By Claudia Ebeling • Illustration adapted by Josie Fertig
Fans of the television series "Mad Men" are agog at its portrayal of the storied Madison Avenue advertising world of the 1960s. They ask, was it really like that? The creative pressure, the smoke-filled rooms, the boozing, the womanizing, the gender inequality?
Many come to Jane Brown Maas ’53 for answers. After all, she was a trailblazing female copywriter who rose to the executive level at a major Madison Avenue agency during the "Mad Men" era. She co-authored the 1976 classic How To Advertise and published the memoir Adventures of an Advertising Woman in 1986.
The thing is, Maas realized, those books cannot answer the questions provoked by "Mad Men". When Adventures of an Advertising Woman debuted, she was courting clients and, besides, many of the players were still alive. It omitted a lot. Twenty-five years later, the time had come to take off the gloves — yes, women wore them to work back in the day — and off they fly in Mad Women, her new book due this spring from St. Martin’s Press.
Mad Women does not contradict Adventures. Instead, it returns through a different door, armed with additional detail and insight drawn from interviews with colleagues. It is piercingly frank and intimate; at the same time, it reveals the spectacle of America in a historic watershed.
“It was more than just a different century. It was a different world,” says Maas. Though she married and had children, she skipped the conventional housewife role expected of women. Ironically, she was putting career first at the same time she sold products using images of housewives who wanted nothing but the cleanest dishes and satisfied husbands.
She sympathizes with the character of Peggy Olson in "Mad Men", who is trying to make it as a copywriter in what was undeniably a man’s world. Yes, the wage gap was appalling. Yes, sexual harassment was endured without recourse. The sexual revolution heated up extracurricular affairs. Ashtrays overflowed and booze — well, it flowed, but it was mostly put away when it was time to get the job done.
Maas rose in advertising by rolling with the punches. She, whose career epitomized the ideal of the emerging feminist movement, was the charter recipient of NOW’s award for “Most Obnoxious Commercial of the Year Depicting Women” (for a Dove dishwashing commercial likening washing dishes to women being chained to the sink). She directed the iconic “I Love New York” tourism campaign and orchestrated the state wedding of New York Governor Hugh Carey fraught with complications that would have undone Buckingham Palace. She became the slave of the Queen of Mean, hotelier Leona Helmsley, but emerged as president of a major agency.
"Mad Men" gets a lot right, says Maas, but not everything. Colleagues offer mixed reviews, and where, Maas wonders, are the working mothers like her? In Mad Women, she offers a shrewd assessment of how far women have come and the contemporary challenges with which they grapple.
Any regrets? Other than working for the Queen of Mean, not really. Maas was at the front of the creative revolution in advertising and with it experienced seismic cultural change. And she generously shares the exhilarating ride through Mad Women.
Claudia Ebeling reviews books, movies and music for Bucknell Magazine. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.