By JOE ZELNIK, M.A. '59 & B.A. '54
Courtesy University at Buffalo Archives
"The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," I said to a half-dozen coworkers, awaiting their responses.
Three gave blank stares, one said a movie, one said a book, and one said, "Gregory Peck?"
Gregory Peck did indeed play the male lead in the very successful movie by that name in 1956. But before the movie came the book.
Sloan Wilson finished it while doing double duty at the University of Buffalo as director of information services and "creative writing" teacher.
I was in his class the day he heard from Dick Simon of Simon and Schuster that the Literary Guild had named the book as one of its selections, a guarantee of success.
After that came the movie rights, for $300,000, which at the time was a huge amount of money. He had been making $8,000 a year at the university. Sloan went out and bought a new car. It was a black Chevy.
Yes, I was a would-be "creative writer." Girls were terribly impressed in those days to sit across the table and talk to a "writer."
Sloan didn't believe writing could be taught. The students wrote. He critiqued. And we hopefully learned.
Sometimes we would read our stories in class while he paced in front of the room, jingling his keys in his pocket, puffing on a pipe.
His favorite spot for lunch was a working man's bar (as opposed to a college bar) called Bitterman's directly across Main Street from the university. There we could have a cold beer and a great cheeseburger.
When Sloan died on May 25, 2003, at the age of 83, the New York Times obituary said that The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1951), along with David Riesman's 1951 The Lonely Crowd, "both remained must-reads in social studies and for literary excursions into American social history."
Sloan's book, reissued last year in paperback, was almost universally praised and was translated into 26 languages. The title became, according to reviewers, "a permanent part of our cultural vocabulary."
Hero Tom Rathmost of Sloan's heroes were versions of himselfhad served in World War II (Sloan had been a Coast Guard captain who, at 23, commanded a cutter on the Greenland Patrol), married well and now found himself in a rat race with one goal: making money. In the end, he chose family, personal happiness and responsibility. It was Sloan's personal philosophy. Some critics would later complain that he was "sentimental."
The book's promotion was awesome. The windows of men's clothing stores across the country displayed the book and the gray flannel suits that were almost a white-collar uniform.
Of course I wanted to be like Sloanfor the wrong reasons. It was the success, stupid. One day he wrote, "You can write, boy!" at the bottom of one of my short stories. It fanned the flames of my ambition.
But until I sold my own novel to the book clubs and the movies, I would have to earn a living, and the only thing I knew was writing.
The first thing Sloan and his then-wife Betsy did upon achieving financial security was to escape Buffalo as fast as they could, New England-bound.
Sloan, whose first writing job had been at the Providence Journal, finagled me a job interview there.
They had two cars and we drove, convoy-style, across New York State, his wife and three kids in one car, he and I in the other. Sloan had allergies and drove with a roll of toilet tissues between us, which he constantly used to blow his nose.
I got off in Providence, had the interview, and took a bus back to western New York.
I didn't get the job.
We stayed in touch; I thought it showed something about him that he bothered with me, a journalist. He had a wonderful way with words and a great sense of humor. He wrote a fellowship recommendation for me, punched out on a portable typewriter with ink-clogged keys on a boat on which he lived in a Miami marina.
"He can write unusually well for a newspaperman," Sloan wrote, "and his character is better than is generally associated with that profession."
Wherever I worked, I usually managed to write a review of each of his books as they appeared. And there were a dozen more. Some may have made more money than The Gray Flannel Suit, but none matched its fame.
A divorce and three children going to Ivy League schools, remarriage and a new daughter ensured that Sloan would not get lazy.
My own "novel," really a thinly disguised autobiographical piece that earned me a master's degree and some catharsis, sits in a box somewhere. The bound volume, as a master's thesis, used to be in the UB library where, a professor once confided in me, some of the secretaries used to peruse it for the sex scenes.
A folder of my short stories, yellowed paper with Sloan's comments still legible, is stuffed in my living room closet.
Sloan was a manic-depressive, which he freely admitted in the autobiographical What Shall We Wear to This Party? (1976). What he called "the wild elation" of completing a book that satisfied a publisher would be followed by the deep depression of doubt that there was another book left in him. But there always was.
I last spoke to him three and a half years ago. He talked about his wife, his children, his grandchildren, about buying another boat.
"I wrote 10 pages today," he said.
Joe Zelnik, M.A. '59 & B.A. '54, is editor of the Herald Newspapers in Cape May County, New Jersey.
This essay was previously published in the Cape May County Herald © The Herald Newspapers. Reprinted with permission.