A real Mad Man
By Katie Roiphe
If I were truly dedicated to my research and had consumed three martinis over lunch, I’m pretty sure the room would be spinning. I would not be able to retrieve a single moment of productivity – or possibly even coherence – from the rest of the warm afternoon. But would life be more fun, more spontaneous, more joyful, more creative in certain crucial ways? Jerry Della Femina, the inspiration behind Mad Men, Matthew Weiner’s phenomenally successful show about the advertising world in New York in the early 1960s, thinks so. He remembers the era when martinis came with lemon peel instead of olives – because olives displaced too much gin. He says now that if he had three martinis, the paramedics would probably have to wheel him out. Della Femina, like the times, has changed.
One can’t deny that part of the allure of Mad Men to our healthy and upstanding modern selves is simply watching people light countless cigarettes and pour themselves big glasses of Scotch in their offices in the middle of the morning … all without guilt. As Della Femina says: “You can’t light a cigarette now because your child will say, ‘Stop it, you’re killing yourself.’ In those days, everybody smoked. I smoked four packs of cigarettes a day.” Della Femina wrote about those four-pack days in his 1970 cult-classic memoir of the advertising world, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, which the creators of Mad Men based their story on.
Della Femina himself is big, sweet and charismatic. He speaks in the Brooklyn tones of his childhood. He reminds me of Edith Wharton saying that she was going to “eat the world leaf by leaf”. Della Femina is definitely someone who eats the world leaf by leaf. His is one of those “American dream” stories, in which a poor kid from a neighbourhood one senator described as “the breeding place for crime in the United States” ends up owning a thriving business, a sprawling house in East Hampton, another off Park Avenue and many other fantastical things. One gets the feeling that this journey is one that he never stops marvelling over – and this quality of enjoying life’s bounty is contagious. Over lunch in New York’s elegant Gramercy Tavern, extra courses are brought to our table – asparagus pudding, scallops tartar, trout something or other – compliments of the chef, because Della Femina, among his many accomplishments, owns a well-known restaurant in East Hampton.
Della Femina has a superhuman amount of energy. He sleeps three or four hours a night; has five books going at once; writes a weekly column for a local newspaper in East Hampton; oversees his restaurant; and runs his advertising business, Della Femina, Rothschild, Jeary & Partners, which is his main line of work. “I want to die at my desk,” he says. He appears to view his success as a wonderful punchline to one of the universe’s more benign jokes. He did say to himself as a kid, “I’m gonna get out of here.” But he couldn’t have predicted that he would get out so spectacularly. His father exhausted himself working three jobs at a time, at the printing presses of The New York Times, operating the rides at Coney Island and as a soda jerk in a coffee shop – and his mother worked in a shop sewing dolls and dresses.