A debut rags-to-riches memoir follows a man’s trek from inauspicious beginnings to success in advertising.
Holtzman was born in 1942 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a hardscrabble neighborhood teeming with territorial gangs and organized crime. He was a clever and resourceful youth but quickly discovered he didn’t have the combination of brutality and physical toughness necessary for dominance on the streets. But while studying art education at the Pratt Institute, he decided to enter the advertising field and eventually left school—in defiance of his parents’ protests— to pursue a career at Young & Rubicam, where he would remain for years. Holtzman enjoyed a meteoric rise, eventually becoming a senior vice president, buying a weekend home in Connecticut, and purchasing a luxury car—all before he was 30 years old. He traveled the world filming commercials. Unfortunately, his personal life was considerably less satisfying. His first marriage dissolved under the weight of his wife’s serial infidelity and estrangement. The author’s next relationship, with a woman named Nora—filled with shared creative pursuits, travel to exotic destinations, and a surfeit of drug use—fizzled out after four years. When he finally turned down a promotion to be creative director of Asia, a position that would have been based in Hong Kong, his career at Young & Rubicam was torpedoed. He was forced to reconsider a life filled with professional accomplishments but sorely lacking fulfillment. Holtzman finally found another job, but, more importantly, he found a deeper sense of animating purpose in his devotion to a new wife and daughter.
Holtzman writes lucidly and affectingly about the humble circumstances of his birth, recounting his father’s emasculating failure at business and his brother’s attempt at suicide. In addition, the author is impressively forthcoming about his romantic floundering, including the sad downward spiral of his first wife into mental instability. Still, the real draw of the personal rather than the professional sections of the autobiography is the depiction of Brownsville, a staging ground for urban blight and racial rivalry. Holtzman’s remembrance often provides too much microscopic detail, especially about his travels—it wasn’t necessary to describe all four of his trips to Jamaica—and the intramural conflicts at his firm. Nevertheless, he poignantly captures the existential crisis he encountered, one that couldn’t be overcome through more work or artistic diversions: “Actually, I had gone into advertising for the purpose of survival, to pull me out of the dead end that was Brownsville. Advertising had given me the money and exposure to accomplish that. I had sold my soul for a get-out-of-jail card. Now that I was out of jail, what was I going to do?” One wishes the author lingered on this subject a bit longer—the recollection ends with his deliverance from spiritual languor, more asserted than explained. Since this is the culmination of his life’s escape from Brownsville, one additional chapter on how family provided direction or consolation or both seems in order.
A thoughtful account of the exhilaration—and potential disenchantment—that accompanies career achievements.