Scarvey column: A conversation with former 'Mad man' David Leddick
Published 12:00 am Friday, June 1, 2012
By Katie Scarvey
Since I’ve been at the Post, I’ve been fortunate to talk to many people who have lived through sweeping changes in society.
None of them, perhaps, has a more interesting perspective than David Leddick.
Leddick isn’t from around here. In fact, I’m pretty sure if he had been born in Rowan County he would have moved away to seek his fortune, just as he moved from the small Michigan town where he was born 82 years ago.
I didn’t know who Leddick was until I got a press release that directed me to the Huffington Post and an essay by Leddick about how the TV show “Mad Men” doesn’t get everything right. The release also offered a chance to talk to Leddick, and well, I just couldn’t turn that down.
Leddick, you see, was a heavy-hitting Madison Avenue type himself, of the sort you see in AMC’s hit show “Mad Men.”
In particular, Leddick takes issue with the story arc for the character of Salvatore, the gay ad executive who is fired when others become aware of his leanings.
Leddick begs to differ. While the stodgier ad firms may have discriminated, many firms did not, he says — and he would know, since he was gay and never attempted to conceal the fact.
In fact, he says, both women and gay men could compete successfully in the New York advertising world if they were good at what they did.
The advertising industry provided a democratic work environment, he said, based on one’s work ethic. “If you were somebody’s cousin or beautiful, it meant nothing,” he said.
And Leddick was in demand. He was the worldwide creative director for Revlon in the mid-1960s and had the salary and jet-setting lifestyle to go with it. If you’re at least as old as I am, you might remember one of Leddick’s famous Jontue ads, featuring a horse and a field of flowers. (“Wear it and be wonderful.”)
Some clients loved him, some not so much, he says. He laughs when he remembers being put on the Kotex account in the late 1980s.
“They hated me,” he said. “They couldn’t accept that a man would be doing the account.”
But Leddick has always known who he was and been comfortable in his own skin. He shares that he had a boyfriend when he was 4 — a 5-year-old who promised to marry him when they grew up.
That didn’t pan out, but Leddick, who grew up in Montague, Mich., continued to like boys and live an authentic life.
“I never thought poorly of myself,” he said. He grew up in a family of four children, and he particularly remembers his grandmother.
“My grandmother was a terror, but she loved me very much. She doted on me. I had this feeling I was special.”
He graduated from a class of 36 in high school, 18 of whom had been together since kindergarten, and everyone was accepting of everyone else, he said. He wasn’t picked on or bullied. In fact, his class liked him, partly because he “ran everything,” he said. He still goes back for reunions.
When he was young, “the whole thing of being gay didn’t really exist as a concept,” he says, although he adds that people knew that “boys slept with other boys.”
He worked when he was in high school — as a gardener, a grocery store clerk, a dairy bar clerk, a skate sharpener at an ice skating rink — and saved up enough for his first year of college at the University of Michigan.
He doesn’t remember feeling out of place at college. ‘“You just go forward” and “assimilate,” he said.
He began to work as a newspaper correspondent for the Muskegon Chronicle.
He joined the Navy and was a communication officer on a service ship that had a military contingent aboard. His ship was part of the bomb testing operation on the Bikini Atoll.
They’d steam 35 miles out to observe the detonations, he says, which occurred early in the morning.
He still remembers what the first one looked like: “It was a huge cauliflower…it filled the entire horizon, with fire in the crevices.”
That blast was six times bigger than expected — and contaminated a Japanese fishing fleet unlucky enough to catch the fallout. Leddick’s ship was told to leave the area immediately, he says.
Five much smaller blasts followed over the next four months (not the six weeks originally planned.).
So what does he remember about those days?
Watching “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” every night.
And having his first big romance.
Nobody gay was “out” at that time, Leddick says, but “certainly people realized that some of the people were gay. We didn’t have any flack at all, as long as you did your job. I’ve been really lucky.”
After Leddick left the Navy, he became a dancer, making his debut with Maria Callas. He eventually got into advertising. Later, he began to write books — more than 20, both fiction and non-fiction.
He says he’s busier now than he’s ever been, including writing a popular blog (firstname.lastname@example.org).
One of his recent books is called “How to Be Gay in the 21st Century.” “There is nothing wrong with being gay,” Leddick says, “but a lot of people are doing it wrong.”
The book is funny and irreverent but at the same time, quite serious.
The first chapter is called “Get Out of the Closet.”
“The trouble with a secret life is that the only person who thinks it’s a secret is the person living it,” Leddick writes. “Everyone else knows. So if you think the shock of your coming out will alienate your friends and family, forget it.”
Even so, Leddick seems to exhibit a practical streak when it comes to his advice on whether or not to tell parents.
“It’s not a terrible mistake if you don’t tell them. And don’t expect some miracle of closeness to occur if you do. Just give them the impression that you are fine, that you are happy. That’s all they want to hear. And all you owe them.”
He says the biggest misconception people have about gay men is that they are immoral.“There is a great, great need for love. Gay men are basically very romantic and want romantic fulfillment.
“A lot of knowing yourself you can’t do alone. It’s great having somebody really care about you.”
He feels that it was after World War II when people became more aware of the concept of “gay” and decided it was bad. Now the pendulum is shifting and people just simply don’t care as much about what other people do.
He thinks the younger generation has an encouraging “live and let live” attitude.
“It gives you hope,” he says. “I’m very positive about things. I feel the world is getting better.”