The legendary direct mail copywriter did more than invent the Johnson Box
On May 2, 1941, Frank Johnson submitted six direct mail letters and a cover memo to Francis DeWitt Pratt, the circulation manager of Time Inc. Although he later called Pratt “a very bad judge of good copy,” the young copywriter wanted something from him.
“Here is a try at getting everything in one letter, the whole approached from the Rich, Beautiful Prose–or Archibald Mac Leish–angle, and ending on a note of Auchincloss,” Johnson wrote, describing his first letter:
- Dear Subscriber:
A Panzer Division raising dust clouds along the north coast of Africa…a brawny riveter earning overtime in the Newport News shipyards…a half-scared, half-thrilled youth on his first solo flight over Pensacola…the members of a Congressional Committee in Washington scrawling endless figures on foolscap as they struggle with the stiffest tax bill in U.S. history–”
He went on to Number 2. “Probably a reaction from Number 1, and pretty frivolous for a sales talk. However, you’re supposed to gather that I can do these, too.”
- Dear Subscriber:
Want to add two or three years to your LIFE?
Here are the years:
1941 1942 1943
He moved onto to Number 3, which he described as “The middle way. I like it.” It started by saying, simply,
LIFE takes no bets…The next one he described as “same idea, cut down to a page.”
Johnson added that “with one exception, these letters are purposely not serious in tone. This is because it’s 1941: and headlines, radio, and corner store talk are all pretty damn gloomy.”
What did he want? “I shall burn joss sticks and paper prayers the week-end long, because I really want that job,” Johnson wrote. “More important, I’m now pretty sure I can handle it.” Pratt must have agreed, for Johnson was named circulation promotion manager of Life for a salary of $75 a week, and proved himself one of the best direct mail copywriters who ever lived.
Johnson, who died March 6 at 88, was known to many people as the father of the Johnson Box, a direct mail device that informed the reader of what was coming later in the letter. But he was also a master of the three- to four-page letter, the kind that “rewarded people for their reading time,” as Bill Jayme put it. He was a tough editor, “a good red penciler,” according to Joan Throckmorton. And he also happened to sell millions of books and subscriptions.
For all that, he was a modest man, who never made any special claims for himself, as I found during interviews in 1998 and 1999. “I had a pretty good rep as a copywriter,” he said. “And not much else.”
Born in 1912 in Cambridge, OH, Frank Johnson enjoyed an all-American boyhood, during which he loved hanging around airfields, but he had no intention of staying in the Midwest. In 1934, the lanky youth graduated from Ohio State with a degree in economics, then headed for New York.
His first job in the big town was as a claims adjuster for Liberty Mutual. But a woman whose claim he was investigating threw a poker at his head, and he jumped at the chance to join Time Inc. as a CBOB (college boy-office boy) for $20 a week. “I remember walking in the door of Time and thinking, ‘Hey, I’m home,'” he said.
The CBOBs, most of whom were liberal arts graduates from good schools, learned the business by sneaking a look at the internal mail they delivered, including that of founder Henry Luce, whose red pencils Johnson picked up.
Expected as a CBOB to “get up or out,” Johnson moved up in 1938–into the circulation department. Time Inc., built on direct mail, had several great writers and circulation experts on staff, including Bill Baring-Gould and Nick Samstag. Johnson, who was passionate about Kipling, Thurber and Twain, and had writing ambitions of his own, was soon accepted as one of them.
“Everybody there talked my language,” Johnson said. “We were all the same types. Super literate. We talked too much, and we drank too much. I could drink two martinis and come back to work and not go to sleep.”
According to his private files, Johnson wrote his first direct mail letter for Life in 1940, describing a contraption that sounded just like the Internet, according to his daughter Judy Thoms:
- Dear Subscriber:
Here is an artist’s approximation of a multiperimicrotelicona-rayoscope.
The one pictured is the only machine of its kind extant.
It was designed and built by a Prof. Dr. Zanathope Johnson, whom you can see.
For thirty years he secluded himself in a great hilltop-laboratory, planning, experimenting, building–for he was making a machine which would see everything of interest, all over the World!
By this time, war had broken out in Europe, a fact that was increasingly reflected in mailing pieces for Time and Life. For example, one Time letter started by saying:
- The Nazi Blitzkrieg has swept like a flame over Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, northern France.
“That sounds like one I could have written,” Johnson said in 1999. “Bill Baring-Gould or I.”
Then there was Dear 1940’s graduate: Your class graduated right in the middle of the greatest world crisis in five generations. “Boy, that’s a good lead,” Johnson said when he read it in 1999.
In 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and Time proclaimed in a direct mail letter that now the news is happening to us. Highly draftable despite his poor eyesight, Johnson entered the Army Air Force, and was sent to Wright Field in Ohio, where he put out the Air Surgeon’s Bulletin. “I’m the guy who lost the war,” he said. “I never got out of the country.”
The Good Years
After the war, Johnson returned to Time Inc., which had kept him on partial salary during his service hitch.
during a 1948 party at Time Inc.
Given postwar inflation, “It was a good time to write direct mail because you just kept saying ‘Buy now, or the price is going to double pretty soon.'”
Johnson examined several letters from that period to determine authorship. One was the Cold War piece known simply as “The Crumple Letter,” from the fall of 1949. It was crumpled, as if someone had rolled it up in a ball.
This is the way this letter might look (after it had been fished out of the wastebasket and somewhat smoothed) if I had sent it to Andrei Vishinsky or Maurice Thorez or Ana Pauker.
For this is an invitation to subscribe to TIME–and Communists have as little respect for honest journalism as they have opportunity to read it.”
“I think I had something to do with that,” Johnson said. “We had one that was burnt on the edges, too. And we had a hell of a time with that. In the first place, we had a hard time setting it on fire. Finally, it took blowtorches. And the blowtorches tended to set the whole damned file on fire. People complained when they opened it because soot would fall out [of the envelope]. But boy, it was fun to do.”
Then there was the 1951 letter for Life addressed to all the Johnsons in the United States (an amazing feat given that Time could not yet deduplicate its lists). Johnson wrote:
- Dear Reader Johnson:
You’re one in a million. And you and 999,000 other Johnsons in the U.S. can proudly boast a flourishing family tree.
Weren’t these stunts just a little expensive? “Time Inc. was making money like crazy, so we never asked what anything would cost,” Johnson answered. “We used to look back at what we had done and say, ‘My God, we were damned fools.'”
Not that it was easy. Johnson wrote in hand on a yellow legal pad, using a soft-lead Eberhard wingtip pencil, and often worked on a card table in the bedroom, struggling with “the third-renewal letter or something like that,” while his wife Helen slept. “I was the world’s slowest,” he said. “I’ve been known to stare at blank paper for days before I wrote a word. I’d write ‘Dear Subscriber,’ then scratch that out and write “Dear Reader,” then scratch that our and try ‘Subscriber’ again.”
Maybe it would have been easier if the letters had been shorter, but Johnson discovered early “that a three-page letter would do better than a one-page letter, no matter what else you did,” he said. “I still don’t know why.”
Johnson added that “The editors of Time and Life were always coming to us and saying, “Jesus Christ, you’re writing these endless letters, which nobody could possibly read. And we’d say, “Fine, how would you do it?” And they would write a very literate three-quarter-page letter, and we would very honestly test it, and it would honestly fail every single time.”
Johnson did take great pride in his skills as an editor, and in his eye for talent. One of his discoveries was Millie Strelitz, who had worked with him at Wright Field. “I got her hired by Time Inc. because she was a damned good copywriter,” Johnson said.
His greatest find was Bill Jayme, not long out of Princeton when he joined Time. Jayme’s 1951 letter for Life, “Cool Friday,” a masterful evocation of the autumn of 1936, when Life first appeared, was mailed in various formats well into the 1960s. And Johnson later hired Joan Throckmorton away from Time.
“Of course, Jayme and Throckmorton were damned difficult people to get along with,” Johnson said. “They were egomaniacs, and terribly articulate and very insulting to practically everybody. Francis DeWitt Pratt used to come to me once a week and say, ‘Fire Bill Jayme.’ And I’d say, ‘No, I won’t.’ And I could prove why not, because he was a damned good writer.”
In 1954, Johnson started moonlighting for American Heritage, a start-up run by former LIFE editors Jim Parton, Oliver Jensen and Joe Thorndyke. “They decided without any good business accounting at all that they were going to do a magazine with no ads and hard covers,” Johnson said. “And yeah, we proved you could do it, but it was not easy.”
Soon, Johnson was working days, nights and weekends, shuttling between Fortune and American Heritage, and getting involved even in list selection. In 1955, he wrote to his bosses at American Heritage that “I am still as skeptical as a virgin on a troop ship” about a plan to use the Changing Times list.”
Johnson knew that history was a tough sell. In a 1956 letter, he observed that The ability to read intelligently is not a common attribute. It is a delicate subject, for with it go a lot of implications about education and culture and background–things we traditionally soft-pedal in this country, especially if we suspect we’ve acquired ’em.
He explored this theme again in a 1961 letter.
- If you caught your son or daughter reading an American history book–would either one be following your example?
To judge by the sale and circulation of good histories about America, most of us study it in school, then cite it constantly thereafter to prove our arguments. We preach it to our offspring. We admire and even elect others who seem to have a solid sense of history.
But we rarely go back to the well.”
In 1957, as soon as they could afford it, Parton and company brought Johnson on full time. And he was ready. “I had probably gone as far as I was going to go at Time Inc.,” he said.
Soon, he was writing copy not only for American Heritage, but for a sister publication, Horizon, which he described by a staffer as “the only magazine I’ve ever known that’s over the heads of its editors. None of us could define it. I had to say what Horizon was, and I never knew. I just made it up.”
During this period, Johnson also invented the Johnson Box, although he later denied it. “Apparently I had used what is now called the Johnson Box on a few letters, not millions,” he said. “And I’ve been denying it vehemently and fruitlessly ever since–that I invented it, or believe in it, or anything else.”
But his admirers say Johnson does deserve credit. “It’s true, Frank did develop that,” said Joan Throckmorton in 1997. “But giving it the name and all was due to Chris Stagg [Nick Samstag’s son, who worked for Johnson at American Heritage and later ran an agency with Dick Benson] and his devotion to Frank.”
Just what was it? Bill Jayme said in an interview that the purpose of the box was to summarize the letter, “just as 19th century English writers like Dickens would say at the top, ‘Chapter 10, in which Mr. McGruder discovers Emily in a Compromising Position with the Director’s Son.'”
Johnson more or less agreed. “All of us would, on occasion, put copy above the salutation, to say to the reader up above that, ‘Keep an eye on this special offer coming up,’ or whatever,” Johnson said. Its purpose? “To get somebody to read the goddamned thing, that’s all. I don’t know that I had a theory about it.”
Of course, the Johnson Box was hardly Johnson’s only innovation. “I think I’ve done several things in direct mail that I should get credit for–the working P.S., for example,” he said. “I noticed that when people looked through the two- or three-page letter, they flipped through and read the P.S. first.”
That device is on display in a letter he wrote in 1961.
- SECRETARY OF WAR’S SON HANGED FOR MUTINY
“MUSHROOM CLOUD” KILLS 30,000 OFF U.S. COAST
ENEMY TROOPS INVADE VERMONT
ELDER STATESMAN WEDS EX-MURDER SUSPECT
“If you read these headlines on the morning of April 1st–or any other day of the year, for that matter–you’d find them hard to believe.
But they’re true.
Each of them described an actual event in your country’s past. Each has been covered (without sensationalism, with scholarship and verve) in recent issues of American Heritage, the magazine of history.
The letter ended with a P.S., stating that an early response guarantees you will start with the extra-big colorful Christmas issue. Then it listed several features in the issue.
Johnson also developed extravagant four-color brochures for books like the American Heritage History of Railroads in America. The accompanying letter for that one opened by saying,
- If you’re old enough and lucky enough, you can remember lying in bed as a child and hearing, far off, the whistle of a steam locomotive as it pounded through the night. The wail was hoarse, mournful, inimitable. And once upon a time it was a siren song for any youngster.
Johnson once told a colleague that “none of this stuff is important. What’s important is your family.” And he believed it. He was an attentive father, who wrote birthday poems every year for his children and grandchildren. And he richly enjoyed traveling with Helen, who had taken her law degree at age 50. The pair moved back to New York City from Pleasantville, NY after the children were grown.
Johnson left American Heritage in 1976, but he still had some great direct mail copy in him, so he freelanced for another decade, just about up to the time that Helen died in 1989. The last freelance job he did was “that letter for the Nature Conservancy that they just stopped using about a year or two ago, that they couldn’t beat for 12 years,” he said in 1998. “I couldn’t beat it either.” (The letter began, “The bug-eyed bird on our envelope who’s ogling you with such distemper has a point. He’s a native American sandhill crane and you may be sitting on top of one of his nesting sites.”)
When I visited Johnson in 1998, he was living in a ground-floor apartment across the street from the Museum of Natural History. The walls were decorated with New York prints, and I also noticed a Channel 13 tote bag and a large grandfather clock called Tommy, which had been passed down through Helen’s family. Despite his age, Johnson still had a good smattering of white hair on his head.
What were his secrets of direct mail success?
“All you’re trying to do with any letter is to keep somebody from throwing it out,” he said. “You tell funny stories, you put in funny pictures, you do any goddamned thing you can to keep them reading. One of my rules is never end a sentence at the bottom of a page, so you had to turn the page. I’m teaching you a lot of tricks.”
Johnson added that he always put in “a couple of indented paragraphs on pages two and three that told a funny story or said something outrageous, so that if you were beginning to skim through the letter, they would catch your attention.” He admonished, “I don’t believe exclamation marks.”
Follow-up letters were another challenge. “You send a four-page letter and you don’t get anything, then you follow it up with something quite different–shorter, different pictures. ‘As you recall, we wrote you two weeks ago,’ or words to that effect. What’s exciting, of course, is when you a write a piece of direct mail and mail it and it works.”
Johnson added that he still looks “at every piece of junk mail I get, with care,” and agreed that “the art of writing a four-page letter is gone now,” in this age of sweepstakes and mailbox glut.
Graphics? “Get a cute little girl and a cute puppy, and figure out how to run them both, and you’ve got a winner there.”
Despite the fact that he had his own voice as a writer, Johnson had no ambition to write novels or plays. “I never did,” he said. “I can edit it–you write a play and give it to me, and I’ll improve it. But I won’t write it.”
So how did he sum up his career?
“I’m glad I’m not doing it anymore. I made a good living at the time.”