It’s another one of those titles which had a life of its own, beyond the book. You can find its descendants all over the world of books. “How To Succeed With Humans (Without Really Trying)”. “How To Succeed At Tennis (Without Really Trying)”. “How To Succeed With Women (Without Really Trying)”. “How To Succeed At Life Without Really Trying”, and at least one mystery, “How To Succeed At Murder Without Really Trying.”
And, of course, you had equal and opposite titles from the opposing side: “How To Succeed in Hollywood Without Really Trying (P.S. You Can’t)”, “How To Succeed At Anything By Really Trying”, “How To Help Your Children Succeed By Really Trying”, and “How To Succeed at College (While Really Trying).”
All of these are descendants of the original, from 1952, first a mock how to book, then a Broadway musical, and finally a movie, “How To Succeed In Business (Without Really Trying).” The style of the title also had not a little to do with “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)”, but let’s concentrate on how to succeed this time.
Shepherd Mead did succeed in business, and claimed he owed it all to the principles in his book. The play and movie acted as if it was straight autobiography. Anyhow, right after college, he joined an ad agency and in twenty years, worked his way up from mailroom clerk to vice president. (I asked a retired ad exec just how big a gap there is between mail clerk and vice president, and he kind of chuckled. Should’ve have watched more of Mad Men.) “How to Succeed, etc.” was his third book, and did well enough that he was able to retire and spend all his time writing books. By the way, he wrote two of the other titles mentioned above: the one about women and the one about tennis, which was his last book. Inbetween, he produced five or six other how tos. He was ready to make sure his legacy lingered.
He wrote other books as well: science fiction, a biography of Tennessee Williams, and novels with the best titles this side of “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”. Among his elusive classics are “ ‘Dudley, There’s No Tomorrow’ ‘Then How About This Afternoon?’” and “ER; or, The Brassbound Beauty, the Bearded Bicyclist, and the Gold-Colored Teen-age Grandfather”. But he had pretty much given notice what sort of titlemaker he was going to be when he came out with his masterpiece.
I don’t believe he had a large hand in writing the play, which won its authors a Pulitzer. (A recent Broadway revival starred Daniel Radcliffe, the silver screen’s Harry Potter.) I wonder if someone out there shouldn’t be handing out awards to the best titles of the year. Of course, you won’t know how influential they’ll be until time has gone by.
For example, here’s “How To Fail In Business While Trying Really Hard”, “How To Fail In Hollywood Without Really Trying” , “How To Enjoy Music Without Really Trying”, “How To Stop Drinking Without Really Trying”, “Gow To Rob a Bank Without Really Trying”, “How To Save the World Without Really Trying”. What’s Next? “How To Think Up a Bestselling Title Without Really Trying”?