Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What's My Line?

At a Freelancers Union workshop I attended last year, Smart Networking guru Liz Lynch stressed the importance of a strong opening line when forging strategic relationships.

But am I a freelancer? A consultant? A small business? All of the above? Or one of dozens of other possibilities?

Earlier this year, doing PR on behalf of IAC-EZ, which provides online bookkeeping services to freelancers and the smallest of small businesses (three or less employees), I wanted to reach journalists who might cover trends involving the company’s target audience. So I began tracking relevant keywords.

Some journalists were indeed covering freelancers, consultants or small businesses. But I needed to add entrepreneurs and home-based businesses…self-employed, sole proprietors, independent workers, contract workers and independent contractors…even microbusiness, solopreneurs and homepreneurs. And I know I’ve forgotten a bunch.

As I pondered how to define my line of work for my line of introduction, the classic TV game show What’s My Line? came to mind. Looking for an appropriate video to lead off this post, I settled on the above clip from the very first episode in 1950 – due to its tidy tie-in to the World Series later that year, the only one to feature the Yankees and Phillies until this fall.

But while Yankee great Phil Rizzuto made sense to me, the celebrity panelists did not. Gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen was present. But not long-time panelist Arlene Francis. Certainly not Soupy Sales! And who were those three other, rather boring men?

I began to investigate. One panelist was soon-to-be-blacklisted poet Louis Untermeyer. Two were named Hoffman, although unrelated: Harold, a soon-to-be-scandalized ex-New Jersey governor – and Richard, a soon-to-be-forgotten neuropsychiatrist.

Unlike his fellow panelists, Dr. Richard Hoffman has earned no Wikipedia entry. His lasting claim to fame, based on my initial Google search? Appearing as a panelist on the first three episodes of What’s My Line?

But surely he must have done something to merit that slot. So I dug deeper, discovering that the press called Dr. Hoffman a “Park Avenue” psychiatrist, meaning his clients were rich – and often famous. Indeed, Dr. Hoffman was sort of the Dr. Phil of his day. He made the society pages by attending fancy parties. Decades before Lorraine Bracco on The Sopranos, he treated famed mobster Frank Costello. Other clients included actress Gloria Swanson and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was “resident psychiatrist” on a network radio series. He wrote books and contributed to Reader’s Digest.

He also provided expert testimony at celebrated trials, including what, pre-OJ, passed as the “Trial of the Century”– the 1930s case against Bruno Hauptmann for kidnapping and murdering Charles Lindbergh's baby, where Dr. Hoffman testified on behalf of the prosecution. But, once Hauptmann was convicted in that New Jersey-based case, guess who led the fight to overturn the verdict. Yes, the state's governor at the time -- the other Hoffman on the What's My Line? panel! (A tale of two Hoffmans, foreshadowing Abbie and Julius and yet another “Trial of the Century” some 20 years later!)

For whatever reason (lack of posthumous PR perhaps?), Dr. Richard Hoffman and his life's accomplishments have faded into obscurity. Fame, of course, can be fleeting. But so can entire occupations. And not just neuropsychiatry, which long ago split into psychiatry and neurology.

Watch the complete episode of the first What’s My Line? and you’ll see that the first two contestants were a hat check girl and a diaper service executive. But fashions change. Soon, men would stop wearing hats, and babies would go disposable.

As for the third contestant before the mystery guest? Well, veterinarians would seem to be forever.

So will the current trend of independent, self-employed, freelancing, home-based, entrepreneurial consultants prove as enduring as the family pet – or is my line destined to follow Dr. Richard Hoffman into history’s footnotes?


  1. I liked the anecdote about the What's My Line panelists not having, at first blush, anything in common. Reminded me of Joe Franklin's old TV show. Sometimes Joe had a habit of putting on guests who, at first, seemed unrelated -- e.g., an astrologer, musician, a former pro athlete -- and then ask them to comment on each other's area of expertise. But as the audience soon learned, it was only that they had nothing in common.

  2. Would you believe Franklin's still around? Wonder if there's a complete episode posted anywhere