The quest for the identity of the Native American man in the iconic Levy's Jewish Rye ad led Andrew Silverstein to this 1966 photo (left) of Joseph S. Attean in the book “New Haven Division, Murray Hill to Cedar Hill” by railroad enthusiast Allan Sherry.
The quest for the identity of the Native American man in the iconic Levy's Jewish Rye ad led Andrew Silverstein to this 1966 photo (left) of Joseph S. Attean in the book “New Haven Division, Murray Hill to Cedar Hill” by railroad enthusiast Allan Sherry.

It was the most successful Jewish ad campaign of all time — but who was the model?

This piece first appeared in the Forward.

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.

Buster Keaton poses with a sandwich on rye.
Buster Keaton poses with a sandwich on rye.

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 Dale Doyle 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 asked to have his picture taken with a Levy’s Rye Bread ad. (Photo/Now! Magazine)
Malcolm X asked to have his picture taken with a Levy’s Rye Bread ad. (Photo/Now! Magazine)

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 he?

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.

Andrew Silverstein

Andrew Silverstein is a New York-based writer and tour guide.

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