November 21, 2014

“Coffee, Tea or Me?” – the catchphrase popularized by a hoax based on a joke...


Back in the 1960s, when air travel was more pleasant and our culture was less politically correct, airline stewardesses were hot – at least in terms of their popular image.

Most stewardesses were young and single. In the media, they were often portrayed as both desirable and attainable – as women who liked to fool around with pilots, passengers and lucky local citizens at stops along their routes.

The airlines tried to cash in on and promote this image in the mid-Sixties with ads that featured beautiful stewardesses and taglines like “I’m Cheryl. Fly Me.”

Then, on November 21, 1967, the Bantam paperback edition of the book Coffee, Tea or Me? was published, about a month after the hardcover edition had been released by Bartholomew House.

Subtitled The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses, this widely-distributed, wildly successful paperback further popularized the stereotypical image of fun-loving, promiscuous stewardesses.

It also made the sexually provocative phrase “Coffee, Tea or Me?” a familiar saying.

The book was portrayed as a humorous but fact-based memoir co-written by two stewardesses named Rachel Jones and Trudy Baker.

When it was published, two young women using those names went on a media tour to promote it.

Soon, Coffee, Tea or Me? became a national best seller, then an international best seller. 

Three sequels were published and credited to Rachel and Trudy.

In 1973, Coffee, Tea or Me? was even made into a TV movie starring Karen Valentine and Louise Lasser.

Decades later, it was revealed that the real author of the Coffee, Tea or Me? books was Donald Bain.

Bain was working as a public relations man for American Airlines when he wrote Coffee, Tea or Me?  

Thanks to its success, he went on to become a prolific full-time novelist and ghostwriter who has since penned dozens of popular books (including many of the Murder She Wrote novels).

“Trudy Baker” and “Rachel Jones” never existed.

The women who went on the book tour were two actual Eastern Airlines stewardesses, but they were hired by the publisher’s publicity agent to pose as Trudy and Rachel.

It was a supremely well-executed hoax that generated a ton of money for Bain and a memorable phrase that’s still used and lampooned today.

In the introduction to later reprints of the book, Bain wrote that the title Coffee, Tea or Me? came to him halfway through writing it after he heard someone recite an old airline joke that used the phrase.

If you’re old enough, you might remember the joke: A stewardess enters the cockpit of a commercial airplane and asks the pilot, “Coffee, tea or me?” The pilot says, “Whichever is easier to make.”

Bain says in his intro:

"Little did I know in 1967 that the book I was writing with a title lifted from a lame old joke would go on, along with its three sequels, to sell more than five million copies, be translated into a dozen languages, cause anxious mothers to forbid their daughters from becoming stewardesses, spawn airline protest groups, have its title inducted into the public vocabulary and be republished thirty-six years later, branding me the oldest, tallest, bearded airline stewardess."

Speaking of lame jokes, there’s a funny coincidence about the illustrations used on the covers and interior pages of the Coffee, Tea or Me? series. They were drawn by Bill Wenzel, one of the greatest of all adult cartoon artists.

Cartoons featuring Wenzel’s bosomy, airheaded babes, typically accompanied by classically lame and sexist captions, appeared in countless men’s girlie and humor magazines from the late 1940s into the early 1980s. He also did many paperback covers.

You can read more about Wenzel in the excellent book about him that was published in 2000 and in the authoritative posts done about him by vintage paperback and magazine maven Lynn Munroe. You can also see scores of his cartoons in this Google image search.

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