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How authentic is Peggy Olson, the young secretary-turned-copywriter on Mad Men? Very real, judging from the fun memoir Mad Women by Jane Maas, a real-life Olson. In 1964, a young Maas landed a job as a junior copywriter at Ogilvy and Mather, writing ads for everything from Dove soap to American Express. She rose to become a creative director before leaving in 1976 to join Wells Rich Greene, where she created the iconic “I Love New York” ads and wrote the classic How to Advertise.
Mad Women isn’t a straightforward memoir or companion book to the show. It’s more a witty, impressionistic whirl through 1960s Manhattan. The topical chapters — “Sex in the Office,” “The Three-Martini Lunch and Other Vices” — use Maas’ experiences to riff off the show’s themes, vividly fleshing out the advertising world of the ’60s. Fans of the show will see echoes of the fictional Sterling Cooper ad men in Maas’ real-life colleagues. Maas is a great storyteller, and Mad Women stands enough on its own that even those who have never seen the TV show can enjoy the book.
It turns out Mad Men is spot-on about the sex and sexual harassment, and the stories Maas tells could have come straight from the show: the lecherous boss scared away by the mention of her period; the account rep who recruited hookers for clients from Screw magazine; the annual Ogilvy boat ride around Manhattan known as the party from which “no virgin ever returned a virgin.”
Maas reaches for more in these anecdotes, trying to make a larger point about how the world has changed for corporate women. And yet in other ways, little has changed. Her description of the guilt she felt about not being home to greet her children or how taking care of the kids and doing the dishes in the evening was still her responsibility will seem familiar to today’s working mothers. It will be a surprise to younger readers that Maas thinks Mad Men actually underestimates how much people smoked. Today, where you can’t smoke anywhere, Maas’ casual recitation of a typical day’s use — three cigarettes and coffee in bed to start the day — is nearly as shocking as the sexual harassment.
As an old pro, Maas can’t help but critique the portrayal of advertising in the show. She points out that the direct “hard sell” campaigns favored by Sterling Cooper (“Lucky Strike: It’s Toasted”) were being eclipsed in the ’60s by a creative revolution that added mystery (Oglivy transformed Hathaway’s shirt ads by slapping a never-explained eye patch on the model) and irreverence (calling a VW Beetle a lemon — an advertising watershed moment dissected in season one). Maas also says real advertising agencies consulted market research and focus groups more than the TV version, which famously had Don Draper tossing a research report in the trash.
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner could probably find a few good plots in the changes that Maas notes have so far escaped Sterling Cooper. She and other women started wearing pantsuits and miniskirts in 1965; Ogilvy hired its first black employee in 1968; marijuana replaced alcohol as the drug of choice for young employees. She says that many clients assumed pot made people more creative, so they found it oddly reassuring to know their ad men were getting high. One creative team at Ogilvy smoked so much hash that “you caught the unmistakable pungent smell as soon as you stepped off the elevator on their floor.” Imagining a scene in which Don Draper has to put a stop to in-office bong hits should make any fan chuckle.
Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ’60s and Beyond
by Jane Maas (Thomas Dunne Books, 228 pages, $24.99)
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