Obituaries

Anne Tolstoi Wallach, 89, novelist who drew from her advertising agency experience

Ms. Wallach was paid an advance of $850,000 for “Women’s Work,” in which she chronicled the rise of a woman in a profession when sexism and gender discrimination were barriers.
Ms. Wallach was paid an advance of $850,000 for “Women’s Work,” in which she chronicled the rise of a woman in a profession when sexism and gender discrimination were barriers.

Upon graduating from Radcliffe College in 1949, Anne Tolstoi Wallach aspired to join the ranks of respected poets.

“I was going to be Edna St. Vincent Millay, at the least,” she told People magazine in 1981. “I spent my whole college life sending poems to The New Yorker. I had a closet papered with rejection slips.”

Instead, she turned to crafting other bursts of brief, finely wrought phrases — the kind used in advertising, where her work included a campaign for the National Organization for Women: “Womanpower: It’s much too good to waste.”

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Then, at 52, she published “Women’s Work” and was paid an advance of $850,000 — reported then to be the largest ever for a first novel by an unpublished author. Drawing from her life, she chronicled the rise of a woman through the ranks of the advertising profession when sexism and gender discrimination were barriers at every turn.

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Ms. Wallach, who went on to publish two other novels and a nonfiction book on the history of paper dolls, was 89 when she died Wednesday in her Manhattan, N.Y., home. Her daughter, Alison Foster, told The New York Times that the cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease.

“Her experiences are my experiences,” Ms. Wallach said of the book’s main character, Domina Drexler, in a 1981 interview with the Globe. She knew first-hand many of the plot points in “Women’s Work,” and added: “The only thing I haven’t done is tell off the board of directors.”

Speaking quietly during the interview, leaning now and then on her typewriter in her New York home, she added that “you keep running into walls, big walls. You’re not making dents. But, next day, you have to run again, inventing ways to circumvent those walls.”

By then she was a vice president at Grey Advertising — an office not easily achieved. “I complained a great deal about being kicked around, about being shunted aside,” she recalled.

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Ms. Wallach had started out in advertising as a secretary at J. Walter Thompson advertising in New York.

“I got my job at Thompson because I had secretarial experience. It was the only way into advertising for a woman,” she wrote in a 1987 essay for The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

She added that when she was hired, advertising agencies, “like retail stores, felt they needed women mainly to sell to other women. Thompson had created a special Women’s Copy Group, believing we would be overshadowed — or worse, distracted — unless we worked apart from men.”

Although the group reported to a female vice president, her recommendations “were often changed by men we never saw. We worked in a separate wing and wore hats to distinguish ourselves from the secretaries outside our enclave.”

No paid leave was offered to any women who chose to have children. “A two-week paid vacation was standard; we used ours to have more babies,” she wrote in the Times essay. “Most child experts predicted problems for those babies. We could only hope they were wrong. We knew almost no women who both worked and raised children.”

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And yet, “somehow, we all felt blessed. Advertising was fascinating work, and we were at the world’s largest agency,” she added. “We had greater challenges and bigger paychecks than women in the other jobs available then — teachers, secretaries, salesgirls. We didn’t compare ourselves to men. There were no women with men’s responsibilities or men’s salaries. We didn’t expect management jobs. It took 10 years for me to want to be a vice president, and five more years to become one.”

Born in Manhattan, Anne Tolstoi was the daughter of Dr. Edward Tolstoi and the former Cecile Voice. Her father was a physician who specialized in diabetes, wrote books on the subject, and taught at Cornell Medical College.

Her mother spent many years hospitalized for mental illness Ms. Wallach told the Globe, adding: “In those days, it was something you didn’t talk about much.”

It was her father who “taught me about the definition of success, about doing what you want to do,” she said.

“And he never treated me like a child. He gave me all kinds of books,” she said. “He took me to plays. In fact, he took me everywhere with him. I was never told to run out and play. No! I was always around grownups, around doctors.”

She graduated from the private Dalton School in New York and received a bachelor’s degree in English from Radcliffe, where she worked on the literary magazine. After starting as a secretary at J. Walter Thompson advertising, she became a copywriter and, eventually, a vice president and creative director.

Achieving promotions was never easy. “It’s very hard for a woman to get top management to take her seriously,” she told the Globe. “Men are very suspicious of women in the executive suite.”

She wrote “Women’s Work,” her first book, at home on the weekends, and was in her office working on two of her prime accounts — Aquafresh toothpaste and Playtex bras — as her agent shopped the manuscript around to publishers.

“When my agent was auctioning the book, there were two simultaneous crises in the office,” she recalled in the Globe interview. “My agent would call and say, ‘The price is going up!’ and I’d say absent-mindedly, ‘Yes, yes!’ and start worrying about the price of toothpaste and bras.”

Indeed, after receiving the $850,000 advance, she said: “I keep wishing everything would stop. I keep wishing that I could just be hugged by this success.”

Her first marriage, to Ronald M. Foster Jr., an employee benefits consultant, ended in divorce.

She later married Richard W. Wallach, who served for many years as a New York State Appeals Court justice. He died in 2003.

In 2009, when Ms. Wallach was 80, she married Gerald Maslon, a retired lawyer. They had socialized in Cambridge when he was a Harvard student and she was at Radcliffe, though at the time she was dating Foster and he was dating the woman who would become his first wife.

More than a dozen years ago, when they were both widowed, “we started seeing each other again,” she told the Times for a feature about their marriage. To her, she added, Maslon would always be “that boy in a tweed jacket swooping toward me on his bike.” He died in 2013.

In addition to her daughter, Alison Foster, Ms. Wallach leaves two sons, Thomas Foster and Alexander Foster; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Ms. Wallach’s two other novels were “Private Scores” (1988) and “Trials” (1996).

In 1982, she published “Paper Dolls — How to Find, Recognize, Buy, Collect and Sell the Cutouts of Two Centuries.” Her own collection numbered about 3,000. “Paper dolls satisfy every neurosis I ever had. They are small, flat and tidy. I absolutely love the cataloguing of each acquisition,” she told the Times that year.

Writing fiction, meanwhile, “felt like I was on vacation. I suppose it sounds Pollyanna, but I liked writing the book,” she told the Globe of the months she spent on her first novel. “I’d get up on Saturday morning, wear old clothes and just sit there and write.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.