Mary Wells Lawrence is a real, 83-year-old woman thought to be the inspiration for the character of Peggy Olsen on Mad Men. In 1966, the year the fifth season of the show took place, the then-Mary Wells was a single mother of two and “the most talked-about figure on Madison Avenue,” the New York Times says. In 1967 she married Braniff International Airways president Harding Lawrence, who was her top client at the agency she established and ran for more than 20 years called Wells Rich Greene. Among the iconic campaigns she created was I <3 New York, still a powerful symbol of the city decades after its inception.
Back then, Lawrence told the Times, women did not struggle with the idea of “having it all” — they just took it all and made it work. And they were able to do that because they knew just where on the spectrum of life cares everything lied and did not worry about justifying it. They agonized a whole lot less over being the perfect everything because they knew what they wanted to be the most perfect at.
From the Times:
What is striking about talking to Ms. Lawrence now, and other women whose lives took unlikely turns in the prefeminist age, is how little emotional torture seemed to surround the effort to amalgamate professional and maternal responsibilities. [Jane Maas, former Ogilvy & Mather creative director and author of “Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ’60s and Beyond”] has said that her priorities were career first, husband second and children third, and that she would feel the same way if she were starting again today. In the universe in which these women forged their identities, it was apparently ambivalence that was tolerated least.
…“I think women who spend the most productive years of their life nurturing children are unhappy,” Ms. Lawrence said.
How times have changed! Now, one cannot insult a woman’s life choices (hi, Ann Romney) without inciting backlash (and hi to you, Hillary Rosen). And any in-depth conversations about women having careers come with parallel discussions about how they also manage to be mothers and wives, and how the work they put into their home lives affects their careers. At a recent panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y in New York City about women in politics moderated by Chelsea Clinton, panelists were going on about how stereotypically feminine qualities like emotional empathy could help women get ahead in political careers. Sandra Fluke, the law student insulted by Rush Limbaugh who went onto become a national sensation with a legion of supporters hoping she runs for office one day, suggested that it’s just those kinds of conversations that keep women from being seen as tough. And yet in the prefeminist age women like Mary Wells Lawrence and Jane Maas had no choice but to be tough — to say work is number one, kids are number two — and not think twice about how it informed their female-ness. That kind of attitude wasn’t met with the mixed emotions it would probably be met with today. (Then again, career women like Wells and Maas already didn’t conform to the ideal of womanhood for their time, so they might as well have gone for exactly what they wanted and give up on pleasing everybody.)
Though Wells, who does not watch Mad Men regularly, says the show is “really not about the ad world of the ’60s,” one thing it does remarkably well is not tolerate ambivalence. Of course characters who are totally incapable of making choices — especially bad ones — don’t make good television. Audiences don’t want to watch Roger debate whether or not he should call Megan’s mom for half an hour — and then decide not to. What keeps us coming back to Mad Men each week is the group of characters who, for the most part, completely put themselves first. Peggy left Sterling Cooper Draper Price for more money and (presumably) more respect; Megan left the same place of business to be a struggling actress, who, thanks to her man Don, doesn’t have to struggle; Pete took up an affair with his neighbor
Alexis Bledel Beth and we all became acquainted with her tan lines; Roger engaged Megan’s mom in a hotel room tryst; and Megan’s mom acquiesced to the hotel room tryst because she didn’t feel like it was her job to sit at home with her spoiled daughter and tell her how great her life actually is when she lays there crying because hey, this acting stuff isn’t falling into her lap the way the ad agency stuff did. She even told Megan, in her throes of unwarranted self-pity, thank God she didn’t put her children ahead of herself.
Though we see these characters feel conflicted about the choices that lie before them, things are much more black-and-white than they are in real life. Comfort wallowing daughter or commit adultery in a hotel room? Commit adultery in a hotel room. Ask Don to get my friend an audition for a part in a commercial or ask him to get it for me? Ask him to get it for me. Pursue love affair with hot neighbor or stay faithful to my grating wife and baby girl at home? Pursue love affair with hot neighbor. These are very selfish choices that allow us viewers to imagine what things might be like if we slept with everyone we wanted to sleep with, or if we deceitfully pushed aside friends who wanted the same things as us — if we put ourselves before everyone and everything, all the time.
Ironically the most selfless person to emerge from the season was Don, a guy who has in previous seasons led an incredibly selfish and disorderly life. But in this season, he’s finally able to establish order. He gets over the idea of Megan not being at work with him every day and supports her acting ambitions in the most noble way he can when she asks him to get her that commercial part: you want to be discovered, he tells her, not just be someone’s wife. He lets Glen drive his car back upstate to his school (which wasn’t safe but nice of Don to do, I suppose). He is finally — unnecessarily dramatic dream sequences aside — faithful to his wife. He makes sure Lane’s wife gets the $50,000 the guy invested in the company before he killed himself, rather than letting Joan put it toward new real estate.
Maybe after seasons of being so chaotically, unthinkingly self-interested with perhaps zero good returns, Don realized it’s time to approach life in a different way. He realized he can’t have the wife and the mistress, the marriage and the control, the upstart underling and power over her forever. Maybe he learned what Mary Wells Lawrence knew all along: we can’t have absolutely everything we want. We have to have priorities.