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Scotch For Dessert: An Ad Man's Spirited Memoir

Jerry Della Femina started working in advertising in the 1950s and was named one of the 100 most influential advertising people of the century by <em>Advertising Age.</em>
Jerry Della Femina started working in advertising in the 1950s and was named one of the 100 most influential advertising people of the century by Advertising Age.

The fourth season of Mad Men begins this weekend on AMC, and by now viewers will be familiar with the world it portrays: an ad man's playground in which your martini glass is always full, your cigarette is always lit and the fun never ends -- especially at the office.

One of the documents that inspired the creation of Mad Men is a cultish, colorful 1970 memoir that was reissued in July. Memorably titled From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, after a rejected slogan for Panasonic, the book is ad man Jerry Della Femina's scabrous and uncensored expose of the Madison Avenue madhouse.

"Advertising was fun," Della Femina tells NPR's Scott Simon. "I wrote that it was the most fun you could have with your clothes on -- and we'll never see it again."

Della Femina says it's almost impossible to imagine the antics of his heyday occurring in the modern workplace.

"In those days, [at] a typical lunch the bartender would be shaking the martinis as we walked in ... and then, as we were looking at our menu, the second martini would [be served]. And then, before the food arrived, the third martini would arrive. At that point then we would have two bottles of wine to go with our food. And then invariably someone -- it was never me -- but someone would say, 'I don't think I'm going to have desert, I think I'll have a double scotch instead.' And then we went off to work."

Laughing, Della Femina notes that today having a martini with lunch would probably end with him taking a ride in an ambulance.

Surprisingly, Della Femina says that shows like Mad Men actually play down the debauchery he witnessed as an ad man in the '60s. He illustrates his point with the story of a particularly suggestive office pastime.

"From when we started the agency in 1967, we had an agency sex contest," Della Femina says. "They would literally get a telephone list [and] they would vote for the person they most wanted to go to bed with." The winners of the poll would then be announced at a "wild, wild, wild" staff party at a Mexican restaurant.

Now you might think this already sounds like perfect fodder for a season finale, but the story doesn't stop there.

"There was an older executive who I think possibly might have imbibed his first taste of cannabis and he had a lot to drink," Della Femina says. "At one point his head went right into his dish, and sitting next to him was this woman who was our research director, and she said, 'It's okay, it's okay, he's fine -- the guacamole broke his fall!'"

Today Della Femina is candid about the questionable nature of such goings-on.

"Obviously it was not politically correct, but everyone took part in it and we were just enjoying doing what we were doing," he says. "We thought the fun would never end."

And yet, despite the rampant misogyny of such activities, Della Femina says he was very progressive in his views towards women in the workplace.

"I always had more women working for me than men," he says. "Women changed this business; they softened it; they made it better."

The increased creative role of women in the office isn't the only change Della Femina noticed over the years. These days, he says, "It's a different world. It's all about images, art direction. Words really don't count that much."

But it was words that won Della Femina the coveted Advertising Writers Club award for best newspaper ad in 1968. Working for the publishing house McGraw-Hill, he came up with the slogan, "Before Hitler could kill six million Jews, he had to burn six million books." Della Femina looks back on the campaign with pride, saying it was "by far" the best ad he ever wrote.

Honest about what attracted him to the advertising business, Della Femina says it wasn't the creative thrill of coming up with memorable jingles -- it was the money. He recalls the first time he was offered a job at an advertising agency and his boss gave him a $5,200 salary to start.

"I walked out [of his office] and I went down the elevator of 185 Madison Avenue and I got to the ground floor and I let out this scream. I can still hear the scream. Fifty-two hundred dollars was the most any Della Femina in the history of the Della Feminas had ever been paid -- and this was a token salary," he says. "I had found my business."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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