Robert H. Levenson, 20th Century Ad Man

Nov. 23, 1929 - Jan. 16, 2013
Robert H. Levenson - Nov. 23, 1929 - Jan. 16, 2013

    Robert Harold Levenson, who was as famous for his taglines in the golden age of advertising as he was for his roses in East Hampton, died in New York City on Jan. 16. He was 83 and had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
    Mr. Levenson was eulogized in print and blogs in the last week by the advertising industry as a visionary and a generous mentor who told copywriters to imagine they were writing a letter and describing something to an intelligent friend who knew less about the product than they did.
    He came of age in his field during the time fictionalized on television’s “Mad Men.” He was elected to the Copywriters Hall of Fame in 1972 and won every major award in the advertising industry several times, according to his family.
    In a career spanning most of the last half of the 20th century, primarily at Doyle Dane Bernbach, he rose from copywriter to creative director to chairman of its international operations over 26 years. A friend of Bill Bernbach, one of the founders of the agency, Mr. Levenson wrote “Bill Bernbach’s Book: A History of Advertising That Changed the History of Advertising” in 1987.
    His most memorable campaigns include work for El Al airlines with a tag line “My Son, the pilot,” the Volkswagen Beetle, and the jingle: “Everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.” He also was in charge of a highway safety campaign for Mobil called “We Want You to Live.”
    Mr. Levenson also was a friend of The East Hampton Star, writing and contributing a full page advertisement in 2007, “Welcome to the Neighborhood.”    His caricature on the wall at the former Della Femina restaurant on North Main Street in East Hampton was one of many drawn by his second wife, the late Kathe Tanous, with whom he lived in East Hampton. Until moving to East Hampton in 1986, he had lived in New Rochelle, N.Y., and in New York City. His most recent address was in Bokeelia, Fla., where he lived on an island, which his family said was very dear to him.
    Mr. Levenson was born to William and Frieda Levenson on Nov. 23, 1929, in the Bronx and was raised there. He had an undergraduate and graduate degree in English from New York University and had served in the United States Air Force.
    He worked at Doyle Dane Bernbach from 1959 to 1985. He also held positions at Saatchi and Saatchi and at Scali, McCabe, Sloves, according to The New York Times.
    He is survived by his wife, Anna Jane Warshaw. His marriage to Elaine Berk, with whom he had two sons, Keith Levenson of Pound Ridge, N.Y., and Seth Levenson of Park City, Utah, ended in divorce. He is survived by his sons, a stepdaughter, Katherine Warshaw-Reid, and a step-granddaughter.
     The family has suggested memorial contributions to his step-granddaughter’s education fund: Kyra Wilkowski, 76 White Birch Road, Pound Ridge, N.Y. 10576. A memorial service will be held at a later date.


Bob Levenson has always been the Guardian Angel of my very lucky 49 years as an advertising writer. When I was 16,turning a page in TIME magazine,there it was: A full page that looked like a mistake. It wasn't an article,but it didn't look like any ad,either. It said "Think small" in tiny type under a mainly blank page, except for a tiny car, something called a "Volkswagen" ; whatever THAT was. I really liked this page. So did President Kennedy who,seeing that same issue in Summer '62,yelled loudly in the Oval Office "Hey Ted(Sorenson, his speechwriter),look at this ad! I want whoever did this to create my re-election advertising in '64." (Which is how Bob's ad agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach,ended up doing LBJ's legendary TV ad of the sweet little girl being blown up by a Hydrogen Bomb-- you can see it on YOUTUBE,just search "LBJ TV AD"). Studying Doyle Dane Bernbach ads (all overseen by Bob Levenson) not only got me hired by Bob,but by most of the other ad geniuses inspired by Bob over the years (Mary Wells Lawrence,Carl Ally and Ed McCabe). Then I fell in love with Montauk ; and couldn't bear returning to MadAve anymore, after summer house weekends, so I moved here permanently 24 years ago ; and by doing a slogan for Roberta Gosman's seafood heaven restaurant in Montauk "Montauk is easy to find. It's right next to Gosman's." (still running decades later) ended up doing ads for over 100 other local advertisers,so I never had to go back to MadAve. One of these was a wonderful fancy Italian food specialty store in Bridgehampton Commons called Razzano's. The first ad was a full page in the Star that said "Only one Italian food place is more Italian than Razzano's. It's called Italy." Studying it intently,the Thursday it came out,at a social event at St.James Church,I heard a voice say "Why are you so absorbed in that ad?" Looking up to see an elegant older gentleman I said "I created it." He smiled and said "Were wondering who was doing these ads." I said "Who's "we"?". He replied "Me and Bob Levenson. I'm Helmet Krone." Words cannot describe what this moment felt like to me. Helmet Krone was the Designer/ArtDirector of the Volkswagen ad I saw when I was 16 ; Bob Levenson was the Guru of the words in that campaign that changed advertising forever. By not treating the readers like morons. I won't be missing Bob Levenson. He'll be watching every blank page I scribble on,as always.