Confessions of a mad woman: Creme de menthe for lunch and obligatory affairs with the boss – a woman who knows what office life was REALLY like in the 60s
22:33 GMT, 25 March 2012
With its office affairs, fabulous clothes and endless boozing and smoking, Mad Men — the hit series about life in a Sixties advertising agency in New York — returns to TV this week. Here, Jane Maas, who was a young copywriter for one of the biggest advertising agencies on Madison Avenue during that era, reveals the truth was even more outrageous than the fiction…
When my friend Linda Bird Francke started working in the typing pool at Young & Rubicam, she quickly fell for the charms of a handsome account executive.
‘I lost my virginity to him,’ she told me. ‘I was smitten. He took me to his apartment one evening after work and we had sex. ‘But then suddenly his telephone rang and, when he answered it, I could hear a woman crying and accusing him of being unfaithful on the other end.
Love and scandal: The stars of hit show Mad Men which documents a Sixties advertising agency in New York
‘I was mortified. Pretty soon after that I realised he was working his way through the typing pool. There was always somebody or other crying because she suspected he was sexually involved with somebody else. And she — whichever one of us she happened to be — was always right.’
Linda’s experience was not unusual. Women who worked on Madison Avenue throughout the Sixties insist that more sex went on in their offices than you’ll ever see on Mad Men. ‘It was in the air,’ one woman says. ‘You breathed it.’
Lots of romantic liaisons went on outside the office, too. The single account executives at Young & Rubicam had apartments in the city. The more senior — usually married — men, who turned out to be the real swingers, had glamorous homes with wives stashed away in them, so the Hotel Lexington became their favourite trysting spot.
It was just a few blocks from the agency, and was favoured because the front desk clerks didn’t raise an eyebrow when you asked for a key at noon and returned it at two. If you met fellow staff members coming through the lobby, you simply averted your eyes. It’s hard to believe such things went on — and so blatantly — in what we often perceive as less liberal times. But they did.
Jane Maas and Michael soon after their marriage in August 1957
But why was sex so rampant, so flagrant, back then The main reason was the Pill became widely available, with doctors writing out prescriptions for single women as well as for married ones. Suddenly, women didn’t have to worry as much about getting pregnant.
It’s hard to imagine today how liberating that was, particularly in a society that still viewed unmarried mothers as social outcasts. With sexual equality in the workplace still a long way off, most women then working in advertising were either secretaries or low-paid copywriters, and 99 per cent of us had male bosses. That was the way it was.
The boss was in control of your salary, your raise, your career advancement… your life. If he wanted to go to bed with you, you had to ask yourself what mattered more: your self-respect or your career. It was a difficult choice to make. But it wasn’t always the men making moves on their secretaries — women did their fair share of seducing, too. The best way to get promoted from secretary to copywriter was for your boss to make it happen. And there were some women who believed the fastest way to make that happen was to make it with your boss.
One woman who wanted to be a writer worked briefly for me as a secretary, then moved to another agency to be administrative assistant to the vice-chairman. She was swiftly promoted to copywriter. Ultimately, after his messy divorce, the vice-chairman married her. Carrying out research for my book, I asked her if she remembered there being much sex in the office. She looked at me in surprise. ‘How do you think I got Joe’ she asked.
Mad Men series five starts tomorrow on Sky Atlantic. There will be only two further series of the show
The illicit sex may have been more rampant than even Mad Men makes out, but some of those who worked on Madison Avenue in the Sixties claim the programme exaggerates the amount of alcohol that was consumed by advertising executives. ‘It’s not at all realistic,’ one former account man complained to me recently. ‘We never drank in the morning.’
The rest of the day, however, was a different matter. It was customary to go out for lunch most days and everyone would have a martini or similar cocktail before the meal. We’d then have wine during lunch and a Rusty Nail (a combination of whisky and Drambuie) or Stinger (a lethal concoction of white creme de menthe and brandy) to finish. Then — unbelievably — we’d all go back to our offices at about 2pm to work.
Those lucky enough to be finished by five would then go to a bar and start all over again in the evening. How on Earth did we do it Friends from that time just stare at me and shake their heads in wonder. One girlfriend reckons we got away with it because our co-workers and clients had just as much to drink so it was a level playing field. I think it was also because we were so young, healthy and stupid back then. We didn’t think booze or cigarettes — or anything — could kill us.
Just like the characters in the TV series, everyone used to smoke incessantly, too, no matter where they were. I remember feeling shocked watching one Mad Men scene where copywriter Peggy Olson visits a gynaecologist to get the Pill and the doctor smokes throughout the entire consultation. But then I remembered it really was like that.
For those of us who were smokers — and in the Sixties that was still most people — it was a habit we were barely aware of. It was not uncommon to have a lit cigarette in one hand and another burning in the ashtray. I happily smoked two packs a day and told myself I enjoyed every cigarette, but really I chain-smoked without even noticing I was doing it.
Just an hour after my daughter Kate was born, a nurse brought this tiny 5lb infant to my hospital bed and I remember cradling her in one arm and smoking a cigarette with the other hand. And, while a post-natal cigarette may be one Mad Men look we’re less likely to recreate today, the show’s female characters — particularly curvy office manager Joan Harris, played by Christina Hendricks, and Betty Francis (January Jones) — have created a wave of fashion nostalgia for the nipped-in waists, pouffy skirts, and tight sheath dresses of the era.
Jane would often have a Stinger – a lethal concoction of white creme de menthe and brandy – at lunch before heading back to work
Lots of women are wearing those styles again now, but I doubt anybody is putting up with the kind of discomfort we had to endure from the awkward undergarments we had to wear back then. The cruellest instrument of torture in the early Sixties was the fashionable pointed bra, which turned your breasts into javelins. Those conical monstrosities were unbearably tight and painful to wear, as the bra straps which lifted your breasts into the required position would always cut into the skin on your shoulders.
Tights hadn’t been invented then, either, so we always wore bulky panty girdles with suspenders to hold up our nylon stockings. Our stockings still had seams running up the back of them, too, which needed to be straightened a thousand times a day. Then there was yet another layer to put on — the slip, a thin full-length or waist-length garment that everyone wore under their dresses and skirts to get a smooth appearance.
The appropriate outfit to wear to the office in the early Sixties 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. High heels were obligatory going to and from work, even at home to do the housework. Trainers — or plimsolls, as they were then — were strictly for the tennis court.
We all wore hats, too, even in hot weather. Hats were not just a fashion statement, but a badge of honour for working women. Secretaries weren’t allowed to wear hats in the office though — that was an unspoken rule. So as soon as you were promoted from secretary to junior copywriter, you bought a hat and made sure you wore it all the time. I never took mine off — not even to visit the powder room. We even wore our hats to eat lunch.
But one thing we never wore to the office in the early Sixties was a pair of trousers. If there was a snowstorm, you might wear them en route to work, but you would immediately change into a dress or a skirt once you got there. I was the first woman in my office to wear a trouser suit to work when they came into fashion in 1965, and I caused quite a stir everywhere I went. In fact, when I tried to meet my husband Michael at a smart restaurant for dinner wearing it, I was politely but firmly refused entry for being improperly dressed.
As more and more women eventually caught on to the trend, trouser suits started to become commonplace. But they still weren’t accepted in some quarters — including our office, where the managing director sent all the women a memo ordering us not to wear trousers to work. There’s no doubt that when it comes to period detail, Mad Men has pretty much got it right. But the one thing everyone who was there at the time agrees on is that the programme never shows the fun we all had.
Young people had great power and respect in the Sixties — and advertising was an unbelievably glamorous business to be in. We loved our jobs and had the most wonderful time. Mad women. Mad men. Mad days. Looking back, there isn’t a single thing I would do differently.
Extracted from Mad Women by Jane Maas, published by Bantam, 12.99. 2012 Jane Maas. To order a copy for 10.99 (including p&p), call 0843 382 0000.