It was the most successful Jewish ad campaign of all time — but who was the model?
You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye bread ads.
Duane Blue Spruce of the Laguna and Ohkay-Owingeh Pueblo tribes keeps a copy of a Levy’s ad pinned to his office wall at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan, where he works as a facilities planning coordinator.
Blue Spruce, 60, would seem to be an unlikely admirer of the ads featuring non-Jewish New Yorkers of all ethnicities and ages happily feasting on rye. The posters, which ran in New York City from 1961 into the 1970s, look more like kitsch decoration behind a deli counter than wall art for a Native American museum administrator. But Blue Spruce is more interested in the model in this particular ad than the iconic tagline: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish Rye.”
The model is an older Native American man. He squints out from under a cowboy hat with a feather sticking out. He’s just had a bite of a sandwich and is starting to crack a smile like a blissful tribal elder.
“He‘s like an old acquaintance,” Blue Spruce told me over Zoom from his office.
Blue Spruce never met the man, nor does he know his name, but he remembers the ad from when he was growing up on Staten Island in the 60s and 70s. A kid with an unusual last name, he felt disconnected from his Irish and Italian-American classmates.
When he went on the subway, he was greeted by the massive Levy’s ads with archetypes of stereotypical New Yorkers: an Italian nonna, an African-American boy and a Chinese man, among others, all breaking bread. And then there was the Native American.
“Seeing this Native person included in this very popular ad campaign made me feel like oh, he and Native people by extension are accepted as real New Yorkers,” Blue Spruce recalled.
He wasn’t alone in connecting with the ads. The tagline, by legendary copywriter Judith Protas, instantly entered the modern vernacular. The ads became pre-internet memes, widely parodied and copied. Posters sold nationwide, and Levy’s became New York’s top-selling rye.
“It is one of the top 10 campaigns in terms of advertising and brand recognition in the 20th century,” graphic designer Sean Adams, who wrote the book “How Design Makes Us Think,” told me over the phone.
Even if you weren’t around for the ad campaign, you’ve probably seen a Levy’s ad shared as a nostalgic social media post or dissected in a marketing textbook. Or you might have spotted one on the wall of any number of museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.
There were many variations, including a Japanese schoolboy, a frocked choir boy, and even an aged Buster Keaton. But most likely you’ve seen the one with the Native American model.
In 1961, the campaign was a breakthrough. In an era when brands still hid their Jewish identities, Levy’s did more than lean into their Jewishness, they overstated it. After all, rye bread isn’t exclusively Jewish.
And decades before diversity was a corporate buzzword, the campaign by the firm Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) was one of the first to be racially inclusive. In an era when billboards and magazines almost always featured white suburban families, people took notice.
Malcolm X, on a 1964 photoshoot for Now! magazine, told Civil Rights activist and photographer Laurence Henry, “Take my photo next to this ad.” He posed below the photo of an African-American child munching on Levy’s. “I like it,” he said.
But as is often the case, what was once forward-thinking became outdated. The Asian martial artist karate-chopping a loaf of bread and an Irishman typecast as a cop now feel like cheap tropes. That we should assume the African-American and Asian models aren’t Jewish is just wrong. You don’t have to be white to be Jewish.
Looking closely at the Native American man in the ad, you can see that the black pigtails are a wig, part of a costume, along with the cowboy hat and the feather. Worse, there’s an art world rumor that he wasn’t actually Native American at all.
At the Poster House, a New York museum, the ad served as an example of modernism in a recent exhibit on the pioneering design firm Push Pin Studios. The museum label read: “Some involved with the campaign claim the actual model was an Italian shoe shiner ‘discovered’ in Grand Central Station and dressed up for the part.”
Even if the bread ad isn’t a case of “red face,” it feels stale. Blue Spruce gave me a counter-example of Native portraiture in an ongoing exhibit he worked on. It features life-size photos of five Mohawk ironworkers in their hard hats and work attire. No feathers, no braids. They’re depicted as full members of modern America, not exotic relics of a dying culture.
Still, in 2006, Blue Spruce included the Levy’s ad in a New York-themed book for the museum called “Mother Earth, Father Skyline,” noting that it was “a groundbreaking campaign” in terms of inclusiveness.
At the time, The New York Times reported on Blue Spruce trying to track down the model’s identity, not because he doubted that he was Native American. Based on the cowboy hat, he guessed he was Navajo. He wanted to give the man due credit and learn how he felt about the photoshoot.
The only thing known about the Native man was that Howard Zieff, the photographer for DDB, roamed the streets of New York searching for just the right faces. “We wanted normal-looking people, not blond, perfectly proportioned models,” Zieff, who went on to direct movies including “My Girl,” told The New York Times in 2002.
“I saw the Indian on the street; he was an engineer for the New York Central,” Zieff, who died in 2009, said. The African-American child he found in Harlem, and the Chinese man worked at a Midtown restaurant. “They all had great faces, interesting faces, expressive faces.”
Still, despite his efforts, Blue Spruce couldn’t identify the man.“This picture shares an unfortunate characteristic with earlier photographs of Indians,” he wrote in the caption. “the name is hard to trace.”
So, Who Was That Levy’s Rye Bread Model Anyway?
I decided to take a stab at solving the mystery of the man in the photo. His story deserves to be told and by telling it, maybe we could better understand what the ad means today. I hoped he was actually Native American.
It would be tragic if he was an Italian shoe shiner, a repeat of “the crying Indian” from the 1970s anti-litter commercial, who was actually Italian-American. But then again, if he turned out to be Jewish, that would be tragically funny.
Since 2006, the internet has revealed additional clues as to the man’s identity. A 2019 comment by a distant relative on the typography website Fonts in Use described him as a “Penobscot Indian.” I took that info to the very active online forums of retired railmen and train enthusiasts who identified him as Joseph Stanley Attean who, yes, was a member of the Penobscot Nation of Maine. At the time of the photo, in 1961, he was 64 years old and living in the South Bronx.
I confirmed this with more help from the forums. They led me to an obscure photo book about the New Haven Railroad that shows Attean in 1966 and mentions the Levy’s ad in the caption. I also found former co-workers and a family member.
That he was a train engineer as the photographer Zieff claimed is hidden in plain sight. If you look past the pastrami sandwich and the pigtails in the ad, you can see Attean’s denim railroad jumper and red bandana around his neck. According to Joe MacMahon, a 78-year-old retired engineer who began working on the railroad with Attean in 1965, the Native man was one of the last railmen to wear the old-school railroad outfits — a throwback to when he started as a fireman stoking coal in steam locomotives in Maine during World War I.
I reached out to the Penobscot tribal historian James Francis, who knew nothing of the Levy’s ad or Joseph S. Attean. The name, however, grabbed his attention. “The Attean family was our chief bloodline,” he said.
A century earlier, Joseph S. Attean would have been chief of the Penobscot Nation. Instead, he was living in New York, posing in the costume of a Hollywood version of an Indian.
He was the eldest male descendent of the last hereditary chief of the tribe, Joseph Attean. His namesake and great-uncle is a household name among the 2,400 members of the Penobscot tribe. He died a hero in 1870, saving the lives of others in a boating accident during a log drive on the Penobscot River.
The first Joseph Attean and the engineer’s great-grandfather Joseph Polis were guides for the American naturalist Henry David Thoreau. The author’s 1864 book “Maine Woods” chronicles his time with the two men paddling birch bark canoes, hunting moose and fishing trout.
Still, Joseph S. Attean’s great-nephew Phillip Attean didn’t learn about the ad until he saw it in his high school sociology textbook in the late 1970s, shortly before the rye bread model died in 1982 at the age of 85. “He had kind of a pseudo-celebrity lifestyle. I never realized it until later on in life,” said Phillip Attean who more recently discovered other instances of his great-uncle in the spotlight.
Three years before the Levy’s ad, in 1958, Joseph S. Attean appeared on the TV game show, “To Tell The Truth,” which featured individuals with unique jobs and unusual backstories.
I found Attean’s episode on YouTube. In his full railroad uniform with corduroy engineer hat and overalls, timetable sticking out of his jacket breast pocket, he displays what Phillip calls a “dry sense of humor.” He makes the audience laugh as he deadpans a one-liner about New Haven trains running late.
More interesting is the prepared statement detailing the Penobscot man’s life story narrated by the show host: “I worked in lumber camps, and each spring was part of the crew that drove the logs down the river to the mill.”
Attean’s life was like his father’s and past ancestors until the age of 21. Census and other government records show that he was born in 1896 and lived on the reservation Indian Island. After high school, he married a Penobscot woman who stayed at home weaving baskets like his mother had, while he worked as a lumberman.
Joseph S. Attean escaped the hard, dangerous work on the river that killed his ancestor by finding employment on the railroad in 1918. According to Francis, it was common for the men to leave Indian Island for work. It wasn’t just a way to escape poverty on the reservation, but in the years before the Indian Citizen Act of 1924, it could mean gaining the right to vote and other basic civil rights.
At first, like many other Penobscot men, Attean maintained a house and family on the reservation. But after his young daughter died of tuberculosis in 1921, he moved to the Bronx permanently. He’d divorce and remarry twice. Three of his brothers would follow him to the New Haven Railroad, where he would eventually rise to become an engineer.
“He was well respected by everybody and a bit of a celebrity amongst the railroad workers, especially after the Levy’s ad,” said MacMahon, who remembered co-workers sometimes called him by his Native American honorific, Chief Gray Squirrel.
How To Market a Jewish Bread to White Bread America
In 1949, the Henry S. Levy Bakery had a problem. New York’s tenement-dwelling, rye and pumpernickel-eating Jews were moving to the suburbs and discovering the wonders of Wonder bread. Levy’s had been a staple of Brooklyn since 1888, but sales were starting to sag.
The bakery approached DDB, then a Jewish startup on WASP-dominated Madison Avenue. Agency founder Bill Bernbach, who would go onto create the Volkswagen “Think Small” ad and the Little Mikey commercial for Life Cereal, handled the account. Instead of trying to buck the trend of Jewish assimilation, he began marketing the rye bread to white bread America.
How DDB went about it would change how Jewish Americans saw themselves. In the 1950s, unless Jewish brands were selling only to Jews, they hid their Jewish identities in the same way Greenbergs became Greenes to advance their careers. Bernbach suggested changing the brand name from Levy’s Real Rye to Levy’s Real Jewish Rye. But according to what ad executive Bob Levenson wrote in “Bill Bernbach’s Book,” the Levy’s president was hesitant.
“There are still a lot of antisemitic people around. Why rub their nose into it?” the executive asked. To which the Jewish mad man responded, “For God’s sake, your name is Levy’s. They’re not going to mistake you for High Episcopalian.”
Once the “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy’s” campaign went viral, Hebrew National followed suit in 1965, advertising kosher hot dogs to non-Jews with the slogan “We answer to a Higher Authority.” Like Levy’s, they embraced Jewish ethnic and religious difference as a selling point.
In the 1960s, non-Jewish Americans didn’t just discover the kosher aisle, but also Jewish culture. Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud’s books became best-sellers and a shtetl musical was the biggest hit on Broadway.
Historians believe the Levy’s ads did more than ride the wave of philosemitism. “In the years following the campaign, rates of Jewish intermarriage climbed steadily, registering widespread acceptance of Jews as intimates of non-Jews,” states the multi-volume series “City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York,” edited by Deborah Dash Moore.
For Angelina Lippert, the chief curator of the Poster House, using Jewishness to mass-market a product was revolutionary. However, she’s less impressed by the diversity of the models. “That’s interesting because that’s usually not something highlighted in ads at the time,” she said, “But those are still stereotypes.”
‘I’d Like To Teach the World To Eat Rye Bread’
It’s important not to give too much credit to Madison Avenue. DDB was selling packaged rye bread, not marching on Washington. In 1965, American Indian advocates forced the firm to remove a Calvert Whiskey ad with a yelping firewater-loving Sioux chief.
Still, even small steps are important. When I revealed to Lippert that Attean was a Native American and not Italian, she gave DDB credit. “That’s even more progressive than most companies were at that time,” she said.
Adams has taught the ads at the ArtCenter College of Design in California not just as an example of “bumping outside your audience,” but as a shift away from the 1950s monoculture of conformity. “It just sent a message: ‘It’s OK to be different.’”
For Adams, the Levy’s campaign set the stage for more inclusive marketing. “It’s the precursor to the 1971 Coca-Cola commercial ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’” the professor said in reference to the iconic ad of multiracial youth singing on a hilltop which was featured in the finale of “Mad Men.”
He agrees that the ads perpetuate stereotypes, but he doesn’t find them demeaning. The tight close-ups on the smiling faces humanize the subject. The Cooper Black font is uplifting. The ads are playful visual puns. All things that he believes add up to a successful ad without crossing the line into something offensive.
“The copy asks me to do some work. It relies on the viewer’s cultural knowledge,” explained Adams. “And the final takeaway is a sense of humor and success. ‘Oh, I get it, the policeman must be Irish.’”
As a kid, Blue Spruce understood that. “They’re not poking fun at the individual,” he explained. “The person in the ad is in on the joke.”
Keeping a Heritage Alive
Phillip Attean remembers living with his grandfather Elmer, also a New Haven engineer, and his great-uncle Joe in the Bronx in the 1960s.
The 62-year old systems analyst at a Minnesota hospital said his family, as “urban Indians,” would seek ways to express their Native American identities in public. Photos survive of Joseph S. Attean in a headdress presenting a tomahawk at the 1945 commissioning of the naval ship USS Indian Village. His brother Elmer, under the name Chief Black Hawk, led reenactments of tribal rituals at the short-lived 1960s Bronx amusement park Freedomland and the 1964 World’s Fair.
The entire family, including Joseph S., would join in on the performances that Phillip described as “a bit Hollywood hokey.” Only the drumming and singing was traditional Penobscot. The dancing and costumes were improvised in the style of western Native Americans.
It wasn’t just because they were trying to meet the expectations of a white audience. Members of the Penobscot nation had lost their culture through forced assimilation starting in the 1880s. “They were forbidden to speak the language, they were forbidden to practice any of their traditional dancing and so on,” Phillip said of his grandparent’s generation.
Similar performative pow wows for tourists took place on the Penobscot reservation starting in the 1930s. According to Francis, the pageants were rooted in the turn of the century exploitative Wild West Shows. By staging their own culture, the Penobscots did more than just bring in tourist dollars to the poor community. They provided an outlet to be openly Native at a time of deep racism. “It didn’t matter that they were wearing western-style headdresses. They were just expressing how proud they were to be Native Americans,” said Francis.
It’s easy to see how Native Americans performing as themselves for white audiences could become exploitative, even if they do so willingly.
I discovered a 1962 Kellogg’s ad that is a riff on the Levy’s poster from the previous year. The ad, by the agency Leo Burnett, also has a Native American in a cowboy hat with a feather and long black pigtails, but this time he’s not smiling. He’s grimacing and holding a box of Corn Flakes. The tag line, “No trade ‘em for Manhattan,” is clearly poking fun at the model. The model is also Joseph S. Attean.
Phillip Attean has a copy of his great-uncle’s Levy’s ad hanging in the house he keeps on Indian Island. For him, the image is proof that his grandfather and great-uncle never forgot their Native heritage, despite efforts to stamp it out. But the costume is also a reminder that they were seen as the last vestiges of Native Americans, not everyday people. He recalled a bittersweet conversation he had with his grandfather before his death.
“We were talking about being Indian,” he remembered, adding that his grandfather told him, “never let that part of you die, and whenever you have a chance, share it with other people.’”