Camelot to Woodstock to Facebook: From mum's the word to tell everything


There is a telling scene in the Season 3 opener of "Mad Men" in which ad man Don Draper, climbing down a hotel's fire escape in the middle of the night past the bedroom window of his colleague Salvatore Romano, catches a glimpse of him -- and a male bellhop. Draper's fleetingly flummoxed expression as he takes in the meaning of what he sees says it all: The early '60s were as much about subterfuge and secrets as the latter part of the decade was about letting one's hair down.

Among its many virtues, Matthew Weiner's series reminds us of just how much we have traveled -- forward, backward and sideways -- in 50 years. Just seeing how much professional people drank, and at 10:30 in the morning on the job, is eye-opening. As is just how relentlessly well-coifed, high-heeled and A-skirted the secretary pool had to be.

Certainly, the caterwauling, social climbing and conniving among the characters on the show are recognizable foibles and just as prevalent today as then, but the lengths to which they go to hide their sins or disguise their slip-ups definitely has been foreshortened. The '50s, in other words, did not go out with a bang: So much still was hush-hush in Camelot -- having a child out of wedlock, dealing with senile parents, functioning as a homosexual; all manner of behavior had to be kept under wraps or denied if one hoped to get ahead or maintain one's sanity.

One of the reasons the show has caught on, in cable ratings terms brilliantly, is that it lets us revel in just how far we've come on some of these social fronts. Single mothers compete on "Jeopardy!" for heaven's sake. Gay marriage has become the law in several states. Family leave is institutionalized at most corporations.

In the short period between Camelot and Woodstock, a lot was dragged out into the open: The personal became political, the young began to challenge the old, sexism and racism were challenged, a war was discredited.

Woodstock itself -- a messy, mud-encrusted, musical mishmash that still managed to be a mesmerizing mass experience -- was the obverse, if not the repudiation, of that Madison Avenue ethos that wafted over the Kennedy era. Its messages about the communal spirit and free love were naive at best, but still the event became etched in our consciousness as iconic of the '60s.

It's hard to imagine sultry office manager Joan or sniveling accounts head Pete at Sterling Cooper trudging their way upstate to that farm near Bethel -- if nothing else, they would simply not have had the clothes for it. The Wall Street Journal's editorial of the time, reprinted last week in a 40th anniversary section on Woodstock, was sniffily dismissive of the event and despairing of the likelihood that such untidy kids would ever make it in the business world. 

I was thinking about how our memories of that contradictory decade have been shaped by Hollywood movies and TV shows, books and Broadway plays. Think "The Apartment" (1960) and "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" (1970) as two of the most darkly comic takes on the corporate iniquities of the era, and a barrage of movies -- from "Easy Rider" to "Medium Cool" to "Zabriskie Point" -- that celebrate protesters, drop-outs and free spirits: Rebels are sympathetic, authority figures suspect and girls sans bras invariably appealing.

Still, we are today so far from both of these '60s tropes -- and it is changes in the media that have much to do with our distance.

It's hard to imagine, for example, half a million young people today traipsing (without Google map, without cell phone) to a rural venue for a haphazard, ill-defined weekend of disparate musical acts. Their musical tastes are much more nichified, and iPods are hooked to their ears except when they shower. They probably do shower more often and hook up more easily now, so doing so in the mud in front of onlookers is really not necessary, or particularly cool.

All the things kids are rebelling against or rallying to these days I don't pretend to know, but just judging from Nielsen data on that demo's spending or viewing habits, their attachment to consumer society -- especially its electronic media-enhanced gizmos -- is fervent.

Not that that makes this generation any less worthy or appealing; they're just interesting and engaged in different ways, no more self-absorbed probably than their '60s forebears, if arguably less concerned about righting the wrongs of the world. In short, every period has its peculiar pluses and minuses, though in hindsight we tend to filter them according to our own predilections and prejudices.

Woodstock got co-opted early on in the '70s by commercial interests of the kind that Sterling Cooper would understand and know how to market. Before we knew it, tie-dyes and bell bottoms were trendy, yuppies were sipping chardonnay, hippies had turned into bankers, and Reagan became president.

So, in a way, Madison Avenue -- if less appealing as a creative construct -- has been more effective in helping to shape the American message than Woodstock was in propagating the ideals of free love and free music. (Well, free music, maybe yes.)

One thing I do like about the "Mad Men" epoch: Back then, the personal was personal, and though that meant there was a lot of suffering in private -- just think of the nightmares Peggy is tortured with -- other things were best dealt with by not being aired in public.

I can't imagine Betty Draper feeling any the better for writing a book or blogging about the multiple affairs of her husband (or her own), though nowadays practically every "wronged" individual (and the folks involved in wronging them) -- from the Sanfords, to Madoff's mistress, to Spitzer's call girl -- feels compelled to go public. So too do the Octomoms, the Kates & Jons, the spurned Bachelorettes. The media is complicit in this, and profits from it; the public is weighed down with way too much information about way too many of these personal travails.

Seemliness might be a minor virtue, but it got mired in the mud at Woodstock. Facebook and company did the rest, making sure no one today writes in a diary and hides the key.