough shampoo-in hair colour, she wrote, "The closer he gets, the better you look." For Lady Clairol, the cream- and-bleach combination that brought silver and platinum shades to Middle America, she wrote, "Is it true blondes have more fun?" and then, even more memorably, "If I've only one life, let me live it as a blonde!" From the Fifties to the Seventies, when Polykoff gave up the account, the number of American women colouring their hair rose from 7 per cent to more than 40.
Today, when women go from brown to blond to red to black and back again without blinking, we think of hair-colour the way we think of lipstick. Feria, the new youth-oriented brand from L'Oreal, comes in Chocolate Cherry and Champagne Cocktail - colours that don't ask "Does she or doesn't she?" but blithely assume "Yes, she does." Hair dye is now a billion-dollar- a-year commodity.
Yet there was a time, not so long ago, when hair colour meant something. Lines like "Does she or doesn't she?" or "Because I'm worth it" , the famous 1973 slogan for L'Oreal's Preference, were instantly memorable. They entered the language, and managed to take on meanings well outside their stated intention. Between the Fifties and the Seventies, women entered the workplace, fought for social emancipation, got the Pill, and changed what they did with their hair. To examine the hair-colour campaigns of the period is to see, quite unexpectedly, all these things as bound up together, the profound with the seemingly trivial. In writing the history of women in the post-war era, did we forget something important? Did we leave out hair?
WHEN the "Does she or doesn't she?" campaign first ran, in 1956, most advertisements aimed at women tended to be high glamour. But Shirley Polykoff insisted that the models for the Miss Clairol campaign be more like the girl next door - "Shirtwaist types instead of glamour gowns," she wrote in her original memo to Clairol. "Cashmere-sweater-over-the- shoulder types. Like larger-than-life portraits of the proverbial girl on the block who's a little prettier than your wife and lives in a house slightly nicer than yours." The model had to be a Doris Day type - not a Jayne Mansfield - because the idea was to make hair colour as respectable and mainstream as possible. One of the earliest "Does she or doesn't she?" television commercials featured a housewife in the kitchen preparing hors d'oeuvres for a party. She is slender and pretty and wearing a cocktail dress and an apron. Her husband comes in, kisses her on the lips, approvingly pats her very blond hair, then holds the kitchen door for her as she takes the tray of hors d'oeuvres out for her guests. It is an exquisitely choreographed domestic tableau, down to the little dip the housewife performs as she hits the kitchen light switch with her elbow on her way out of the door.
In one of the early print ads a woman with strawberry-blond hair is lying on the grass, holding a dandelion between her fingers, and lying next to her is a girl of about eight or nine. What's striking is that the little girl's hair is the same shade of blond as her mother's. The "Does she or doesn't she?" print ads always included a child with the mother to undercut the sexual overtones of the slogan - to make it clear that mothers were using Miss Clairol, and not just "fast" women - and, most of all, to provide a precise colour match. Who could ever guess, given the comparison, that Mom's shade came out of a bottle?
The Polykoff campaigns were a sensation. Letters poured in to Clairol. "Thank you for changing my life," read one, which was circulated around the company and used as the theme for a national sales meeting. "My boyfriend and I were keeping company for five years but he never wanted to set a date. This made me very nervous. I am 28 and my mother kept saying soon it would be too late for me." Then, the letter-writer said, she saw a Clairol ad in the subway. She dyed her hair blond, and "that is how I am in Bermuda now on my honeymoon with Harold". Polykoff was sent a copy with a memo: "It's almost too good to be true!" With her sentimental idyll of blond mother and child, Shirley Polykoff had created something iconic.
"My mother wanted to be that woman in the picture," Polykoff's daughter, Frick, says. "She was wedded to the notion of that suburban, tastefully dressed, well-coddled matron who was an adornment to her husband, a loving mother, a long-suffering wife, a person who never overshadowed him. She wanted the blond child. In fact, I was blond as a kid, but when I was about 13 my hair got darker and my mother started bleaching it." Of course - and this is the contradiction central to those early Clairol campaigns - Shirley Polykoff wasn't really that kind of woman at all. She always had a career. She never moved to the suburbs. "She maintained that women were supposed to be feminine, and not too dogmatic and not overshadow their husband, but she greatly overshadowed my father, who was a very pure, unaggressive, intellectual type," Frick says. "She was very flamboyant, very emotional, very dominating." One of the stories Polykoff told about herself repeatedly - and that appeared after her death last year, in her New York Times obituary - was that she felt that a woman never ought to make more than her husband, and that only after George's death, in the early Sixties, would she let Foote, Cone & Belding raise her salary to its deserved level. "That's part of the legend, but it isn't the truth," Frick says. "The ideal was always as vividly real to her as whatever actual parallel reality she might be living." For Shirley Polykoff, the colour of her hair was a kind of useful fiction, a way of bridging the contradiction between the kind of woman she was and the kind of woman she felt she ought to be. It was a way of having it all. She wanted to look and feel like Doris Day without having to be Doris Day. In 27 years of marriage, during which she bore two children, she spent exactly two weeks as a housewife, every day of which was a domestic and culinary disaster. "Listen, sweetie," an exasperated George finally told her. "You make a lousy little woman in the kitchen." She went back to work the following Monday.
This notion of the useful fiction - of looking the part without being the part - had a particular resonance for the America of Shirley Polykoff's generation. As a teenager, Shirley Polykoff tried to get a position as a clerk at an insurance agency and failed. Then she tried at another firm, applying as Shirley Miller. This time, she got the job. In a sense she was a faker, because to be Jewish - or Irish or Italian or African-American or, for that matter, a woman of the Fifties caught up in the first faint stirrings of feminism - was to be compelled to fake it in a thousand small ways, to pass as one thing when, deep inside, you were something else. "That's the kind of pressure that comes from the immigrants arriving and thinking they don't look right, that they are kind of funny-looking and maybe shorter than everyone else, and their clothes aren't expensive," Frick says. "That's why many of them began to sew, so they could imitate the patterns of the day. You were making yourself over. You were turning yourself into an American.
"There were all those phrases that came to fruition at that time - you know, `clothes make the man' and `first impressions count'. So the question `Does she or doesn't she?' wasn't just about how no one could ever really know what you were doing. It was about how no one could ever really know who you were. It really meant not `Does she?' but `Is she?' It really meant `Is she a contented homemaker or a feminist, a Jew or a Gentile - or isn't she?'"
IN 1973, Ilon Specht was working as a copywriter at the McCann-Erickson advertising agency, in New York. A 23-year-old college dropout from California, she was rebellious, unconventional and independent. "Ilon? Omigod! She was one of the craziest people I ever worked with," recalls Ira Madris, a colleague from those years. "And brilliant. And dogmatic. And highly creative. We all believed back then that having a certain degree of neurosis made you interesting. Ilon had a degree of neurosis that made her very interesting."
At McCann, Ilon Specht was working with L'Oreal, a French company that was trying to challenge Clairol's dominance in the American hair-colour market. "We were four weeks before air date and we had nothing," says Michael Sennott, who was also working on the account. The creative team locked itself away: Specht, Madris - who was the art director - and a handful of others. "We were sitting in this big office," Specht recalls. "And everyone was discussing what the ad should be. They wanted to do something with a woman sitting by a window, and the wind blowing through the curtains. The woman was a complete object. I don't think she even spoke. They just didn't get it. We were in there for hours."
Ilon Specht is now the executive creative director of Jordan, McGrath, Case & Partners, on Fifth Avenue. She has long, thick black hair, held in a loose knot at the top of her head, and lipstick the colour of maraschino cherries. She talks fast and loud, and swivels in her chair as she speaks, and when people walk by her office they sometimes bang on her door, as if the best way to get her attention is to be as loud and emphatic as she is. Reminiscing about the Seventies, she spoke of the strangeness of corporate clients in shiny suits who would say that all the women in the office looked like models. She spoke about what it meant to be young in a business dominated by older men, and about what it felt like to write a line of copy that used the word "woman" and have someone cross it out and write "girl".
"I was a 23-year-old girl - a woman," she said. "I could just see that they had this traditional view of women, and my feeling was that I'm not writing an ad about looking good for men, which is what it seems to me that they were doing. I just thought, Fuck you. I sat down and did it, in five minutes. It was very personal. I can recite to you the whole commercial, because I was so angry when I wrote it."
Specht sat stock still and lowered her voice: "I use the most expensive hair colour in the world. Preference, by L'Oreal. It's not that I care about money. It's that I care about my hair. It's not just the colour, I expect great colour. What's worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don't mind spending more for L'Oreal. Because I'm" - and here Specht struck her chest - "worth it."
On the strength of "Because I'm worth it", Preference began stealing market share from Clairol. In the Eighties, Preference overtook Nice'n Easy as the leading hair-colour brand in the country, and two years ago L'Oreal made the phrase the slogan for the whole company. An astonishing 71 per cent of American women can now identify that phrase as the L'Oreal signature, which, for a slogan - as opposed to a brand name - is almost without precedent.
FROM the very beginning, the Preference campaign was unusual. Polykoff's Clairol spots had male voice-overs. In the L'Oreal ads, the model herself spoke, directly and personally. Polykoff's commercials were "other-directed" - they were about what the group was saying ("Does she or doesn't she?") or what a husband might think ("The closer he gets, the better you look"). Specht's line was what a woman says to herself. Even in the choice of models, the two campaigns diverged. Polykoff wanted fresh, girl-next-door types. McCann and L'Oreal wanted models who somehow embodied the complicated mixture of strength and vulnerability implied by "Because I'm worth it."
In the late Seventies, Meredith Baxter Birney was the brand spokeswoman. At the time, she played a recently divorced mother going to law school on the television drama Family. McCann scheduled her spots during Dallas and other shows featuring so-called "silk blouse" women - women of strength and independence. Then came Cybill Shepherd, at the height of her run as the brash, independent Maddie on Moonlighting, in the Eighties. Now the brand is represented by Heather Locklear, the tough and sexy star of Melrose Place. All the L'Oreal spokeswomen are blondes, but blondes of a particular type. In his 1995 book, Big Hair: A Journey into the Transformation of Self, the Canadian anthropologist Grant McCracken argued for something he calls the "blondness periodic table," in which blondes are divided into six categories: the "bombshell blonde" (Mae West, Marilyn Monroe), the "sunny blonde" (Doris Day, Goldie Hawn), the "brassy blonde" (Candice Bergen), the "dangerous blonde" (Sharon Stone), the "society blonde", and the "cool blonde" (Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly). L'Oreal's innovation was to carve out a niche for itself in between the sunny blondes - the "simple, mild, and innocent" blondes - and the smart, bold, brassy blondes, who, in McCracken's words, "do not mediate their feelings or modulate their voices".
This is not an easy sensibility to capture. Countless actresses have auditioned for L'Oreal over the years and been turned down. "There was one casting we did with Brigitte Bardot," Ira Madris recalls, "and Brigitte, being who she is, had the damnedest time saying that line. There was something inside of her that didn't believe it. It didn't have any conviction." Of course it didn't: Bardot is a bombshell, not sassy. Clairol made a run at the Preference sensibility for itself, hiring Linda Evans in the Eighties as the pitchwoman for Ultress. This didn't work, either. Evans, who played the adoring wife of Blake Carrington on Dynasty, was too sunny. ("The hardest thing she did on that show," Michael Sennott says, perhaps a bit unfairly, "was rearrange the flowers.")
Even if you got the blonde right, though, there was still the matter of the slogan. For a Miss Clairol campaign in the Seventies, Polykoff wrote a series of spots with the tag line "This I do for me." But "This I do for me" was at best a half-hearted approximation of "Because I'm worth it" - particularly for a brand that had spent its first 20 years saying something entirely different. "My mother thought there was something too brazen about `I'm worth it'," Frick told me. "She could never have come out with that bald-faced equation between hair colour and self-esteem."
The truth is that Polykoff's sensibility - which found freedom in assimilation - had been overtaken by events. In one of Polykoff's "Is it true blondes have more fun?" commercials for Lady Clairol in the Sixties, for example, there is a moment that by 1973 must have been painful to watch. A young woman, radiantly blond, is by a lake, being swung around in the air by a darkly handsome young man. His arms are around her waist. Her arms are around his neck, her shoes off, her face aglow. The voice-over is male, deep and sonorous. "Chances are," the voice says, "she'd have gotten the young man anyhow, but you'll never convince her of that."
Here was the downside to Shirley Polykoff's world. You could get what you wanted by faking it, but then you would never know whether it was you or the bit of fakery that made the difference. Shirley Polykoff knew that the all-American life was worth it, and that "he" - the handsome man by the lake, or the reluctant boyfriend who finally whisks you off to Bermuda - was worth it. But, by the end of the Sixties, women wanted to know that they were worth it, too.
WHY ARE Shirley Polykoff and Ilon Specht important? That seems like a question that can easily be answered in the details of their campaigns. They were brilliant copywriters, who managed in the space of a phrase to capture the particular feminist sensibilities of the day. They are an example of a strange moment in American social history when hair dye somehow got tangled up in the politics of assimilation and feminism and self-esteem. But in a certain way their stories are about much more: they are about the relationship we have to the products we buy, and about the slow realisation among advertisers that unless they understood the psychological particulars of that relationship they could not hope to reach the modern consumer. Shirley Polykoff and Ilon Specht perfected a certain genre of advertising which did just this, and one way to understand the Madison Avenue revolution of the post-war era is as a collective attempt to define and extend that genre. The revolution was led by a handful of social scientists, chief among whom was an elegant, Viennese-trained psychologist by the name of Herta Herzog. She knew - or, at least, she thought she knew - the theory behind the success of slogans like "Does she or doesn't she?" and "Because I'm worth it".
Herzog worked at a small advertising agency called Jack Tinker & Partners, the brainchild of the legendary adman Marion Harper. Harper had come to believe that the agency he was running, McCann-Erickson, was too big and unwieldy. His solution was to pluck a handful of the very best and brightest from McCann.
What distinguished Tinker was its particular reliance on the methodology known as motivational research, which was brought to Madison Avenue in the Forties by a cadre of European intellectuals trained at the University of Vienna. Advertising research until that point had been concerned with counting heads - with recording who was buying what. But the motivational researchers were concerned with why. Why do people buy what they do? What motivates them when they shop? The researchers devised surveys, with hundreds of questions, based on Freudian dynamic psychology. They used hypnosis, the Rosenzweig Picture-Frustration Study, role-playing, and Rorschach blots, and they invented what we now call the focus group. There was Paul Lazarsfeld, one of the giants of 20th- century sociology, who devised a device with buttons to record precisely the emotional responses of research subjects. There was Hans Zeisel, who had been a patient of Alfred Adler's in Vienna. And there was Tinker's Herta Herzog, perhaps the most accomplished motivational researcher of all, who trained dozens of interviewers in the Viennese method and sent them out to analyse the psyche of the American consumer.
"Herta was graceful and gentle and articulate," says Herbert Krugman, who worked closely with her in those years. "She had enormous insights. Alka-Seltzer was a client of ours, and they were discussing new approaches for the next commercial. She said, `You show a hand dropping an Alka-Seltzer tablet into a glass of water. Why not show the hand dropping two? You'll double sales.' And that's just what happened. Everybody worshipped her."
After retiring from Tinker, she moved back to Europe. She wrote an analysis of the television show Dallas for the academic journal Society. She taught college courses. She conducted a study on the Holocaust for the Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, in Jerusalem. Today, she lives in the Alpine village of Leutasch, in a white picture- book cottage with a sharply pitched roof. She speaks in short, clipped, precise sentences, in flawless, though heavily accented, English. If you put her in a room with Shirley Polykoff and Ilon Specht, the two of them would talk and talk and wave their long, bejewelled fingers in the air, and she would sit unobtrusively in the corner and listen.
"Harper hired me to do qualitative research - the qualitative interview," Herzog told me. "It was interviewing not with direct questions and answers but where you open some subject of the discussion relevant to the topic and then let it go. As an interviewer, you are not supposed to influence me. You are merely trying to help me. It was a lot like the psychoanalytic method." But she wouldn't ask about hair-colour products in order to find out about you, the way a psychoanalyst might; she would ask about you in order to learn about hair-colour products. She saw that the psychoanalytic interview could go both ways. You could use the techniques of healing to figure out the secrets of selling. "Does she or doesn't she?" and "Because I'm worth it" did the same thing: they not only carried a powerful and redemptive message, but they succeeded in attaching that message to a bottle of hair dye. The lasting contribution of motivational research was to prove that you could do this for just about anything - that the products and the commercial messages with which we surround ourselves are as much a part of the psychological furniture of our lives as the relationships and emotions and experiences that are normally the subject of psychoanalytic inquiry.
THIS notion of household products as psychological furniture is, when you think about it, radical. When we give an account of how we got to where we are, we're inclined to credit the philosophical over the physical, and the products of art over the products of commerce. In the list of Sixties social heroes, there are musicians and poets and civil-rights activists and sports figures. Herzog's implication is that such a high- minded list is incomplete. What, say, of Vidal Sassoon? In the same period, he gave the world the Shape, the Acute Angle, and the One-Eyed Ungaro. In the old "cosmology of cosmetology", McCracken writes, "the client counted only as a plinth ... the conveyor of the cut". But Sassoon made individualisation the hallmark of the haircut, liberating women's hair from the hairstyles of the times - from, as McCracken puts it, those "preposterous bits of rococo shrubbery that took their substance from permanents, their form from rollers, and their rigidity from hairspray". In the Herzogian world view, the reasons we might give to dismiss Sassoon's revolution - that all he was dispensing was a haircut, that it took just half an hour, that it affects only the way you look, that you will need another like it in a month - are the very reasons that Sassoon is important. If a revolution is not accessible, and replicable, how on earth can it be a revolution?
"Because I'm worth it" and "Does she or doesn't she" were powerful, then, precisely because they were commercials, for commercials come with products attached, and products offer something that songs and poems and political movements and radical ideologies do not, which is an immediate and affordable means of transformation. "We discovered in the first few years of the `Because I'm worth it' campaign that we were getting more than our fair share of new users to the category - woman who were just beginning to colour their hair," Sennott told me. "And within that group we were getting those undergoing life changes, which usually meant divorce. We had far more women who were getting divorced than Clairol had. Their children had grown, and something had happened, and they were reinventing themselves." They felt different, and Ilon Specht gave them the means to look different - and do we really know which came first, or even how to separate the two? They changed their lives and their hair. But it wasn't one thing or the other. It was both.
Since the mid-Nineties, the spokesperson for Clairol's Nice'n Easy has been Julia Louis-Dreyfus, better known as Elaine from Seinfeld. In the Clairol tradition, she is the girl next door - a post-modern Doris Day. But the ads themselves could not be less like the original Polykoff campaigns. In the best of them, Louis-Dreyfus says to the dark-haired woman in front of her on a bus, "You know, you'd look great as a blond." Louis-Dreyfus then shampoos in Nice'n Easy Shade 104 right then and there, to the gasps and cheers of the other passengers. It is Shirley Polykoff turned upside down: funny, not serious; public, not covert.
L'Oreal, too, has changed. Meredith Baxter Birney said "Because I'm worth it" with an earnestness appropriate to the line. By the time Cybill Shepherd became the brand spokeswoman, in the Eighties, it was almost flip - a nod to the materialism of the times - and today, with Heather Locklear, the spots have a lush, indulgent feel. "New Preference by L'Oreal," she says in one of the current commercials. "Pass it on. You're worth it." The "because" - which gave Ilon Specht's original punchline such emphasis - is gone. The forceful "I'm" has been replaced by "you're". The Clairol and L'Oreal campaigns have converged. According to the Spectra marketing firm, there are almost exactly as many Preference users as Nice'n Easy users who earn between $50,000 and $75,000 dollars a year, listen to religious radio, rent their apartments, are fans of professional football, and belong to a union.
But it is a tribute to Ilon Specht and Shirley Polykoff's legacy that there is still a real difference between the two brands. It's not that there are Clairol women or L'Oreal women. It's something a little subtler. As Herzog knew, all of us, when it comes to constructing our sense of self, borrow bits and pieces, ideas and phrases, rituals and products from the world around us - over-the-counter ethnicities that shape, in some small but meaningful way, our identities. Our religion matters, the music we listen to matters, the clothes we wear matter, the food we eat matters - and our brand of hair dye matters, too. Carol Hamilton, L'Oreal's vice-president of marketing, says she can walk into a hair-colour focus group and instantly distinguish the Clairol users from the L'Oreal users. "The L'Oreal user always exhibits a greater air of confidence, and she usually looks better - not just her hair colour, but she always has spent a little more time putting on her make-up, styling her hair," Hamilton told me. "Her clothing is a little bit more fashion-forward. Absolutely, I can tell the difference." Jeanne Matson, Hamilton's counterpart at Clairol, says she can do the same thing. "Oh, yes," Matson told me. "There's no doubt. The Clairol woman would represent more the American-beauty icon, more naturalness. But it's more of a `beauty for me', as opposed to a beauty for the external world. L'Oreal users tend to be a bit more aloof. There is a certain warmth you see in the Clairol people. They interact with each other more. They'll say, `I use Shade 101.' And someone else will say, `Ah, I do, too!' There is this big exchange."
These are not exactly the brand personalities laid down by Polykoff and Specht, because this is 1999, and not 1956 or 1973. The complexities of Polykoff's artifice have been muted. Specht's anger has turned to glamour. We have been left with just a few bars of the original melody. But even that is enough to insure that "Because I'm worth it" will never be confused with "Does she or doesn't she?" Specht says, "It meant I know you don't think I'm worth it, because that's what it was with the guys in the room. They were going to take a woman and make her the object. I was defensive and defiant. I thought, I'll fight you. Don't you tell me what I am. You've been telling me what I am for generations." As she said "fight", she extended the middle finger of her right hand. Shirley Polykoff would never have given anyone the finger. She was too busy exulting in the possibilities for self-invention in her America - a land where a single woman could dye her hair and end up lying on a beach with a ring on her finger. At her retirement party in 1973 Polykoff reminded the assembled execu- tives of Clairol and of Foote, Cone & Belding about the avalanche of mail that arrived after their early campaigns: "Remember that letter from the girl who got to a Bermuda honeymoon by becoming a blonde?"
"Well," she said, with what we can only imagine was a certain sweet vindication, "I wrote it."
A version of this article appeared in the `New Yorker'
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