Monday, January 30, 2017

The legacy of Eleanor Borton

Long time readers of this blog will know that Cookie loves three things, and one of them ain't live theater.

Cookie loves a good story. Cookie loves cars. And Cookie loves smart, funny women.

One of the cars that Cookie loves is the iconic Jordan Playboy, a high style, bold colored car manufactured by the Jordan Automobile Company of Cleveland, Ohio.   Though plain by today's standards, the Playboy combined high grade materials, a colorful palette - when almost ever mass produced car was Japan black lacquer, and a light body with excellent handling properties.  The whole thing was powered by a Continental Motors six cylinder motor.

What made the Playboy a hot commodity was the web of words that Edward S. Jordan (Ned Jordan, to his friends) wove around the vehicle and the aura he cast around its attributes.  In an era when cars were sold on durability and engineering, Jordan was the first man to sell cars based on style, color and personal style.

While the Playboy is best remembered for Jordan's ground breaking ad "Somewhere West of Laramie" which featured prose, not the car, its price or its specifics.  It is the story of how Jordan got the idea for the Playboy that is the stuff of F. Scott Fitzgerald tales.

Jordan had been building his cars in Cleveland, which in the 1920s was second only to Detroit in automobile companies headquartered and built including the Jordan, Chandler and Peerless.  One night in 1918, he and his wife left their East Cleveland estate and traveled east to the Mayfield Country Club, on Mayfield Road beyond what is today South Euclid.  Arriving, the party was in full swing with jazz, swanky clothing and liquor poured generously.

As the night progressed, Ned found himself dancing with one Eleanor Borton, a Cleveland area socialite, and good friends with all the best families, including the Seiberling's of Akron, who owned Goodyear Rubber.  Borton was besties with Harriet Seiberling, and would be Harriett's maid of honor.  When Eleanor's time at the alter came, Harriett would return the favor.  Borton had connections.  She also had a brilliant mind - she was attending Brown University at the time -  a healthy sense of self, and a well known sense of humor and wit.

As the dance progressed and Eleanor ask how the car business was going, she said to Ned that she needed a car, but that none was making one that she would consider.   "They're all too drab, too dark, too big or too small."

Ned Jordan, from his autobiography, tells what happened next:

“Dancing one night at the Mayfield Country Club, Cleveland, with a real outdoor girl, Eleanor Borton.  ‘Why don’t you build a swanky roadster for the girl who loves to swim and paddle and shoot, and for the boy who loves the roar of the cutout?' asked Eleanor.  ‘Girl, you’ve given me an idea worth a million dollars!  Thanks for the best dance I’ve ever had.  I’m leaving for New York.’ ”  
And with that, Ned Jordan quickly collected his wife, his coat and car and making haste to the train station and then New York.

The rest, is automotive history.  The Playboy was not fancy, it wasn't race ready, in fact, it was an assembled car, like all of Ned Jordan's cars.  But it came in a myriad of colors, and plush upholstery colors.  The finest leathers, fittings and tolerances.  It was easy to turn, brake and shift.  It was a car at home in the city as well as on the back roads.   But it sold well enough to give Jordan a product with national appeal.

That appeal was cast into American Advertising history when Ned Jordan penned his Somewhere West of Laramie ad copy.  With no real picture of the car, no mention of its cost, its attributes, Jordan spun a web of golden words that lit the imagination of the American public, and started the revolution in American advertising that made Mad Men possible.

The copy simple read:

"Somewhere west of Laramie there’s a bronco-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I’m talking about. She can tell what a sassy pony, that’s a cross between greased lightning and the place where it hits, can do with eleven hundred pounds of steel and action when he’s going high, wide and handsome.
The truth is—the Playboy was built for her."

In subsequent ads, Jordan added the following verbiage to the original text:
"Built for the lass whose face is brown with the sun when the day is done of revel and romp and race. She loves the cross of the wild and the tame. There’s a savor of links about that car—of laughter and lilt and light—a hint of old loves—and saddle and quirt. It’s a brawny thing—yet a graceful thing for the sweep o’ of the Avenue. Step into the Playboy when the hour grows dull with things dead and stale.
"Then start for the land of real living with the spirit of the lass who rides, lean and rangy, into the red horizon of a Wyoming twilight."

Ned Jordan was less a car man and more advertising man, and that is exactly how he lived his life after the final Jordan was built in 1931.

And what of Eleanor Borton, the woman who set in motion a revolutionary idea that car could be nimble, stylish and rugged?

For starters, Ned Jordan handed Borton the keys to one of the first Playboy's off the assembly line, stylish in red to match her lips, butter tanned leather interior that was smooth to the touch.  Well, Eleanor finished her education to Brown, returned to Cleveland.  She married Rudolph Garfield, the grandson of slain United States President James Garfield.  Though the marriage only lasted until Garfield's premature death, it was a happy one that produced two children.  Following his death, Borton went into business for herself, repairing and refinishing antique furniture.

In 1951 she decided that having successfully run a business, she would like to try her hand at running a city, so she ran for Mayor of Mentor, Ohio, and clobbered her two opponents.  She was so popular, that when she ran for reelection, she ran unopposed.

Eleanor also saw opportunities for Mentor beyond the immediate needs of the town.  She successfully leveraged her friendships from socialite days to buy the estate of her mother in law's family - the Newell's for Mentor's use as its first major, all purpose park and recreation area.   To accomplish this, she gained the support of Leonard C. Hanna, a philanthropic industrialist who helped to underwrite the project.  But Eleanor also knew that if it was wholly given, the town residents would have no investment in the project.  So part of the purchase was made through subscriber shares.

My favorite Eleanor story, besides the encounter with Jordan, was when she heard that the local Episcopal Church was building a new church, but it hadn't enough more for a steeple.  Said Eleanor, "It'll look like a garage!"  So Eleanor studied to get her real estate license, listed and sold three homes and paid for the steeple - $5,000 - out of her commissions.  That's how you get things done.

In 1980, Mentor rededicated Newell Park in her honor.  A surprised, ever humble Eleanor Borton Garfield said "Usually they do this type of thing once you are dead, but here I am getting this honor.  That is what I find so extraordinary about this.  I'm alive and get to see my name on a park.  That is a 'hoot' as we used to say."

But Eleanor Borton also deserves to be recognized as the muse for Ned Jordan.  What was said on that dance floor at the country club ninety-eight years ago changed what cars were made and how they were sold.  On top of everything else, she was one in a million.

Eleanor Borton Garfield died in 1994.  She evidently passed her sense of humor to her son, Borton Garfield who rests a few feet from his parents.  His stone reads "A PUN THIS GRAVE HE RESTS."

She is for me, ever the sparkling young lady at the country club dance, ready for a good time, but not naughty time, just one in which she can smile and flirt; the proto-flapper, smart and saucy with verve and zest for life, and sparkle in her eyes.


  1. Great Cleveland/Mentor stories here. For those not familiar with the area, Mentor is a small city about 25 miles east of Cleveland. Its downtown contains fine old architecture, and in its outskirts (along with Kirkland and adjacent communities) the wealthy of Cleveland built their summer homes. President Garfield's estate, Lawnfield, is located in Mentor and is now a museum. Did you go there when you were a kid?

    1. Yeah, but my grandparents lived in Marion so I already had a presidental home on familiar turf.

  2. I too love these "local" stories (I'm in Hudson). And Eleanor sounds like quite a lady.

    1. She really did circulate through extraordinary social circles. But seemed to keep a level head and enjoy laughter.

  3. never knew any of this; a great read tonight, cookie! thanks!