Art & Commerce: A Real Mad Man

I just went back 47 years and it made me desperately want a triple martini at Ratazzis and a great-looking young secretary.

The Mad Men Web site did that to me—and now it looks like I’ll be in this dangerous time warp every week.

The booze, the sex, the cigarettes, the suits, the haircuts, the harassment, the office politics, the “we own the world” attitude—even the offices—are absolutely dead-on true. I know because I was there.

I was the writer on Lucky Strike at BBDO from 1960 to 1965. Our offices at 383 Madison Ave. looked amazingly like the show’s set. John Bergin was the creative director and he was a helluva lot funnier (and smarter) than the guy who plays him on the show. Charlie Brower was the head of the agency and he was far too nice a guy to be mistaken for the agency head in Mad Men. But what the hell—creative license.

I had just graduated from Harvard and was considered a “hotshot” writer, so they gave me a real office and put me on Lucky Strike, one of BBDO’s prized accounts. I used to sit at my desk tearing the paper off Luckies, Camels and Chesterfields, trying to get Bergin to buy my “Tear and compare” campaign.

Jim Jordan, Dick Mercer, Hank Seiden and I were all in Bergin’s group, and we quietly battled each other for his attention. The only way to get it was to create a better headline than he could. And that wasn’t easy. I clearly remember the time he chatted with me casually about his days at Amherst while literally tearing my copy into pieces, shredding the nice yellow paper that I had just proudly handed him. He never told me why he didn’t like it.

I quickly learned that you could only present your work in the morning, as nobody was sober in the afternoon. We had all been to Ratazzis for our two-hour lunch. They served giant martinis. Four shots of gin, a drop of vermouth. Bergin usually had three. Then he had lunch. With wine. He was always brilliant in the morning and always funny in the afternoon.

We had never heard the term “sexual harassment,” but it was what took place all the time. The women—with few exceptions they were secretaries, junior writers or “young media types”—never, to my knowledge, complained. Married? So what.

I know it sounds awful now, but we did have fun. It was a bit like being at a perpetual party filled with smart, funny people. I wasn’t at all ashamed at selling cigarettes. The Surgeon General report hadn’t come out yet. In fact, when all of the Lucky Strike competitors started selling filtered cigarettes, I came up with “Remember how great cigarettes used to taste? Luckies still do.” It helped keep Lucky Strike in business.

I hope Mad Men takes us to client presentations in the old American Tobacco headquarters in New York and the Lucky Strike plant in Richmond, Va. I don’t think the show’s creators can make them any funnier than the real thing. The New York presentations took place in the classic mahogany boardroom at American Tobacco. The smoke in the room was so thick we could barely see each other across the huge table. The walls had large portraits of past chairmen and the place of honor at the end of the room was commanded by the portrait of the company god, George Washington Hill, wearing the felt hat that he apparently never took off.

Hill was the creator of the “It’s toasted” slogan that appeared on every pack of Luckies. One day I went to the plant in Richmond to learn all about this famous toasting process (I wanted to feature it in our next campaign). I knew it took place in a closed area at the plant. The tobacco conveyor belt raced into one end and came out about 20 feet beyond. Nobody would tell me the secret of what went on in that room. It was a “patented process.” But one day I persuaded a plant manager to let me look inside. All I could see was a fluorescent light. I decided to abandon my campaign about the toasting process.

Mad Men makes us all look like crass, sex-crazed idiots. In real life, we were better than that. We took the job of selling our client’s products very seriously—and we were pretty damn good at it. You probably won’t see that in Mad Men, but what the hell. Creative license.

We did have fun—and we were a little mad. Have things changed in our business? Yeah. The booze, the sex, the suits and the cigarettes are mostly all gone. And in a way, so is the fun.