The City Where 'Mad Men' Reigned Lives On

Manhattan's Still the Place for Drama, Doll

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008; Page P01

Becoming a dissolute ad executive from another era takes persistence and attention to detail. It is not merely a matter of scoring an early '60s Kingsbridge suit by John Taylor Ltd. of Tarrytown ($110 at Cheap Jack's in midtown Manhattan) and a skinny Harry Rothman tie ($45). You can't just vacuum up Lucky Strikes. No, if you want to be a piece of serious collateral damage in the phenomenon that is AMC's "Mad Men," which just won an Emmy for best drama series, you've got to get the lingo down. To know your dolls from your sweethearts, I mean.

"A pack of Lucky Strikes, sweetheart," you say to the elderly woman behind the counter of a Times Square bodega, figuring she is well past doll age. Her face freezes behind the bifocals for a moment before thawing into skepticism. You'll get that $9 pack of cigarettes, but not until she has given you a head-to-toe: the hair gel as hard and shiny as patent leather, the French cuff shirt, the tie clip. You get all the way to the door before hearing the woman break into a nervous cackle. Until that last moment, you note, it was all very Edward Hopper.

People come to "Mad Men" (which is actually filmed on the West Coast) for many reasons. For some, it's the ad agency at the show's heart, Sterling Cooper, where Camelot-era men fire zingers at warp speed, and the secretaries forage for husbands. For others, "Mad Men," with its almost orgiastic parade of twin sets and crinoline, is a kind of fashion porn. But Sterling Cooper is also a profoundly sad place. Haunted men booze it up in the morning, visit mistresses in the afternoon, chain-smoke the rest of the time; the women either put up with constant sexist epithets on the job or abandon them for lives of misery in suburbia.

What do we love about this show again?

Sterling Cooper, as every fan with a pause button knows, is at 405 Madison Ave., an address that . . . does not exist. If it did exist, it would be where a bank of Chase ATMs is now, not the ideal spot to spend the morning, but don't worry, soon it will be 11:30 and time for your first cocktail.

Opting for the spot where Salvatore memorably flirted with a client in Episode 8, Season 1, you head for the bar at the Roosevelt Hotel. It is just as cozy and somber as a place dedicated to illicitness should be. Indeed, anything is possible after you've downed a few Camparis in one of those red and gold banquettes.

Lunch time! Luckily the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal is just a few blocks away. The red-checkered tablecloths are exactly as they were on the day Don and Roger overdid it and the latter ended up puking oysters in the Sterling Cooper lobby. The restaurant employs three shuckers during lunch, as well as another guy who does only stews. Dozens of kinds of mollusks from two oceans are available on any given day, and a platter of oysters on the half shell (think Discovery Bay, Penn Cove and East End) are best washed down with a mug of Blue Point toasted lager.

Come to think of it, maybe you'd like to take the rest of the day off and have a tryst with office siren/head secretary Joan in her modest Greenwich Village flat, or roll your eyes at the Beat poets declaiming from the stage of the Gaslight Cafe, where Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg once prowled. No can do. Joan was long ago priced out of her place at 42 W. 12th, a street where the going price for a studio is two grand a month, and the Gaslight (at 116 MacDougal) has morphed into a tattoo parlor. For a hint of what the place was like, head next door to the wooden benches of the Esperanto Cafe, now more often home to cramming NYU law students than the bohemians of yore, although the worn chintz sofas sound the proper note.

You'll do better at P.J. Clarke's on Third Avenue. The ancient beer-and-burger joint has changed little since the night the Sterling Cooper bunch took over the place, pushing back the tables and dancing the twist.

Wait. Wasn't this the night you promised to take the wife to "Fiorello!" even though you hate musicals, just like Don? Oh, well, it'll be worth it to see the society ladies in their Michael Kors (the designer having been such a "Mad Men" nut that he based his fall collection on the show). Be advised, however, that the Broadhurst Theater is home no longer to a singing mayor but to a naked Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe in "Equus").

A pre-show dinner will be a must, and Sardi's, once the happening spot, is now just sort-of-happening-kind-of. You've probably imagined an uneasy mix of biz types, entertainment figures and the occasional shouting match, but instead you're more likely to witness elderly couples or red-faced Wall Street execs oversalting the cannelloni while praying for an end to the financial crisis.

Desperation: Maybe that's what it is. With each passing day, more and more desperation seems to grip New York. The city leaves you with the same feeling that "Mad Men" does, and, who knows, maybe that's the real reason the show speaks to us so compellingly. It all makes you want to scare up a copy of "Meditations in an Emergency," as Don did, and seek out a quiet spot for reflection. One thought: pocket-size Paley Park on East 53rd St. As it happens, the park is in the exact spot where the Stork Club once stood, a perfect oasis for mulling over Frank O'Hara's poetry:

Now I am quietly waiting for

the catastrophe of my personality

to seem beautiful again,

and interesting, and modern.

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