“This is a shirtsleeve operation”:
James J. O'Meara
Judaic Crypsis in the Final Season of Mad Men
Caddy Danny Noonan (working-class Irish American): “I planned to go to law school after I graduated, but it looks like my folks won’t have enough money to put me through college.”
Judge Smails (rich WASP): “Well, the world needs ditch diggers, too.”
— Caddyshack (Harold Ramis, 1980)
If Steve Sailer can leverage his high school days to psychoanalyze Matt Weiner’s Mad Men, then I can ransack my own past for inside dope!
A lot of people don’t believe me about how much of what you see on TV today is driven by great-grandpa not getting into Los Angeles Country Club and therefore having to found Hillcrest Country Club, but listen to the creator of Mad Men instead and he’ll say the same thing.
Here’s Matthew Weiner, son of a leading neurologist and a lawyer who stopped practicing to keep house, yet it still drives him nuts that Jews were a minority at Harvard School for Boys. He gets up in the morning and goes to work to get revenge for that.
I had thought — and surely some others did too — that Mad Men was gearing up to tell us the typical triumphalist story of how advertising, like everything else, got so much better after the Jews overcame, through sheer talent, those mean, artificial, upward mobility and free market distorting WASP barricades and took over. From the very first episode:
Roger Sterling: “Have we ever hired a Jew?”
Don Draper: “Not on my watch.”
The chosen vehicle seemed to be one Ginzburg, a pushy, loud, sarcastic, badly dressed, and hairy chap, but he was too bumptious, too explicitly Jewish (“born in Auschwitz” no less!) to really be suitable. Exit Ginzberg, in a straitjacket.
As a sort-of fan, I’ve never been interested in Don Draper, either his family life (such as it is) and romances, nor his absurd backstory, nor the travails of the plucky ladies striving to survive in a “man’s world,” but rather in the constant, almost comical shifting of partners and organizational alignments, almost as if Sterling Cooper were less a WASP ad agency and more a Temporary Autonomous Zone or even a pack of Wild Boys.
As Season 7 progressed, first founder Bert Cooper died, and then the loveable firm known under various forms of Sterling Cooper itself died, or rather, “died and went to advertising heaven,” as Jim Hobart, the head of their new owners, McCann Erikson, smugly — and falsely — tells them. (He is in advertising, after all).
Now, from the start, McCann has been the Eye of Mordor for everyone, the monolithic bureaucratic nightmare (that somehow manages, after all, to be the leading creative force in advertising — go figure!). But there’s something a little off about how McCann is presented to us.
It started a few episodes back, when we learned why former SCP-er Ken Cosgrove was “shot out of there like a cannon.”
“I’m not Irish. I’m not Catholic. I read books.”
Where did that come from? Were illiterate Irish Catholics running Madison Ave. all these years? It can’t come from Weiner’s high school angst; Sailer again:
As a Catholic from the flatlands of the Valley, I was always kind of baffled by the dominant ethnic animus of the region, which was hostility toward WASPs, because we Catholics didn’t count because we weren’t very competitive or interesting. If you are a white Catholic in Boston, say, that’s potentially pretty interesting, but being a white Catholic in Los Angeles is just kind of random. If you are in Southie you can blame it on the Potato Famine, but if you are growing up in Sherman Oaks, it probably suggests that some of your ancestors had some good sense and spare change.
What suddenly made everything fall into place was this ominous line:
“This is a shirtsleeve operation.”
It’s a motif that has been popping up throughout the season, as bloggers have noted:
Ferg mentions that McCann “is a shirtsleeve operation—we want you to relax.” While that might be the stated purpose of the agency’s dress code, the more obvious upshot is to make everyone look the same, like drones in a hive. Don is taken aback by the worker-bee effect when he steps into a conference room packed with white-shirted men buzzing about before the Miller meeting. “Is this every creative director in the agency?” Don asks Ted Chaough. No, it’s only half of them, explains Ted, who’s wearing shirtsleeves.
Elsewhere, such as the season premiere:
Don seems trapped. He’s in his shirtsleeves, gripping a cup of lunch-cart coffee. This is work.
And in a later episode:
Indeed, the opening shots of this scene feel like they depict an alternate universe, one in which Don and Betty somehow found enough contentment to raise their kids together. He works the blender in his shirtsleeves.
Shirtsleeves = work, yeah, I get it. But it bring something else to mind, at least for me. Years ago, I worked at a “top ten” law firm in New York. Now, one of the “top three” firms would be a classic “white shoe” Wall Street outfit; this one, always just making the Top Ten list, had been founded to service a unique niche: lawyers and clients who would otherwise qualify for one of those Top Three firms, but for one thing: they were Jews — or Irish.
This, in other words, was the place for the smart Jewish lawyers that the white shoe lawyers wouldn’t hire; but they still didn’t get the white shoe clients; they got the clients that, however rich, the white shoe firms wouldn’t touch — other Jews.
One such category was the big department stores; lots of money, but not the sort of peddlers you wanted hanging around in your offices.
Indeed, the aforementioned bit of “anti-Semitic” dialogue from Roger and Don starts off an episode where Sterling Cooper considers the lucrative but shady idea of taking on a Jewish department store as a client. (Don, however, decides to take on the owner, Rachel Menken, as his latest paramour.)
Anyway, it was made clear to me that this was “a shirtsleeve firm” where associates were expected to show up in suit and tie, and then dispense with the jacket (perhaps even the tie) while getting down to work. A complete suit and tie was seen only on such rare occasions as a client conference or a court appearance.
Now, the Irish presence gradually become comparatively small (we’ll get to that bit again), so this was definitely a “Jewish firm” as Roger’s worried comment shows he would understand the phrase: “Most of the Jews work for Jewish firms.”
So it seems clear to me that Weiner is using the “Irish Catholic” McCann firm to pantomime the Jewish takeover of the ad world; the firm is, we might say, “implicitly Jewish.” And so the WASP firm of SCP is reconfigured as plucky upstarts, and thus “implicitly” Jewish as well.
A veritable Purim festival of disguise and misdirection! The Jewish self-image, creative upstarts against monolithic conformity, is played out against McCann, while the later encrypts the real world takeover of WASP professions by upstart Jews. As always, there are two sides, both good for the Jews.
Encrypting SCP as Jewish takes various forms with each character. Ken Cosgrove, we’ve seen, describes himself, and thus his colleagues, as not Irish, not Catholic, but not WASP either, since the WASP of course is a blonde dolt who eschews books in favor of athletics and gentlemanly C’s.
Though from Vermont, he, like scion of Old New York Pete Campbell, performs as a Woody Allen-style “real New York Jew” when dealing with the Midwesterners of GM, unable to drive and injuring several times, including losing an eye while hunting.
Joan, her role diminished at McCann and subject to sexual harassment, strikes back by threatening them with the ACLU and Betty Friedan, both Judaic weapons.
I’ve previously discussed Bert Cooper as a pseudo-WASP whose cult of Ayn Rand and blithe unconcern about Don’s false identity (observing in passing, like a good neo-con, that America was built by men with worse backgrounds) type him as already Judaic, so it’s no surprise when his ghost reappears in Don’s car to give him advice (more on Don’s drive later).
More interestingly, the other name partner (actually, his father’s name, because as we all know, WASP privilege is unearned, right?), Roger Sterling, though alive, is given a ghostly entrance — playing a creepy, Carnival of Souls type organ in the abandoned SCP offices — for a session of drunken advice giving of his own; to Peggy, as always Don’s younger/female surrogate. We also recall his Jewish wife, making him an “OK goy.”
But before dealing with Don and Peggy, I have to step back a bit and observe that we’ve seen this film before.
Back in the late ’70s, two Jewish directors (Harold Ramis and John Landis) inaugurated the “slobs vs. snobs” genre with Animal House and Caddyshack. In both, we see the same meme: stuffy but lame WASP institutions and authority figures (Faber College, Dean Wormer; Bushwood Country Club, Judge Smails) get their comeuppance from feisty, take no prisoners upstarts. In both cases, the upstarts, though white ethnics, are implicitly enacting the Jewish revolt against the WASP.
Back to SCP, whose abandoned and self-trashed offices recall both the slob hangout of Delta House, and the post-parade carnage of Animal House, as well as Carl the Groundskeeper’s shack, and the presumed wreckage of the golf club after Carl sets off the dynamite.
Here, Peggy, still dressed up for work, is cajoled into joining Roger for drinks and boozy reminiscences, ultimately advising her to stop trying to make the men she works with comfortable, and shake things up instead. We next see Peggy arriving at McCann, carrying her office in a box, like the boys being evicted from Delta House: hungover, smoking, bloodshot eyes behind dark glasses, and carrying Bert Cooper’s Japanese tentacle porn etching for her office: the smart-ass slob, ready to take on The Man.
So where’s Don? Don was so terrified by that vision of men working in white shirts that he took off out west, like some buttoned-down Jack Kerouac, ultimately picking up a hippie with a guitar, taking him to St. Paul. A Bob Dylan (Zimmerman) in reverse, perhaps taking Don to meet the Coen Brothers?
His escape makes his Animal House doppelgänger obvious: Don Draper is, of course, Daniel “D” Day, careening off in a stolen cop car, “whereabouts unknown.”
He’s played by Bruce McGill, which reminds us of Mad Men’s AMC stablemate (donkey to Mad Men’s thoroughbred), Better Call Saul. Here we see the final stage of the process: while the lowest tier and night law schools used to be full of scrappy working class Irish kids, their numbers have been diluted almost to nothing by Jews; now Jimmy McGill (graduate of the University Of American Samoa Correspondence School Of Law) has to change his name to Saul Goodman:
“My real name’s McGill. The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys. They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak.”
What once was cryptic, now is mandatory.
1. “Matthew Weiner on How Mad Men Is Driven by His Resentment of WASP Country Clubs” by Steve Sailer, April 6, 2015, here.
2. Surely you’ve noticed how much better books, movies, and education have gotten, right?
3. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”
4. See the classic study of Jewish bumptiousness, John Murray Cuddihy, The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle With Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 1975).
5. How many people know by now that Don Draper is really Dick Whitman (= white man), guilty of desertion and manslaughter, both capital crimes? After all, we all know every successful WASP is a big old phony, right? Does everyone agree with Bert: “Mr. Campbell, who cares?” See my reflections on Bert and The Secret, “Mad Men Jumps the Gefilte Fish Part One: Missed Collegiality,” here.
6. To paraphrase Murray Kempton on Nixon’s law firm, Mudge Rose, one always thought of it as something like Sterling, Cooper, Nasty, Brutish and Short. This HuffPost article on “Ken Cosgrove” gives and unintentionally funny account of the convoluted family tree of SCP.
7. Bloggers have noted that Don’s doomed last ditch pitch to McCann, to set up SCP as a rump LA outfit called SC West, shows that he agrees with me: he has the most fun not drinking, whoring, or even pitching slogans, but shuffling organizational charts.
9. “Really, Ken Cosgrove? You didn’t fit in at McCann because ‘I’m not Irish. I’m not Catholic. And I can read’? Don’t be showing your face in Boston with an attitude like that!” “Mad Men Analyzed: Looking the Part” by Robin Abrahams; Boston Globe April 06, 2015), here.
9. Onion AV Club, here.
10. Rolling Stone, here.
11. Onion AV Club, here.
12. Lane Pryce, though a Brit, is a runty little pencil-pusher who breaks his glasses and has to squint through one eye before hanging himself, as I discuss in “Mad Men Jumps the Gefilte Fish Part Three: The Country of the Blind, Continued,” here; this is an inversion of the Wotan meme, like hanging of Haman during Purim, and continues here.
13. Mad Manhunter? Will Graham: [stunned realization] “You’ve seen these films! Haven’t you, my man?” See my “Thanks for Watching: Awakening Through Repetition in Groundhog Day, Point of Terror, & Manhunter, Part 1“ and “Phil & Will: Awakening Through Repetition in Groundhog Day, Point of Terror, & Manhunter, Part 2.”
14. Caddyshack sides with the Irish caddies and Carl the Groundskeeper (Bill Murray, presumably Irish). Al Cevic, played Rodney Dangerfield (Jacob Cohen), deflects attention as the obvious Hebraic invader; see his entry on Jew or Not Jew, here. In Animal House, the boys are dolts and Delta House is explicitly not “the Jewish house” but as in all such films they are “street smart” enough to sabotage the Homecoming Parade, and the only other Jewish character mentioned, the late Fawn Leibowitz of Emily Dickinson College, is atypical as well, being from the Midwest. Chapter President Hoover rather resembles Ken Cosgrove.
15. In the midseason premiere, Don was already trying to pass for Jewish (he’s already changed his name, right?), claiming honorary Jewish cred at Rachel Menken’s shiva by saying “I’ve lived in New York a long time.” They don’t buy it, and close the door in his face.
16. Peggy has D-Day’s dark glasses, and as for his motorcycle, when Roger convinces her to roller skate around the abandoned offices, we are reminded of her tricking a rival agency some time ago by riding a motorcycle around in circles in an abandoned warehouse.
17. In the Season 4 episode of AbFab titled “Donkey,” Patsy points out that you don’t stable two thoroughbreds together, but with a donkey, otherwise they’d kick the shit out of each other.
18. Wikipedia, here.
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