How Doris Day and Miss Clairol Helped Jews Join the Mainstream

Assimilation Colored Our American Experience

Color Her American: In the mid-1950s, formerly dark-haired American Jewish women seized the opportunity to look like Doris Day.
Getty Images
Color Her American: In the mid-1950s, formerly dark-haired American Jewish women seized the opportunity to look like Doris Day.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published March 10, 2014, issue of March 14, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Egging them on was one of their number, the Brooklyn-born Shirley Polykoff. The daughter of immigrants from Ukraine, she was a junior copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding when it landed the Clairol account and assigned it to her. Having lightened her locks for years, she was no stranger to the power of transformation and used that knowledge to good advantage by coming up with the slogan “Does she… or doesn’t she?” According to Malcolm Gladwell in “True Colors,” a droll and lively piece on Polykoff and other Jewish women in the advertising business, Polykoff’s winning slogan was actually midwifed by her Yiddish-speaking mother-in-law. Upon meeting Polykoff for the first time, she inquired of her son whether or not his prospective bride “painted” her hair. “Shirley Polykoff was humiliated,” Gladwell writes. “In her mind she could hear her future mother-in-law: Fahrbt zi der huer? Oder farhbt zi nisht? Does she color her hair? Or doesn’t she?”

Many advertising jingles and slogans undoubtedly grew out of the soil of domestic relations, but none had quite as powerful an impact as this one, which took the physical sting and the emotional shame out of coloring one’s hair. Later still, as Clairol continued to introduce new hair coloring products into the market, Polykoff kept pace, encouraging American women to believe that “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!”

According to Polykoff’s daughter, whose astute observations appear in Gladwell’s piece, her mother wasn’t attempting to escape her Jewish background so much as improve her life. “She wasn’t trying to pass,” related Alix Nelson Frick. “But she believed in the dream… Her idea was that you should be whatever you want to be, including being a blonde.”

In the New World, where consumer goods were enmeshed in the gears of Americanization, the process of personal transformation verged on being “nice ’n easy.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.