‘The Detroiters’ Captures Motor City Advertising, ‘Mad Men’ Style

A while back a friend of mine gave me a vintage pulp fiction paperback in the hope that I would write about it for his webzine, thedetroiter.com. He’d gotten it from another acquaintance who had picked it up in a flea market and given it to him because of its title, The Detroiters.

My friend has since given up the reins of the zine (although it still exists in a debilitated state, not unlike its namesake city) and he relocated to the Big Apple. But I always wanted to do something on the book, and so here it is.

Published by Bantam in 1958, The Detroiters is the story of David Manning, a Madison Avenue ad man who is recruited by the Detroit agency Edson Smith Company to service its largest client, the fictional car maker Coronado Motors Corporation, and its autocratic (no pun intended) CEO Orrin V. Sanders, known to the trade as Vic. It’s the classic tale of an American bourgeois striver, a story told time and again in novels like Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. But the moral is at least as old as Greek mythology: like Clyde Griffiths, Jay Gatsby, and Tom Rath, the hero of The Detroiters is a modern-day Icarus flying too close to the sun.

The narrative reads like a season of Mad Men, replete with booze-soaked business meetings, comely secretaries and mistresses (with requisite oblique references to illicit sex), and behind-the-scenes skullduggery in the dark art of turning nothing into money. The plot mainly unfolds in the erstwhile Motor City’s shiny office towers, wood-paneled clubs, and manicured executive estates, many of which are now abandoned hulks that star as top models for the photographic genre known as ruin porn.

When an office rival uses family connections to usurp David and assume management of the Coronado account after an executive change on the client side, Manning strikes out on his own, thereby saving his creative integrity if not his future as a big-time ad exec.

Having myself been involved in the Detroit marketing and advertising world for nearly two-and-a-half decades, there was a lot that rung true in the book, even if the author disclaimed any relationship to “real people, living or dead, or actual events.” Clients are indeed generally myopic and self-important and the people more than happy to serve them are too often craven hacks. Nepotism runs rampant and the whole enterprise is pretty sordid.

I was intrigued enough by The Detroiters to want to find out more about its author. Who was Harold Livingston and what ever became of him?

Using Google, I found out that Livingston’s first book, The Coasts of the Earth (1954), had received the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award, a distinction also claimed by Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Roth (for Goodbye, Columbus), and Robert Penn Warren. Livingston went on to write a few more novels, The Climacticon and Summer Colony, both published in 1961, and The Heroes Are All Dead (no publication date) before switching to doing screenplays. Judging by its cover (awesome in its retro-chic), that first one appeared to be a bit of sci-fi erotica, the kind of thing one might find on a kidney-shaped coffee table or nightstand next to the martini shaker in a Space Age bachelor pad.

Livingston worked on a number of TV shows in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, including Banacek, Mannix, Mission Impossible, and The Six Million Dollar Man. He also did several movie scripts, most famously for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

All of that would seem well and good enough when I got a call from my friend in New York. He’d been on the phone with a mentor, a well-known educational game developer now retired from the University of Michigan and living in southern California. The old professor had met a guy at the local coffee shop who claimed he’d published a novel in the 1950s about Detroit. I’ll be damned if it wasn’t Harold Livingston in six degrees of separation by half.

Having gotten his number, I talked to Livingston, now 86, living in LA, and still working. After the Hollywood stuff began to peter out he got back into publishing, actually doing better financially than when he started out nearly 60 years ago.

The Detroiters may not have been based on specific people and events but it was informed by Livingston’s stint as a copywriter in the Detroit ad biz. (He worked for the agency responsible at the time for Buick and had an office across the street from the GM Building.) Born in Massachusetts and originally living on the East Coast, he got to Detroit following a love interest who it turned out already had a boyfriend in town, making Livingston a romantic persona non-gratis.

I was kind of right about The Climacticon, too. Conceived while Livingston’s employer was under utilizing him (I know dozens of people in the Detroit ad industry who have gone years without having any of their creative ideas produced), the book centers on a Geiger Counter-type device that measures female arousal; its proliferation threatens to destroy society in a fit of hedonistic release before being driven underground by government proscription. Livingston was asked to turn the book, which first appeared as a short story in Playboy, into a porn script. It was never produced, though Livingston says he’s working on a geriatric version.

Livingston’s novel The Coasts of the Earth, a tale of the flyboy derring-do of American volunteers during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, was based on actual events from the author’s life. A World War II Army Air Corps veteran, Livingston retold the tale of his exploits, with the facts in plain view as it were, in the 1994 memoir, No Trophy No Sword: An American Volunteer in the Israeli Air Force During the 1948 War of Independence.

There have been other books as well, including a novel set during the early days of the aviation industry and one about the mob. The Amazon reviews of both are generally very good.

Livingston just finished writing a take-off on Star Trek and from time to time he does a little script doctoring under the table. He’s used several aliases over the years to knock out what he terms “a lot of crap.” So we may never know the true extent of his oeuvre. But he seems pretty satisfied with himself these days and I bet his alter ego Dave Manning would no doubt approve of how things ended up.

RATING 7 / 10