Writer’s block: copywriters behind bars

There are plenty of journalists who’ve done jail time for something admirable, like risking their lives to get the story in a hostile locale. These jailbird copywriters aren’t those guys.

Gary Halbert

Lovingly referred to as the Prince of Print, Godfather of Copy and the Alpha Shitweasel, Gary Halbert was a successful and experienced copywriter, arguably among the best in the world. He earned huge sums through his copywriting, book sales and stock picking services, including the popular fee-based Gary Halbert Letter.

For some debatable reason, Gary had a bad habit of collecting money while never delivering products. As most people paid him using checks and money orders, refunds through a credit card weren’t possible, so he just didn’t bother. Needless to say, this business practice eventually earned him a stint in the big house in 1984 for fraud.

Hubert Selby, Jr.

Best-known for his novels Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) and Requiem for a Dream (1978), Selby worked on his fiction every night after his a succession of day jobs as a secretary, gas station attendant, and freelance copywriter.

Even though all his work was written while he was sober, Selby battled severe drug problems. In 1967, his heroin addiction landed him in Los Angeles county jail, where he spent two months for heroin possession. After his release from jail, he kicked the habit and stayed clean of drugs and alcohol until his death, even refusing morphine while in serious pain on his deathbed.

Ralph Ginzburg

A taboo-busting editor and publisher who helped ignite the sexual revolution in the ‘60s, Ginzburg was the force behind Eros magazine, a quarterly hardbound periodical containing articles and photo essays on love and sex.

Ginzburg had an innate talent for the mail-order business, writing attention-grabbing ads that combined his business and publishing instincts with social activism. In fact, his imprisonment on obscenity charges for Eros’s distribution, decided by the Supreme Court, was not because of his publications’ content but for their promotion.

Louis Victor Eytinge

Anyone who believes that exceptional copywriting requires a killer instinct will appreciate the story of Louis Victor Eytinge. Witness the introduction from this murderer-turned-promotional-copywriter’s own book on copywriting, Letters which Get the Business, published in 1914:

Louis Victor Eytinge, the writer of the excellent articles which compose this book, is a life-termer in the state penitentiary at Florence, Arizona.

Eytinge’s life was colorful to say the least. He was expelled from Notre Dame University for writing bad checks and kicked out of the US Navy for stealing. While he served time for these and other similar acts, ultimately it was the murder of John Leicht that earned him a life sentence in 1907. It seems John was poisoned with chloroform, stripped of valuables and abandoned in the Arizona desert, adorned with a handkerchief bearing an embroidered letter ‘E.’

At the time of his arrest, Eytinge was beyond caring, as he was “then in the last stages of consumption, a drug fiend and apparently did not have long to live,” according to the San Francisco report. Once in prison, clean and cared for, he embarked on an enterprise that not only gave him a reason to live, but one that later brought him wealth, a stint as a Hollywood screenwriter and won him his freedom.

Eytinge became a copywriter.

Laid up in the prison hospital, where he was expected to die from his tuberculosis, Eytinge became increasingly bothered by mosquitoes and was determined to do something about it.

Since he had no money for netting, he cut the names of two curio dealers out of the advertising pages of a magazine and wrote to them, offering to sell horsehair trinkets – hat bands, watch fobs, etc. – made by himself and the other prisoners. It worked. As did a career’s worth of sales letters he crafted during his incarceration.

Eytinge was finally released from captivity in 1923, winning his freedom by hiring a good lawyer using the money he earned from his sales writing.

The moral of these stories? Not sure there is one. But I’m pleased to be in the company of these characters and happy to know that my skills as a copywriter may one day be my ticket into or out of The Big House.

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