Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman is celebrating its 50th anniversary in a Broadway revival, and I want to see it.
My longtime interest in and identification with the play was renewed by John Lahr's fine piece in the Jan. 25 New Yorker. Lahr, the son of actor and vaudevillian Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz), used an interview, plus Miller's original sketches and play notes to introduce his readers to the writer's hidden thought processes behind this all-American tragedy.
Those revelations only confirmed what experience taught me decades ago - that a salesman's life is burdened by complexity largely unexamined before Miller's masterful play. He wrote from hard and painful experience: the sad and lasting effects of the 1930s Depression on his father, and word-by-word dinner table boasting by Miller's more successful uncle.
Millions of Depression-era families suffered in like ways.
HARRY HAD SEEN IT ALL
I've known a few of life's case-hardened salesmen - hardworking local men like the late Harry Aldrich, Johnny Rogers, Jim Flavin and Charlie 'Spud' Murphy.
After the war, in 1947, when my father started selling automobiles, he hired Harry Aldrich as his sales force. I don't know how old Harry was then. To my teen eyes, his world-weary demeanor bespoke great automotive knowledge. His face leapt alive to smile and joke for the benefit of an imminent buyer.
Like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Harry had seen and done it all. If the job required teaching the customer to drive, he became a driving instructor. If a prospect was too busy to come in, Harry wrote the order on the kitchen table. Getting appointments, taking the product to the customer, bringing in new business - that was the life of an old automobile salesman.
Harry's customers were his, not Dad's. A salesman's client list was what you were really buying when you hired him. It was his job security. Harry stood out because of his shirt, tie and jacket. Dad and everyone else wore blue work uniforms. Harry wasn't there to fix anything but your need for a used car or, if you felt flush, a new Hudson.
Credit was a lot harder to come by in the 1940s and early 1950s. The 36-month finance contract law didn't arrive until 1955. That's when the new-car market and our postwar consumer economy really took off. Early car salesmen needed a nose for people with ready cash, or the 50 percent down payment that most banks required. Twenty-three payments with a balloon note on the end was a last-resort option for the credit worthy.
Johnny Rogers could smoke out a guy with dough, and cash often smelled like a farmer - those who own land and animals can likely afford to buy what you're selling.
Johnny, a Polish-speaking, curly-headed contemporary of Willy Loman, drove cars or trucks wherever his sources sent him.
Johnny's knack was talking fast to conquer objections as fast as they came up. A friendly charmer, he was a great salesman, but truth-obtuse enough to cross swords repeatedly with my Dad. Johnny left and returned many times, smiling and talking to the end.
PEOPLE CAME TO JIM
I went away for a few years, matured and came back to a grown-up opportunity. Gone were the sales Lone Rangers of the past. In their place were professionals such as Jim Flavin, again my senior in age and experience. Willy Loman was probably more like Jim in that both accepted their role representing an organization as well as themselves. A man who wore a suit, Jim toiled in a proper showroom with his own desk and telephone. His customer list grew via referrals; people came to him.
Respect resided in his person, and no one ever referred to Jim or his profession as less than honorable because he treated people respectfully and fairly.
Charlie 'Spud' Murphy was a sales expert. When we added Dodge in 1969, he stopped in to inform me that I needed him. He was right; I just didn't know it.
Charlie had been selling cars in town since before the war. His brother Chick was the postmaster, and between them, they knew everyone.
Charlie had an attitude. His qualifying query, 'How much loot you got?' moved things along. His searing question after what he believed was a sufficient presentation was: 'Do you want to buy it or don't cha?'
Then he smiled.
After 50 years of watching Charlie and his ilk succeed, I'm inclined to think that Willy Loman made selling too much like work.