“Mad Men:” A Proustian madeleine back to my childhood

My father and my godfather, best friends from childhood who died within weeks of each other last year, were mad men who weren’t wild about “Mad Men.” They had watched the AMC-network phenomenon about 1960s-era ad executives – an adulterous, amoral, hard-drinking lot in the TV drama – and could not understand my wife’s or my affection for the show. “It’s all fiction,” my father told me once. “What we did was nothing like that.”

Maybe. But among the reasons I am looking forward to the show’s special two-hour season premiere tonight at 9 p.m. is that elements of “Mad Men” feel to me like one brilliantly rendered Proustian madeleine. My father was no Don Draper – and not simply because Jon Hamm has a lot better hair – and my godfather was no Roger Sterling, but the two of them were advertising executives who often worked together and seemed to love their Madison Avenue lifestyle. And whenever I watch the show, I see uncannily accurate Kodachrome slides from my childhood. I know those offices from the weekdays when, holding my hand, my mother would take me to visit my father at work. I know those suits. I know those rotary telephones. I know those gray metal filing cabinets.

My sense is that this is indeed a part of the show’s appeal, even for viewers a generation younger than me who don’t recall being served big chunks of iceberg lettuce as a kid and being told it’s a salad. Or savoring frozen supermarket rolls that are supposed to pass for fresh bread. Or, yes, watching TV in the living room after your dad has come home from work, and eavesdropping as your parents discuss their separate days over Scotch, their faces obscured by – in my mother’s case – cartoon plumes of toxicity from a steady stream of Eve cigarettes. “Mad Men” is a stylish show and it captures the good, the bad, and the ugly of the era.

And here’s what I mean about the specific and strange ways that the show resonates for me, and why it may be a more accurate depiction of the era than my father was ever willing to admit. Although he insisted the program was pure melodrama, he did agree to watch it with me whenever I was visiting him in Florida on a Sunday night and the show happened to be on. In one episode we watched together, a creative team is working until the small hours of the morning.

“We used to have to do that with Howard Hughes,” my dad said, smiling at a memory.

I turned to him. “You worked with Howard Hughes?” I asked. “As in the gazillionaire?”

My dad nodded. “When he was with TWA. We used to have two account teams to deal with him: One during the day and one at night. You never knew when he was going to call and suddenly appear in New York for a meeting,” he said.

My father insisted that the agencies were not as horrifically sexist as they seem on the show, believing (or, at least, claiming) that advertising actually offered opportunities to women before some other professions. Maybe. Maybe not. But he readily admitted that there might have been as much drinking. And certainly there was as much smoking.

Was there as much drama? Unlikely. But you never know. I say that because my godfather always wanted to write a memoir about his years in advertising, and this was well before “Mad Men” arrived in 2008. I don’t know how far he got, but he may have been on to something.

The key, of course, is that “Mad Men” is about an era and a moment in history that was rich with change. It’s about considerably more than advertising, although I do love Don Draper’s soliloquies about slide projectors and lipstick. It’s about wildly dysfunctional and wildly interesting people, who live daily with almost Shakespearean regret, desire, and ambition.

Was that my father? It’s all of us.

Which is why, perhaps, I’ll be tuning in tonight.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 25, 2012. Chris’s new novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” arrives on July 17.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

Leave a Reply