When I first came to New York, the men’s locker room at the Yale Club had illegal showerheads that released torrents of water, a spacious sauna with copies of the Times, a steam bath, and a special set-aside area with tables called “the hangover room.” This is where you could sleep off that lunch with Roger Sterling. I also remember fondly the old alum who once ordered drinks for everyone in the steam bath. That was living! Needless to say, in a fitting bit of symbolism, the hangover room and sauna were destroyed in order to expand the women’s locker room. Something that had been long overdue.
I bring up those showerheads-of-yesteryear to say that Katie Roiphe is right about one aspect of Mad Men’s appeal: the sense of a vanished world where work used to be fun, or at least not so severe. You could vomit in the office trashcan on occasion and still get promoted. But I part ways with Roiphe in that I think the appeal goes beyond pinchable secretaries and booze-filled lunches. The showis set in the waning years of the Eisenhower postwar, country-club America. Old school ties still matter; the meritocracy is just getting started up. (Go read The Big Test for the whole story.) Pretty soon, the Pete Campbells of the world will be competing with more than just the Ken Cosgroves. And being the office joke will mean being sent packing on the next train back to Larchmont.
We watch Mad Men not simply for the “messy lives” but out of a misguided nostalgia for stricter gender roles, workplace aristocracy, better outfits (especially those nurses’ outfits), and a time when social life in a city as big as New York could have a summer-camp smallness to it. Of course, a lot of people were left out of the fun—just ask the elevator boy at Sterling Cooper.
OK, sorry to go all Olivier on you.
P.S. Those “booze-filled” lunches actually seem like a lot of work.