Chronicles of the Rich and Famous: Gerard Barnes Lambert

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By Ellen Gilbert

His Princeton diploma (class of 1908) was signed by Woodrow Wilson and a street in the tony Western Section of town is named for him. On the less decorous side, perhaps, is the fact that Gerard Barnes Lambert (1886-1967) is widely known as the “Father of Halitosis,” for his aggressive marketing of Listerine mouthwash. Good news for guardians of good taste (pardon the expression) is that Lambert’s daughter, Rachel Lowe Lambert Lloyd “Bunny” Mellon (1910-2014), was a great pal of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The father of the “Father of Halitosis” was Alexandria, Virginia native Jordan Wheat Lambert (1851-1889). His own alma mater, Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia proudly reports that even as an undergraduate the elder Lambert “showed his flair for chemistry and business that would lead to his later success in inventing Listerine and founding the pharmaceutical company that bears his name.” He named his first company Lambert Pharmacal Co.; it later became the Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical Co.

Intended at first to be used as a safe disinfectant for surgical procedures, Jordan’s discovery was named after Sir Joseph Lister, the English physician who preformed the first antiseptic surgery. Jordan’s son, Gerard, had other ideas. After graduating from Princeton and studying architecture at Columbia University, the younger Lambert fought in World War I and then joined his father’s firm. Around 1922 he glommed on to the medical term for bad breath: “Halitosis.” Listerine to the rescue. When he became president of the firm in 1923, the younger Lambert turned his focus to advertising—aggressive advertising. He would later attribute his business successes to an independent turn of mind. In his memoir, All Out of Step* he writes:

“There is one philosophy I have about advertising that, so far in my life, has never met with approval by anyone…It is my belief that if a company has a certain amount of advertising, it can wisely spend an additional dollar on advertising if that dollar brings in not only an additional dollar and cent…I shudder to think what would have happened if we had run a stupid old-fashioned budget in the Lambert Pharmacal Company in 1922. A committee of stuffy men and accounts would have sat around…and we would probably still be earning $115,000 a year!”

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Long before anyone ever heard of Mad Men’s Don Draper, Lambert formed the advertising agency of Lambert & Feasley. “He started an advertising firm that portrayed halitosis as a social stigma for which Listerine was the only cure,” reports one account. “Money began flooding in.” With Lambert- the-younger in charge, the pharmaceutical firm saw profits increase 60 times.

Early Listerine ads were guaranteed to unsettle anyone who even remotely identified with the hapless victims of halitosis they portrayed. “Are you unpopular with your own children?” asks one, in which a young boy is determinedly looking away from his smiling mother. “Don’t fool yourself,” the reader is advised. “Since halitosis never announces itself to the victim, you simply cannot know when you have it.” That young woman morosely looking away from the happy couple whose faces could hardly be closer? You guessed it: “halitosis” doesn’t just “make you unpopular, it is inexcusable.” Then there’s the perennial favorite: “Often a bridesmaid… never a bride,” in which a perfectly-outfitted bridesmaid (two strands of pearls, white gloves, small corsage – the works) holds her grief-stricken brow in quiet desperation. The good news, of course, was that the horrors of halitosis could “be instantly remedied” with Listerine.

Lambert & Feasley went on to become a national agency with accounts such as LifeSavers, J.W. Dant, and Phillips Petroleum. Lambert found new ways to advertise Listerine by touting it as a cure for sore throats and dandruff, not to mention a refreshing after-shave application. Lambert’s merchandising ingenuity continued to serve him well. After selling his share of Lambert Pharmacals in 1928 and enjoying a three-year “retirement,” he became president of the Gillette Safety Razor Co. There he turned the flagging company’s fortunes around by helping to develop the Gillette Blue Blade. PRINCETON
The pre-Listerine years weren’t all that shabby, though, for Jordan Lambert’s St. Louis-based family. When, in 1904, it was suggested that it was time to go to college, Gerard Lambert simply set his sights on Yale. “Perhaps some item in the morning newspaper had recently told of a Boola Boola victory,” he writes in All Out of Step. Yale’s appearance failed to meet his expectations, however. “What I saw in New Haven as I stepped off the trolley car…was a hot, dirty, and uninteresting commercial city,” he recalls. “Strolling about” and failing to find “something better,” he got on a train to New York and went back to his St. Louis home. Just a day or so later, at a friend’s suggestion (and assurances that Princeton “looked like a university”), Lambert took another train ride. This time he got off at the Princeton railroad station then located “below the great flight of steps that leads to Blair Hall.” After securing a room at Miss Mundy’s boarding house at 21 University Place, he walked around to verify that the university was as stately as he’d been told.

Despite a minor setback—Princeton wouldn’t take credit for his Yale entrance exams and he needed a month of tutoring to prep for this new application—Lambert entered Princeton as a freshman in 1904 and threw himself into undergraduate life. His descriptions of the time make for colorful reading. Six dollars a week got you 21 meals at an eating club, and “jumping from club to club” was quite all right. “When the food got too bad” at one, he reports, “We would upend a long table and shoot the whole mess through a window and out onto the street.” Refusing to take German from Professor “Jakey” Beam (Lambert “didn’t like the way he taught it”) meant that he wasn’t allowed to participate in intercollegiate sports or to “continue to play in the banjo club,” but he was reliably insouciant about the whole thing. “These restrictions didn’t bother me too much,” he reports, since “there was lots to do and I soon forgot about it.”

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A LIFE OF PRIVILEGE

Privilege had its advantages: for his sophomore year Lambert moved into five rooms in the First National Bank Building (corner of Nassau and Witherspoon Streets), where telephones, prohibited on campus, were allowed. Junior year saw the addition of a Peerless limousine (“one of those old machines with a glass flower vase in the side wall”) and chauffeur who drove him from his rooms to chapel. Later that year the purchase of a sportier Peerless that could do 60 miles an hour meant he could take friends to Trenton for steak dinners at Hildebrecht’s.

Some time later Lambert began buying a different sort of vehicle: yachts. Yachting would become a lifelong passion. In 1927 he bought the three-masted auxiliary schooner, Atlantic, from the Cornelius Vanderbilt. The following year he purchased the famous America’s Cup contender, Vanitie. “Yachting seemed to consume all of Mr. Lambert’s attention in the years immediately after 1928,” reported his N.Y. Times obituary. At about that time he sold his interest in Lambert Pharmacal for about $25 million, and put the money into government bonds and other conservative investments. “It was said,” the Times noted, “that he hardly noticed the Depression.” His later success with Gillette, which was compensated in stocks rather than a salary, added to his wealth.

Although the Gillette stint meant living in Boston for several years, Lambert made his home— a very grand home, indeed—in Princeton, on the 18-acre Albemarle estate located near what was then referred to as Province Line Road. Built in 1917, it boasted 18 bedrooms, nine full bathrooms, and six partial bathrooms. Life was nothing if not interesting; “there was much high-brow chatter at the house, and people came from far and wide,” he reported. The guest book from 1925 recorded the stay of “the leading Egyptologist of the world”; the president of the University was among the guests at a dinner held in his honor. Lambert’s other exploits by at this time included helping to finance Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight.

Besides being an international yachtsman, Lambert noted that “freedom from financial worries” allowed him to take more of an interest in “intellectual matters.” He became president of the New Jersey Society of the Archaeological Institute of America and, tapping into his architectural training, developed plans for the first low-cost subsidized housing for New Brunswick and Princeton, in 1938. One of his contributions, a 1938 white painted courtyard complex on Franklin Avenue, can still be seen today across the street the street from the Avalon Bay project. Lambert also collected art and wrote two books before his 1956 autobiography: a yachting memoir, Yankee in England, was published in 1937, and a mystery, Murder in Newport (1938). He is also credited with designing and adding the second nine-holes at Princeton’s Springdale Golf Club.

While his family remained, for the most part, in Princeton (Bunny attended Miss Fine’s School) Lambert eventually became a familiar figure in Washington, D.C, where he served as an advisor on Federal housing in the years preceding before World War II. During the war he served in the office of the chairman of the War Production Board.

Although he owned houses in Miami and Stowe, Lambert was at Albemarle when he died at the age of 80 in 1967, and his funeral was held in town at Trinity Episcopal Church. His widow, Grace Lansing Lambert, remembered as “a philanthropist and breeder of champion dogs and horses,” died at The Medical Center at Princeton in 1993. One of her beneficiaries was the American Boy Choir School, which made its home at Albemarle for a number of years. Today 19 Lambert Drive houses another school, the Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science (PRISMS). The Lambert’s eldest daughter, Bunny, died age the age of 103 in 2014 at her own estate in Upperville, Virginia.

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