"Mad Men" vs. "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit"

Gregory Peck in the 1956 Twentieth Century Fox film, "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit"

The working day as depicted on AMC television’s Mad Men: Executives and copywriters arrive at the Sterling Cooper offices at mid-morning and begin boozing at midday. Their labor consists of meetings to brainstorm about potential ad campaigns, meetings with clients to figure out what’s wanted or to pitch a potential advertising theme, and phone calls. White-collar types and clericals alike seem to be done by 4:30 or 5 p.m. – just in time to sprint over to Grand Central for a Metro North train back to the ‘burbs.

Today’s 80-hour-workweek drudges can’t help but be amused – and probably envious.

But was working life really like that? Some clues can perhaps be discovered in Sloan Wilson’s well-known best-seller from 1955, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Four Walls, Eight Windows, 2002).

Wilson wasn’t writing about the Madison Avenue set, of course. When we first meet the author’s fictional protagonist, Tom Rath is employed at the small Schanenhauser Foundation but contemplating a move to the public-relations department at United Broadcasting Corporation, an outfit that seems modeled on NBC. The foundation, it seems, doesn’t pay enough for the Rath family to move out of its little Westport, Connecticut house – a place marked by “a thousand petty shabbinesses,” from the conspicuous crack on the living-room wall to the dog scratch on the front door. With a salary increase at United Broadcasting, the Raths might upgrade to spiffier quarters or even develop some property that Tom inherits.

After an initial stint as a speech-writer for United’s president, Tom is offered a more prominent, and demanding, position at the network. But there’s a catch: The hours are hardly Sterling-Cooper-esque. “Running any big outfit is incredibly hard work,” Tom muses to his wife. He worries that he could be expected to perform like his boss, who “never thinks about anything but his work, day and night, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.” Tom, on the other hand, acknowledges, “I could never do it, and I don’t want to.”

Fortunately, the United president proves to be understanding and offers Rath a less-demanding position. So the implication is that not everyone was made to put in backbreaking hours.

And what about the booze? United’s PR men – cousins, after all, of the Mad Ave. men — don’t seem to hit the bottle particularly hard at the office or over lunch. In the Rath social set, boozing it up is relegated to suburban cocktail parties, which Tom’s wife Betsy regards as “an exhausting exercise,” beginning at around 7:30 p.m. and continuing sans dinner until 4 a.m. Moreover, much of the cocktail-party conversation seemed to revolve around moving out of the current neighborhood or “escaping to an entirely different sort of life – to a dairy farm in Vermont or to the management of a motel in Florida.” Rather than lubricating the creative impulses, hooch in the world of Gray Flannel seems to inspire reveries of escape.

Further comparisons between the world of Mad Men and reality as we knew it are facilitated by the arrival of a new book, The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (But True) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century (Harvard Business Review Press). I’ll tackle those comparisons in an upcoming blog posting.

2 Replies to “"Mad Men" vs. "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit"”

  1. Part of the irony in Revolutionary Road–another classic, 1962–is how little Frank Wheeler wants to work when he’s working, despite his interest in promotion, and how easily he gets away with it.

    There is also a character in Revolutionary Road who focuses his life on his alcoholic intake. He comes across as clownish and offensive, like the guy on Mad Men who wet his pants. But then again, Frank and April Wheeler drank to bad effect, and apparently so did the author Richard Yates. Not always social drinking, but the drinking on Mad Men isn’t all that social either.

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