The McCann Time Capsule: McCann’s Women’s History and . . . the Manhattan High Life
McCann New York seems to have been only a short career stopover for Phyllis Fraser, probably one of the more glamorous people to have worked at the agency. But the office contact she made in the desk next to hers led to her most important achievement. She “led a whirlwind life as the socially dynamic wife of two of New York’s most prominent men,” her 2006 New York Times obit started out, “but. . .was always proudest of collaborating with a former advertising colleague, Dr. Seuss, on a series of landmark children’s books.”
Fraser was the actress Ginger Rogers’ younger first cousin, and reportedly the one who dubbed her Ginger because she couldn’t pronounce Virginia. Rogers brought her cousin out to Hollywood in the 1930s where she had a series of small movie parts (though her biggest part was opposite John Wayne in the 1936 film “Winds of the Wasteland”). Her imdb.com listing shows her, second from left, in the attached photo with the actors Lew Ayres, Ben Alexander, and Ginger Rogers.
But Fraser decided to give up movies and in 1939 headed to New York instead for an advertising career at McCann, where she wrote radio scripts. Sharing a desk with her was Theodor Seuss Geisel, the illustrator of McCann’s long-running Flit insecticide campaign, who had recently started to publish his first children’s books as Dr. Seuss.
At the time, while writing radio scripts for McCann clients that starred actors such as Joseph Cotton, she was also beginning her “whirlwind life.” Through Ginger Rogers, she met Harold Ross, the founding editor of The New Yorker. Through Ross she met Bennett Cerf, the co-founder of Random House. Through Cerf, as he tells it in his memoir, she also soon met his friends, the playwrights George Kaufman and Moss Hart. And so on.
She and Cerf married in 1940 and she would also become involved with Random House. In 1957, she suggested to Geisel, then already famous for “The Cat in the Hat,” that they launch a new Beginner Books learning-to-read imprint. It would include “Green Eggs and Ham.”
After Bennett Cerf died in 1971, she met and then would marry Robert F. Wagner, who had been New York City’s mayor for three terms between 1954 and 1965.
As the Times obit described her multifaceted life: “A newspaper and magazine columnist, movie actress, publisher, writer of radio soap operas, advertising executive and civic fund-raiser, she lived at the center of Manhattan social life, entertaining successive generations of the city’s artistic and political elite, first as the wife of the Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf, then as the wife of former Mayor Robert F. Wagner. As a hostess and occasional confidante, she hobnobbed with the most famous people of the day, including Frank Sinatra, William Faulkner and Truman Capote.”
After Mr. Wagner’s death in 1991, she returned to advertising but in a very unique position that tapped into her socialite skills—hosting soirees at her elegant Upper East Side townhouse for the Wells Rich Greene ad agency that helped to attract and, no doubt, impress clients.