Leo Bogart

Sociologist and pollster

Monday 19 December 2005 01:00

Leo Bogart, sociologist, pollster and statistician: born Lwow, Poland 23 September 1921; married 1948 Agnes Cohen (one son, one daughter); died New York 15 October 2005.

At the end of 1945, 50 per cent of Germans called Nazism "a good thing badly carried out". Three years later, two out of five agreed that "some races of people are more fit to rule than others". These figures are quoted in Silent Politics (1972) by Leo Bogart, who was a very readable marketing and polls analyst.

Born Jewish (although not practising), in Poland in 1921, he had emigrated with his family to the United States aged two. He had been with the US Signals Corps in Germany as the Second World War ended. His remarkable, closely observed letters home (How I Earned the Ruptured Duck , 2004) described humanity in all its contradictions. The experience made him switch from literary studies to sociology. His dozen books draw as much upon anecdote as tables to illuminate, and question, those surveys which now determine commercial and political activity.

His father, Jacob (a jurist), came from Odessa and his mother from Courland (now Latvia). Born in Lwow and brought up in New York, he studied at Brooklyn College, where he edited a magazine, Vanguard (Auden's future companion Chester Kallman had "all his worldly goods in a paper bag of indescribable origin"). Amidst that era's tumultuous politics he inclined briefly to pacifism. "Fascinated by things people did and perplexed by what they did to each other", and impressed by one of George Gallup's lectures, he made Mass Observation-style studies of such things as the crowd-rousing Saturday- night meetings run by "Father Divine" in Harlem.

A natural linguist, he aided a Dutch art historian after graduation in 1941. The next spring he joined the Signal Corps at a Long Island radio factory which made devices for the Red Army, with whose arid-minded agents he liaised in New York. Camps around America, where he deliberately sat in the "colored" section of buses, brought training in pigeon use and in Russian.

Such military comedy animated letters to a girlfriend and to a fellow student. The tone darkened in England in spring 1944 (Hyde Park speakers urged "getting rid of the Jews"). With D-Day, European towns were so devastated that it was hard to smile back at their residents. Paris brought a meeting with "simple, pleasant, courteous" Picasso, and in Luxembourg prison a German was "completely saturated with Goebbels's lies, which have warped the German mind into shapeless obtuse monstrosity".

Continually monitoring Luftwaffe radio, the corps spent the winter in a 17th-century château (where a baroness ate part of a heating unit, mistaking it for chocolate), and in February 1945 they entered the Rhineland. "The efficient Germans have stacked the rubble along the sidewalk in neat piles." Residents were still neatly dressed, "unwaveringly hostile, but also surprisingly unmilitant", while Polish slaves worked the fields for food. "The German national character is still in a dynamic state", but he only felt hatred for those such as doctors and lawyers who should have seen through it all:

How cringing, vacuous and contemptible they were now, without their impressive uniforms, their armbands, daggers, pistols and all the other paraphernalia of membership in the Great Horde of the Supermen!

Automatic Hitler salutes were explained away as a local variant ("Heil Mahlzeit!"): such ingrained obeisance made even SS men disguised as hospital patients readily taken over.

VE Day was almost an aftermath. A crash had given him a frozen elbow that never fully recovered. Back in America, in a TB ward, he learnt that his two correspondents had eloped together. But the now former girlfriend did put him in touch with somebody else in the Textle Workers' Union, Agnes Cohen. They married in 1948. After a Chicago PhD he was en route for an interview at Hofstra University when his wallet was stolen; vexed, he made a poor show; needs must, he rang Standard Oil, which chanced to need public-relations staff (he kept his wife's job quiet).

"Heads are crowned when the numbers look good and roll when they fall, though the numbers themselves may be meaningless," he noted, always eschewing jargon. After a government report - partly in Korea - about racial integration in the army, which President Harry Truman had ordered but which inertia and prejudice were slow to implement, Bogart joined McCann-Erickson for a year ("an unusual mix of prima donnas, some of them talented, others not so"), then Revlon. In 1960, came the Newspaper Advertising Bureau in New York for many years and at his life's end he was still working, for the media consultants Innovation.

Ranging widely, he even cited James Joyce's amused disquiet at a friend's asking the Pope to bless the banned Ulysses disguised as a prayer book. His books included an early study of television's effect (The Age of Television, 1956): one might forget that the affluent and educated first bought sets. Later, he was one of the first to recognise that video would bring wider audiences than the teen one of Hollywood's obsession. Recently, in Finding Out (2003), he decried spuriously "weighted" telephone surveys: "bored and indifferent interviewers race through questions with scant regard for their meaning". Above all, he urged that focus groups, originally used to form questions, should not supplant the larger samples for whom these were designed.

Wartime service, brilliantly described, gave Bogart a view of humanity from which later pollsters have become dangerously insulated.

Christopher Hawtree

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