Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Their D-I-V-O-R-C-E: Mad Men, Infidelity, and Life in the 1960s

Randall J. Stephens

Some of us go around the world three times, divorce, remarry, divorce again, part with our children, make and waste a fortune, and coming back to our beginnings we find the same faces at the same windows, buy our cigarettes and newspapers from the same old man, say good morning to the same elevator operator, good night to the same desk clerk, to all those who seem, as Johnson did, driven into life by misfortune like nails into a floor.

-John Cheever, The Wapshot Scandal (Harper & Row, 1964)

The suburbs of New York City in the 1950s were a homogenous and extended community held together by common interests: children, sports, adultery, and lots of social drinking

-Susan Cheever, Home Before Dark: A Personal Memoir of John Cheever by His Daughter (Houghton Mifflin, 1984)

Frank could not escape the impression that she was asking him to get a divorce. Meanwhile, our advisory capacity in Vietnam was beginning to stink and the market was frightened, frightened yet excited by the expanding war. Basically business was uneasy with Kennedy; there was something unconvincing about him.

-John Updike, Couples (Ballantine Books, 1968)

Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E; becomes final today Me and little J-O-E will be goin' away I love you both and it will be pure H-E double L for me Oh, I wish that we could stop this D-I-V-O-R-C-E.

D-I-V-O-R-C-E, recorded by Tammy Wynette (1968)

More heavy drinking, more chain smoking, more prefeminist barbarity, more impeccably dressed businessmen, and woman. Mad Men, season 4, is kicking off on Sunday night.

Benjamin Schwarz wrote an insightful, appropriately skeptical piece on the series in The Atlantic back in the fall. Among other things Schwarz wondered about some of the over-the-top boorishness on display, condescending social commentary, and the overall historical accuracy of this "megamovie."

Watching the program, which I'll admit I'm a big fan of, has amazed and perplexed me. (How did the production crew get the colors and the tone just right? Scenes often look like staged advertisements from LIFE or Look Magazine.) Mad Men's interiors--wood paneling, ab-ex paintings, and sleek modernist surfaces--is as nearly as cool as the set of a Jacques Tati flick. The "lush styling and art direction," wrote Schwarz, "which make the series eye candy for its (again) target audience, already in thrall to the so-called mid-century-modern aesthetic—-an appeal that’s now further fueled by the slimline suit/pencil skirt marketing tie-in with Banana Republic, that canny purveyor of upper-mass-market urbanity."

How about the behavior, attitudes, and values of the characters? How does America in the early 1960s compare to America in 2010? The latter seems to be one of the chief questions the program raises. (At least for me, as a nerdy historian.) See, for instance, this John McWhorter piece from The New Republic, "Mad Men In a Good Place: How Did People Sound in 1963?" September 1, 2009. (Did they sound different after 1964? I'm wondering if a Beatles episode might feature Fab Four music. Doubtful. Would cost a fortune.)

And what about the infidelity on parade? Lead ad man Don Draper is a whiskey-soaked, feral Don Juan. Couples on the show occasional make fools of themselves in drunken revelry. Many of the chief men and women have had shaky relationships, boozing it up and forgetting their vows. One agent sleeps in his office after his wife discovers his alcohol-fueled, one-night stand with a secretary. Nearly all of the main male characters are unfaithful. Divorce, though not easy to obtain, is an ever-present option.

So what did the divorce rate look like in the swinging sixties? Brown University historian James Patterson notes that a significant rise in divorce rates seriously affected American families from the mid-sixties on. "Divorce rates per 1,000 of population doubled--from 2.5 per 1,000 people in 1965 to a peak of between 5 and 5.3 per 1,000 between 1976 and 1985."[1] Indeed, the divorce rate rocketed up 100% from '63 to '75. The current rate is 3.5 per 1,000 population.

What about infidelity? Is that more difficult to measure? David Gudelunas observes that we can gauge some national opinions by looking at letters to advice columnists. "The most frequent complaint from women in the 1960s was their cheating husbands," notes Gudelunas.[2] Polls and social science research from the day could also reveal much.

All that is to say that the show has made me more and more curious about how even the recent past can look decidedly strange, remote through the eyes of the present. Fun stuff.

On Sunday night when episode one of season four airs, I'll have my trusty DVD recorder at the ready. (A device, by the way, of pure science fiction by the standards of 1964.)

[1] James T. Patterson, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (Oxford University Press, 2005), 50.

[2] David Gudelunas, Confidential to America: Newspaper Advice Columns and Sexual Education (Transaction, 2008), 112.

1 comment:

Lisa Clark Diller said...

I have to wait for the season to come out on Netflix, due to my retarded lack of cable. But I do love the guilty pleasure of getting to gorge on the lushness and naughtiness at least once a year. Glad to hear from the American historians about how realistic it is/isn't. I am especially curious about the "sound"--since I always wonder how well the film/sound we do have from that time period fits how contemporaries actually sounded. Thanks for giving us the stats on divorce, too--those go against my preconceived ideas about the increase/decrease trends.