Mary Gardiner Jones, Consumer Advocate, Dies at 89

Published: January 7, 2010
New York Times

Mary Gardiner Jones, a prominent consumer advocate who as a member of the Federal Trade Commission in the 1960s and early '70s helped expand its purview to ensure that the stuff of American life - from clothing to cereal to cigarettes - was safer, less expensive and more truthfully advertised, died on Dec. 23 at her home in Washington. She was 89.

The cause was congestive heart failure, her nephew Charles Watkins said. Ms. Jones leaves no immediate survivors. Appointed in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Ms. Jones was the first woman to serve on the commission. In her nine years there, she became known as a foe of cigarette advertising on television and radio.

Ms. Jones became a consumer-affairs specialist by chance. Historically, the F.T.C. had focused on encouraging business competition; Johnson chose her, it was reported, because she was a lawyer with antitrust experience. But in the many speaking engagements that followed her appointment, Ms. Jones found herself asked to talk about consumer issues like product safety and truth in advertising, widely seen as fit subjects for a woman. By her own later accounts, she ignored the sexism but seized the opportunity.

Addressing a meeting of the American Advertising Federation in 1969, Ms. Jones, known as a plain speaker, called for the "perpetual elimination from the marketplace" of "the gyp artist or the gimmick specialist."

A Republican who became a Democrat later in life, Ms. Jones was mentioned by knowledgeable handicappers as a possible successor to Justice John M. Harlan of the Supreme Court after he retired in 1971, The New York Times reported that year.

Mary Gardiner Jones was born in Manhattan on Dec. 10, 1920, to Charles Herbert Jones and the former Anna Livingston Short. Hers was a distinguished family: established in America since the 17th century, they donated the land on Long Island that became Jones Beach State Park.

Reared in Manhattan and Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, Ms. Jones was ill at ease with her family's social standing. "I was always uncomfortable with the privileged life we led and distressed over the falseness of my family's values," she wrote in her memoir, "Tearing Down Walls: A Woman's Triumph" (Hamilton Books, 2008). "My most vivid memories of the family are their constant fights over property."

Ms. Jones earned a bachelor's degree in history from Wellesley in 1943 and a law degree from Yale in 1948. During World War II, she worked in Washington as an analyst for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency. After being rejected by 50 law firms because of her sex, as she later recounted, she joined the New York firm of Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine in 1948.

In 1953, Ms. Jones joined the antitrust division of the Justice Department as a trial lawyer. Among the cases on which she worked was an effort to enjoin American watch manufacturers from operating according to the dictates of a Swiss cartel, which controlled the industry worldwide. The cartel's stranglehold threatened to put the American companies out of business, but the United States government had a keen interest in preserving the skills of the watchmakers who worked for those companies: with their mechanical abilities, they had proved useful to the American defense industry.

At the Federal Trade Commission, Ms. Jones was vocal in her opposition to cigarette advertising on the air, speaking in favor of a ban as early as 1967. The next year, the commission voted to recommend such a ban; enacted by Congress in 1970, it took effect in early 1971.

As a commissioner, Ms. Jones was also involved in an effort by the F.T.C. to break up an alleged monopoly of cereal makers and an effort to persuade the garment industry to put care instructions on clothing labels.

After leaving the commission in 1973, Ms. Jones taught law at the University of Illinois. She was later active with consumer and civic organizations, among them the Consumer Interest Research Institute, of which she was founder and president. In 1975, at 55, Ms. Jones accepted her first corporate job, as vice president for consumer affairs of the Western Union Telegraph Company. The post, she was told, had been earmarked for a woman.

In an interview with Business Week the next year, Ms. Jones was asked whether she resented the company's tokenism. "Hell, no," she replied. "It gives me a foot in the door."