Meet Mary Wells:


In the spring of 1965, I was a recently married (2rd wife) 26 year-old college stu-dent (I didn’t go to college right out of high school – but waited five years) who decided to spend my summer break renewing old friendships in Manhattan.  It all started with a phone call from Richard C. Milligan who told me he had been hired to direct commercials for an advertising agency – Wells, Rich, and Greene.  Would I like to come to New York and be his director of photography?  Would I, was my answer. 


Four weeks later, I was reintroduced to 37 year-old divorcee Mary Wells.  We had first met back in 1960 when I photographed some of her commercials for another agency.  I was smitten.  She had a sophisticated, fragile kind of allure, a trim figure, limpid brown eyes and a carefully casual mane of ash blond hair.  But she also had a cool self assurance, a sure judgment of man and ideas and a relent-less ambition – and the combination, which might have made her an empress or a

suffragette in another incarnation, has produced a curiously twentieth-century phenomenon:  Madison Avenue’s latest bombshell. 


I extended my right hand but instead of the traditional handshake Mary gave me a big hug.  From that moment on, we were fast friends. 


In the conference room, Mary introduced me to her partners, Stewart Greene and Richard Rich.  Then Milligan and the four of us started planning for the next shoot, the first of a series of Braniff Airline commercials. 


Although as president Mary Wells administered the full operations of the agency, at the time it was still young, freewheeling and small enough so that she could apply these ideas to specific client problems.  In theory, partner Rich (36) super-vised the copy department and partner Greene (38), the art department.  But in practice the three of them contributed to all phases of the agency’s production from cooking up original ideas to editing the final advertising product.  


But Mary’s real talent was in her ability to sell clients on the ads the agency pre-pared.  With her soft voice and breezy articulateness, she was absolutely devas-tating in a client presentation.  She demonstrated this prowess when she sold Braniff’s management on the whole scheme for its colored plane promotion with nothing but some rough sketches to indicate what the planes would look like and a few colored toy blocks to simulate the planes’ appearance on an airport runway. 


And that’s why Richard Milligan and I were sitting in the conference room.  We were to turn the toys into the real thing.  “Airlines are all the same,” Mary said.  “They all get you there in the same kinds of planes in the same boring way.  We needed something that would turn everyone’s heads and make them say ‘What was that?’”  Then it just hit her one day.  What would happen if each plane was a different color?


Thus Mary initiated Braniff’s “end of the plane plane” campaign, decking its jet-liners out in seven different pastel shades (including orange, turquoise, ochre, and (to me) sickening fuscous purple).  She commissioned Alexander Girard to dress up the planes’ interiors and Italian designer Pucci to create exotic new stewardess wardrobes. 


Milligan and I filmed, edited and scored 26 television commjercials in one month.  All commercials were shot on Eastman 35mm 5254 film stock.  I even came up with some of the tag lines:  “We don’t get you there any faster, it just seems that way;  “How Long will our New Look, look New?” and “Why take a Plain Plane? 


In the first couple weeks Mary, who was eleven years my senior, and I developed

a intimate relationship.  She was the initiator and it was clear that the relationship

was not to be permanent; which was fine with me.  After all I was a married man.  Some ten years later I would have similar intimate relations with two other wo-men, ten to eleven years my senior; actress Emmaline Henry (best known for her role as Amanda Bellows on the hit 1960s situation comedy I Dream of Jeannie; and Beverly Amphlett, a schoolteacher who occasionally spent her summer breaks working for me as a script supervisor.  I later cast Emmaline as Dr. Ten-hausen, replacing “Tippi” Hedren, in Harrad Summer (CRC 1974). 


Mary introduced me to fine wines and gourmet foods, showing me off to her friends at Manhattan’s finest restaurants and parties.  I learned a lot from her but at the end of August; it all came to an end. 


I returned home to Yakima with $12,000 in my pocket.  My roundtrip airfare (first class) had been paid for as were all my living expenses while in New York City.  But how do you put a price on the lavish meals at world famous New York restaurants with Mary – that the agency picked up.  Those meals and the accompanying champagne cost far more than my $1,500 per week salary. 


I later wrote the following for the Reuters News Service: 





When the first commercial was released, competitors jeered, dubbing Braniff the “Easter-egg airline.”  But Braniff quickly became the fastest growing line in the industry; in the first six months of 1966, sales soared 41 percent and profits 114 percent.  “We probably couldn’t have done it,” Braniff president Harding L. Lawrence said, “without the ‘new look’ campaign.”  It wasn’t long before Mrs. Wells was seen at all the trendy restaurants and A-list social functions with Braniff’s Lawrence.  They would later marry. 


The founder of Braniff, Paul Revere Braniff, was born in 1897 during the height of the industrial revolution.  In 1918, Paul joined the Allies in France during WWII serving the 16th Aero Squadron, and then the 2nd Aero Squadron as a gunnery instructor. 


In 1918, he learned to fly when he was assigned to “Flight Observer Training.”  His instructor was Lt. Richard “Dick” Pears (who Paul later hired in the 1930s to fly FordTri-Motors” for Braniff Airways).   


In 1923, Paul obtained his pilot’s license from Orville Wright (one of the inventers of the first airplane).  By 1924, he was “barnstorming” and taking on the occa-

sional passenger in a war surplus Curtis “Jenny” two-seat bi-plane.  Paul

gained fame in 1927 when he flew in the National Air Tour (an annual cavalcade of new aircraft making a tour of the country under the sponsorship of Edsel Ford.  The newspapers in Oklahoma covered the event first-hand which gave Paul Braniff excellent publicity. 


When he had finished the tour, he convinced his brother, Tom, and four other investors into buying a Stinson Detroiter cabin plan for the sum of $11,000 (this was about the cost of a three-bedroom house in 1928); thus was incorporated the Paul R. Braniff Inc. airline. 


In 1928, Paul R. Braniff, Inc. started services from OKC to Tulsa with three round-trip flights daily, Monday thru Friday.  The first flight roared out of Oklahoma City on June 20, 1928.  It is reported that on the first flight, “moon shiners” in Arcadia, Oklahoma shot at the Stinson Detroiter thinking it was the U.S. Government searching for bootleggers.  Later that year, Paul obtained a second aircraft … a Ryan B-1 Monoplane.  This aircraft, built by the same company, had a similarity to The Spirit of St. Louis. 


To supplement passenger and mail revenue, Braniff Airlines delivered The Daily Oklahoman newspaper to farmers along the air route.  Paul would simply fly low and throw the paper out of the airplane.  Braniff was the only airline to have its own paper route. 


In the fall of 1928, a six-seater Travelair (enclosed cabin plane) was added to Braniff’s fleet.  In Braniff Airlines’ short but glorious heyday, they were flying 1,000 passengers per month from Tulsa to OKC and OKC to Tulsa,  The price was $12,50 – one way; $20 – round trip.  By the end of 1928, Braniff had carried 3,000 passengers.  In 1929, Braniff inaugurated services to Dallas and Fort Worth. 


Before the market crash of 1929, Paul Braniff had sold his airline for top dollar to C.R. Smith and American Airlines.  Through a series of mergers, Mr. Smith would eventually inherit the Braniff Airlines name. 


In 1965 the Dallas based Braniff International Airlines reinvented itself under its new CEO, Harding L. Lawrence (who would later marry Mary Wells) and redefined the industry in the process.  But in 1982, long after Lawrence had been replaced by Howard Putman (who would later run the highly successful Southwest Air-lines) Braniff – the fifth largest airline – would close its doors and cease to exist.  There are many complex reasons for the demise of Braniff, but that’s another story. 


Suffice it to say that in May 1982, Braniff losses in passenger revenues forced the

company to close its doors and declare bankruptcy.  A contributing factor to the bankruptcy was deregulation of the airlines, which brought about airfare wars between the majors.  Unable to slash its prices, Braniff could no longer remain competitive. 


In the 1960s, Braniff ran into major difficulties meeting passenger needs and expectation.  This was due to the airline not keeping up with its aging propped aircraft, not purchasing new jet aircraft and poor customer service.  Braniff was known for canceling flights and its flights not being on time. 


Early in 1965, Braniff underwent a management change with the appointment of Harding L. Lawrence as president.  Lawrence made great strides in improving Braniff’s customer service and on time record.  Then he hired Mary Wells to initiate a new marketing approach and, as they say, the rest is history. 


Mary Wells married Lawrence in 1967.  Braniff’s revenue soared, allowing the airline to purchase new planes.  In 1967, Braniff purchased Panagra Airlines.  By the mid ‘70s Braniff had increased their air passenger miles by 40 percent.  In 1978, the Airline Deregulation Act was passed.  This act allowed the airlines to pick, choose and expand their passenger routes.  Braniff, as with most carriers, took advantage of this act.  Harding Lawrence saw deregulation as a bad thing for the airline industry.  He cautioned that the company should go slowly.  This led to his replacement in 1979. 


Later, in 1979, Braniff took on several new, heavier traveled routes.  In 1980 the airline purchased new jet aircraft, opened new terminals and watched as its fuel costs increased by 25 percent.  The Airlines Deregulation Act brought about the price wars Lawrence had warned about and due to its recent capital investments, Braniff had great difficulty competing. 


At around 5:00 in the morning on May 11, 1982, Braniff International Airways CEO Howard Putnam left a courtroom at the Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn, New York after failing to gain an extension from the airlines principal creditors.  He quietly strode to a pay phone across the hall, picked up the receiver and made a call to the airline’s headquarters on the west side of the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.  Reaching his second-in-command, Phil Guthrie, Putnam uttered the words “do it” and with that simple phrase set into motion an elaborate plan that would bring the fifth-largest airline in the nation to a screeching halt.  


The elaborate plan consisted of a plot to return all Braniff aircraft (from around the world) to the Dallas/Fort Worth airport before the media picked up the news that Braniff was going to acquiesce to the bankruptcy.  Was the plot successful? 


As one flight attendant put it, “Having just completed a late night flight from Ha-waii, on May 12th, I walked out of the DFW terminal and to my car in the parking lot.  Driving to a nearby convenience store, as the rain began to fall; I rolled down the window and placed a coin into a newspaper machine.  The newspaper head-line brought it all home for me – Braniff Suspends Operations.”  She cradled her head in her hands and began to cry.  It was over.  The most dynamic airline in American history – once darling of the industry, and the envy of the competition – was no more.     --- Dennis F. Stevens (Reuters) 


I was at my Griffith Park home on Woking Way, in Los Angeles, when I heard the news over the local NBC Channel-4 affiliate.  I pulled a number out of my continuously updated rolodex and put in a call to Mystique, on the island of St. Vincent, in the Caribbean.  I didn’t expect to get through to Mary Wells Lawrence, but thought I’d at least leave a message to the fact that I felt proud to have been a small part of the airliner’s heyday and how sad it was to hear the news.  But Mary picked up herself. 


She told me how good it was to hear from me and I thanked her for keeping in touch over the years.  We reminisced about the Braniff campaign and she asked me whatever happened to Richard Milligan?  I told her that he was currently heading the PR department at Grumman Aerospace, at Beth Page, out on Long Island. 


She thanked me for the call and the next time we communicated was after the death of her 81 year-old husband, Harding L. Lawrence, of pancreatic cancer, on January 18, 2002.  In 2004 I began sending her copies of my newsletters and we have remained in contact via email every since. 


Today, as of this writing, Mary Wells Lawrence lives in the South of France. 


                                                                                                            --- Dennis F. Stevens