In Mad Men Unbuttoned, Natasha Vargas-Cooper sheds light on the reality that inspired everyone’s favorite TV show. Drawing on references from John Cheever, Mary McCarthy, Coco Chanel, and Draper Daniels (the real-life Don Draper), she illustrates the challenges of making another cultural period come to life. She recently answered my questions via e-mail from her home in L.A.
How did this book come about?
Last year I had quit my job in labor politics, left my boyfriend of five years, fled from Brooklyn and moved back in with my parents. Then my dog ran away. After a bout of some well earned wallowing, I sprang up at 4 A.M. and decided I’d rewatch the show. I popped in the DVDs, started a blog for kicks, figuring I’d be putting my degree in history to work. I got a call from HarperCollins about a month later.
Can you talk about the themes that give the book its structure?
I think the show depicts the social fissures that began to appear during the late 1950s and eventually entered the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s. The show has three main prisms through which it examines these changes: advertising, domestic life, sex. (I’m specifically interested in Peggy’s sex life since she is at the mercy of all the shifts in sexual mores given her age.) So the main themesof the book are the anxieties and exuberance that come with such accelerated change.
Why are people so delightfully geeky about the details and cultural theory behind Mad Men?
We’re watching the foundation of out modern taste come together—that’s fascinating! The show lends itself to a gleeful analysis. Its use of culture is deliberate. References to pop culture or politics aren’t thrown in to be cute or suggestive, but to enhance the themes of the show or our understanding of the characters. I think the audience appreciates not being treated like a mope so they get jazzed about it.
In the chapter on the books of Mad Men, you use original artwork as stand-in covers for classic literature (see below). Did you commission these specifically?
Yes I did. I saw Christina Perry’s Mad Men posters floating around online and I instantly fell in love with them. When we were trying to get the rights to reprint the covers like Atlas Shrugged and The Group and I thought, “These aren’t really in line with the mood of the show. I’d like to have some original art work, so why not get the poster lady?”
Have you ever tried to sneak onto the set of the show? Hunt down Matt Weiner in one of the coffee shops near the studio?
Nope, I’m big on dignity.
Do you dress up or throw Mad Men parties?
Heavens, no. What I like so much about the show is that I’m watching adults act like adults. If there’s anything that makes me nostalgic for an era I was never part of, it is the strict line between adolescence and adulthood. Costume parties are for kiddies. (Okay, full disclosure: I did encourage period attire for the book party, but that’s all! It was very classy.)
Have you caught any particularly embarrassing historical inaccuracies?
Nope, I’m a true believer in the show. I’m far more tickled by what they get right, so that’s what stands out.
Is there anything you don’t like about the show?
I am mourning the absence of Paul Kinsey.
Who are your favorite, and most despised, characters?
I love Don for all his moral ambiguity and Roger for all his aristocratic swagger. Glenn is a brilliantly conceived character. Pete Campbell is a delicious villain, as was Duck Phillips.
If Don Draper hit on you, would you be tempted?
Of course! Not only would I be tempted, I’d have my legs behind my head faster than he could light a cigarette. Don is actually like a fresh pack of cigarettes—sleek, simple, addictive, but he will ultimately rot your heart.
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