The fax came into the offices of Mad magazine around 10:30 one winter morning in 1981. As the newly hired associate editor, I was charged with periodically checking for incoming fax submissions from the magazine’s freelance contributors (“the usual gang of idiots”), who lived all over the world. I gave the fax a quick read and then walked it into the office of Mad’s founder and publisher, William M. Gaines.
Gaines’s office was much like the man himself: large and messy, but oddly efficient. There was a glass bookcase containing leather-bound collections of every issue of Mad, which first hit newsstands 70 years ago. Also, a human skull. On top of the bookcase were two grainy black-and-white photos, one of a man, the other of a woman. A visitor would assume (wrongly) that they were Gaines’s parents. In fact, they were photos of Fatty Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe, the silent actress Arbuckle was accused of killing.
Piled everywhere were boxes of Mads from the many foreign licensees of the magazine. Dozens of zeppelins, a passion of Gaines’s, hung from the ceiling, while a giant King Kong face, a gift from the staff, peered into the office through a window. Alfred E. Neuman, the magazine’s gap-toothed mascot, grinned from numerous paintings.
But before you noticed any of these things, you would be struck first by something else in the office: the temperature. Gaines liked it cold. Very cold. In addition to the building’s central air, Gaines kept a massive window unit running on max, every working day, morning to night. During the winter, Gaines could be found sitting at his desk wearing a short-sleeved shirt while the other staffers wore heavy sweaters or winter coats.
I handed the fax to Gaines. He read it, let out one of his favorite expressions—“Oh, for Christ’s sake!”—and picked up the phone.
The fax, from a Canadian reader, detailed a story about a teacher whose job was being threatened because he sometimes clipped “marginals” (Sergio Aragonés’s tiny pantomime cartoons found in Mad’s borders) and then pasted them on test papers before making copies. It was the teacher’s way of trying to make learning more fun. A lone parent objected to this practice and was demanding the teacher’s dismissal.
For his part, the teacher feared not only losing his job but also a potential lawsuit from Mad for copyright infringement, now that word of his clipping habit was public.
By noon, Gaines had spoken to the teacher, assuring him he was not going to be sued by Mad and offering to pay any and all of his legal fees. The teacher kept his job. Any lingering doubt I had that I was working for a great, unique boss was erased forever that day.
There was a glass bookcase containing leather-bound collections of every issue of Mad. Also, a human skull.
Bill Gaines was an imposing figure. He was six feet tall and his weight fluctuated from fat to humongous. This was primarily due to the fact that he hated to exercise as much as he loved to eat. He kept three sizes of every wrinkled article of clothing he owned, primarily gray khakis and short-sleeved cotton shirts, to accommodate his weight swings.
One time, Gaines went to a Pritikin Health Resort with his best friend, book publisher Lyle Stuart. The two men had a bet over who could shed the most pounds. I’m not sure if Gaines really wanted to win. He was caught paying a Mad staff member to secretly FedEx him slices of salami slipped within “office papers.”
Gaines had a long, Santa-like beard and a flowing white mane, which he corralled with two clear women’s hair combs. He had a loud, infectious laugh, which could be heard throughout the Mad offices even though his door was always closed to keep in the arctic air mass.
Virtually all the Mad artists, including Aragonés, Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, Al Jaffee, Dave Berg, Don Martin, and George Woodbridge, regularly drew Gaines into the magazine, usually when they needed to illustrate a fat, overeating slob or wealthy, greedy capitalist. This made Gaines instantly recognizable to millions of Mad readers over several generations. I remember once leaving a restaurant with Gaines. Billy Joel was seated at a table up front. He clearly recognized the publisher and just sat there, mouth wide open, watching the big man pass. Such was his impact on people.
Foie Gras and Hot Dogs
Gaines needed to be a physically big man to house all his contradictions, of which there were many. In the days before unlimited long-distance service, any time a staff member made a non-local call, Gaines required that they fill out a slip of paper noting the phone number and whether it was business or personal. At the end of each month, Gaines would pore over the phone statement and present a bill to any staff member who made a personal call on the company line. No amount was too small. I once got a bill for 32 cents.
Conversely, if the staff was working late, Gaines thought nothing of herding everyone to a smart New York restaurant and dropping hundreds treating them to dinner.
This was perfectly logical to Gaines because his entire life was governed by his love of food and wine, though it didn’t necessarily have to be good food. On any given day, you might find him dining on foie gras at the legendary bistro Chez l’Ami Louis, in Paris, where his photo graced the wall, but you might also find him sitting at his desk savoring two “dirty water dogs” and a large orange soda from the street cart outside Mad’s Manhattan offices at 485 MADison Avenue.
Gaines’s Upper East Side apartment contained a walk-in wine cellar with a world-class, 600-bottle collection. His knowledge of wines was exhaustive. We used to joke that if most wine experts could identify the maker of the wine and the year, Gaines could tell you the name of the guy who picked the grapes. His most prized bottle was a Burgundy, a Romanée-Conti ’45, of which only about 700 bottles were produced. (In 2018, one such bottle sold for more than half a million dollars at auction.)
I remember one dinner at Gotham Bar and Grill. It was a multi-course affair with Gaines selecting a different wine to perfectly pair with each course. About halfway into the meal, the waiter came out and said, “The chef would like to know: who are you?”
Another time, Gaines took the staff out to celebrate our yearly “contract signing.” In reality, we had no contracts, but he wasn’t going to let that stand in the way of a great meal. We descended upon Gage & Tollner, the iconic chop house in downtown Brooklyn.
We weren’t there long when editor Nick Meglin put down the menu and announced to Gaines that there was a problem. Nick loved sweet potatoes, and there were eight different sweet potato dishes on the menu. They all sounded so delicious. He couldn’t possibly decide which one to choose. Meglin was baiting Gaines. He knew exactly what his boss’s response would be. “Well, then, order one of each for the table,” Gaines replied, on cue.
“For the table” was a frequently used phrase when dining with Gaines. If you saw something you liked, order it, was Gaines’s philosophy; someone would eat it. That night, the waiters had to bring a second table over just for all the food we ordered (and consumed). But Gaines wasn’t done. On the way home, he insisted we swing by Coney Island so he could top off the evening with two Nathan’s hot dogs. The mere smell of them drove everyone from the car.
Gaines took the staff out to celebrate our yearly “contract signing.” In reality, we had no contracts, but he wasn’t going to let that stand in the way of a great meal.
Another example of Gaines’s contradictions: none of the Mad editors had an expense account. When you went out to lunch with a writer or artist, it was strictly a Dutch affair. Yet every year or so, Gaines would arrange for an all-expenses-paid vacation for the editorial staff and regular freelance contributors. Over the years there were many great trips: Japan, Bora-Bora, Russia, Germany, Africa, Italy—the list goes on, as do the stories of the antics that occurred.
The first Mad trip was to Haiti in 1960. A few weeks before leaving, Gaines checked the subscription rolls and found that Mad had a single subscriber in the small Caribbean country. Upon arrival, Gaines rented Jeeps for everyone and headed to the reader’s house. The unsuspecting kid opened his door to find the entire Mad staff waiting to present him with a subscription-renewal card. The following year Mad picked up a second subscriber in Haiti, prompting Gaines to declare the Haiti trip a huge success: Mad had doubled its circulation in the country!
Over time the trips became longer and more exotic, but they had a common thread: Gaines’s love of food. On a trip to Rome, Gaines reserved an entire restaurant and arranged for an eight-course meal—all pasta.
In France, after a day visiting Monet’s gardens in Giverny, Gaines treated us to dinner at L’Auberge de la Truite, a quaint, rustic restaurant on the banks of the Vaucouleurs with seasonal cuisine and a cheese cart the size of a Mini Cooper. In Germany, he took the staff to Bad Dürkheim for Wurstmarkt, its annual wine, beer, and sausage festival. (It took months for my colon to recover.)
My favorite trip was to Zermatt, Switzerland. We stayed at the five-star Mont Cervin Palace hotel which sits at the foot of the Matterhorn. The hotel featured superb traditional French cuisine and service. In addition, Gaines made sure every room had a balcony that faced the magnificent mountain.
And how did the Mad staff thank Gaines for his uncharacteristic generosity? On every trip, they serenaded him with a hearty rendition of an original song: “Fuck You, Bill!” He loved it. No one enjoyed a laugh more than Gaines, even if it was usually at his expense.
The trips not only endeared the freelancers to the magazine and each other—they allowed Gaines to indulge his passion for food from around the world, all on the company’s dime. (Gaines sold Mad in 1961, for tax reasons, to what would eventually become Time Warner, but he remained publisher.)
Gaines ran Mad like a mom-and-pop operation. Despite a circulation of more than two million in the mid-1970s, the magazine’s staff was extremely small: five in editorial plus a kid in the stockroom and two women up front who handled subscriptions. The artists and writers were all freelance. Gaines loved that. He once told me the work expands to the size of the staff. A small staff was easy for him to manage, and it kept the overhead quite low.
Gaines endeared himself to the freelance staff with his practice of payment on delivery. When a contributor dropped off an assignment, Gaines personally wrote out a check with his fountain pen and handed it to him. Freelancers typically waited 30–90 days for payment from most clients. Mad was a financial godsend.
In 2016, the AARP Bulletin featured an article on eight Mad freelancers who had been working for the magazine for more than 50 years: Jaffee, Meglin, Aragonés, Frank Jacobs, Arnie Kogen, Paul Coker, Dick DeBartolo, and Irving Schild. Few publications and contributors have such loyalty to each other, and it speaks well of Gaines’s management style.
Bill Gaines died on June 3, 1992, at age 70. He looked every bit his years and then some. Decades of poor diet, obesity, and inactivity finally caught up with him. But if he had the chance to live his life over, I don’t think he would change a thing. Gaines lived life to the fullest on his own terms.
In his excellent 1972 biography, The MAD World of William M. Gaines, Jacobs quotes Gaines’s sister, Elaine. “We all have our many sides; Bill seems to have so many more of them.”
Indeed. Founder of two American publishing classics, EC Comics and Mad magazine; gourmet and wine connoisseur; globe-trotting millionaire; not to mention owner of the world’s premier collection of Lady Liberty statues, including three of the four original Bartholdi models. Gut smart and lucky in an unplanned life, Gaines was the real Forrest Gump.
One day in 1985, Gaines assembled the staff and instructed them to meet the following Saturday at Penn Station, nine a.m. sharp. No questions. We arrived to find the Black Diamond Express, a fully restored 1916 Pullman dining car hooked up to the Amtrak train to Boston. We enjoyed a wonderful brunch as we made our way north before spending the day touring the city. A sumptuous chicken Kiev meal awaited us on our trip home.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the train trip was the perfect metaphor for my many years of working for Gaines: a helluva ride with lots of laughs and, of course, great food.
John Ficarra worked as an editor at Mad for 38 years, including 12 under William M. Gaines