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The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (But True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century

If you were to compile a list of the most dynamic philanthropists of the twentieth century, Mary Woodard Lasker (1900-1994) would have to be included. Lasker’s single-minded mission, for which she used the resources of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation for more than forty years, was to dramatically increase taxpayer funding for federal government medical research on heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

Lasker was brilliantly successful in her efforts. Her relentless lobbying, climaxing in the Nixon Administration’s “War on Cancer,” resulted in the National Institutes of Health being transformed from a tiny agency with a budget of $5 million in 1949 to a vast operation with a multibillion dollar budget in the 1970s. But her effort was based on a spectacularly faulty premise: that if the federal government spent enough money, “a cure for cancer” would somehow be found. She consistently held this view throughout her long career. In 1986, forty years after she began her one-woman lobbying effort, a reporter from Business Week asked Lasker whether the notion that a cure for cancer could be found if government funding were increased was unrealistic. She said, “Nobody knows the full picture about any of these diseases, so how does anyone know what’s an unrealistic expectation and what’s not?”1

The money Lasker used to fund her campaign came from a fortune created by her second husband, Albert D. Lasker. When he died in 1952, he willed $6 million to Mary and an additional $6 million to the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. But Mary said that she was simply continuing her husband’s ideas. Was her claim true?

Until now, historians have had a limited amount of materials to work with. The only biography of Albert Lasker, John Gunther’s Taken at the Flood, published in 1960, was an authorized biography over which his wife and children had editorial control. The Man Who Sold America is just the second Lasker biography. Its authors, Cruikshank, an experienced business historian, and Schultz, former CEO of Foote, Cone, and Belding, state in a postscript that Gunther’s book was “closely edited” by Albert D. Lasker’s widow and his children, and “we have reinstated details that the Lasker family removed from Gunther’s manuscript” (381). In addition, Cruikshank and Schultz had two sources not available to Gunther: an oral history, ultimately amounting to more than 2,000 pages, that Mary Lasker gave to Columbia University beginning in 1962, and numerous transcripts of interviews that Boyden Sparkes conducted with Lasker and his associates in the late 1930s for a biography that was never published. (Columbia University Libraries has since posted the Mary Lasker interviews on the web.)

Cruikshank and Schultz are good writers, and The Man Who Sold America adds substantially to our knowledge of Albert Lasker’s business achievements. Their chapters on his philanthropic career are less enlightening, but they do add some details to the limited information we have about Lasker’s philanthropic goals.

Albert D. Lasker was one of the greatest advertising executives of the twentieth century. He was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1880. In 1896, Lasker graduated from high school and, as an aspiring journalist, acquired a scoop by convincing the prominent socialist Eugene V. Debs, in Galveston to resolve a union dispute, to give a brief but exclusive interview.

Lasker’s talents were not in journalism but in advertising. In 1898 he went to Chicago and joined the advertising firm of Lord and Thomas as an apprentice. Lasker rose to become president of the firm and stayed with the company until it was liquidated in 1942. (Many of Lord and Thomas’ employees and accounts were transferred to a successor firm: Foote, Cone, and Belding.)

Under Lasker’s leadership, Lord and Thomas became one of America’s largest advertising companies. Lasker and his employees convinced Americans to eat Sunkist oranges and Sun-Maid raisins, use Whirlpool washing machines, and smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes. As Lasker’s career progressed, he often took stock as partial payment for Lord and Thomas advertisements; Lasker’s holdings in these companies, including Pepsodent and Kimberly-Clark, substantially increased his fortune.

Lasker’s influence on American society was not limited to advertising. He was majority owner of the Chicago Cubs for a decade, and had he not allowed his friend William Wrigley to claim the naming rights, the Cubs today could be playing in Lasker Field. Lasker also played a key role in the effort to clean up baseball after the White Sox gambling scandal of 1919.

In the 1930s, Lord and Thomas were among the first national advertisers to buy time on radio. Their efforts helped to create “Amos ’n Andy,” the first radio comedy, and “The Story of Mary Marlin,” one of the first soap operas. In 1938, Lord and Thomas decided to end its sponsorship of “Amos ‘n Andy.” The authors argue that Lord and Thomas’ radio department, headed by Lasker’s son Edward, then discovered Bob Hope and created the platform that enabled him to become a national star.

Albert Lasker had long been involved in philanthropy in a limited way. In 1928 he created the Lasker Foundation for Medical Research with a $1 million grant. The foundation lay dormant for nearly a decade, making no grants, until in 1939 Lasker declared that the University of Chicago could use the funds for general operating support. Lasker made another gift to the University of Chicago in 1940, giving the university Mill Road Farm, his estate in Lake Forest, Illinois. In 1947 the university sold the land to developers who turned the property into postwar housing.

Mary Lasker transformed her husband in a variety of ways. Politically, Albert was initially an ardent Republican who was one of Warren Harding’s key advisers. According to Harding biographer Francis Russell, in the summer of 1920 Lasker personally delivered a $20,000 payoff to Harding’s mistress, Carrie Phillips, along with the gift of a round-the-world cruise that kept Phillips out of the country until well after the election. In the 1930s, Lasker supervised Lord and Thomas’ successful efforts in California that caused Socialist Upton Sinclair to lose his 1934 campaign for governor. Two years later, Lord and Thomas successfully defeated a California initiative that would have imposed punitive taxes on chain stores because they could sell products more cheaply than independent stores could.

Under Mary’s influence, Albert gave up baseball and golf and embraced psychoanalysis and art collecting. Although he never formally switched parties, Albert endorsed Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and Harry S. Truman in 1948. And in philanthropy, he followed his wife’s lead

One early cause was birth control. In the 1920s, Lasker’s two sisters had used a bequest from their mother to “help women” by giving it to Margaret Sanger to promote birth control. In a 1950 speech accepting an award from the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, Sanger said that this gift from Lasker’s sisters enabled “our cause in those early days … to go out into the field and be heard.”2 In 1939, Lasker authorized a Lord and Thomas corporate grant to promote birth control in Georgia.

With Mary’s encouragement, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation gave much more to the movement for birth control. “The Birth Control movement is something far beyond the implications of its name,” Albert wrote to Sanger in 1940 (343). Mary claimed that her husband coined the name “Planned Parenthood,” saying he decided on it because “it sounded more constructive and would meet with less public opposition” than the organization’s previous name, the Birth Control Association of America (343).

Fighting cancer was the Laskers’ second chief philanthropic interest. In 1922 and 1923, Lasker gave two donations totaling $25,000 to the American Society for the Control of Cancer, in memory of his brother Harry, who had died from cancer in 1922. “The two gifts,” the authors say, “represented almost the entire endowment of the Society in its first decade of operations” (352).

The society remained small until 1944, when the Laskers and their allies took over the organization, renamed it the American Cancer Society, and launched a national fundraising drive that transformed it from a tiny organization that distributed pamphlets into one of the nation’s largest nonprofits. Lasker was personally responsible for a 1945 campaign where, for the first time, such popular radio shows as “Fibber McGee and Molly” discussed cancer as a disease that shouldn’t be hidden but instead confronted and treated.

But there’s little evidence that Albert Lasker was interested in his wife’s crusade to devote billions of dollars in federal taxpayer money to anti-cancer efforts. The only evidence that he supported Mary’s efforts in that regard was a statement she made in 1962 that when she said her primary philanthropic energies were devoted to lobbying for national health insurance and increased research for cancer and tuberculosis, Albert allegedly said, “For that, you don’t need my kind of money. You need federal money, and I will tell you how to get it.”3 Cruikshank and Schultz offer no other evidence that Albert Lasker supported a massive increase in federal funding for research or was active in the American Cancer Society after 1946.

The Man Who Sold America is an important and engaging biography, but it fails to answer many lingering questions about Albert Lasker’s motives as a philanthropist.


Martin Morse Wooster is a senior fellow at the Capital Research Center and a contributing editor to Philanthropy.



1 Martin Morse Wooster, Great Philanthropic Mistakes (Washington, D.C: Hudson Institute, 2010),  p. 67, quoting Sara Siwolop, “The Fairy Godmother of Medical Research,” Business Week, July 14, 1986.

2 The Public Writings and Speeches of Margaret Sanger, “Lasker Award Address,” October 25, 1950,

3 Martin Morse Wooster, Great Philanthropic Mistakes (Washington, D.C: Hudson Institute, 2010), p. 44.

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