I met Jo Foxworth on my first job interview after college, when I applied for a position as assistant to the president of a "vest-pocket" ad agency. That morning, I borrowed my cousin's skirt and shoes and took the Lexington Avenue train to midtown Manhattan. When I arrived, Ms. Foxworth’s assistant wondered why I was an hour early. Embarrassed, I went down the street, ordered a cappuccino and killed an hour.
Maybe you never heard of Jo Foxworth, but in the ad world, she was famous. After moving to New York from Tylertown, Miss., she became a Mad Woman in the “Mad Men” era. She later published a best seller called “Boss Lady” — one of the first business books for women — and wrote ads for D’Agostino Supermarkets for 30 years. She even invented the D’Ag Bag. In 1997, she was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.
After I returned, I sat nervously on an antique settee covered in zebra print. The place was sleek and stylish, with "Jo Foxworth, Inc." in brushed silver letters adorning the wall. When I was finally escorted into her office, the boss stood up from her black-lacquered desk. Wearing big red glasses, a fringed red leather jacket and silver-tipped cowboy ankle boots, she appeared to be six feet tall. I was terrified.
"Where did you go?" Jo said with a laugh, in her southern drawl. "We've been waiting for an hour!"
We talked for a while, and before I knew it I was telling her that I was more interested in music than advertising. I wanted to be a songwriter, I confessed.
"This is my day job, too," she quipped. "Can you write? I need someone who can write so I have time for my own projects."
I told her that I could and she hired me on the spot.
A year later, on my birthday, Jo wrote me a check for $1,000.
"I want you to get yourself a good guitar," she said. She told me I was great, and coming from her, it made me — perhaps for the first time — believe in myself.
After another few years of writing ad copy during the day and songs at night, I tried to quit the agency so I could dedicate more time to my music. Without missing a beat, she offered me a part-time gig at my regular salary. It was truly my first big break in the music business — giving me the freedom to create without having to worry about money. We kept working together, and the truth is, I would have done almost anything for her, including, as she would often joke, "hide the body."
Every Wednesday, I'd meet Jo at Grand Central Station so we could take the train up to Larchmont to D'Agostino Headquarters, where she held court in the conference room. During off-hours, she threw curry parties at her Fifth Avenue apartment, took me to see the original Off-Broadway production of “Rent” and often treated me to dinner at the top of the World Trade Center.
She once flew me to New Orleans to meet some of her Louisiana friends. We wound up taking a speedboat through the bayous and docked at a little bar called The Blind River Boy, which later gave me the title of a song that attempted to eulogize Jeff Buckley.
Jo was teaching me how to be more alive and how to live in the world. It worked. Within five years, I inked a deal with Virgin Records. It was then I decided, painfully, that I was going to move to L.A. and give the whole music career thing a real shot. Telling Jo this news wasn't easy.
She was genuinely pissed that I was leaving. Even though she wanted me to succeed — perhaps more than anybody else in the world — she had hoped I might someday take over her agency.
We wrote each letters for a while, but I was in the throes of a tornado — making my first album — and we inevitably lost touch.
I moved back to NYC a few years later and we started spending time together again. She forgave me for leaving and I spent the last five years of her life by her side. She had a great group of friends, powerful and wonderful women, but they were also getting older and it wasn’t easy for all of us to get together. We sometimes met at her new Waverly Street apartment, where she had moved after she broke her clavicle falling on the stairs of her old place. This was the beginning of the end.
Jo made numerous trips to the hospital by ambulance in those last years, and the stays became more extended. I'd spend hours chatting with her, doing her nails, washing her hair or rubbing her feet. We talked about our lives, about the what ifs and if onlys that we all face. She was proud of me and encouraged me to keep going with music, even when the label dropped me and I felt like a failure.
"It's too late now for me, but it's not too late for you" is a line from one of my songs that I got from Jo when she was in the hospital. We were celebrating her 84th birthday at St. Vincent's. Her best friend, the late Renee Bennett, brought in a bottle of champagne (her favorite beverage) and chilled it, using the hospital room sink as an ice bucket.
Two days before she died, unable to eat or speak and just barely hanging on, I saw in her eyes that she didn't want to leave this world. I'd never been with anyone who was dying, and tried to make her comfortable. She was in a lot of pain and fought until the bitter end.
Whenever I’m having a rough day and thinking about throwing in the towel, I quietly recite Jo’s edifying words:
It's too late now for me, but it's not too late for you.
She keeps me going.