I was Peggy Olson

IT’S a rainy morning in Los Angeles, and Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy Olson in the television series Mad Men, is standing outside the stage door smoking.

On the set, the actors are restricted to herbal cigarettes, so she has ducked out for “the real thing.” I say I am a reporter from Newsweek who started as a secretary, and she says “I am you.”

Olson is a striving Norwegian-American Catholic girl from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (coincidentally my birthplace, too), who started her career in 1960 “straight out of Miss Something secretarial school,” Moss says. That was the path for women and as Mad Men enters its fifth season on Sky Atlantic tonight, Peggy has been recognised for her skills as a writer, rising from Don Draper’s secretary to his trusted number two in the creative department at ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Women weren’t supposed to be ambitious in the 1960s. When I started at Newsweek as a secretary, I was thrilled to be typing something interesting. I was the daughter of immigrants; my father had a deli and my mother made the potato salad and rice pudding. It didn’t occur to me that I could be a reporter or a writer, but the women’s movement was taking root at Newsweek.

The two days I spent on the set of Mad Men were like a time capsule of the ’60s, from the pencil skirts, and stockings with garters, to the electric typewriter that was the latest technology. Everybody on the show smokes, and critics say that glorifies a nasty, unhealthy habit. But that’s the way it was then. The public high school I attended in Queens let us out for a smoking break.

Mad Men revolves around Don Draper’s extramarital exploits and the callous way he treats the women he beds, including his wife. But he isn’t what he seems and is more respectful of women than any other character because he recognises and rewards merit without having his manhood threatened. Peggy benefits the most, achieving professional status when that was not commonplace for women, and yet she struggles with what she’s missing. “‘Should I have married? Should I be having babies?’ For a 26-year-old, the pressure of having children is very present,” Moss says of her character, who secretly gives up a baby. The biological clock had yet to be named, but it ticked loudly for 20-somethings then, and the more Peggy succeeds at work, the fewer options she believes she has in her personal life.

It’s hard for Joan, the siren queen of the secretarial pool, played by Christina Hendricks, to watch Peggy get ahead. Joan is the embodiment of what society has told her: a job is a step on the way to a family, a dating game until she meets the right person. Joan has a torrid office affair with a senior partner and doesn’t feel shame or guilt. She knows she’s a prize and if she plays her cards right, who knows? She marries a doctor, but he rapes her. Date rape and marital rape were unclassified then, and Hendricks turned it into a teachable moment off the set when people would say, “When you sort of got raped?” “What does that mean, ‘sort of?’?” she would say. “Just because there wasn’t a knife to your throat?”

Mad Men gets the gender stratification right, along with the smoking, the heavy drinking and sleeping around. That was the case at Newsweek in the ’60s among the married writers and editors and the young single women hired to become researchers, then considered ‘a really good job for a woman.’ These smart, talented, ambitious women were fact checkers, but they also reported and provided emotional support when the men were writing, everything from sharpening their pencils to picking up their dry cleaning.

A former Newsweek researcher recalls two of her colleagues being dispatched to a bar to order martinis for the male writers and bring them back in paper cups stashed in their purses. The drink of choice was martini, which former Newsweek writer Peter Goldman recalls being served in “glasses the size of birdbaths.” The three-martini lunch was real, not just an expression. How could anyone write after consuming so much alcohol? Another former Newsweek writer would say “the great thing about this job is you can do it drunk.” Goldman recalls returning from the magazine’s traditional Friday-night dinners “lightly buzzed — it was relaxing, like a Valium.”

Don Draper would have felt right at home at Newsweek. While I don’t recall any of the top editors having a bar in his office, a couple of the writers had bottles in their bottom-desk drawer. The abundance of young, single women would also have been easy prey for Draper, whose prowess with them provides endless plot twists to examine how people lie to each other and themselves.

Like Draper, many editors and executives maintained families in the outlying suburbs, while behaving as though it was their God-given right to enjoy play time in the city. Goldman, hired as a writer in the national affairs section in 1962, recalls a fellow writer telling him he was the most married man at Newsweek, “and he didn’t mean it as a compliment.”

An infirmary on the 13th floor with two rooms that could be locked was a favourite place for trysting. I didn’t participate in these extracurricular activities. Not that I was super-principled, but I was living with a television director I had met at a previous job working as a secretary at an ad agency. Brooks Clift was charming and worldly; he gave me books to read and talked to me as if my opinion mattered. Thrice-married and 21 years older, he could have stepped off the set of Mad Men. He would become my husband and the father of my three sons. We were married at the home of his brother, actor Montgomery Clift.

Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, says: “This is my age. I was raised by people who married in 1959, and you get your parents’ values if you’re lucky enough to meet them.” Growing up in the ’80s, Weiner’s generation was obsessed with M*A*S*H and Happy Days and 1950s diners.

Weiner’s parents divorced when he was 10 and he describes his father, a neurologist, as “very virtuous.” He first learned his father was Ronald Reagan’s doctor when Nancy Reagan revealed the former president had Alzheimer’s. His mother, a lawyer and then a stay-at-home mother, is like Betty Draper, “given lots of power and education and expected to ruminate the rest of her life,” he says.

The show, produced by Lionsgate, has won praise for its historical accuracy, and when I was visiting the set, costume designer Janie Bryant brought Weiner a sketch of a vintage rubber pants that had been designed for toddler Eugene, Betty and Don’s third child. They don’t make them anymore for babies, she said — because they’re toxic.

Weiner can handle seven or eight characters in his head and he dictates the storylines to a writer’s assistant, pacing while he talks. “It is not a stream of consciousness, it’s very organised,” he says. The dictation is given to the writers’ room, where a dozen or more writers turn it into a first draft that Weiner then rewrites.

Assured of three more seasons after contentious negotiations, Weiner is being questioned about how he will end Mad Men. Imagining Don and the others today is unlikely: “unless they’re freaks of nature, the way they drink and smoke” they probably wouldn’t make it into their Medicare years, he says.

As the world of Mad Men enters the mid-’60s in season five, the times they are ‘a-changin’, and Don Draper and his buddies are on the wrong side of the gender and generation gap that will leave America a radically different nation by the end of the decade. At Newsweek, a cover story on ‘women in revolt’ appeared on newsstands in 1970, the same day women at the magazine held a news conference announcing they were suing for gender discrimination.

The class action, launched by a half-dozen researchers in New York, was joined by 46 women. The editor, Osborn Elliott, a fine journalist who thought of himself as a progressive, was both surprised and truly hurt by the women’s action. During a meeting with the women and their ACLU lawyer, Eleanor Holmes Norton (who now represents Washington, DC in Congress), Elliott sought to defend his record by highlighting the magazine’s commitment to finding black writers, correspondents, and editors. To which Norton replied sharply: “Mr Elliott, all you’re telling me is you’ve got two problems.”

Newsweek had been focused on civil rights and the growing anti-war movement, and by the time the male editors got around to the women’s movement, discontent within the magazine had taken hold and legal redress was essential. An affirmative-action plan opened up opportunities that I could never have imagined, and after an internship I was assigned to cover Jimmy Carter’s bid for the White House, which brought me to Washington, where I have been ever since. It’s my Cinderella story, and it’s an era that Mad Men captures in all its dimensions.

A lot of positive social change took place, the result of struggles waged by many people whose names don’t make it into the history books. To be part of it, in even a small way, sure was fun.

* The fifth series of Mad Men starts on Sky Atlantic tonight at 9pm.

(c) 2012 Newsweek/Daily Beast Company

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