They all could have been contenders

January 25, 1995|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

The 1964 New York World's Fair was a disaster from day one. Fewer than 100,000 of a predicted 250,000 people attended the opening. The ceremony itself was a near-fiasco with miserable, rainy weather, chanting protesters and a droning helicopter that forced President Johnson to stop his speech.

The New York executives who dreamed up the fair had been inspired by the greatness of the 1939 World's Fair. (Yet the 1939 fair wasn't all that great, since it paid its investors only 30 cents on the dollar.) The neat symmetry of doing the 1939 fair over again, in the same place, 25 years later, was too much to resist. But 1964 was not 1939. The fair's planners, being somewhat short-sighted, did not consider that World War II, the Cold War, the space race and the civil rights movement had altered the national psyche.

In fact, a reason for the low attendance at the 1964 fair was the power of the civil rights movement. Ironically, this fair -- whose theme was Peace Through Understanding-- had no blacks or Hispanics on its staff of 200. Few minorities were hired at any level, even as maintenance workers.

On opening day, the Congress of Racial Equality threatened to "block every street that can get you anywhere near the World's Fair and give New York the biggest traffic jam it ever had." Soon the fair was the focus for civil rights demonstrations, which were the final blow.

The 1964 World's Fair is only one of the many fiascoes described by Neil Steinberg in "Complete & Utter Failure." As Mr. Steinberg puts it, verbosely: "It is both a duty and a joy to turn our gaze away occasionally, to seek our failure and to probe its mysteries."

Mr. Steinberg, who is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, explains that failure is a universal human experience, possibly the universal human experience. "Too often we are satisfied with parsing the tired minutes of the familiar and famous, rolling in the memories of Elvis and Marilyn and Madonna, scraping every detail from the successful," Mr. Steinberg says. So we miss the fact that everyone has failed.

Mr. Steinberg also has experienced failure. He begins this book with a story describing one of those failures and spends many pages -- sometimes too many -- recounting others. Ironically, failure led Mr. Steinberg to success as a writer.

In this book, Mr. Steinberg describes almost every kind of failure, from unsuccessful attempts at climbing Mount Everest to Isaac Newton's obsession with alchemy. Mr. Steinberg discusses the National Spelling Bee, the first smokeless cigarette, chewable toothpaste and the misadventures of one Elisha Gray, who arrived at the patent office two hours after Alexander Graham Bell and was therefore unable to share in the fortune of the telephone, a product that many contend Gray also invented.

Mr. Steinberg presents names that failed: Nabisco's Uneeda biscuit was challenged by the names Iwanta, Uwanta, Ulika Bis-Kit, and I-lika soda crackers. He presents amusements that failed: Creative Playthings introduced the Animal of the Month Club but had difficulties because the animals tended to arrive dead. He presents people who failed: Robert F. Scott tried to reach the South Pole and died in the attempt.

He even presents people who succeeded early in life but failed later. Orson Welles made "Citizen Kane" at 25 but was then unable to emerge from the shadow of his masterpiece. J. D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon and Ralph Ellison had similar problems.

Some products fail the first time, then succeed after being ingeniously repositioned. Such is the case for Cellucotton, introduced by Kimberley-Clark. Cellucotton is a wood- derived substance created during World War I to replace cotton in medical dressings. When the war ended, Kimberly-Clark developed two products -- thin sheets of Cellucotton, which it called Kleenex, and thick pads, which it called Kotex.

Kimberley-Clark tried to market the Kleenex as a way for upscale ladies to remove cold cream, but few people bought it. No one would even advertise Kotex, so unmentionable was the product's use. But then Kleenex was marketed as something to blow your nose into. And Kotex was sold in plain white packages. Women could buy them by putting coins into honor boxes. Voila, success. The rest is history.

That history demonstrates the power of creative marketing and ingenuity. And it proves that failure can be a beginning and not an end.

Ms. Scharper is a critic and poet who teaches writing at Towson State University.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Complete & Utter Failure: A Celebration of Also Rans, Runners-Up, Never-Weres and Total Flops"

Author: Neil Steinberg

Publisher: Doubleday

Length, price: 258 pages, $22.95

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