Megan on Mad Men
As the reaction to Mad Men’s season premiere last Sunday proves, today’s younger (than I am) generations are fascinated with the lifestyle, the fashions and especially the presumed decadence of life in Manhattan in the 1960’s.
For those of us who lived through it, the show brings nostalgia, bittersweet memories of youthful foolishness, and frequent hilarity at anachronisms that slip by, despite the dozens of people on the program who are working to make every ash tray, cocktail shaker and plaid blazer authentic to the period.
I was 19 and in college when the 1960’s began. In the summer of 1963 I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley (English Lit.), and entered Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in the fall for a year-long Master of Science program. My first job after graduating was in public relations at Lever Brothers—in the iconic Lever House on Park Avenue. After six months there, I moved a few blocks uptown to work at the Ladies’ Home Journal, at 54th and Lexington (right across from what would be Studio 54 where Andy Warhol and Truman Capote played.)
There were no three-martini lunches for someone as low on the masthead as I was, but some of my colleagues did slip out for long lunch hours with older gentlemen and would come back looking rumpled and a bit tipsy. One voluptuous blonde was having a relationship with a married account executive at J. Walter Thompson and kept us abreast of all the drama.
Yes, I did smoke at the time--in fact when I went to college there was a “smoking room” on my floor in the freshman dormitory where obsessive students like myself could sit up all night smoking, studying and living on Mars Bars out of the vending machine. I smoked from the age of 18 until at 29 I married a Greek-American New York Times reporter who insisted I quit. (And I’m still married to him 42 years later.)
The thing you have to understand about the Sixties—and this is starting to be portrayed on Mad Men—is that at some point in the decade there was a watershed moment when everything changed 180 degrees: everything from fashion, music and lifestyle to views on race, women’s rights, health—you name it.
When people talk about the “Swinging Sixties” they’re talking about the last years of the decade, from about 1966 on. The first part of the sixties was a lot like the 1950’s—conservative, uptight, well-mannered (although archaic in beliefs about sex, race, whatever.) Clothing was conservative and preppy, fitted to the body. Just look at the pleated skirts and man-tailored blouses that Peggy, the secretary-turned-copywriter on Mad Men is still wearing in the season premiere, which takes place in 1966.
Here is a photograph of me in the spring of 1965 when I was headed for the airport in Los Angeles to fly back to New York after a visit with my parents. Can you believe the hat, shoes and gloves? I wouldn’t believe it myself if I didn’t have the photo as proof.
And here are two photos of me on the job in 1964 and 65. You can see that we are rocking the sculpted beehive hairdo’s that were so lacquered with spray that they were un-squashable, inspiring jokes about rodents nesting within.
So we women all looked and dressed pretty much like the earlier seasons of Mad Men. Then something happened. I’ve often pondered what it was that revolutionized the Sixties. When I left Berkeley in 1963 the Free Speech movement was just a-bornin’ and it slowly moved across the country bringing sit-ins and riots on campuses, not to mention the surging of the Civil Rights movement. The Beatles came to New York in 1964 which was a cause of great excitement at the magazine. And there was the Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967.
And suddenly hems rose to incredible heights while dresses, once structured and controlled, became loose on the body, like tunics. On the Mad Men premiere last Sunday, when Megan, the new Mrs. Don Draper sang her French song and did her sexy dance, which shocked and alarmed her colleagues and her new husband, she was wearing a black, flowing mini dress that illustrated perfectly the new fashions and attitudes. Everything that had been up tight until 1966 soon became flowing and loose and very, very short.
In this photo from Feb. 1967, when I was discussing a magazine article with Ruth Jacobs on the “Jewish Home Show”, you can see that my beehive has been replaced by a pseudo-Vidal Sassoon, asymmetrical bob. Though you can’t see it, my A-line dress with a yellow stripe down the side is very short.
On April 1, 1968, I left New York and the Ladies’ Home Journal to travel and work in Europe. I was leaving partly to get away from the Greek-American reporter who, I was sure, would break my heart.
As soon as I left New York, Martin Luther King was assassinated, then Bobby Kennedy, then, a year later, Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick and the Charles Manson murders terrorized Los Angeles. From my vantage point overseas, it seemed that my country was literally coming apart.
I had scored an editing job in London, when Swinging London was peaking. I met the Beatles, bought clothes from Biba Boutique and shared a flat with three young women who were waiting to turn 21 so they could get their hands on their trust funds. Meanwhile they got up at four every afternoon and circulated from one club to another all night. I, meanwhile, went to a nine-to-five job and occasionally handed over my rent in advance when the girl who owned the place got in a jam and had to be bailed out.
In 1969 I traveled to Greece, because I had reconciled with the previously mentioned reporter, and he was vacationing there. I arrived with a whole wardrobe of skirts so very short that he refused to introduce me to any of his friends or relatives until I acquired something of a more respectable length.
My asymmetrical bob had grown into a French twist and, for some reason, I seem to be wearing a ratty rabbit fur (or something) coat . I won’t comment on the shoes, but it all seemed very stylish at the time.
I went back to my job in my beloved London, but we eventually agreed to marry (if I quit smoking), so in 1970, I returned to Manhattan.
On March 18, 1970, at least 100 feminists staged a sit-in at the Ladies Home Journal, protesting the way the magazine’s mostly male staff depicted women’s interests. They occupied the office for 11 hours. They held prisoner my highly respected boss, John Mack Carter, and the managing editor Lenore Hershey. They even smoked JMC’s cigars.
Unfortunately I wasn’t there to see this historic moment, because by then I was writing articles for the company's foreign syndication service and working mostly at home. But I suspect that pretty soon I may get to see a similar feminist sit-in in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce on Mad Men.