Mad Women: The
Other Side of Life
on Madison Avenue
in the '60s and
When Mad Men appeared on our television screens in 2007, it awoke a nostalgia for the 1960s. It glamourised suits and slicked-back hairstyles and predatory behaviour in men, tight dresses and sexual harassment in the office for women. The series knowingly romanticised a past that had never been perfect.
So it's refreshing to get a woman's perspective on what it was like to work on Madison Avenue. Jane Maas was a highly educated college grad (her CV included a degree from Cornell University and a Fulbright scholarship in France) who succeeded in escaping the typing pool to become an executive at her advertising firm, and later rose to be president of a New York agency.
Now retired from the business, she is ready to give an honest account of her career and specifically the extent to which it reflected the lifestyle and activities so familiar to us now from Mad Men. (She describes her earlier autobiography, Adventures of an Advertising Woman, as a whitewash.)
Maas was a rare creature, a woman who clambered to the top of the corporate advertising ranks, albeit on a lower pay scale than her male colleagues. (Not only were women paid much less than men for the same work; they were given smaller offices.) She was well aware of the disadvantages she faced: at one meeting, which she was meant to lead, she was mistaken for the secretary.
Yet her attitude towards her world is strangely ambivalent. She lived through a period of intense political activity, but is at pains to point out that she took little active part in the women's lib movement. During Jimmy Carter's presidency, an opportunity came up to join the Business Council of the Equal Rights Amendment, legislation that would have banned discrimination on the basis of sex. Maas accepted the position because she was "thrilled to rub shoulders with all those corporate bigwigs".
She notes: "I didn't care much about the amendment, feeling women had to earn their equal status instead of having it legislated for then" – an odd remark from someone who couldn't take clients out for dinner until the early 1970s because she didn't have a credit card. (Credit cards became available to women in 1974).
In fact, as a copywriter and then a high-level executive, Maas was responsible for promoting the conventional portrait of femininity in America of the 1960s and 1970s. Many of her commercials presented women in domestic circumstances – a wife making coffee for her husband in the galley of a boat while the man and his son sit at the helm, the wind ruffling their hair.
She was twice awarded first prize from America's National Organisation for Women (NOW) for the "Most Obnoxious Commercial of the Year depicting Women".
She is aware of this paradox, proudly remarking: "As far as I know, I am the only copywriter to have been so recognised two years in a row." But she declines to investigate her own motives further. To her, feminism appears to be little more than another advertising trend. "As feminism came in," she says, "husband-pleasing went out."
Maas's stated aim in Mad Women is to reveal what the Mad Men era was "really like". This makes for a certain stylistic awkwardness in a memoir, when she pauses to address what the series does right and gets wrong.
Still, according to her assessment, much of the TV show rings true. People were figuring out the link between cigarettes and cancer in 1960, but that didn't stop them smoking. Alcohol seems to have been ubiquitous and most people drank, she says, most of the time.
On sex, Maas is more coy, though she describes it rather breathlessly as "so rampant", "flagrant" and "delicious". She considered herself lucky to have a husband who supported her desire to have a career and her happy marriage to Michael – a businessman and former Marine Corps officer – kept her away from the shenanigans of office life.
For detail about the philandering that occurred in the office, she relies on anecdotes from others. A friend lost her virginity to an executive on the Jello-O account, only to learn he was making his way through the typing pool. And Maas watched other people's marriages flounder.
During the hot New York summers, wives and children would often head to holiday homes in the Hamptons, leaving their husbands alone in the city. "What were they thinking?" Maas wonders.
Her main personal memory of sex at work was of a man who almost caused her to have a breakdown. One night while the team was on a business trip, he turned up at her hotel room door and invited himself to sit on her bed. Maas felt so pressurised by his relentless attention that she ended up in a psychiatrist's office, and when therapy failed, she requested to move to another creative group. Women were extremely vulnerable, since men could fire employees who rejected their advances.
Maas's dry wit and chatty style take the reader through such dramas without too much ado, and she moves swiftly on, noting that the harassing man "taught me how to write advertising". Such self-protecting toughness must be one of the traits that propelled her to the top, but it makes for a buttoned-up, one-sided picture. Maas is unable – or not quite willing – to dig below the surface.
Mad Women depicts a period that, in Maas's mind, is dazzling and unforgettable. "Mad women. Mad men. Mad days. I had a wonderful time, too," she concludes. "Looking back, there isn't a single thing I would do differently." But her account of those times, breezy as it is, raises as many questions as it answers.