Monday, July 7, 2008

The Strange Case of Irving Dart Tressler

Have you ever taken a Dale Carnegie course? I have, and I've also worked with someone who, among her many other accomplishments (including a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison), was at one time a Dale Carnegie instructor. She was always pleasant to work with, and had the nicest things to say about me (even when I burned the popcorn in the office microwave).

This particular co-worker has moved on to other opportunities, but there's another co-worker who (jokingly!) follows what I call the anti-Dale Carnegie method of losing friends and disinfluencing people. (Excerpts from the method: misstate the names of your co-workers; and remind your co-workers that it's all about you, not them.)

I was therefore inspired to ask the following question on FriendFeed:

Has anyone written the book How to Lose Friends and Disinfluence People yet?

Read the responses, particularly the one from Marco. Also note the comment from Rob Diana, which pointed me in the direction of Irving Dart Tressler.

Irving Dart Tressler was born in Madison, Wisconsin on August 13, 1908 and died in the same city on February 16, 1944. In his short life, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison (class of 1930), wrote for Life and Scribner's magazines, and was the author of a best-selling parody of Dale Carnegie's most famous book. Tressler's version was entitled How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, and was printed one year after Dale Carnegie's best-seller was published in 1936.

Lee Freke reviewed the book on Amazon, and noted the following in the course of his review:

[I]n the book you will see chapters with headings like, How to Make People Dislike You Instantly; How to Make a Poor First Impression, Give a Dog a Bad Name, etc. Every single one lives up to its promise.

But that's a modern review. TIME Magazine reviewed the book in 1937 (while noting that its price was $1.49):

U. S. wit is largely satirical. A bare-faced satire on the national bestseller of the moment, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, Irving Tressler's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People had nothing up its sleeve to match its name or its blurb: "What I think of Irving D. Tressler couldn't be printed in anything but Braille—and then it would be too hot to touch. ... It is the only book which is today offsetting the 20-year drive by American advertisers to make everyone in this country popular with everyone else."

But the last word on the subject has to come from a 1998 article by Seattle Times columnist Dale Turner:

[Tressler] contends that Carnegie is all wrong when he encourages us to smile, to be optimistic and affable. Tressler contends that this is the wrong philosophy.

"Where does it get you?" he asks. "It gets you nothing good. First of all, you are walking down the street, enjoying yourself, perfectly relaxed and humming a tune, at peace with the world. One of your friends sees you, and because you are such a good guy he figures you are just the one to take as a guest to his service-club meeting. And because you are such an affable fellow you find yourself in a stuffy room after a dismal meal listening to a boring speech."

"Or you come home at night after a busy day, take off your shoes, put your feet on a stool, pick up the evening paper and prepare for a few relaxing hours, but before you are settled down there is a knock at the door: A neighbor has come to visit and share your friendly spirit.

"This is ridiculous," says Tressler. "Take my course for six weeks and develop a frown."

"One man," he continues, "took my course for the six weeks and developed such a scowl that he could stop a Fuller Brush man at 100 yards."

There's a particular reason that I've given Dale Turner the last word on Irving Dart Tressler. Why? Because he literally has the last word on Tressler.

Dale Carnegie, after a rich life and a successful career, died at his home in Forest Hills, N.Y., in 1955 of natural causes at the age of 67, optimistic, cheerful and vibrant to the end. Irving Tressler, who wrote the parody, committed suicide in 1944 at the age of 35. His obituary noted ironically that he was best known for his take-off on Carnegie's book.

Certainly Irving Dart Tressler was not the first troubled comic, and will not be the last. However, my brief Internet search wasn't able to discover Tressler's motivations. I can recite a few facts here and there, but that only brings me up to the level of Bob Woodward, whose biography of John Belushi also reported the facts but didn't report the soul.

Through witnesses' accounts, Mr. Woodward reconstitutes an endless series of endless nights with his subject, but so much of this is done with a deadpan objectivity that it becomes repetitious and monotonous. We tire of reading about the cocaine shots, the Quaaludes, the arguments with producers and directors.

Well, Irving Dart Tressler didn't die in Los Angeles like John Belushi and Lenny Bruce did, but he died nonetheless. Dale Turner speculated:

It would be interesting to conjecture whether there was any relation between Tressler's philosophy of negative living and the fact that he took his own life. Of one thing we can be sure - life is more exciting and interesting for those who have a positive and optimistic outlook.

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