How Ray Bradbury came to write an article for me

My Mattel business cardIt was the summer of 1986.

I was halfway through my four-year tenure at Mattel, Inc. Bad times were on the horizon. Soon, the company’s finances would suffer and leadership would implement cost-cutting measures, including a crippling experience with McKinsey & Company’s dreaded Overhead Value Analysis. But for now, budgets were still untouched and the Employee Communications Department cranked out a monthly newspaper for all employees and a quarterly magazine for employees, shareholders, partners, and other important audiences.

The magazine, which I established soon after starting at Mattel in 1996,  was called Windows. The name reflected the idea of providing a window into the company’s culture. It predated the now-ubiquitous Microsoft operating system, though not by much. Each issue of the high-end, four-color publication contained three feature stories.

As I was planning the Summer/Fall issue, I happened to read one of Erma Bombeck‘s columns. Bombeck, a humorist who wrote a newspaper column chronicling suburban life, struck me as an ideal guest author. I imagined tales of distraught children whose Barbie shoes had been vacuumed into oblivion. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. I got the number of the Writer’s Guild. I got Ms. Bombeck’s agent’s phone number and called. He liked the idea, too, but called back with regrets. Ms. Bombeck, he said, thought it sounded like fun but was just too busy.

At this point, the idea of a celebrity writer was firmly implanted in my head. If not Erma Bombeck, then who? At the time, Mattel was promoting its theme of “Creativity and Innovation.” The theme permeated the company’s corporate communications both internally and externally. The annual report featured it on the cover. Who could write about creativity and innovation?

I immediately thought of Ray Bradbury.

Ray BradburyI had already met the iconic science fiction and fantasy writer more than once. My in-laws were members of the American Film Institute, which included tickets to the annual Lifetime Achievement banquet. On two occasions in the late 1970s, they were unable to go and gave the tickets to Michele and me. At one of those—it was the banquet honoring either Orson Welles or John Huston, I can’t remember which—we were seated at a table that included Bradbury and his guest, the humorist and advertising whiz Stan Freberg. I remember Bradbury cracking jokes all night while Freberg engaged in serious conversation.

We met again when he spoke at my college, and again at the premiere of a stage production of The Martian Chronicles. Not that he would remember me from any of those encounters.

Who better to talk about creativity and innovation than the author of The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, and Something Wicked This Way Comes (among many other classics)? Excited, I called the Writer’s Guild and got a phone number, which I dialed immediately.

“Hello?” the voice on the other end of the line said.

“Hi. My name is Shel Holtz. I work in corporate communications at Mattel, in Hawthorne, California. I was hoping to speak to Mr. Bradbury about the idea of writing an article for our quarterly company magazine.”

“This is Mr. Bradbury.”

I was stunned. A good, long minute must have gone by before I got my mouth to speak again. I was talking one-on-one to one of the authors who had inspired me to become a writer. I was starstruck.

Bradbury explained he didn’t have an agent, that ne negotiated his own deals and answered his own phone. He asked me for more information. I told him what I was hoping for. He answered that he had once toured the Mattel facility and was impressed with the designers and developers he had met. (This wasn’t uncommon. I remember one employee looking out his window at all the buildings of nearby defense contractors and saying, “When the revolution comes, this is the building that’ll be left standing. Who would destroy the company that makes children happy?”) Yes, Bradbury said, he’d do it. When I explained I had a very small budget and couldn’t afford to pay more than $500, he said $500 was fine. I was floored.

I was equally surprised when he called three or four times while he was writing the article. “I was thinking of going in this direction,” he would say, then start explaining his idea. “I was wondering if it would be okay with you if…” he would say. Good heavens, I would think every time he called. You can do absolutely anything you want. You’re Ray Bradbury.

He delivered the article, written on a typewriter on standard newsprint paper, the kind you used to see in any newsroom.

It needed editing.

That didn’t surprise me. I had learned long ago that there isn’t a writer alive whose work can’t be improved by an editor.

The article appeared in the Summer/Fall issue of Windows, greeted with great acclaim.

When Bradbury passed away at 91 in 2012, I tried to find that issue of Windows. I had every other issue, but couldn’t find that one. I even called the designer (Margy Denton) and the printer (Westcott Press) in hopes they had kept a copy. They hadn’t. Oh, well.

Nearly three years later (that would be now), Michele and I are cleaning out box after box in an old storage locker. One of those boxes—one I don’t remember filling—was loaded with samples from all of my corporate jobs, and even my short-lived, pre-corporate journalism career. And there I found two nearly-pristine copies of the Summer/Fall issue of Windows.

I have scanned the cover, the table of contents, and the four pages dedicated to Ray Bradbury’s article. For all you Bradbury fans, I hope you enjoy having one more piece by the master.