The Ad-Woman Who Made Diamonds 'Forever' The new novel "The Engagements" interweaves four tales about the significance of diamonds with the real-life story of Frances Gerety, a young advertising copywriter in the 1940s.
NPR logo The Ad-Woman Who Made Diamonds 'Forever'

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

Now we're going to take a Friday turn from the headlines to take a look at a summer read that mines an historical nugget. It's called "The Engagements." It tells real-life stories, including that of De Beers, the South African diamond company that, from the 1800s to 1900s, aggressively secured a monopoly on diamonds through strong-arming, price-fixing and advertising.

And here's where author J. Courtney Sullivan also taps into the love affair with the retro TV hit "Mad Men," because she also tells of one of the first mad women, Frances Gerety, who worked at the first ad agency in America, N.W. Ayer and Son in Philadelphia, and came up with the line, in 1999, that Advertising Age named the slogan of the century.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The diamond engagement ring. How else could two months' salary last forever? A diamond is forever. De Beers.

YOUNG: A diamond is forever. Frances Gerety wrote that line and inadvertently helped a company with questionable practices at the time sell millions of diamond rings. J. Courtney Sullivan sets that little gem in the middle of her story, and surrounds it with marriages over four decades, from a couple in the '70s horrified at the prospect of the unmentionable - divorce - to a modern-day gay wedding.

And J. Courtney Sullivan joins us in the studio. Where did you come up with this idea?

(LAUGHTER)

J. COURTNEY SULLIVAN: I wanted to write a book about marriage for a long time, especially because of the way that the same-sex marriage laws have been changing so quickly for the better in recent years. I wanted to look at how the institution has evolved over the last century.

I think sometimes we forget that it was only a little more than 40 years ago that a black man and a white woman couldn't legally get married in this country, that there was no such thing as no-fault divorce, that a woman couldn't get a credit card without her husband's permission.

And so all of these things, these bigger institutional issues play out, obviously, in the lives of individuals. I got engaged about a year into writing the book, and I wanted to explore that.

YOUNG: And so you are also fascinated with rings and the history of diamond rings. And what you found, and what you tell us through this story of Frances Gerety, is that actually, until very recently, as well, it wasn't assumed that everybody would get a ring.

SULLIVAN: That's right. So in the 19-teens, diamonds had really fallen out of favor. In the '30s, the late '30s, De Beers went to this advertising agency, N.W. Ayer, which at that time was the best in the business, and said help us make these an indispensible part of the lives of American couples.

YOUNG: Actually, you have the memo. They actually used the word propaganda.

SULLIVAN: That's right.

YOUNG: Can you come up with some propaganda so people will buy rings?

SULLIVAN: That's right. Exactly. That's exactly right. So Frances Gerety came along in the early 1940s to work for Ayer as a copywriter, and they put her on the De Beers account, and she wrote every De Beers ad from 1946 till 1970.

YOUNG: Well, and we should say it's not because they thought so highly of her. It was because she was a woman. There weren't very many women, and women were sort of stuck on the female accounts.

SULLIVAN: That's exactly right.

YOUNG: Right. There was a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article, and also a book about diamonds that piqued your interest.

SULLIVAN: That's right. So this article in the Atlantic Monthly is incredible, and it sort of provided the basis. It was the first time anyone talked about this story of N.W. Ayer working with De Beers. In that article, these secret company memos are quoted. I really, really wanted to see these memos for myself. I wanted to use them in "The Engagements," but I didn't want to use the quotes that everyone else had used, and I wanted to get my hands on them.

I thought it would be much easier than it was. I went to the Smithsonian, where the Ayer archive lives, and they weren't there. I looked and looked for two years. And actually, the day before the book was due, I went to Frances Gerety's home. The woman who bought it from her 20 years ago invited me to come for tea.

I went for tea. We had a great time. I met the former neighbors, and it was wonderful. And as I was leaving the house, she said, oh, I have something to give you. There's one thing Frances left behind when she moved, and it was this box, and I don't know what to do with it.

And in the box were all the company memos. And that's how I ended up being able to quote from them.

YOUNG: It's quite something. And also the book that you read was Tom Zoellner's "The Heartless Stone," again, about diamonds.

SULLIVAN: "The Heartless Stone" is an amazing nonfiction book about diamonds, and he really gets at every aspect of the business. And that was how I discovered Frances. It was funny because since I had written "Maine," which was this novel about a big, dysfunctional, Irish-Catholic family, one of the things I said when I started this book to myself was there will be no Irish-Catholic characters. I'm going to give them a rest.

And then as I'm reading Tom's book, I come across this paragraph that says: The line a diamond is forever was written by a woman named Frances Gerety. She never married. And I said to myself: She is the missing link in my book. I actually underlined it and wrote she's the missing piece. And she was a devoted Catholic, an Irish-Catholic at that. So I had to break my own rule.

YOUNG: Right, but she - it is so interesting. She never marries. She is a frontierswoman in advertising. She tries to join the Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania so that she can get closer to the men who were working there. She's very conscious that she wants to stay up late with her dogs and play with copy. She's not interested in getting married.

SULLIVAN: No, not at all. And that's what was so fascinating to me about her. She really created these romantic ideas that we now associate with diamonds, but she herself was not romantic in any way. It wasn't - it didn't interest her, because she was living in a time when, really, a woman had to decide: Do I want to follow a career path, or do I want to be married?

And obviously, that's part of the story, too, how that has changed over the years.

YOUNG: Author J. Courtney Sullivan, her new book "The Engagements," the story of real-life Frances Gerety, who came up with the slogan diamonds are forever. By the way, another sign of how underappreciated she was, in 1963, Ayer and Son commemorated the 25th anniversary of their work with De Beers. Ayer's male executives all got gold watches, showed them off back at the office, to which she replied: Where's mine? No one thought to include her. But Francis did get some appreciation near the end of her life, as we'll hear.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

And we've been following the story of the mayor of San Diego, Bob Filner, who just spoke to reporters there in San Diego. He says he's going to undergo therapy after sexual harassment allegations from a number of women. There have been calls for his resignation from the local Democratic Party, from national Democrats. But so far, it looks like he will stay in office for now and undergo therapy. We'll be back in a minute, HERE AND NOW.

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YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and we're speaking with J. Courtney Sullivan. Her new novel "The Engagements" weaves fictional tales of women and their diamond rings with the history of N.W. Ayer and Son copywriter Frances Gerety, who coined the phrase a diamond is forever and propelled the sale of millions of rings for De Beers, the South African company not allowed to advertise in the U.S. initially because of its monopoly, later because of apartheid, the treatment of workers and the sale of blood diamonds.

De Beers, by the way, eventually became an architect of a U.N. program to stop the sale of conflict-tainted diamonds. But Courtney, in the 1940s and '50s, two women, really, Frances Gerety and her friend at Ayer, Dorothy Dignam, made diamonds a must. But also struggled in this all-male workplace. You write: Dorothy kept lists of questions that men at the agency had about women. Are these for real? Tell us more about Dorothy.

SULLIVAN: She did all of the PR for the De Beers account while Frances did all of the advertising, all of the copywriting. So the two of them together really created this idea of a diamond is forever and what we associate with diamonds today. But neither one of them ever married, actually. Dorothy didn't, either. She lived with her mother.

Dorothy was the one who really made diamonds so prominent in Hollywood, the way that we see them now.

YOUNG: Part of what Dorothy did was write a column, in which she talked about celebrities who were wearing diamonds. They did some of the first product placement with diamonds.

SULLIVAN: "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," that was coming straight from N.W. Ayer. And because De Beers had a monopoly, they were not allowed to e in this country at all, no physical presence. And so N.W. Ayer would only travel there once a year, to Johannesburg, to show them everything they had done.

YOUNG: Let's underscore that. This is all subterfuge. This is before apartheid. They were not allowed to sell in the U.S. because they had this monopoly. So instead they hired this advertising company, and you never saw the word De Beers.

SULLIVAN: That's what's so amazing about these early ads. De Beers was pouring money into them, but the ads really didn't mention De Beers, ever. They were just for diamonds. But of course De Beers owned all the diamonds. So, you know, if you were buying them anywhere it didn't matter because they were ending up with the money in their pocket.

YOUNG: So here you have these two single women who don't give a hoot about getting married helping to convince America's women that they have to get diamond rings and get married.

SULLIVAN: That's right.

YOUNG: And you take us into their stories. We meet Evelyn, a woman in her 70s. She's the one who is so concerned that her son might get divorced, which now there's so much more of it. Her fancy diamond ring is something she's a little uncomfortable with. It has to do with another marriage.

James, the second story, this is a young EMT here in the Boston area, he wants to buy an expensive ring for his wife. They don't have enough money. What are you saying about the promises that were sold by Frances and the reality of marriage?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think that we see this with modern wedding culture, too, this idea of the obsession with perfection, and the diamond ring symbolizes that, too, and it symbolizes big hopes and dreams and things that aren't necessarily involved in the nitty-gritty everyday life of a marriage.

So there's this kind of funny juxtaposition between perfection and romance and then just what it is to get through marriage and be successful with it year over year.

YOUNG: Yeah. We mentioned that Dorothy had these lists. What were some of the things that men said to Dorothy?

SULLIVAN: Her lists are so fantastic. My favorite question was: Would a woman ever warble in the bathtub? I just love that question.

(LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: Would a woman find it strange or objectionable to find a horse head on a bed sheets was one. Is Macy's singular or plural?

YOUNG: These were men who were trying to sell things to women, and they obviously didn't have relationships with their own wives or girlfriends to know these things. So they would treat these two women at this huge advertising company as almost like archaeologists, anthropologists, right, yeah.

SULLIVAN: Right, and so Dorothy - you had asked, going back to your question, that Dorothy's lists were real, and she typed them up every single day over many years; every time a man came in and asked her a question she was supposed to know the answer to because she was a woman. And it's funny because these two women were supposed to - you know, they were hired because they're women, and so therefore they'll understand what women want.

But they are so different from your everyday American woman at the time that it's kind of hilarious that they were the ones speaking to them.

YOUNG: Yeah, and guiding the advertising to women. Well, it's also sad because talk about a glass ceiling. It's, you know, right on the first floor. When Frances first come up with the line that becomes the line of the century, the men in the agency start picking at its grammar. Is it grammatically correct?

SULLIVAN: Right.

YOUNG: And by the way, it was just something that came to her late at night?

SULLIVAN: The story is what really happened. She wrote about it in a letter that she was a great procrastinator, and she knew that she had to do all of this writing, but she had forgotten that they asked her to create a little tagline for the ads. And it was really not a big deal in the moment. They just said we've got to have a way to define this as diamond advertising because before that it didn't even say anything about diamonds.

YOUNG: It was fine art because again, they couldn't mention De Beers.

SULLIVAN: Exactly right. So she remembered late one night when she had finished her work, you know, at 3 in the morning. She said oh, I forgot to do this line. And so she was exhausted. She scribbled something on a piece of paper. She said dear God, send me a line. And then she scribbled something down and went to sleep.

And in the morning she looked down at what she had written, saw a diamond is forever, and as she said in her letter, I thought it would do just fine. She didn't think it was really incredible, either. But later, many years later, she said she was very grateful that it had been such an underplayed thing because if everyone in the department had been asked to create a line, she thought this one, which really was the best, would have probably never come to see the light of day.

YOUNG: Yeah, especially if it came from a woman.

SULLIVAN: Right.

YOUNG: We meet her again at the end of the book. Is it really true that she was finally acknowledged by Ayers at a huge banquet when she was a much older woman?

SULLIVAN: That's right, yes. So it was in 1989, and the scene where she's preparing to go to London is also true. That was real that, you know, she was the first single woman to belong to Merion Golf Club without a husband.

YOUNG: It's in Pennsylvania.

SULLIVAN: In Pennsylvania, and where they just had the U.S. Open a few weeks ago. And it's a very prominent place. The wives of the husbands there were not initially thrilled to have this single girl coming and joining. But over the years they became her very dear friends, and I think she actually provided a window into what their husbands were doing all day while they were gone.

YOUNG: By her telling them what life was like at the advertising agency.

SULLIVAN: Exactly right, and so later in life, she played golf with these women, she played bridge with these women, and when she was invited to London, her main concern was that she had nothing to wear. One of the sons of her former bridge partner told me this. And so all the women came over to her house with these beautiful fine dresses that they had, more than they knew what to do with, and they just made her queen for a day.

They dressed her, they gave her their jewelry to wear.

YOUNG: Is that true?

SULLIVAN: Yes, it's wonderful. You know, I came to really sort of love her so much over the course of writing this book. So when I found that out, I was thrilled for her.

YOUNG: These women lent her their ball gowns, and so she wore them every night and saluted the woman it belonged to.

SULLIVAN: Right.

YOUNG: There's a scene where they take their diamonds and sort of say this is because of you.

SULLIVAN: That's right.

YOUNG: So in fact, you know, even though marriage can be fraught, she did get her due.

SULLIVAN: I think so, yes.

YOUNG: That's J. Courtney Sullivan. The woman at the center of her new novel is Frances Gerety, which came up with the ad line a diamond is forever. The new book is called "The Engagements." Thank you, and congratulations again on your marriage.

SULLIVAN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIAMONDS ARE A GIRL'S BEST FRIEND")

MARILYN MONROE: (Singing) The French are glad to die for love, they delight in fighting duels. But I prefer a man who lives and gives expensive jewels. A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl's best friend.

YOUNG: Of course Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" from the 1953 film "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," as we just heard one of the earliest product placements in America. We'll have more on conflict-free diamonds at hereandnow.org. News is next, HERE AND NOW.

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