OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

For years, American television had a sweetheart named Mary, as in Mary Tyler Moore, whose roles on two seminal sitcoms endeared her to millions of viewers. For many of those same years, Madison Avenue had a sweetheart also named Mary, as in Mary Wells Lawrence, whose roles at several seminal shops endeared her to legions of top managers at Fortune 500 client companies and colleagues at agencies across the industry.

So when word began circulating that Lawrence was writing her memoirs, anticipation ran high, particularly since she'd virtually vanished from the business after selling her agency, Wells Rich Greene, to the French group BDDP in 1990. And she hasn't disappointed, as A Big Life in Advertising, published by Knopf this month, is likely to be considered among the best and brightest books about advertising by an agency CEO.

The book's principal strength is that, to paraphrase the hokey slogan of a US soup brand (thankfully, one Lawrence had nothing to do with), it's an autobiography that reads like a novel.

Few could invent a character as compelling as Mary Berg, born in Poland, Ohio, who rises from copywriter trainee in the bargain basement of a Midwestern department store to become the pioneering leader of a famously large, influential New York agency, inducted into both the Advertising and Copywriters Halls of Fame and now living "in Mustique, London and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat", as the book's dust jacket jauntily proclaims.

In fact, throughout the book, Lawrence's absorbing and amusing tales recounting her career and after-work exploits evoke several of the most memorable characters in US movies - oddly enough, all played by Rosalind Russell. She brings to mind the hard-working writer Hildy Johnson, the quintessential guy's gal, from His Girl Friday; the larger-than-life hostess Mame Dennis from Auntie Mame; the take-charge female ad agency boss "Mac

MacGregor from Take a Letter, Darling; and the high-society doyenne Sylvia Fowler from The Women.

Most fascinating are the insider's perspectives that Lawrence provides on some of the most memorable and important moments in the industry's recent past.

Among them: the ferment of the "creative revolution

of the 50s and 60s, at agencies such as Doyle Dane Bernbach; the profound changes wrought by diversification as notoriously male, WASP-y agencies hired more women, Jews and Italian-Americans; the emergence in the 80s and 90s of globalisation and consolidation as forces that would remake the business; and, finally, what it's like to strive to run a shop, agonise over finding who you deem to be the right partner to sell to and then watching from a distance as what you laboured so mightily to build falls apart faster than a shopper can recite one of the jingles your agency popularised.

To be sure, A Big Life in Advertising is not without its flaws. There is copious coverage of the social life among the early Jet Set; anecdotes about spirituality and dreams; and a bit more than most thirtysomethings will want to read about bygone brands such as Gleem toothpaste. But when the names dropped range from Bill Bernbach (who "made a serious woman out of me") to Grace Kelly ("sometimes Princess Grace of Monaco would come to dinner with my clients") to CBS's Bill Paley (who "came on to me in the most practiced way"), it's hard not to go along for the entire bumpy, wonderful, madcap ride.