The Story of a Close Shave
Herbert Kaufman in the Popular Magazine
How a Once Prosperous and Powerful Manufacturer of Razors was Virtually Crowded to the Wall by a Shrewd Vain Rival, Yet Managed to Extricate Himself in Time —The Part That Ridicule Played in the Ludicrous Climax.
WALTERS, President of the National Razor Company, paced the floor and chewed his cigar until three-quarters of its length was a macerated pulp. From time to time he peered at the paper in his hand. He was worried.
It was the first of the month and the statement before him was enough to bring despair to a heart that had not been kicked about by the heavy boot of ill fortune as long as his had. In fact, Walters was in a bad way. That is, the National Razor Company was in dire straits. And, after all, the National Razor Company was Walters. Of course, there were the minority stockholders, but they shared the profits not the troubles. And it needed a mine-promoter or a Merwin to figure a dividend out of the figures that stared at him from the debit side of the two columns before him. Times had changed in the past two years. Walters harked back to the earlier career of the company, when profit was the chief product of the factory and razors a mere incident in its activity. The country was howling for National Razors then. It wanted them at their own price, and their own price was a pretty stiff one—three hundred per cent, profit on sets and twice as much on separate blades.
Then the field had been cut up. Some of the infringers they fought off and some they bought off, and some were not infringers. None of them mattered very much until Brown came along. You have heard of Brown. Who has not? Brown is perhaps the most distinguished sachem of the face-loving tribe of advertisers. Long ago he caused the smile to fade from the visage of the “gent” who shoes the nation, and he has deepened the look of melancholy upon D
the countenance of the individual who talcums it. But the concern caused in the hearts of these two valiant satraps of selfadulation was only one of envy and chagrin.
To Walters it was something more poignant. It was rapidly spelling ruin for him, just as it had foundered every other razor concern in the field. Need I remind you of Brown’s advertisement? Why, even in old crowded China the hairless coolie knows Brown and what Brown stands for, and rubs his hand regretfully over his beardless, yellow face, bewailing the Providence that denies him the delight of the shaving smile that illuminates the Brown Physiognomy. Brown’s razor is a good one, but Brown’s advertisement is better than the razor. It was genius, the* designing of that advertisement. But it was Brown’s smile that made the genius possible. Who can resist buying a Brown razor when one is faced day after day and month after month with his jovial grin, as he cuts a lane through the snowy drifts of lather and tells vou in big type: IT’S.GOOD ENOUGH
FOR ME—IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU.
If ever confidence glowed in a man’s eye and if ever a man’s eye could inspire confidence in another man, Brown’s can. I hat face and that motto have made him a millionaire, have built his scores of factories, have crowded his little black boxes into the haberdashers’ and the druggists’. It has sounded the doom of the barber. It is responsible for the steadily augmenting bread-line of men who once flourished upon conversation and tips. Its influence has crossed IlkAtlantic and turned the oldfashioned razor shops of Sheffield into shear factories and penknife plants. And all within a period of less than three years, due to ilie combining circumstances of a good idea, a good photographer and a good advertising agent.
Look at the magazine on your table-Brown's lace stares at you from the back. When you lake die car to-night, glance at the row of newspapers spread in line before you. Brown smiles at you. You cannot dodge his razor. It is good enough for him, and you have not the will-power to resist finding out if it isn't good enough for you. Mark Twain’s “pink trip slip" may have annoyed you, but Brown’s dictum haunts you. If you want peace, you must have Brown's razor.
Yes, Brown was smiling the National Razor Company out of business. For month after month their sales had decreased. They had poured their profits into the newspapers and magazines; but, however heavily they rained their money into the press, Brown responded with downpours that made their most ambitious efforts mere sprinkles by contrast.
And now actual ruin was leering in through the door. Walters was at the end of his resources, mental and financial. Suddenly his teeth snapped into his cigar, and the dismembered fragment fell upon the floor. “Poynter!” he exclaimed, “I wonder if the fellow can help us-. Um-hm,”
he mused. “It is worth while trying. He certainly did wonderful -work for the Utopia Company. iVIanders himself acknowledges that they were in the last ditch when he pulled them through.” He rang for his secretary.
Franklyn Poynter has a habit of disappointing one at first glance. To begin with, he distinctly lisps ; and a lisp, as a rule, is a mark of effieminacy. But then, rules are captious. Their exceptions are not marked and labeled. For my part, I no longer follow them in judging men. At least, not lisping men, having suffered rather a pronounced surprise in my sophomore year at the hands of a red-headed, under-sized freshman, who lisped a little and scrapped much. From time to time, men have been deluded by Poynter's lisp. But then, Poynter has led so many men astray, in so many directions, that the observation is redund-
ant. Poynter's appearance, far more than his mode of speech, disarms the casual observer. He is slight and undersized, and a decided fop, affecting especially extreme scarfs and waistcoats. His complexion has the healthy glow of a boy's, and the absence of facial lines accentuates his youthful aspect. His eyes tell you nothing. They are lackadaisical and help you to misconstrue the character of the man. I have heard many say that Poynter can attribute much of his astounding success in life to his neutral appearance. And, indeed, I can well comprehend how an aspect of insignificance can well aid him in his peculiar line of activity.
Spectacular in his methods, he is none the less the most retiring of men. He has no intimates. His habits are those of a clean-minded woman. For all that his income must now be enormous, there is no ostentation in his mode of life. And despite his physical frailty, he has accomplished tasks that w off ld sap the vitality of a Titan. Where or how he has acquired, in the short range of his life-span, such a vast know!-' edge of men and affairs, of human nature, of financial wile and trickery, is a most puzzling thing to me. He has sounded the waters of commerce until he knows every shallow and every channel with the assurance of a master pilot.
The follies and foibles of men, their petty vanities, their weaknesses and fatuities constitute the primer of his text-books. He has never displayed despair in the face of the insuperable, nor exultation in the hour of routing victory. Rank, neither social nor plutocratic, impresses him. His blow leaves no brutal mark. I may with some happiness picture him as a pestiferous insect, inflicting his subtle annoyance until he frets away the ponderous vitality of the strongest and most virile enemy. He is a gad-fly cloaked with the spell of immunity and possessing a hell-given sapiency. Withal, he is the most amusing of men, blessed with a sense of humor and an appreciation of the ridiculous, which renders him, in non-professional hours, a most amusing companion, and in his professional activity, more dangerous than any other attribute which he possesses.
Poynter is a supreme egotist, but it is the egotism of self-confidence, the assurance of an Alexander or a Napoleon. Nor must one smile at the comparison ; for however ridiculous Poynter may appear physically, his achievements are comparatively as great in the field of his endeavor as any other one man’s have been in his life-bent. Often impudent, even to the point of discourtesy —brusk, sarcastic as a whip-lash, careless alike of condemnation and of praise, he is beyond all else as honest as conscience— impeccable. The arrow of bribery has never found him a target. Once he has accepted his retainer, a Judas-piece that would force Atlas’ back to bend under the weight of the temptation will find his shoulders as erect as a grenadier’s of the guard.
As Walters entered the door, Poynter nodded to him to take the chair drawn directly in front of his flat-top desk, upon which there were simply a telephone and a small pad. He reached into his pocket and drew forth a cigar-case of carved Japanese leather, from which protruded half a dozen of the long, slender Havanas which are his constant addiction. ~
“Have one?” he suggested. “Tt will make us both think better. What Walters are you ?”
“National Razor Company,” responded the president.
“Ah. I see. How’s business?”
“Well—er-” began the other with a
“I see; rotten. What’s the matter? Too much Brown ?”
“Uh—hm,” growled Walters.
“What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know,” was the reply.
“Don’t you think you had better tell me just what’s biting you; then maybe I’ll know.”
Walters began hesitatingly to outline his story, skirting around the real facts with the same reluctance that some men feel when consulting a physician—fearful of finding their ailments worse than they anticipate.
“Oh. come on. Get down to hard facts,” lisped Poynter. “Tell me what is the matter. We have only half an hour, and at this rate it will take you a week to make up your mind to show your grouch.”
Walters flushed. He was not used to such peremptory handling. Now that he had come, he began to feel that perhaps after all he had made a mistake in expecting this lisping dude to accomplish anything which his experienced brain had not already planned and rejected.
“Wait a minute,” broke in Poynter. “My retainer is one thousand dollars.”
“Pretty steep, isn’t it?” he suggested.
“I said my retainer,” lisped Poynter with emphasis. “I’ll let you know my fee after you tell me what you require.”
“Hold on, Mr. Poynter,” interrupted Walters. “We are going a little fast. I haven’t quite decided that I shall need you.”
“All right, then,” was the careless rejoinder. “Go home and think it over. Come back when you have less time to waste. I haven't any of my own that I want to use that way to-day.”
He rang the bell.
“Miss Wenson,” he said to his secretary, “I am through with Mr. Walters. Get the papers on the Queen Chemical Case and we’ll go through them.”
Then he arose with a gesture of dismissal. Poynter’s unconcern, however, now edged Walters’ desire to retain him.
“I accept your terms,” he said. “I will mail you our check to-night.”
The secretary stood awaiting orders. Poynter motioned to her to retire and drew his pad before him. Walters shoved over the company’s last statement.
“What do you thing of it?” he queried. “Rotten. What did it—Brown?”
Walters nodded assent. “Yes, he has got us up against a wall. T can’t go any farther and the wall won’t move. Can you lift us over?”
“Maybe I can, maybe I can’t,” was the laconic retort. “Tell me some more.” Walters made a clean breast of his affairs, beginning at the start of his company, recounting Brown’s inroads, and wound up with a gesture of hopelessness. “Can you do anything?” he questioned. Poynter went over to a bookcase and took out a copy of one of the current magazines. He studied Brown’s advertisement on the back page for a few moments, and then smiled.
“I’ll send for you next month.” he said, “to sign papers of consolidation with Brown. Good-bv. And,” he added, as the bewildered Walters started for tlie «loor, “it will cost von four thousand more.”
“Who’s this? Oh, Mr. Poynter? No, Mr. Wallers, isn’t here. I expect him back at three this afternoon. What’s that, he is to come over to your office at four? All right, I will give him the message.”
But Walters did not wait until his appointment. No sooner did he see the memorandum on his desk that he was on his way to the Atlantic Building as fast as his legs could carry him. The girl recognized him.
“Your appointment is for four,” she said. “By Jove, this is important,” he replied. “I want to see Poynter right away. You go in aiyl tell him that I am out here.” “Your appointment is for four,” was the quiet reply. And so, despite his impatience, he was forced to chafe until the longest hour he had ever known ticked out its nervous length.
Poynter, radiant in an orange waistcoast and a purple scarf, nodded to him as he entered.
“Here they are,” he said, displaying a pair of papers. “Sign there!”
Walters gazed at him with incredulous eyes.
' “What’s this?” he asked.
“Consolidation with the Brown people,” was the nonchalant reply. “Have a cigar. Make you think better.”
But Walters did not hear him. His eager eyes were perusing the documents. He wanted to pinch himself, hardly daring to realize the truth of the splendid terms set forth in the instrument.
“By heck !” he breathed, when he had finished. “How in the name of the Almighty did you do it? Look here, Poynter, shake hands! You are a little wonder. Honestly, I didn’t think you’d succeed ! You’ve pulled me through just in time—it was a mighty close shave !”
He picked up the papers again. “But you have, haven’t you?” And he laughed with the halting restraint of a man to whom cheeriness has been an absent acquaintance for some time.
Poynter reached into his drawer and took a card from an index. “The matter is closed,” he said, “and you can send your check. • Four thousand, you know, was what we agreed upon.”
“Why, it’s worth forty thousand,” exulted the other.
“I said four,” lisped Poynter.
“Do you mind telling me how you turned this thirtv-foot handspring?” said the president of the National Razor Companv.
"Poynter opened the drawer again and threw a piece of cardboard on his desk. It fell upon its face, and when Walters turned it over and caught sight of the other side he broke into a roar of laughter that did not check itself until tears fairly shone in his eyes.
“Say he gloated, “I’ll bet old Brown was just ossified when he saw that. Got him right, didn't you? I’m going to take this home and frame it. Let’s have the story, like a good fellow.”
“Well,” began Poynter, “Brown himself did it. His vanity is his greatest strength and at the same time his strongest weakness. His face has been his making and his undoing. For months it has been-wearing upon my nerves, so that when you came and placed your case with me, the vision of his lather-smeared physiognomy at once loomed up. In a flash I saw my course. You yourself had exhausted every artifice within your power. You had assaulted his business and found it a Gibraltar. Each of your Rolands of cunning had been met with a more masterful Oliver on his part. To be very frank, my dear Mr. Walters, Brown outclassed you in management, exploitation, attack and defense. There remained but one arrow which could possibly find his heel, the shaft of ridicule.”
Poynter paused for a moment and gazed abstractedly into the ceiling.
“Ridicule, however, is the most potent of all engines of destruction. Its flight is as swift as the rays of light. It is the only missile that can make of a weakling a David able to bring doom to his Goliath, however mighty or powerful he may seem. Ridicule has shut the doors of the White House to a dozen men. It has humbled prelate and author, merchant and jurist—its dart is tipped with the deadliest of poisons. Ridicule is commercial, political and social death. Whenever an individual has allowed his personality to dominate an enterprise, it is only a question of patience, a matter of time before ridicule can be made to wreck him. Brown built up his success through the influence of his advertising. The foundation of his advertising is his face. He has dinged it and donged it and banged it and slammed it into the notice of every man in America so persistently that whenever the idea of purchasing a razor occurs to him, he at once remembers Brown’s enticing smile of confidence, and the. germ of suggestion fructifies into the impulse of investigation and ultimate purchase. Brown’s advertising is founded upon a recognized psychological truth.
“It is human nature to believe most in those things with which one is most familiar. Men have still greater confidence in those things in which the exploiter evinces his own faith. Brown’s razor, fortified by Brown’s belief in it, has produced Brown’s great success. The task set before me was to prove that Brown has no confidence in his razor—in short, that he did not use it. The problem presented no complications. Brown is human, Brown is busy, Brown is rich. Rich men, especially those who have attained affluence within a short space of years, are usually socially ambitious. This rule is invariable with the wives of the nouveaux riches. Inquiry develops the fact that Brown has a wife, and that she has been stung with the social hornet.
“Sooner or later Mrs. B. with her bee was certain to lure the busy Mr. B. from his affairs to share in some social Roman holiday. Therefore watch Brown. From the time we joined forces, Brown lived under a shadow. My man has known «each activity of his every hour. On Saturday Mrs. Brown, exultant in the capture of a social lioness, telephones him to tea at Sherry’s. Brown, equally exultant, drops his correspondence and tears up-town. Needs a shave. No conveniences in his office. Drops into a barber-shop. So does his shadow. A dollar tip to the hat-boy, a convenient pillar for the shadow, a splendid flood of sunlight through a pavement casing, a carefully posed camera, a click of
the shutter, and before Brown can realize what has happened he is ours. You can imagine the rest. First a visit to an artist, then one to Brown. I hold a very annoying picture. The prospect of that thing in a dozen publications does not appeal to Brown’s peculiar sense of humor. Ridicule can tear down in a month what labor cannot build up in a year. We meet; we dicker; we haggle. Brown swears; Brown talks injunction; Brown talks terms. I talk terms; we both talk terms. Sum total —your company merged with his company; now sign.”
Walters with trembling fingers affixed his signature to the two papers, placed one in his pocket and at Poynter’s request passed the duplicate over to him. Then, chortling with satisfaction, he hastened to the door, meanwhile scrutinizing the card in his hand and roaring with laughter. It was a picture of Brown in the barber’s chair— his profile as clean-cut as a duo-tone cameo, the barber scraping away at it for dear life, and a background of other barbers corroborating the authenticity of the scene. Surrounding the photograph was a border-design exactly duplicating the famous decoration peculiar to Brown’s own advertising, but instead of the customary wording thereupon, these lines had been lettered in : IT ISN’T GOD ENOUGH FOR HIM. TT ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU.
Walters paused for a moment as he opener the door, and then looked back into the room.
“Poynter,” he grinned, “I’d give another thousand for a snap shot of Brown when you showed him this one.”