Two Sundays ago, WNET, the local PBS outlet in New York, aired the documentary "The Real Men and Women of Madison Avenue." Featuring interviews with George Lois, Mary Wells, and Jane Maas, among other stalwarts of the creative revolution, the show provided a bit of relief for our “Mad Men” cravings -- a temporary oasis in the now-sub-Saharan desert of Sunday night-TV.
I have to disclose that I also appear in the film, supplying some pop cultural and sociological context.
But let’s face it: the question most viewers want to ask of the real Mads is: “Was there really that much drinking, sex, and cheating going on?”
The answer seems to be a definitive “yes.”
And the job of official documentary sexologist seemed to fall to Jerry Della Femina, the legendary copywriter who brought us “From Those Wonderful People Who Brought Us Pearl Harbor.”
He appeared on screen with that “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” zinger (quotation cited above) and then mentioned his agency’s secret sex parties. So in the interest of history, I called Della Femina to supply some never-before-released particulars.
But, first, some context: The agency party started in 1969, the year the world seemed to blow up. There was the moon landing, Woodstock, Chappaquiddick, the Stonewall riots, and the ascension of the Black Panther Party, to name a few things that seemed to upend life as Americans knew it. (“Mad Men” ended its latest season in November of 1968, and most insiders believe it will come back in 1969.)
By then, the women’s movement was gathering force -- the phrase “male chauvinist pig” appeared in Esquire magazine. Use of The Pill was becoming commonplace among young women. The fashion picture was full of sexual metaphor: hemlines were rocketing upward, requiring a move from girdles to pantyhose or nothing; breasts were being unleashed. The whole mythic bra-burning incident happened in 1968 -- a publicity stunt for a protest against the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City.
A few words of caution: The party details feel incredibly creepy and offensive to our modern, more PC- and sexual–harassment-trained sensibilities. Yet despite how it seemed on “Mad Men,” with many women being groped and inappropriately hit on, Della Femina’s view is that by the time his agency parties started, both genders were having an equally good time.
“The key to it all was that everybody enjoyed it,” Della Femina told me,.“There was no pressure. No one was judging. Now there’s a lot of judging going on.”
(Della Femina was reached in the office of his latest agency, Della Femina/Rothschild/Jeary & Partners. “Why are you still working in advertising?” I asked him. “It’s the only thing I know how to do,” he said.)
So how did the idea for the party get started? “I decided that we were spending too much time lusting after each other in the office,” Della Femina said. “So I thought we would all pick a day in December to have a vote on whom we wanted to go to bed with.”
That led to a decision to hold a serious, rules-filled contest. “So we sent out a funny, anonymous memo explaining the rules -- everyone in the agency got a copy of the [company] phone book, and you had to put the number one next to your top choice, and then number two and number three. First prize was a night at the Plaza. Second prize was a night on [agency partner] Ron Travisano’s couch.”
A gay category was started in 1972, and later there was also a “ménage a trios” category. For these contests, the prize was a lunch at the Four Seasons.
An oversized ballot box was built in the art department and placed in Della Femina’s office. “We had serious poll watchers to make sure everything was on the up and up,” Della Femina cracked. “We had three people to do the counting. One year I had the accountants in to do the books. They tabulated the results.”
And the results were revealed at a wild, company-wide dinner at a local Mexican restaurant, where the restaurant owners locked the doors while much was eaten, imbibed, and smoked.
By the early 1970s the competition had blossomed, and some staffers started placing campaign posters around the agency. Jerry said that the women were the most aggressive campaigners. One female campaigner came up with an ad that stated, “Like Bloomingdale’s, I’m open after 9 every night.” Another posted ads in the men’s room, above the urinal, that said, “Can I help you with that?”
I figured that the awareness of AIDS in the ‘80s would have put an end to the contest, but apparently it lasted until 1992. “It had run its course,” Della Femina said. “It was a different, PC world, with human resources departments.”
I was thinking it was like “Ice-Storm”-era key parties, with people switching mates, etc. -- but the truth, Della Femina told me, is that nobody knows if the winners actually consummated the process. He said he knew of only one couple who actually took advantage of the Plaza weekend in all those years. “It was our secret,” he said. “No one ever spoke of it publicly.”
These days, he said, the concept is ridiculous. “Most people are more interested in their cell phones.”