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John Elliott, 84; Ad Agency Chairman Was an Expert on History of Christmas

November 23, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

John "Jock" Elliott Jr., former chairman of the leading advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather and an authority on the history of Christmas, has died. He was 84.

Elliott died of a cerebral hemorrhage Oct. 29 at a hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y., said his wife, Eleanor Thomas Elliott.

After heading the agency's American operations for a decade, Elliott chaired its worldwide division from 1975 until he retired in 1982.

Under the leadership of the tough-minded ex-Marine, the agency won such accounts as IBM and American Express and more than tripled its earnings, to $2 billion.

"Big ideas are so hard to recognize, so fragile, so easy to kill," he said in 1981 when he announced his retirement. "Don't forget that, all of you who don't have them."

After Elliott became an advertising executive, he decided to focus his penchant for collecting on Christmas-related material.

His trove included the manuscript of "The Christmas Carol" that author Charles Dickens used at public readings and the 17th century book in which the words "merry" and "Christmas" are said to have first appeared together.

The collection of more than 3,000 pieces formed the basis of Elliott's book "Inventing Christmas: How Our Holiday Came to Be," published in 2002.

Born and raised in New York City, Elliott was named for his investment counselor father. His mother, Audrey, sold real estate.

After earning a bachelor's degree from Harvard University in 1942, he joined the Marine Corps. During World War II he served on the battleship Pennsylvania and rose to the rank of major. After returning home, he entered the ad business as a $60-a-week copywriter.

Later in life, he bought a Scottish cottage that he planned to live in while shopping for an estate.

He ended up staying put, he once explained, because the locals didn't usually speak to estate owners and "the local people provided most of my fun."

In 1986, he gave his wife the tiny island of Staffa off the west coast of Scotland for her 60th birthday and arranged for her to be the "Laird of Staffa" for a few days before donating the island to the National Trust for Scotland.

In addition to Eleanor, his wife of 49 years, Elliott is survived by his brother Osborn, a former editor of Newsweek magazine.

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