Early life and family
Alfred Nu Steele was born on April 24th, 1901 in Nashville, Tennessee to Edgar Alfred Steele and Fannie Bartrem Steele. Edgar Steele was born in Albion, Michigan, where his father, Newland M. Steele, served as a minister at the local Methodist Episcopal Church. Edgar studied to be a professor at Albion College where he met his wife, Fannie Bartrem. Fannie was born in Ontario, Canada, and her family moved to Michigan after her birth.
Edgar and Fannie married on August 15th, 1899 in Fannie's family's home in Owosso, Michigan, which was one and a half hours north of Albion.
Shortly after their marriage, the couple moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where Edgar had been hired as a professor at Nashville University.
On April 24th, 1901, Fannie gave birth to the couple's one and only child, Alfred Nu Steele, in Nashville. Edgar gave his son the middle name "Nu" in tribute to his Albion College sorority, Sigma Nu, which Alfred would later pledge at Northwestern University.
The Steele family later moved to St. Louis, Missouri where Edgar worked as the international secretary of the YMCA. Edgar's career with the YMCA invovled him traveling all over the world; to Tokyo, London, Panama, and Manila. Young Alfred accompanied his parents on these trips, which developed his early love of travel.
In September 1904, the family moved to Abington, Illinois when Edgar was hired as the history professor at Heddington College. Later, Edgar and Fannie settled in Edgar's hometown of Albion, Michigan, where they lived until their deaths in the mid 1930s.
In 1919, Alfred enrolled in Northwestern University in Evansville, Illinois where he met his first wife, Marjorie Mabel Garvey. Marjorie was from Oak Park, Illinois. In college, Alfred played football, was a cheerleader and belonged to many social clubs that included the student council and the R.O.T.C.
Alfred and Marjorie both graduated on June 18th, 1923; Alfred with a bachelor of science degree in commerce, and Marjorie with a bachelor of science degree.
On December 17th, 1924, Alfred married Marjorie. The couple had one child, a daughter named Sally, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on January 8th, 1930.
The advertising genius
Alfred's business career started one day after his college graduation, when he and a friend formed a metal brokering business in Chicago, Illinois named H. M. Harper Company. Six months later, Alfred was hired as the special representative for the Davenport Bedmakers of America Association.
In 1925, Alfred became the merchandising representative of the Seng Company of Chicago, which was one of the world's largest manufactures of furniture hardware. The president of Seng was so impressed with Alfred's selling achievements that he appointed Alfred to lead Seng's subsidiary, Union Bed and Spring Co. which had many difficulties with production and sales. Alfred was able to solve the production issues and put the company in a positive financial position for the first time in its history.
In 1926, Alfred worked briefly as the merchandising manager of the Chicago Tribune newspaper.
In 1928, Alfred and Marjorie moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin when Alfred was hired as an account executive for the Olsen and Enzinger advertising agency. At Olsen and Enzinger, Alfred was assigned the Trane account. Trane was, and is still, one of the largest manufacturers of heating and cooling systems in the world. Because of Alfred's successful work on the Trane advertising account, Trane's president hired Alfred as the company's general sales manager. He was later promoted to vice president of sales.
In the early 1930s, Alfred began a career at Standard Oil Company of Indiana as the company's advertising director. During the post-depression years, the average gasoline sale was only 2 1/2 gallons. In response to this, Alfred created a special "fill 'er up!" campaign by which gas station attendants would ask the customer "may I fill it up for you?" instead of "how many gallons?" This campaign proved successful. Even if the customer did not purchase a full tank of gas, they would at least purchase five or six gallons. During his time at Standard Oil, Alfred became the first person to use the Gallup Survey for business purposes. In light of Alfred's achievements, he was awarded the National Advertising Award in 1933, 1934 and 1935.
In 1935, Alfred became the general sales manager for Ditto Inc. Then in 1937, he became the manager of the Columbia Broadcasting System for the Detroit, Michigan office.
In 1938, Alfred began working in New York as a vice president for the D'Arcy Advertising agency, where he was assigned the Coke-Cola advertising account During this time, Alfred increased his use of marketing research surveys and helped to make the Coke-Cola brand a combination of product, concept and service.
In 1943, the United States Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., appointed Alfred as the radio advisor of the U.S. Treasury's War Finance division. This appointment placed Alfred in charge of the production for all War Bond radio programs.
Alfred's career in the soft drink world was solidified in June 1945, when he began working as a vice president for Coke-Cola in a new position that was specifically created for Alfred. This position involved coordinating various merchandising activities, company advertising, sales promotion, bottler relations and company training programs.
By May 1948, Alfred and Marjorie were divorcing, and he temporarily moved to the Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada to oversee Coke-Cola bottler relations. While living in Las Vegas, Alfred saw the then-small city's potential, saying Las Vegas was "destined for national prominence" as a year-round resort.
On June 30th, 1948, Alfred's divorce from Marjorie was finalized. Marjorie won the divorce on a cross complaint. Nine days later, on July 9th, Alfred married 27-year-old Lillian Nelson, a Harry Conover agency model, who was 20 years his junior. The wedding ceremony was held at City Hall in Manhattan, New York.
One of the witnesses at the ceremony was the couple's friend, singer Morton Downey Sr. This was Lillian's second marriage. Alfred and Lillian later had one child, a son named "Alfred Steele, Jr," nicknamed "Sonny," born in 1951.
By early 1949, Pepsi-Cola was on the brink of bankruptcy. The company's board of directors had observed the positive effect of Alfred's work at Coke-Cola and offered him a vice president position to help rehabilitate their company. Alfred agreed to the position if certain conditions were met, one of which was Pepsi-Cola also offering a position to his speech writer, D. Mitchell Cox, and and an expense account that included a salary for his personal valet, James Murphy. Pepsi-Cola was aggressive to obtain Alfred, and agreed to his terms.
On March 24th, 1949, Pepsi-Cola announced that its board had elected Alfred to the position of vice president in charge of domestic operations. Alfred was also given a seat on the company's board. In accepting this position, Alfred resigned from Coke-Cola.
When Alfred joined Pepsi-Cola, he immediately focused upon restructuring the company. In Pepsi-Cola's annual report, he stated, "The potential marketing opportunities for Pepsi-Cola are extensive, for its high quality and low unit cost to the consumer enable us to make it attractive to all people of all ages and groups everywhere. Expanding our business in all markets is not an easy task, nor will it be accomplished overnight. The markets must be developed segment by segment with programs best suited to each. These markets will respond to persistent effort carefully planned and vigorously directed along sound, tested, experienced principals. As the opportunities are large, so are our problems and the effort required to solve them."
In March 1950, Alfred was appointed as president of Pepsi-Cola, with former president Walter Mack becoming the company's Chairman of the Board.
At the time Alfred became the company's president, Pepsi-Cola's bottlers were divided, with many skeptical and discouraged by the company. Alfred changed this by focusing on the problems bottlers faced, and ultimately establishing a feeling of love, admiration and confidence between the bottlers and the company. A large part of Alfred's work with the company was rallying the bottlers, which Alfred felt was key to the company's success.
Prior to 1949 it was traditional practice among Pepsi-Cola's bottlers and company executives to seek advice directly from the company's headquarters.
In 1950, Alfred changed this flawed practice by placing men of knowledge and experience into regional offices in order to create a solid working arraignment between the company and the bottlers. Alfred told the company, "When one bottler pushes, the whole market nudges slowly forward. When all push, the market leaps forward."
By 1951, the company's profits were $2.6 million, and sales had increased by more than 12%.
In 1953, the company's sales reached an all-time record, an achievement the company repeated in 1954.
In addition to revamping the company's bottler practices, Alfred also wanted to refashion the company's image by making Pepsi-Cola a higher end, sophisticated beverage. In 1952, Alfred said, "Perhaps the most ironical thing of all is that the very jingle which spread Pepsi-Cola's fame caused its downfall. The phrase "twice as much for a nickel" gave the impression that Pepsi-Cola was the poor man's drink."
To counter this image, Alfred devised a series of Pepsi-Cola television advertisements which featured Pepsi-Cola being served on silver trays. Thus was the start of Pepsi-Cola's "Sociables" campaign, which sought to make Pepsi-Cola the preferred beverage of the higher class.
As a result of Alfred's successful leadership, from 1950 to 1958 dividend payments to stockholders steadily increased. 200 new Pepsi-Cola bottling plants were built, and sales of Pepsi-Cola in America more than doubled between 1949 and 1958, with the overall sales increasing by 167% across the nation.
Alfred represented a modern way of thinking in American industry and economics. In recognizing the potential for overseas growth, Pepsi-Cola International was created in 1955 as a wholly owned subsidiary of Pepsi-Cola. Alfred appointed Donald Kendall, a rising star at Pepsi-Cola, as president of Pepsi-Cola International. The focus turned to broadening the company on a global scale. In 1957, Pepsi-Cola began production in Africa, and by 1958, the company had established business contracts throughout Europe for the construction of Pepsi-Cola plants. Donald Kendall would continue to push Pepsi-Cola into the overseas market, and by 1973 Pepsi-Cola became one of the first American companies to produce and sell a product in the Soviet Union.
Marriage to Joan Crawford
According to Joan, she first met Alfred in 1950, shortly after Alfred had began his career with Pepsi-Cola. On New Year's Eve 1954, the two reconnected when Alfred called Joan on the set of "Female On The Beach" to wish her a happy New Year. Shortly thereafter, Joan learned that Alfred and Lillian had separated with their divorce near completion. A few months later, Joan was filming "Queen Bee" when she was invited to a small dinner party in Los Angeles that was hosted by Sonny and Leah Ray Werblin. Alfred was to be at the dinner, and Joan, having been impressed by him during their prior meetings, made a point of going. At the dinner, Joan and Alfred talked at length about Pepsi-Cola and his travels around the world. The night ended with Alfred telling Joan, "I'm going to marry you." This began their courtship.
Regarding Alfred, Joan said, "I'd known Alfred and his wife, Lillian, casually for five years. They were friends of the Werblins and we'd met in New York at dinner parties. Alfred was a most attractive man, president of Pepsi-Cola. He'd been a football player and he looked it, solidly built, heavy-muscled but graceful, with salt and pepper hair, a quick grin and merry eyes. What had impressed me was the sense of power he conveyed so quietly, the tenor of his conversation. He was one of the best-informed men I'd ever met, tuned to the world's turning. Exciting, but quiet, almost, for some reason, subdued."
By April 1955, Joan and Alfred had planned to marry on May 24th at the Werblins' home in New Jersey. Joan commissioned Jean Louis to design her wedding dress, a guest list of 500 people had been assembled and all other preparations were made for the ceremony. However, on the evening of May 9th, Joan and Alfred were having dinner with friends at Romanoff's in Beverly Hills. During the dinner, Alfred asked Joan if she wanted to fly to Las Vegas that night for an elopement rather than go forward with the formal ceremony. Joan said yes. Alfred immediately arraigned the Pepsi-Cola plane to fly them to Las Vegas. Upon their arrival in Las Vegas, the two made their way to the Flamingo Hotel, where in the early morning hours of May 10th, they were married in the hotel's penthouse.
Joan later credited Alfred as the sole source for helping her overcome her fear of flying, and that he had done so during this flight to Las Vegas. "Alfred led me into the plane, kept my hand warm in his and I found myself rising into the air without the slightest trepidation. Over the San Gabriel mountains he held me in his arms while moonlight shone silver on our wings. "We're up eleven thousand feet, Joan, we're going higher, the mountains will grow smaller and smaller." Alfred kept describing the terrain, the cloud formations, he explained about weather, what caused air pockets. He had chosen, of course, a night that flowed past us like dark silk."
Alfred had remedied Joan's fear of flying in the same manner he had remedied the issues of the companies for which he had worked. By being attentive, understanding and communicating. From 1955 to 1959, Alfred and Joan traveled the world together, opening Pepsi-Cola plants across America, Europe and Africa, with vacations in Switzerland, Bermuda and Jamaica.
In August 1955, Alfred was promoted to the position of Chairman of the Board of Pepsi-Cola, with Herbert L. Barnet promoted to president. Shortly thereafter, Joan and Alfred decided to purchase an apartment on 5th Avenue in New York, and they spent the next year remodeling it.
Alfred's ADorama tour
Beginning in early March 1959, Alfred and Joan began a cross-country "ADorama" tour for Pepsi-Cola. The focus of the campaign was to meet with Pepsi-Cola bottlers from around the country and conduct multi-day conferences. The conferences emphasized Alfred's believed keystone of the company, advertisement and marketing. In addition to the regional bottler meetings, Alfred and Joan attended various business conventions along the way.
The tour began in San Francisco, California on March 5th and took the couple to Atlanta, Georgia; Chicago, Illinois; Dallas, Texas; Albany, New York; Charlotte, North Carolina and ended in Washington, D.C. on April 17th.
Joan said of the Adorama tour, "The Adorama tour was the ultimate in pressure, traveling from city to city, as tough as a political campaign. In each city, Alfred conducted his brilliant discussions on advertising for the bottlers. His last speech was in Washington and he was terribly tired, I could sense this without his saying, as I could sense his every thought and gesture. He knew I knew. He looked at me that night in Washington and said, "I don't know what to say tomorrow, darling. I'm so tired."
In Washington, D.C. fellow Pepsi-Cola executives also noticed Alfred's physical exhaustion and voiced their concerns to him and Joan. Pepsi-Cola executive Robert Shercliff told this Webmaster in a 2018 interview that Alfred looked very tired during the April 17th banquet in Washington. Shercliff said he even joked to Alfred about his appearance, telling him to please get some rest because the company couldn't afford to lose him.
To rest from the tour, Joan and Alfred had planned a vacation in Jamaica for Alfred's upcoming birthday on April 24th. They traveled home to New York on April 18th to pack and prepare to leave for their Jamaican vacation on Money the 19th.
Alfred's death and the aftermath to Pepsi-Cola
On the morning of April 19th, Joan awoke to find Alfred laying on the floor next to his bed in the couple's apartment at 2 East 70th Street. His body was cold, indicating he had died several hours prior. Joan immediately called for help. A medical examiner arrived to the apartment and declared that Alfred had died from a heart attack. Despite some modern-day rumors, Alfred did not die from a fall down the apartment's staircase, nor was there any trauma to his body to indicate a fall. Alfred was found dead in his bedroom on the second floor of the two-story apartment.
Alfred's funeral was held at Saint Thomas Church in Manhattan, New York on April 22nd, 1959. Joan attended the service with Alfred's daughter, Sally, and Sally's husband, John Comer. When this Webmaster interviewed Sally's husband in 2017, he told me that 1959 was a very hard year for Sally. Her mother, Marjorie, also died that year.
Pepsi-Cola president Herbert L. Barnet told the company, "When Al Steele died, people by the thousands suffered a keen personal loss. "I have lost my best friend," they said. And each felt it, for the measurement of friendships, Al Steele was as rich as any of us has ever known. He stimulated and encouraged people; he interested himself in their growth and wellbeing; he was a part of every life he had met."
The Pepsi-Cola company was not only shocked and saddened by Alfred's death, but it also shook the company's core. Alfred had been the driving force of the company during the past decade. Without him, the board of directors were concerned the bottlers may not remain loyal to the company.
Herbert L. Barnet was particularly concerned for the future of the company. Barnet was an intelligent man and a strong leader, however, he had been an attorney before entering the corporate world, and was not the showman and salesman that Alfred had been when it came to rallying the confidence of the bottlers.
According to this Webmaster's interviews with Barnet's son, who remembered this time period well, Barnet and Pepsi-Cola needed Joan's influence at this critical juncture. Joan had accompanied Alfred to many of the Pepsi-Cola bottler meetings and bottling plant dedications during the past several years. The bottlers always had a tremendous response to Joan. She had visited these people's towns and family-owned bottling plants. She had met their families and their communities. All along the way, Joan had learned much about Pepsi-Cola and the business world through Alfred's tutelage and her own observations.
She had acquainted herself with the company to such an extent that it was easy for Joan to fall into conversation with the bottlers about the product and its production. Joan was not only looked upon as film star "Joan Crawford," but as a friend to the bottlers and as "Mrs. Steele"; the business savvy wife of their company's leader.
In order to stabilize the confidence of the bottlers, Pepsi-Cola needed, and wanted, to keep Joan with the company. Therefore, Herbert Barnet appointed Joan to the board of directors to keep her as a familiar face at the forefront of the company. Barnet and the board felt Joan's association with Pepsi-Cola represented the company's financial security to both the bottlers and the public.
Joan's new position was made official at the May 6th, 1959 stockholder's meeting in Wilmington, Delaware. Thus began Joan's second career as a business woman. This new career not only provided Joan with a conductor to channel her energy and interests, it also served as a means of honoring Alfred.
To the world, Joan remained "Joan Crawford." To the Pepsi-Cola family, she was "Mrs. Alfred Steele."