A Pioneer in a Mad Men’s World
By Ginia Bellafante
SINCE “Mad Men” arrived five years ago, immediately ascending to the status of compulsion, we’ve been spared few reminiscences from survivors of corporate debauchery in mid-20th-century Manhattan.
Coinciding with the start of the series’s fifth season in March came Jane Maas’s memoir, “Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ’60s and Beyond,” for which the author, the former Ogilvy & Mather creative director, gave numerous interviews, one of them containing a distinctly prescient bit of analysis. In a conversation with The Los Angeles Times, Ms. Maas argued that female copywriters were far more populous in advertising agencies in the 1960s than “Mad Men” suggests. If the character of Peggy Olson weren’t soon surrounded by female peers or given a significant promotion, Ms. Maas predicted, she would leave Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for a rival agency or start her own.
The end of this season (“Mad Men” concludes Sunday) has delivered us precisely to this point. Peggy, having accumulated the indignities the patriarchy reflexively bestowed on her, decided to take a $19,000-a-year job as copy chief in the offices of a glamorous competitor.
In the actual world of advertising in 1966, when the current season began, the most talked-about figure on Madison Avenue was the trim and determined Mary Wells, who hopscotched over the era’s endemic prejudices to develop Wells Rich Greene, the iconic agency she would run for more than two decades.
Not long after, in 1967, as a single mother of two children, she married Harding Lawrence, the president of Braniff International Airways and her most significant client, to embark on a life of chic entrepreneurial power coupledom that has been virtually unmatched since.
Mary Wells Lawrence, who is now 83 and divides her time between New York and a yacht she keeps in the Mediterranean, has led the fan-fiction version of Peggy Olson’s life. From the initial glimmers of Peggy’s ambition, observers have speculated that she served, at least in part, as the character’s inspiration, but Ms. Lawrence’s drive was something unsurpassed.
As one of the most powerful advertising figures of the ’60s, Ms. Lawrence created campaigns for Alka-Seltzer, TWA and Procter & Gamble, among many other companies, and branded Braniff as the airline of the jet set. It was her idea to outfit stewardesses in Pucci and to paint planes in pastel colors in order to exploit the cultural mood of excitement and vitality, the sense of a world opening up, that she thought the dull aesthetic of airports decidedly lacked.
By the end of its first year, Wells Rich Greene had 100 employees and $39 million in billings. Later, it was responsible for helping resurrect the city’s deteriorating image with song, slogan and ethos: “I ♥ New York.”
“By the early 1960s, there was already an assumption that we were living in a very young world,” Ms. Lawrence told me over the course of several hours spent in her Park Avenue duplex several weeks ago. She has been relatively silent on the subject of “Mad Men” since the series began, and I was curious to hear how she measured her own experience against the world the series depicts.
“It was a clever time,” she said. “It was about becoming a star, about wearing a hat in a peculiar way. There was a great value placed on eccentricity. I think the leading advertising talents of that time — men or women — would tell you that ‘Mad Men’ is a terrific show and great fun but really not about the ad world of the ’60s.” She has watched only sporadically, she said, because she believes the series reflects the mentality of an earlier time.
A child of the Depression who grew up in rural Ohio, Ms. Lawrence visited New York in her late teens having never seen the ocean or encountered a black person. “I was utterly dumbed down,” she said. “Nothing in me had awakened.”
After college and a stint writing copy in a Youngstown department store, she returned to Manhattan and eventually found work at McCann Erickson. Widely celebrated for her work at Jack Tinker and Partners later on, she felt entitled to ask for the presidency in 1966. Her boss, Marion Harper, told her that he could give her the authority to do whatever she wanted, but couldn’t offer the title because if he did, “‘No one would come,’” Ms. Lawrence recounted.
“He could see that I was feeling a red rage, and he said, ‘You wouldn’t want to ruin something you built,’ and at that point I just walked out the door,” she said. “It wasn’t as though I wanted to be Betty Friedan. I just wanted my own agency.” She and her partners temporarily set up offices in a hotel; Braniff left Tinker for the new enterprise, and Ms. Lawrence’s mother took charge of the phones.
What is striking about talking to Ms. Lawrence now, and other women whose lives took unlikely turns in the prefeminist age, is how little emotional torture seemed to surround the effort to amalgamate professional and maternal responsibilities. Ms. Maas has said that her priorities were career first, husband second and children third, and that she would feel the same way if she were starting again today. In the universe in which these women forged their identities, it was apparently ambivalence that was tolerated least.
During a brief first marriage, Ms. Lawrence adopted two girls she eventually saw only on the weekends because of all the travel her work entailed. In 1968, she and Harding Lawrence moved to Dallas, where his business was based, and reconvened with the children either there or at one of the homes they shared in Arizona, Acapulco or the south of France on weekends. (Ms. Lawrence has had 30 homes. “I’ve done better in real estate than advertising,” she told me.)
“I think women who spend the most productive years of their life nurturing children are unhappy,” Ms. Lawrence said. Her daughters were split in their reaction to the family’s unusual arrangement. One, Katy Bryan, an investment banker at JPMorgan in New York, bore no resentments, while the other, Pamela Lombard, who is a stay-at-home mother, had been more conflicted, Ms. Lawrence said.
“We talked on the phone a lot,” Ms. Bryan said of her mother. “For the important things she was there. I never felt as though I was growing up without a mom. We knew it was different, but we knew we were a family.”
Ms. Lawrence sold her agency in 1990 and has worked on the Web venture Wowowow with her friends Joni Evans and Lesley Stahl among others. In recent years, she has been asked to speak to groups of women in banking and business to impart her wisdom.
She believes success comes only from the extreme and urgent desire to be successful. “You can’t just be you,” Ms. Lawrence said. “You have to double yourself. You have to read books on subjects you know nothing about. You have to travel to places you never thought of traveling. You have to meet every kind of person and endlessly stretch what you know.”
“There were and are so many talented women in the advertising business, and the real wonder is why they aren’t all running worldwide agencies of their own,” she said. “I’m looking into that.”