Q&A: ‘Mad Men’ creator Matthew Weiner talks ‘other-ness’ and Jewish identity on eve of finale
By Lisa Lednicer May 14
This weekend, America will say goodbye to the cultural phenomenon that is “Mad Men.” Over seven seasons, the series — which airs its last episode Sunday on AMC — traces the United States’ transition from the staid, tradition-bound Eisenhower years to the freewheeling exuberance and social upheaval of the 1960s. It’s about the rise of meritocracy in the workplace and the decline of the WASP establishment. It’s about outsiders seeking a way in, grasping for a gauzy version of the American Dream while blotting out their grimy pasts.
In other words, it’s a story about the Jewish American experience, even though creator Matthew Weiner insists that it has never been a Jewish show.
That may be true, but there are too many writerly winks and nudges, too many frissons of recognition, for the inclusion of Jews to be an afterthought. …
For Jewish Americans who struggle with their identity — the viewers whose grandparents spoke Yiddish, whose parents lit candles on Shabbat but never joined a synagogue, who married non-Jewish spouses and haven’t been to Israel but send their kids to Hebrew school — the series spoke to them in a way that other TV programs haven’t.
Finally, a TV show that expresses Jewish American sensibilities!
But that does explain a lot about why Mad Men was such a media phenomenon without ever developing much of a mass audience: amusingly, its finale on Sunday was beaten almost two to one in the Nielsen ratings by two colorized I Love Lucy reruns from over 60 years ago.
As it turns out, that was a deliberate choice on Weiner’s part. Weiner, who was raised in Los Angeles, wanted to tell a story about other-ness. “Getting to say that about Jews was fresh — to me,” he says. “And it’s a part of my life. Having grown up in a community with restricted country clubs and a lot of sophisticated anti-Semitism, I felt proud that I got to actually say that. And a little bit defiant.”
It’s natural to assume that I must be making up all this stuff about country clubs because it sounds so nuts, but there it is, over and over again.
In Weiner’s defense, Hancock Park, where Weiner (b. 1965) grew up, was likely the WASPiest enclave west of Pasadena. And the Harvard-Westlake prep school he attended in the Hollywood Hills had some vague Episcopalian connection. But still …
You have to admire the tenacity with which Weiner seizes upon scraps of evidence to suggest that Jews in Los Angeles during during his youth were victimized outsiders rather than the top dogs in the most glamorous industry in the world. It’s like how Michael Jordan, the most popular athlete in the world, used to psyche himself up before big games in the 1990s by obsessing over one sentence somebody somewhere had said about him that wasn’t wholly fawning.
Last week, Weiner talked about how he chose to portray New York Jewish life in the 1960s. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
In other words, Weiner likes giving interviews. He’s not a particularly coherent speaker, but he definitely has a lot to get off his chest.
Q. What were you trying to say about Jewish identity and how it changed?
A. Well, there is a fluidity to it. On the one hand, I’m saying it’s inescapable, you should be who you are. I’m saying that about Don, I’m saying that about everybody. On the other hand, I’m saying Roger’s wife, Jane Siegel, is Jewish, and it’s really inconsequential. And this is the guy who clearly has biases and belongs to restricted country clubs.
Like I said …
But I love the idea that for her, it’s not a big deal. And for Rachel, it’s completely defining. It’s the separateness of how you see yourself, whether it’s inside you or you’re being reminded of it every day. And I think that there are moments of tolerance. I think that despite anti-Semitism, that the Israeli victories in the late Sixties were very inspiring to the American public. And those characters like Moshe Dayan were completely heroic. For being outnumbered, for being smarter, for winning against all odds.
The more time goes by, the more the Israeli victory in the Six-Days-War of 1967 seems like a key historical event in world culture because of the confidence-building impact it had on Jews, especially on the more naturally conservative and ethnocentric Jews like Weiner.
It’s healthy human nature for a teenage male to want to be a Defender of the Clan, to go and do battle with the Tribe’s enemies. High school football is one well-known outlet for this primordial instinct.
Of course, to have a Clan to defend, you also have to have a Not-Clan that you feel resentment against. But grown-ups keep telling you that you can’t be at war all the time, that there are rules of truce. But, if you are a high testosterone male, like Moshe Dayan or Matthew Weiner, you can’t help but keep noticing how the Not-Clan is always violating the rules of fairness, how the Not-Tribe is always getting ready to attack.
A. … I was always interested in having Jews be part of the fabric of New York City, but they definitely were not part of the fabric of that ad agency. That was a conscious decision as we showed in the show, to bring Jews in. And that was also part of the story of advertising. That subversive attitude, humorous attitude — you are living in someone else’s world. Certainly the creative revolution had to do with what I would call a Jewish sense of humor being introduced into advertising that America already loved.
One way to discourage members of a Clan from getting worked up all the time over the horridness of the Not-Clan is to make fun of them for it. But if one Tribe’s aversion toward its Not-Tribe neighbors is ruled to be Not a Joking Matter, well, people like Matthew Weiner never quite get the joke.
After all, what reason do they have to need a sense of humor about their own prejudices? Weiner has been making a fool of himself in interviews for some time now about all the anti-Semitism he endured in Coldwater Canyon, but almost nobody has noticed that it’s funny. It sure hasn’t hurt his career.
Q. Was advertising truly an all-WASP bastion? And if it was all WASP, what made it start to change? Was there a tipping point?
A. I am not enough of an expert on this to really be specific, but it was segregated for a long time.
There is is a key bit of sleight-of-hand that goes by almost without noticing: in response to “Was advertising truly an all-WASP bastion?” Weiner replies, “It was segregated.” In other words, just as with investment banks and country clubs, advertising firms tended to lean Jewish or gentile, but the industry was hardly an all-WASP bastion. But that’s a more complicated reality than what the Post interviewer asked. But you can hardly expect Weiner to delve into minor bits of trivia like this, when he only has had 92 hours of Mad Men and 10 million words of interviews to clear things up.
But there’s a lot of quintessential ad campaigns early on, where Jewish sensibility and Jewish writers, some of them female, started having an impact. And I think that by 1969, people are looking for Jewish creatives.
I think boutique agencies breaking off also started to bring Jews into the picture. These these were white agencies, populated by white people, using all of the typical philosophies that are used to exclude people.
It’s interesting that Weiner, who has become so immensely influential by ret-conning the past to suit current prejudices, uses “white” as meaning “gentile.”
The Flight from White is one of the important stories of our time.
Which is, “I’m not comfortable around them; they’re selling to a minority,” and the irony being, of course, that a lot of the entertainment that the ads are sitting in is being written by Jewish comedy writers.
At the beginning of the 1960s, you have someone having to go to the mailroom to find a Jewish employee and then all of a sudden, it’s okay, we want Jews. We want Jews in our ad agency.
I certainly don’t know more about the history of American advertising than Matthew Weiner does, but I do know the dominant ad man of the first half of the century: Albert Lasker. Wikipedia writes:
Albert Davis Lasker (May 1, 1880 – May 30, 1952) was an American businessman who is often considered to be the founder of modern advertising. … Chicago, along with New York, was the center of the nation’s advertising industry. Lasker, known as the “father of modern advertising,” made Chicago his base 1898–1942. As head of the Lord and Thomas agency, Lasker devised a copywriting technique that appealed directly to the psychology of the consumer.
Women seldom smoked cigarettes; he told them if they smoked Lucky Strikes they could stay slender. Lasker’s use of radio, particularly with his campaigns for Palmolive soap, Pepsodent toothpaste, Kotex products, and Lucky Strike cigarettes, not only revolutionized the advertising industry but also significantly changed popular culture.
The Jewish Virtual Library writes:
Lasker Family Modern History: Table of Contents | Jews in America | Advertising
LASKER, family of prominence in the 19th–20th centuries in the U.S.
MORRIS LASKER (1840–1916), who was born in Prussia, immigrated to the U.S. in 1856. After settling in Texas in 1860, he participated in a number of Indian campaigns and fought in the Civil War with the Confederacy. After the war Lasker moved to Galveston, where he became a prominent merchant, real estate and livestock dealer, and banker. He was elected to the Texas state senate in 1895. His brother Eduard *Lasker (1829–1884) was a prominent German politician and author.
ALBERT DAVIS LASKER (1880–1952), an advertising pioneer, public servant, and communal leader, was brought up in Galveston. Lasker worked as a reporter for the Dallas News before joining the Chicago advertising agency of Lord & Thomas in 1898. He subsequently bought the agency (1910), and when he dissolved the firm and retired in 1942, the agency was the largest of its kind in the world. Lasker’s inventiveness, particularly his use of what he called “salesmanship-in-print,” sparked a tremendous growth in the advertising business. His public and political posts included aide to President Wilson’s secretary of the Department of Agriculture; head of the Republican National Committee’s publicity department (1918); and chairman of the U.S. Shipping Board (1921–23). Before resigning from the last, Lasker oversaw the extensive reorganization of the U.S. merchant marine and the disposal of $3 billion worth of the board’s assets. In 1940 he was a delegate from Illinois to the Republican National Convention. Active in Jewish affairs, Lasker contributed to the Hebrew Union College, was a trustee of the Associated Jewish Charities of Chicago, and was a member of the American Jewish Committee’s executive committee. He also founded and endowed the Lasker Foundation for medical research in 1928.
And various sisters of Albert Lasker were prominent in Zionism, immigration issues, and the ACLU.
Of course Weiner knows all about Lasker. That’s obvious because the very first episode of Mad Men ever ends with Don Draper plagiarizing Lasker’s Lucky Strike slogan. As I wrote six years ago in Taki’s Magazine:
In the pilot episode set in 1960, for instance, Don Draper is proclaimed a genius by his clients and colleagues for dreaming up a new slogan for Lucky Strike cigarettes: “It’s Toasted.” In reality, a lame phrase like that would have been laughed at in 1960. Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted” slogan actually dates to 1917.
Lasker played a key role in liberating women from society’s prejudice. From T he Man Who Sold America:
But women were beginning to smoke in the home, and Lasker realized that a vast new market was ready to open up. This was brought home to him one afternoon at the Tip Top Inn, a restaurant near his Chicago home, where he was lunching with his wife. Flora tended toward obesity, and her doctor had suggested that she take up smoking to curb her appetite. But on this particular day, when she attempted to light up after lunch, the restaurant’s proprietor rushed over and said that he could not permit a woman to smoke in the main dining room. If Flora wished to smoke, he continued, the Laskers would have to retire to a private room.
“It filled me with indignation,” Lasker recalled, “that I had to do surreptitiously something which was perfectly normal in a place where I had gone so much. That determined me to break down the prejudice against women smoking.”
Interestingly, I haven’t been able to find anything on whether Lord & Thomas, which Lasker went to work for in 1898, had much of an ethnic identity. I haven’t found any references to whether the people who hired Lasker were Jewish or not, and Lasker’s two most famous hires, former Canadian Mountie John E. Kennedy (who gave Lasker his creative philosophy that advertising was “salesmanship in print) and efficiency expert Claude C. Hopkins, don’t sound all that Jewish.
In general, the fabulously successful German Jewish-Americans like Lasker didn’t seem to trigger much resistance among gentiles, at least not until huge numbers of less suave Russian Jews showed up in America.
Indeed, a key point for understanding the past is that many Jewish families’ stories of how great-grandpa was discriminated against by American gentiles are actually stories of how he was discriminated against by German Jewish employers or country clubs that have been ret-conned over the generations to extrude awkward bits.
Lasker owned the most admired personal golf course in America during the Depression, which was ranked #23 in the country by a golf magazine in 1939. The Chicago Tribune reported in 2009:
The course was the brainchild of Albert Lasker, head of Lord & Thomas, a now-defunct Chicago ad agency that was among the largest in the U.S. Lasker rubbed elbows with celebrities, helped launch commercial radio and bought a stake in the Chicago Cubs, according to the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society, which is hosting the tour Saturday as part of an exhibit on local golf history.
Despite his success, Lasker, who was Jewish, couldn’t wrangle an invitation to the exclusive Lake Forest golf clubs where he longed to play. In 1921 he bought 480 acres of farmland north of Half Day Road on the western fringes of the town and set up an even more exclusive club — in his own backyard.
“He wasn’t invited to play at some of the other courses, so he built his own,” said Laurie Stein, curator of the historical society. …
The William Flynn-designed course was built at a cost of about $1 million and was immaculately maintained. A who’s who of golf made the rounds with Lasker, including Gene Sarazen, Johnny Farrell and Bobby Jones, who reportedly called the course one of the three best in the country.
Back to the Washington Post interview of Weiner:
Q. Of all the Jewish characters in “Mad Men,” who’s your favorite?
A. I was very, very attached to Rachel. I was very proud of having a character on TV who is Jewish, and who says they’re Jewish, and not just has a Jewish last name and comes out in, like, Season 7 or something. …
A. … Because I think sometimes it’s forgotten. You know, for any of us who had to stand up and explain to our elementary school class what Hanukkah was in the late ‘70s. And, you know, that’s the story of the show for everybody. For all the characters.
Americans love a winner. And the way you win is by firing yourself up with anger at the perfidiousness of your opponents and how they forced you into defending yourself (hey, it worked for Genghis Khan), and by delegitimizing and demoralizing potential rivals.
A good way to do this is by ret-conning history, such as with a TV show that’s watched by all the other writers. He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.