My Parents, the Real Mad Men

As the product of a Mad Men-era ad-agency romance, I know: The show gets the sex right, but fails to portray the love.

My father saw one episode of Mad Men and refused to watch any more. “You don’t make great ads by drinking and screwing all day!” was his angry objection to a show that he felt insulted the work he’d given his best years to.

As creative director at the Detroit ad agency Campbell-Ewald during precisely the same years that Mad Men portrays, my father, Thomas Murray, had poured his heart into making better advertising for what was the biggest client in the world, General Motors.

And now some TV creeps were going to use all that as a stylish backdrop for a drama about decadence?

Over his dead body.

Since Dad died in 2009, I’ve been researching the contribution he and the other 1960s ad men made in the hopes of helping Mad Men fans learn what they missed by seeing that world through the filter of Don Draper’s preposterous drinking and casual sex. In a memoir I'm working on, I hope to commemorate the earnest, occasionally fierce, and almost moral devotion of 1960s advertising people to making more communicative, more candid, more human advertising for conservative corporate clients.

Yes, but what about all the interoffice grab-ass? Was it really like that?

I’d say no, except I’m the product of it—but of a version that also contrasts significantly with the portrayal in Mad Men, and connects more coherently with how we live and work today.

* * *

Like Don Draper, Tom Murray lived two lives in the late 1950s and early 1960s: A heady life at work, chasing big corporate game in an advertising landscape blown wide open by the social changes that surrounded it. And a comparatively tedious existence at home, married to a housewife whose suburban world was far less dynamic.

“At the dinner table, Dad talked about advertising,” his oldest daughter remembers. “My mother just sat there.”

Unlike Don Draper, Dad did not find relief from his suburban dissatisfaction by serially bedding other women in the city. Neither were his energies dissipated by drink. There is a 1966 photograph of him and some Campbell-Ewald colleagues on the front page of the Detroit News, drinking milk. The headline, “Ghost of Christmas Past—the ‘Wet’ Office Party.”

More Draper-like, Dad’s memos contain jarring references to women employees as “girls,” as in a 1967 memo proposing a customer correspondence operation for a client, the Admiral appliance company: “I think several service engineers could handle the job with a battery of very bright girls on the typewriters.”

His correspondence included flirtations like this line, in an official company correspondence to a Miss E.J. Cain, assistant to the public-relations director of the Rockwell-Standard Corporation: “As for your resignation being requested—any time it is, we have a need for a good ‘Girl Friday.’ Matter of fact, we could use her on Saturday and Sunday, too.”

Even his advertising thinking was suffused by undeniable sexism. In a memo addressed to his star 20-something copywriter, Carol Muehl, the 40-something creative director begins: “To explain my creative philosophy, let me begin by saying that, if I could, I’d start every ad written to women with the headline I LOVE YOU. Now let me tell you why.” Because, he explained, the copywriter must always target the deepest feelings and hopes of the reader of the ad. “I would begin with I LOVE YOU if it were at all relevant to the subject of the ad because I believe that these are the words most women in this world want most to hear.”

* * *

Eventually, Murray was leaving scraps of paper on Muehl’s desk with messages like, “’lo, Miss.”

Though she was single, he was still married. Soon he was separated and then divorced, and the 29-year-old copywriter and the 44-year-old creative director were engaged. She quit the agency to write feminist novels—and eventually, to give birth to and raise my dad’s second set of kids: me and my sister.

Tom and Carol Murray, at their wedding (courtesy of David Murray)

Dad announced her departure from the agency in a 1967 memo titled, “The Loss of a Lady”:

There was a time not so long ago in this business that, with a few exceptions, women writers were regarded as extravagances, as somewhat expendable specialists who were brought in to write recipes for homemaker ads, give cleaning tips, or otherwise write giggly girltalk. And no one took them very seriously.

I think they might have gone along that way for a long time, if some smart ladies hadn’t come into the business and proved to it that, in spite of their sex, they could be every bit as imaginative, versatile, and thus valuable, as their male counterparts. I remember how surprised some people were around here when Mary Scott first did some outstanding Burroughs advertising, when Margaret Firnschild became the expert on Stran Steel ads. They’re still a little amazed when Patty Kemp comes up with some excellent GM or United Delco or WJR [radio] ideas.

Certainly no one has contributed more to Campbell-Ewald and to this Vanguard of Versatile Ladies than Carol Muehl.

A decade later, Carol Murray would tell her young children she could read the feminist novel Women’s Room only a few pages at a time, “Because it makes me too mad at Daddy.”

But the sexism of my real mad-man, ad-man dad is, to me at least, much more sympathetic than sociopathic. It portrays a more natural, inevitable, and real stage of social progress than the version you see on the TV show.

And that's because it was about love, not just sex. As, for my father and my mother and most of the people they counted as colleagues, was their life’s work.