Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the '60s and Beyond

Image of Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the '60s and Beyond
Release Date: 
January 28, 2013
St. Martin's Griffin
Reviewed by: 

“. . . we have only to ask Ms. Maas about her regrets . . . ‘Mad women. Mad men. Mad days. I had a wonderful time, too. Looking back, there isn’t a single thing I would do differently. Except I wouldn’t work for Leona Helmsley.’”

In her perfectly pleasant memoir Mad Women, Jane Maas, who more than once is referred to as being a “real life Peggy Olson” shares with her readers her war stories of life in the world of advertising in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

Given the renewed interest in those men and women in gray flannel suits since the first broadcast of the TV show “Mad Men” in 2007, it stands to reason that a book like this one would appear, and yet the reader cannot help but wonder why now? Certainly “Mad Men” mania has faded with the show now about to begin its fifth season. And given that the tales in advertising presented here all have the sound and feel of anecdotes that have been told again and again over dinner tables and at cocktail parties, to the point that they now all come with laugh track more or less supplied, the whole book, while gently entertaining, feels a bit tired, a bit of a retread.

This might be because so many of the stories told here have been told before in other, better books such as Jerry Della Femina’s From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front Line Dispatches from the Advertising War, which is referenced more than once in these pages. (Note that Della Femina himself was the on-set advisor to the show “Mad Men” during its first season.) Or David Ogilvy’s 2004 book Confessions of an Advertising Man. (And note that David Ogilvy was Jane Maas’ one-time boss at the Ogilvy & Mather agency.) Or Jane Maas’ own past works, Adventures of an Advertising Woman and How to Advertise, which she coauthored with Kenneth Roman.

Any feeling of freshness that the book might have had is further undermined by the fact that the author more or less constantly refers to “Mad Men,” underscoring that, save for that show’s success, this book might well not have been written, which enhances the feeling on the part of the reader that in writing her book Ms. Maas is more or less cashing in on the success of a work with which she truly has no connection.

Still, Ms. Maas has many stories to tell. Including this:

“When Shirley Polykoff wrote the famous advertising slogan ‘Does she . . . or doesn’t she?’ for Clairol in 1956, only hussies dyed their hair. The slogan took off, and women all over America believed Shirley’s reassuring answer to that question: ‘Hair color so natural only her hairdresser knows for sure.’ Within ten years, almost 50 percent of them were coloring their hair (Shirley never used the word ‘dye’), bringing in about $100 million a year to Clairol, which owned half the market. Her agency, Foote, Cone & Belding, where she had once been the only female copywriter, had a lock on Clairol business because of her.

“She turned millions of women into blondes with campaigns like: ‘Is it true blondes have more fun?’ and ‘If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde.’

“I bumped into Shirley at a pro bono advertising event in 1983, about fifteen years before she died. She was already well into her seventies, but her hair was defiantly blonde, and coiled in braids on top of her head. She looked like a buxom mother figure from Fiddler on the Roof, good Russian-Jewish peasant stock—which is exactly what she was.

“She waggled a finger at me, inviting me to join her in a corner of the booth she was manning. ‘I’ve always liked you, Jane, and you’re becoming a great success. So I want to give you this piece of advice. It could make a big difference to you.’ I said I was all ears.

“‘Get the money before they screw you, darling,’ she said. ‘Before they screw you the way they’ve screwed me.’”

Over the years, Jane Maas, like Shirley Polykoff, Joan Lipton, Linda Bird Francke, Mary Wells Lawrence, and so many others, not only worked hard to begin to chip away at the glass ceiling that separates the women from the men in corporate work environments, but also helped—from the feminist era onward—to redefine the role of women in our society as they balanced their own roles as wives, mothers, and “career women.”

Indeed, this brief anecdote today reads like a dispatch from a world long gone:

“The appropriate outfit to wear to the office was either a sheath dress or a skirt, a tailored blouse, and a jacket, with matching shoes and white gloves. No matter what the time of year, white gloves were considered the ladylike choice. A virginal friend of mine originally form Tupelo, Mississippi, explained why she was wearing white cotton gloves in New York in January, ‘No man would ever rape a woman who was wearing white gloves!’

“Of course, we all wore hats. Daisy Sinclair described dressing for a job interview in the casting department of Oglivy & Mather in 1964. ‘Never mind that it was a hot July day. I borrowed a beige shantung sheath from my mother’s closet, a pair of her matching shoes with very high heals, and lots of jewelry. Long white gloves. And a hat with green velvet piping and red berries that hung from it.’

“Hats were not only a fashion statement, they were a status symbol. ‘At J. Walter Thompson, as soon as you were promoted from secretary to junior copywriter, you wore a hat in the office,’ says Anne Wallach. ‘I never took my hat off, not even in the bathroom.’ At JWT, men and women copywriters were divided into separate groups. The men had their own dining room, but women weren’t allowed to eat there. Wallach recalls, ‘We were served lunch at our desks every day by waitresses who brought us dainty trays. We always ate with our hats on.’”

Throughout Mad Women, Jane Maas tells the stories behind many of the leading print and television campaigns she worked on throughout her long, prestigious career, most notably the “I Love New York” campaign that she coordinated for four years. (As she puts it, although many hands went into the development of the campaign, “I was the one who hugged it, fed it, and changed its diapers.”)

But Ms. Maas saves the best for last. In the chapter entitled “The Queen and I,” she tells the how she, in the summer of 1981, became a one-woman advertising agency for Leona Helmsley, “The Queen of Mean.” As the author sums it up:

“But don’t believe everything you’ve read about Leona. She was worse than that. I worked for her for seven months, and they were the most terrible months of my life. No man would have put up with it.” This chapter crackles with energy as Ms. Maas relates her tale of woe and sets the record straight. In doing so, she supplies all her readers with a Helmsley anecdote that they might use for themselves at future dinner parties. It is a nasty hoot and almost, in and of itself, worth the price of the book.

Aside from this single episode, Ms. Maas’ memoir reads as if those olden days were indeed golden. A time of new technologies, new mores, new gender roles, alcohol, and hats. And for her personally, a time of having had it all: a loving marriage, a wonderful family and a creatively satisfying and notable career that continues up to the writing of this book.

Or maybe that is to oversimplify the situation. As Jane Maas herself puts it:

“Maybe the women who entered the advertising world of the sixties really were mad. We were probably crazy to think we could break into such a male-dominated world, where the only sure way for a woman to become a copywriter was to start as a secretary and write ads on a speculative basis nights and weekends, for free.

“I do know for sure that we were angry. Almost every woman I interviewed about working during the ‘Mad Men’ era—especially working mothers—told me how angry she felt about being torn apart, and how much she reproached herself underperforming in all her roles.”

Still, given all this we have only to ask Ms. Maas about her regrets to get this conclusion:

“[Advertising legend] Mary Wells Lawrence talks about how young we were back then. ‘In the sixties the world went young. Young people revolutionized the movies, music, advertising—most of the Western World’s cultures. Agencies were great fun because we were making changes right and left. Young people had great power and respect in the sixties, and being in the agency business was very glamorous.’

“Those opinions are shared by every sixties survivor I have spoken with. The television show doesn’t capture the most important creative secret of all. We were having a wonderful time. We were in love with advertising.

“Mad women. Mad men. Mad days. I had a wonderful time, too. Looking back, there isn’t a single thing I would do differently.

“Except I wouldn’t work for Leona Helmsley.”