Books to Watch “Mad Men” By, Part 2

November 12th, 2009

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d really tapped the vein of Madison Avenue books in my first post on books to watch “Mad Men” by, so I returned to the coalface and started digging some more.

It turns out that by the time of “Mad Men”, the early 1960s, most of the literature of the New York advertising world–not that much of it deserves the “literature” label–had already been written. 1958, in fact, appears to have been the highpoint of Mad Lit, as this article from Time magazine suggests, which surveys a half-dozen novels published that year set in and around the advertising business. Although the reviewer dismisses most of them as easily interchangeable with camp science fiction with a simple switch of scenery–”the bug-eyed monsters will be replaced by tyrannical clients, the clean-cut spacemen by bright-eyed space-buyers, and the half-dressed blondes by other half-dressed blondes”–his description of their heroes sounds remarkably similar to that of the protagonists of “Mad Men.” “They are drumbeatniks who brood during a few drinks about the morality of what they are doing, then get over it.”

Here, then, are some more sagas of Scotch, sex, and sales campaigns for those who can’t get enough from a weekly session on the tube.

A Twist of Lemon, by Edward Stephens

“A young man’s desparate scramble up the cold and treacherous plate-glass cliffs of Madison Avenue,” according to its dust jacket. Here is a book that Barry Goldwater would love. What’s wrong with being a Mad Man is not the business, which in the end only “honestly and intelligently and faithfully advertises sound products to people who are glad to know about them. And that, after all, is what makes the economy go around.” What’s wrong is doing it in the plate-glass cliffs, which is why the hero heads to Phoenix to set up his own mom-and-pop ad company, in a steel-and-stucco cliff, one assumes.

Cover of 'Pax'

Pax, by Middleton Kiefer

Harry Middleton and Warren Kiefer, one-time PR men for Pfizer, stick it to the Man with this novel about false promises and misleading advertising in the pharmaceuticals business. It’s pure coincidence that SmithKline Beecham later adopted the name Paxil for their successful anti-depressant. It is a fact, however, as shown in the cover of the paperback version of Pax, that there was a brief period in 1958 when advertising executives enjoyed dressing up as airline pilots.

The Admen, by Shepherd Mead

Mead, who’s best remembered now because his 1952 book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, was the basis of a successful Broadway musical and a fun 1967 starring Robert Morse (resurrected forty years later to play Bert Cooper in “Mad Men”), was a Man Mad himself, VP of Benton & Bowles. Mead, who wrote a slew of mostly ephemeral satirical books (The Big Ball of Wax, The Carefully Considered Rape of the World, Free the Male Man!, How to Get to the Future Before It Gets to You), considered this his best book. Time’s reviewer had a different opinion, well and truly skewering it: “This time the author does not try for laughs, instead achieves a notable first: a novel whose characters will have to be deepened before they are translated to the screen.” The book did earn Mead one of the Establishment’s highest forms of recognition, though: it was issued as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book.

The Detroiters, by Harold Livingston

Set in Detroit rather than Manhattan, but an ad-biz saga nonetheless. “Call-girls, debutantes and wives–the big novel about big operators, big deals, and beautiful women” trumpets the cover of this novel–and who would deny that fascination with a time when blatant sexism was not just tolerated but encouraged is part of the attraction of “Mad Men”? Livingston displays the schizophrenia of his fellow ad-man writers: “Good writers … look down their noses at advertising. They’d rather starve. So what does it get them? Self-respect? Integrity? Try paying your bills with integrity.” You thought that last line was a cliche, right? Nope, someone actually wrote it. I believe Livingston later attempted to copyright “Try paying your bills with integrity.”

Cover of A Really Sincere Guy

A Really Sincere Guy, by Robert van Riper

Yes, that really is the book’s title. Riper, who worked for the prominent PR firm, N. W. Ayer, wrote several novels about the intersection of PR and politics. In this one, his PR man hero sets aside his principles to tout a louse running for governor, fools around with a fast woman, then straightens his life out. Straightening his life out consists in returning to his wife, dumping the louse, and setting up his own mom-and-pop PR company. Probably a case where the cover is better than what comes after it.

The Insider, by James Kelly

Kelly, an exec with Compton Advertising, once wrote an article titled, “In Defense of Madison Avenue” for the New York Times magazine. The Insider earned the best reviews of all the books on this list–”told thoughtfully, and is worth reading,” wrote Time; “Not only a very good first novel but solid evidence that Mr. Kelly is a writer of perception and skill,” concluded Saturday Review. Perhaps, in part, because he chose an anti-hero–an amiable account exec married to a drug company heiress who suddenly has to make some real decisions for the first time in his life–rather than a “man of principles” like most of the other novels’. And in Kelly’s case, it was he, rather than his protagonist, who left Manhattan and headed off to the Southwest, settling in New Mexico.

The Golden Kazoo, by John G Schneider

When published in 1956, this satire about Madison Avenue finding a candidate and getting him elected as president (in the far-off year of 1960) as easily as it could pitch “a can of beer, a squeeze tube of deodorant, a can of dog food” seemed far-fetched enough to be considered as material for a Broadway musical. Now, of course, it’s business as usual.

Cover of 'The Advertising Man'

The Advertising Man, by Jack Dillon

This 1972 novel, by a VP of the legendary Dane Doyle Bernbach, was well-received by some critics. Time’s reviewer offered this left-handed compliment: “If this were a polished writing job, it would be one more of those slick commercial novels about an ad agency. Instead, it is clumsy, serious and painstaking, and perhaps as a consequence, considerably more enlightening.” It’s essentially a familiar story: work too hard and the rest of your life will eventually go on the fritz–but rich on authentic Man Med atmospherics.

Chocolate Days, Popsicle Weeks, by Edward Hannibal

Just recently reissued by the Authors Guild epublishing service, iUniverse, this 1970 is, in the words of a Times reviewer, “a rung-by-rung” account of climbing the Madison Avenue ladder in the late 1950s. It won Hannibal a Houghton-Mifflin Literary Fellowship and became a best-seller. The title comes not from advertising, but from its protagonist’s first job, working in an ice cream factory–days making chocolate-covered bars were tougher than those making popsicles. In keeping with its time and the formula for most of the novels discussed here, Hannibal’s ad exec eventually decides to drop out and pursue life away from the rat race–not, however, by setting up his own mom-and-pop ad firm.

Madison Avenue, USA, Martin Mayer

Probably the one to read if you really want to soak up the atmosphere of “Mad Men.” Written in 1958, Madison Avenue, USA is one of Mayer’s specialties: factual, intelligent, and authoritative accounts of how an industry really works.

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