Changing the Game: Alec Benn '39

By Elizabeth Gudrais / September / October 2002
June 29th, 2007

Life, says Alec Benn, is like tennis: when you're losing, you change your game. Benn has changed his game many times in his eighty-four years, and he hasn't lost yet. First as an engineer in the navy, then as a successful public-relations and advertising executive, and most recently as the author of four published books, Benn has always made his own rules.

In his younger years, he quit three desirable, well-paying jobs, in all cases to forge his own path through a new profession. At age fifty, Benn launched his own public-relations and advertising agency, Benn & MacDonough. Twenty years later he closed the firm to devote his time to writing, a lifelong love.

The 27 Most Common Mistakes in Advertising, published in 1978, sold more than 25,000 copies and was translated into Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese. In 1982, The 23 Most Common Mistakes in Public Relations followed. Advertising Financial Products and Services was published in 1986 and is still in print; Benn's latest book, The Unseen Wall Street of 1967Ð1975 and Its Significance for Today, came out in hardcover two years ago and in paperback this year.

Most people slow down a bit in their eighties; not so Alec Benn. He has already written, and is in the process of revising, a fifth book: The 21 Most Common Delusions About Right and Wrong. The basic thesis of the new book, he says, is that morals are not absolute, but change with time - a controversial assertion, to be sure. Says the confident Benn: "All my books are about controversial subjects, but then after I get through, a large number of people are convinced."

As if three separate careers and five books weren't enough, Benn has authored a dozen plays over the last sixty years, some of them award-winning. And then there's tennis, which as been one of the few constants in Benn's ever-evolving life. He hits the courts every afternoon, after a four-hour morning stint of writing at his Short Hills, New Jersey, home. He began playing tennis at seven years old; of late, he's played in tournaments in Italy, Germany, and Australia.

Benn attributes his good health to a generally nutritious diet and frequent exercise. The source of his zest for life is a bit more elusive, though. He credits the finer things - the steak he eats for breakfast each day, for instance, or his wife, Caroline, a former public-relations executive who responds to his writings with honest criticism. Not surprisingly, Benn calls her "the most wonderful wife in the world."

In his eight-and-a-half decades, Benn has come up with plenty of sports analogies for life. But ultimately, says the man of many professions, life is not like a game. "The whole point of the structure of a game is to limit the possibilities," he says. "Life has unlimited possibilities."

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September / October 2002