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Ellen Havre Weis, writer, public relations and advertising executive, and museum founder, dies at 64

It was the Museum of Modern Mythology that most fired her imagination. Serving as the museum’s director, she and fellow founders Jeffrey Errick and Matthew Cohen collected more than 3,000 displays.

Ms. Weis and husband Gordon Whiting shared a love of art, nature, and family.
Ms. Weis and husband Gordon Whiting shared a love of art, nature, and family.Read moreEllen Weis personal collection

Ellen Havre Weis, 64, of Altadena, Calif., a writer, photographer, and entrepreneur who had lived in Levittown and Elkins Park, died Tuesday, July 27, of brain cancer at home.

Eclectic in her work and sensibilities, and ever curious, Ms. Weis wrote fiction, worked in public relations and advertising, was an expert lecturer on American advertising characters, and in 1982 founded the nonprofit Museum of Modern Mythology in San Francisco.

She was also an engaging wife, mother, friend, and colleague.

“There is a big hole to fill,” said her husband, Gordon Whiting.

Ms. Weis’ fiction was first published in the North American Review in 1982, and her book, Berkeley: The Life and Spirit of a Remarkable Town, was published by Frog Books in 2004 with coauthor Kiran Singh.

In business, she and her husband founded WeisPR in Berkeley and worked with media and industrial-arts pioneers. For the last 10 years, she was director of advertising for Bay Nature Magazine.

But it was the Museum of Modern Mythology that most fired Ms. Weis’ imagination. Serving as the museum’s director, she, with fellow founders Jeffrey Errick and Matthew Cohen, collected more than 3,000 iconic advertising mascots, dolls, pillows, banks, salt shakers, and other items, and attracted more than 150 supporting members.

On display in one room of a downtown San Francisco office building were depictions of such familiar ad characters as the Jolly Green Giant; Mr. Peanut; Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy; Mr. Bubble; the Frito Bandito; Col. Sanders; Cap’n Crunch; and Mr. Clean.

“We try to take these advertising characters out of their normal context of sales and look at them as anthropology,” Ms. Weis told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “Most of American society has been exposed to these images. Certainly the Jolly Green Giant is more recognizable than Zeus, or your state senator.

“Human beings need immortal characters to help interpret what’s happening to them. Why is the Jolly Green Giant so popular? You can say it’s a very good marketing campaign, but what does that mean? I think subconsciously it refers back to the lore of the giant. All these characters refer to age-old archetypes in our hearts.”

The museum was active from 1982 to 1989, when its building was damaged by an earthquake. With the collection out of public view, Ms. Weis took to lecturing about the history and impact of American advertising, and just last month the Valley Relics Museum in Van Nuys, Calif., agreed to add her collection to its.

Ms. Weis married Whiting, a technical consultant, in 1996, and son Benjamin was born in 2001. She liked to watch film noirs and obscure videos, had a good eye for innovative sculpture and paintings, and was a regular at the Creative Growth Workshop and Gallery in Oakland.

Born in a Trenton hospital May 14, 1957, Ms. Weis moved from Levittown to Elkins Park when she was 2, and attended Cheltenham High School until her senior year. Her engineer father and librarian mother then enrolled her in Scattergood Friends School in Cedar County, Iowa, to broaden her experience and keep her interested in academics, her husband said.

As a teen in Elkins Park, Ms. Weis rode the bus to Rittenhouse Square with friends and “acted like they belonged,” her husband said. She identified with the Lost Generation of writers and artists from the early 1900s, and studied Dorothy Parker and other female writers.

After high school, she studied writing at the University of Iowa in 1975. A romantic, she always gushed over the grandeur of 30th Street Station when they passed through Philadelphia on trips, her husband said.

At family affairs, almost everywhere, “she was the spirit” he said.

In addition to her husband and son, Ms. Weis is survived by her mother, Aimee Weis; sister Margaret Chase; brother Fred Weis; and other relatives.

A memorial service is to be held Sunday, Aug. 22, at the Orange Grove Friends Meeting, 520 E. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena, Calif. 91104.

Donations in her name may be made to the Valley Relics Museum, 7900 Balboa Blvd., Lake Balboa, Calif. 91406, Hangar C 3-4.