“Mad Men,” which returns to AMC this Sunday night, is a television show that sometimes thinks it’s a novel—in particular, a John Cheever novel. Like Cheever, the Draper family lives in Ossining, New York, and football jersey
their colorful address—42 Bullet Park Road—is an allusion to one of the author’s novels. The literary references don’t end with Cheever. The characters on “Mad Men” read almost as much as they smoke, drink, and cheat. Bert Cooper extols the virtues of Ayn Rand, Don Draper broods over Frank O’Hara’s poetry, and the secretaries at Sterling Cooper furtively pass around an “unexpurgated” copy of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” warning each other not to read it on the train because “it’ll attract the wrong element.”
Given its bookish appeal, it’s perhaps no surprise that “Mad Men” has sparked a publishing boomlet of its own. Released last month, “Mad Men and Philosophy: Nothing Is As It Seems,” is a look at the show’s many existential dilemmas. In October, the show’s costume designer will release a style book, called “The Fashion File.” The most recent, and possibly the richest of the “Mad Men” books, is “Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America,” by Natasha Vargas-Cooper.
The book, which began as a wonderfully diverting blog, is an attempt to “re-create the cultural matrix” of this time period in order to “understand the most dramatic cultural shift in the twentieth century.” Divided into themed chapters—sex, literature, soccer jerseys
advertising, fashion—“Mad Men Unbuttoned” examines the show’s many allusions, literary and otherwise. Naturally, there are several entries about drinking and smoking, but some of the topics are less expected: there is, for instance, a discussion of what Sally Draper might have in common with Merry Levov of “American Pastoral,” and another essay about how Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart inspired Don Draper’s “sexual alchemy.” “Mad Men Unbuttoned” is a well-versed primer to the most literate show on television, the perfect thing to have on hand if, say, you’re finally catching up on the first three seasons—which, by the way, you really should.
I spoke with Vargas-Cooper earlier this week. An edited version of our conversation follows.
You quote several cultural critics in the book—Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion. I’m wondering what came first. Did the show lead you to them, or did your knowledge of their writing inform your understanding of the show?
When I watched the show, it was like hearing a note from a song and going, “Oh, what is that from?” There’d be a conversation between Don and his mistress about [the Antonioni film] “La Notte,” and I’d be, like, “I have to look up ‘La Notte.’ ” I studied history in school, so you get into the raw, amorphous stuff of history and you want the analysis. I asked myself, “Who were the great thinkers of this time? What did Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag say about this moment in time?”
You obviously did quite a lot of research for the book. Can you talk about this process? Any exciting discoveries?
I started with a list of a hundred and twenty-six topics I was going to write about, inspired by things from the show. My plan was to write a mini-essay on each of them, and then it became eighty-six mini-essays. It’s very difficult for me to take on a writing project without feeling like I can walk around in the universe that I’m writing about. One of the things about blogging is that it’s pretty ephemeral—you want to get something up on Sunday night. Because it’s an instant medium, the challenge becomes “Find the coolest shit as fast as you can!” I’m really good at finding cool shit fast, and I already have a reservoir of this historical information in my head, so that helped. But with the book, I decided to treat it like a real book, not a blog-to-book. I spent a lot of time at the Cal Arts archive. I did a tremendous amount of historical photo research. All of the big ad heavies—Draper Daniels, George Lewis—they all wrote autobiographies and they’re all a delight to read; they’re all quippy and tell the same story over and over again, along the lines of
“They said I could never make it, but I took them by nba jerseys
the cojones and the boss said ‘I like your cojones.’ ” Over and over again, the same story.