Close Reading — July 24, 2013, 8:00 am

A Possible Urtext for Mad Men

James Kelly’s The Insider

James Kelly’s “The Insider”

Between seasons of Mad Men, when there are no new episodes to feed the Draper-obsessed populace, identifying the film and lit references in the show becomes a national pastime. But one particular reference has so far escaped notice. I mean the biggest one of them all: the title. At the beginning of the very first episode, a bit of text states that the phrase “mad men” was “a term coined in the late 1950s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue. They coined it.”

Actually, they probably didn’t. After considerable digging, which I describe in this month’s Easy Chair column, I was unable to find anyone who could confirm that “mad men” was commonly used by people in the ad industry during the period described by the program. The phrase makes sense to our modern ear, because we think of advertising people today as zany free spirits, if not outright maniacs. But during the period when the show begins, the industry’s leading figures liked to think of themselves as rational — even scientific — men.

As far as I can tell, the phrase traces back to a single advertising exec of the era, one James Kelly of Ellington & Company, who moonlighted as a book reviewer and novelist. He died in 1993, so we can’t be absolutely sure, but the description of ad execs as “Madmen” appears to have been his personal invention. In a 1957 article for Saturday Review, Kelly wrote a round-up of what he called “Madman novels.” These books depicted the ad exec as an Ivy League graduate with a wife and a mistress; a figure who lives in constant fear of being fired for the slightest of reasons; and “a satisfying pro-consul to our dream-world of plenty.” Of the novels that Kelly discussed, only Frederic Wakeman’s The Hucksters and Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit are remembered today, and both have been referenced many times in Mad Men.

Kelly’s beef back in 1957 was that none of these novels gave us “the real Mad Avenue.” So the very next year, he took up this burden with an advertising novel of his own, a 384-page story of evil triumphant called The Insider. The book was well-reviewed, and Variety even thought it had “the makings of a brisk screen story.” Most importantly for our purposes: Kelly’s pet term for ad execs, “Madmen,” appears in the novel twice.

Is this the Urtext for the TV show? In some ways, it certainly appears to be. Kelly’s protagonist is not a good man who is disgusted and eventually corrupted by the industry — the traditional pattern of the advertising novel. Instead, Mort Noyes is a consummate heel, who makes his way by lying to everyone. The key to his success: he has married the daughter of one of the agency’s key clients, a patent-medicine tycoon who owns a troubled brand of toothpaste. (Note the parallel case of Pete Campbell in Mad Men, who married the daughter of a prominent Clearasil executive.) The agency also does advertising for the tycoon’s laxative brand, about which the admen joke constantly, just as they do in Mad Men — but it’s flagging toothpaste sales that frame the book’s anxious plot.

Of the two men who own the agency where Noyes labors, one is the son and weak-willed heir of the founder, like Roger Sterling; the other is a foreign-born accounting type. The office is of course fronted by a gorgeous executive secretary. Noyes drinks to excess and cheats outrageously on his blond wife, Grace, often with the agency’s female art director — who is liberated and “avant garde as hell,” like Don Draper’s mistress in Season 1. (Noyes and the art director get drunk listening to a recording of Dylan Thomas.)

The only real skill Noyes possesses — other than lying — is client presentation, which is also Don Draper’s strong suit in Mad Men. His colleagues, who despise him for his endless machinations, refer to him as “whoreboy Noyes,” just as the young Don calls himself “a whore child.” Noyes is supposed to be a cynical unbeliever: “No, as Mort clearly saw it, there was no one waiting. Smart people either lived each day as if it were their last, or they were half-dead already.” Draper says virtually the same thing in the Mad Men’s first episode: “I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”

Numerous other details are shared by the long-forgotten novel and the celebrated TV show: a meal at Sardi’s, a divorce in Reno, the arrival of a third child just as a marriage collapses, a fistfight in the agency’s carefully decorated conference room. There is also a passage in The Insider that neatly expresses a central philosophical theme of Mad Men: “What was the phrase? — chameleon years,” Noyes thinks, pondering his knack for imitative empathy. “Two words which covered the story of his life since the war. Find what they’re drinking, and drink it. Find what they’re thinking, and think it. Find what they’re wanting, and want it.”

Then again, the similarities may mean nothing. Many of these tropes were such standard elements of the Madison Avenue myth — the suburban home, the infidelity, the references to whores — that they could probably be found in any account of the industry.

That’s why the differences between Mad Men and The Insider are actually more revealing than the similarities. The ad agency in the 1958 novel employs a female art director and a female promotions director, but at Sterling Cooper, the idea of women doing such work is supposed to have been almost completely beyond the comprehension of the male brain circa 1960. There are two Jewish characters in the novel, one of them an agency principal, whose role is to bring balance and a serious business demeanor to the lightweight atmosphere of the place. (“It would be Munich vs. Main Line, Heidelberg vs. Princeton . . . and, of course, Jew vs. Gentile.”) In Mad Men, which was created in a spirit of dizzy self-righteousness a half-century later, it is strongly hinted that preppy advertising agencies of that time would never hire Jews. (Although a young copywriter named Michael Ginsberg was added during the show’s fifth season, his “ethnic” accent and neurotic manner make him an obvious outlier.)

If there is anything really timeless about Mad Men, it is the feeling of fascinated horror that also enlivened The Insider more than fifty years ago — the prospect of clever people making a sumptuous living by lying to everyone: spouse, colleagues, client, and public. Mad men, indeed.

Single Page
writes the Easy Chair column for Harper’s Magazine.

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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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