Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Self-Made Man

Retrospective on History, Part Two

To follow up on my last post about Don--or Dick--re-creating himself but finding that his history keeps getting in the way:

Mary Schmich wrote a column in the Chicago Tribune this past Sunday about the Chicago mayoral race, in which Gery Chico--raised in a south side working class neighborhood--has been criticizing Rahm Emmanuel, who grew up in the wealthy North Shore suburb of Wilmette. Schmich writes, "If you grow up without monied privilege, you'll always see life through the lens of that upbringing, even if your circumstances change. You'll always sense that people who grew up with money have a different lens." I thought of Don when I read that. He literally re-made his identity after the war, turning himself from Dick Whitman--farm boy without a lot of prospects--into Don Draper--urban, suit-wearing, dapper professional. Yet despite his will to forget, despite his philosophy of "this never happened" (when visiting Peggy in the psych ward after she's had her baby, he schools her to put the experience behind her: "It never happened."), despite this philosophy, Dick's experience of being raised outside of privilege, his identity as self-made man drives Don. It particularly colors his interactions with Pete Campbell.

This first is made explicit in "New Amsterdam" (1.4) when Pete goes over Don's head to pitch his idea to a client while entertaining him in a club. Don fires Pete for his breach of protocol, only to be summoned to Bert Coopers's office and treated to a lecture on the politics of social connections in the world of advertising. Pete's mother is a Dykeman, a family that at one time owned most of the island of Manhattan. Having him on staff provides entre to a number of choice places where valuable contacts can be mined. The look on Don's face speaks volumes about his thoughts on this class-based privilege. Bert tells Don he'll need to develop a stomach for this sort of thing if he's going to keep rising in advertising. It cracked me up when Cooper tried to drive home his point that this is common practice in their industry, saying that there's a Pete Campbell in every advertising firm in New York. Don asks, "Can't we get one of the other ones?"

Don again rails at Pete about being rich and having everything handed to him in "Nixon v. Kennedy" (1.12), an episode in which he also expresses resentment that the nouveau riche John Kennedy might have beat the self-made Richard Nixon for the presidency because the elder Kennedy bought votes in Illinois, where Cook County's likely voter fraud could have tipped the election. Though I haven't yet re-watched these episodes, recall that Don's relationship with Conrad Hilton is grounded in the fact that both men were self-made and met when Don went into the country club bar to escape Roger's black face performance on Kentucky Derby day. It's Don's lack of privilege that leads to his discomfort. Interestingly, though, the only other person who seems uncomfortable at the party as Roger is singing is Pete. This silver spoon-fed young man and the self-made Don are united in a number of interesting ways as the series progresses.

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