My brief (boring) life as a Mad Woman

Writer Mary Walton in 1965, the year she landed a job on Madison Avenue.
Writer Mary Walton in 1965, the year she landed a job on Madison Avenue.
Posted: May 01, 2014

Mad Men takes me back to 1965, when I was 24, in a premature marriage, and unemployed. I needed a job and fancied myself a writer. As the series reminds us, advertising was sexy, advertising was dramatic. I wanted sexy, I wanted dramatic.

Peggy Olson starts as Don Draper's secretary. I desperately hoped to bypass this entry-level servitude. When I aspired in high school to be an Olympic swimmer, my father made me go to typing school just in case, you know, the swimming thing didn't work out. But now I had a Harvard diploma. I didn't want to type for a living.

So I created a portfolio of mock ads and sent them to a half-dozen agencies. The one response came from a female manager at Compton Advertising, who wrote her colleagues that I showed "real wit and sense of form for ideas." She wondered, "Could we channel this talent to the uses of advertising? ... Think we should try to find out." Comet Cleanser functioned as the advertising arm of Procter & Gamble. I was hired as the third copywriter on the Comet account. Thrilled, I got a haircut, a perm, and some miniskirts.

By Episode 6, Peggy, while still a lowly secretary, has come up with lipstick hype ("a basket of kisses") and launched her writing career. And Pete Campbell is about to impregnate her, if he hasn't already.

Two months into my job on Madison Avenue, I was staring at four walls and thinking about a cleanser for seven hours a day. Nobody chased me around my desk.

Comet's long-running campaign featured Jane Withers, a child star from the 1930s, as Josephine the Plumber. On YouTube, the wee Withers performs a flawless singing and tap-dancing solo. And there she is again decades later in plumber's overalls, popping out from under a sink with the same brio she displayed as a child, only now she's pitching Comet to a housewife distraught over the ugly stains in her porcelain sink. I had never given any thought to sink stains; now I thought about them all the time.

During my tenure, the campaign targeted four intractable food residues: grapes, blueberries, chocolate, and tannic acid, found in tea and coffee. Soon, I was writing kitchen-sink dramas.

"Water heater's fixed, Mrs. Lee," Josephine says. Mrs. Lee smiles broadly as she proffers a jar of jelly. "Josephine, you got me out of a jam, so I'm giving you some jelly." Turns out Mrs. Lee's sink was full of purple blotches after making grape jelly. "Tried New Extra Strength Comet?" Josephine asked her. VoilĂ ! Stains gone. Jam ... jelly - my inspiration! Mrs. Blake's sink suffered the same fate when she made 14 blueberry pies for a church supper. You better believe I wrote that Comet "takes the cake." And there was Mrs. Bell, whose hapless husband had left tea bags in the sink. What an idiot!

I learned that more words could be squeezed in when elided: "Grape jelly! That's m'favorite."

At Sterling Cooper, Peggy deftly promoted a weight-loss device as a vibrator. I, too, faced a writing challenge.

Each commercial featured a 20-second demo pitting Comet against Ajax, always referred to in-house as "The Enemy." So picture, if you will, two side-by-side stains. Ajax tackles its stain twice, Comet once. After the second try, the Ajax stain remains; Comet's has vanished. Crows Josephine, "Comet can remove stains better in one try than yours will in two."

The agency wanted a fresh demo. Assigned to Compton's test kitchen, I wielded tannic acid to create two stains, shook Comet on one, Ajax on the other, then covered them with damp sponges. When the sponges were lifted, Comet's stain had disappeared, and Ajax's remained. At least that was the goal.

Demeaning? Perhaps. But I welcomed any opportunity to leave my office. Where was the sex? Where was the drama? Although I had looked forward to being on the set when a commercial was filmed, it was as exciting as the New Jersey Turnpike. Hours went by as scenes were filmed repeatedly for just the right nuance. The closest I got to Withers was a bathroom stall next to hers.

I never got around to the chocolate stain. In those days, a college grad could get a job instantly as a caseworker for the New York City Department of Welfare. A Mad Woman for only four months, now I climbed stairs where junkies were shooting up, interviewed clients in apartments where roaches swarmed the walls like living wallpaper. No one cared about stains.

Newly divorced, I rented a studio apartment with a tiny kitchen. It had a sink. I bought Ajax - "The Enemy" - and sprinkled it with gusto.

Mary Walton is a journalist and author, most recently of "A Woman's Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot."

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