The True Story Behind Mad Men

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Frank Ockenfels / AMC

Only a select few know what 1970 has in store for Don Draper. But for Jerry Della Femina, the Madison Avenue of 1970 isn't a mystery because he lived it. In fact, that year marked the release of his best-selling book, From the Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor — a gonzo advertising memoir cited as one of the major influences on Mad Men's historic run. After one read, you see bits of Della Femina's experiences scattered throughout the series, twisting in the cigarette smoke, adding color and texture to the drama. However, despite playing the role of creative directors with a wild streak, Jerry Della Femina and Don Draper aren't as similar as you'd think. And even though Jerry doesn't necessarily feel a kinship with Mad Men's antihero, he does identify with Peggy Olson.

Della Femina grew up poor, living in Gravesend, a rough Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn just a few stops away from Coney Island. There, your two career options were becoming a longshoreman or working for The New York Times. His whole family was involved with the latter in some shape or form. At age 16, he was delivering ad proofs for the paper when he got the first taste of his calling. But what attracted him to the business initially wasn't the work. "I would see people with their feet up on their desk. And God it looked so good," he says. In 1952, Della Femina got a job in the mailroom of a stuffy, old-guard agency, where he strategized on how to break into an industry that, at the time, was monopolized by WASP’s. Finally, in 1961 he landed a job as copywriter. "Getting that first job was magic for me," Della Femina recalls. "They said, 'We're going to give you $5,200 a year.' I didn't say anything. I just bit my lip. Then I went downstairs and let out a scream because $5,200 a year was more than any other Della Femina had made in the history of our family."

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Jerry spent the next six years working his way from agency to agency, building his career and collecting the kinds of experiences that would make Mad Men so captivating. In between writing campaigns, he picked the locks of office liquor cabinets, had three martini lunches, and smoked four packs a day. At one company, Della Femina became famous for bringing a tape recorder to a creative review board meeting, effectively silencing his critics. At another, an art director he worked with stabbed an account guy with a ballpoint pen. (The account guy lived.) In 1967, Jerry started his own agency, Della Femina, Travisano & Partners. They barely survived the first year, but it wouldn't take long before they cemented their place on the block, and their office culture to go along with it. "Our little agency was permanently filled with the sweet smell of burning cannabis," he says. Della Femina also fully embraced the sexual revolution, holding an annual Agency Sex Contest where employees voted for who they wanted to go to bed with the most. First prize for the winning couple, regardless of whether they actually voted for each other, was a weekend at the Plaza Hotel.

But despite how crazy it sounds, Jerry claims the atmosphere was more carefree than what you see on the show. "Look at Don Draper," he says. "The guy's got the guiltiest conscience I've ever seen. He can't look at someone without feeling like he did something wrong. We, I'm sad to say, did not have guilty consciences. Maybe now we do. But in those days everybody was having fun." However, the real-life fun of 1960's Madison Avenue still came with a price attached. "There wasn’'t a marriage I know in those days that survived," Della Femina explains. "And if one survived, it's because there was a very forgiving spouse." Divorce is just one of the areas of overlap between the his stories and the latest developments on the series. Because Mad Men has now caught up to when his memoir was published, Della Femina figures you may see more similarities during the show's final stretch.

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"I remember writing about Cinzano Vermouth," Della Femina says, referring to the one of his former clients, "and all of the sudden they're dealing with the Cinzano account. So I'm getting a sense they're digging more into the era that I was talking about." In the most recent episodes, a few other things stand out. One is a reference to Blow-Up in the mid-season premiere, "Severance." Blow-Up is an Antonioni film Della Femina used to explain the glamorous perception assigned to advertising for better or worse. The film was referenced during the opening scene in which Don directs a chinchilla-sporting model in a casting session. Later in that episode, Roger mentions a client who is listed as "NAC," meaning "no afternoon calls," a term for those too drunk to do business after lunch, and another anecdote found in Della Femina's memoir. However, unlike the show, Jerry's run didn’t stop in 1970.

Della Femina went on to birth Scrubbing Bubbles, the trademark ads for Dow Bathroom Cleaner. That's Dow as in Dow Chemical, another client of Sterling Cooper & Partners. You could also easily swap Chevy for Isuzu Motors and the famous Joe Isuzu campaign Della Femina introduced in 1986, the one featuring a pathologically lying car salesman. By that point, his agency was billing nearly $200 million when he sold to the British (sound familiar?), netting himself $23 million in the process. "People who worked at my agency say it was the best job they ever had in their life," Della Femina says. "But I keep thinking, 'No, this was the best era they ever had in their life."

Today, Jerry is working as the Chairman and CEO of Della Femina, Rothschild, Jeary & Partners, where he lists Toshiba on a lengthy client roster including Standard & Poor's, Liv Vodka, and Ad Council. "I think I'm the only one left in the business who was part of that group," he explains. "Most of them are retired or selling real estate." The other notable campaigns of his career have moved product for Meow Mix, Beck's beer, Blue Nun wine, and Pan Am. But possibly the greatest thing he ever sold was the ad industry itself.

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