Would you marry Don Draper?

The wife of a real-life "Mad Man" speaks

Published August 6, 2009 4:07PM (EDT)

As we approach the Aug. 16 premiere of “Mad Men,” one might think the entire media universe has agreed to hold a steady gaze on the fashion and politics of the advertising world in mid-century New York. This week Chicago magazine has a particularly fascinating take on the era, a first-person essay called "I Married a Mad Man” by Myra Janco Daniels, the wife of Draper Daniels, one of the men who, according to “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, inspired the character -- and certainly the name -- of Don Draper.

But would anyone want to be married to Don Draper? Out of the dozens of portraits of the constraints of mid-century womanhood in the series, Betty Draper, the beautiful model turned housewife, is among the the most bleak. In this month’s “Vanity Fair,” Matthew Weiner explains Betty’s attraction to Don: “She married that man for a reason, because he’s fucking handsome. She signed on with a guy she doesn’t know at all because it’s amazing to fuck him. And then she was ashamed of it, because she knew the sex was what it was all about, you know?” But while her husband’s professional brilliance and erotic magnetism serves as the white-hot center of the show, Betty is stuck in the suburbs wearing curlers, chainsmoking and putting the kids to bed, while her husband drinks and beds bohemians, business partners and other men’s wives. To wit: He's the kind of guy one would love to fuck, but hate to marry.

Myra Janco Daniels seems to be Betty’s exact opposite: She is her husband’s professional equal. When they meet in Chicago in 1965, she is 38 years old and the executive vice president at the ad firm that her future husband, already renowned as one of the best copywriters in the business, wishes to purchase. If Betty is Grace Kelly trapped in Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique,” Myra is more Katharine Hepburn, and the story of her courtship with Draper -- called Dan or D -- sounds more like a screwball comedy that begins as jousting among equals, complete with snappy dialogue, and ends in a strangely unsatisfying denouement, which seems to imply that ladies, no matter how accomplished, can’t seem to be trusted to say what they mean and know what they want in matters of the heart.

The Draper Daniels that Myra describes is a “tall, distinguished-looking man, in his early 50s, with Copenhagen blue eyes and a riveting presence.” That sounds like our Don, though 15 years later, and thus well into his silver fox period. The two meet as strangers over a business negotiation at 5:15. At 10 p.m., Dan asks “Miss Janco” if she wishes to get a hamburger. The next day, he purchases her agency by personal check. For the next two years, the two run their business side-by-side; he is the creative director and CEO, she the marketing director, COO and president.

One must imagine that Dan spent those two years with a growing admiration for his supremely competent, and perhaps fetching, colleague, but in Myra’s telling, she never noticed a thing. One day he simply showed up in her office, holding a greeting card: On one side were printed his best attributes, on the other, hers. “Mine were better than his,” she writes, “so I knew he wanted something.”

“I’m thinking of a different sort of merger,” he tells her. “I’ve decided I’d like to marry you.”

Myra, who is against divorce (he has had one), already engaged and, she says, “more importantly, happy with my life,” turns him down. He leaves the office whistling. She sends him a note, as a joke, saying, “Merger accepted in fifteen years.” He returns with a jewelry box. She says she can’t possibly consider marriage without a year of courtship. He says, “All right. We’ll count today as day one, then.” She writes: “And he put out his hand and we shook, as if sealing a business proposition.”

Classic Hollywood could not have done it any better: The consummate pitchman using all his skills to overcome the resistance of the woman he loves. But then things get even weirder. One morning, he tricks her into taking a blood test over brunch at the home of a mutual friend, who happens to be a doctor (a woman doctor, I might add, which makes it even more interesting to build an image of this social group of high-powered women professionals in mid-century Chicago). The next day, en route to a pottery show, he stops in front of the courthouse. She thinks he’s getting a fishing license; instead he proposes they get a marriage license. She initially refuses, until he agrees they won’t actually use it yet. But a few minutes later, marriage license in hand, he says, “Myra, let’s go ahead and do it.” She writes: “The next thing I knew, we had done it. We were married. And I started to cry.” The headline the next day: “Another merger at Draper Daniels.”

She writes:

Looking back now, I realize I never regretted marrying him, even though I resisted pretty strongly at first. I think it shows that sometimes we don’t know what’s best for ourselves. I had been so work-oriented and had resisted so strongly that Dan saw no choice but to come after me. I’m grateful that he did.

So the moral is what? That women don’t know what they want? That resistance is only a woman’s way of flirting? That no never means no? The idea of “taming” a strong woman is as old as literature, but it’s interesting that Myra seems to see her own story in these terms. (Over at Jezebel, in response to Myra's story Sadie recounts a similar marriage tale of an older friend who was told to buy a new dress and then driven to the courthouse.) And it’s fascinating to contrast Myra’s account of her seemingly chaste, platonic courtship with Weiner’s version of the Draper marriage -- that it’s all about the fucking. On the one hand, you have an independent career woman who doesn’t recognize lust; on the other, a beautiful young woman who gets trapped into marriage because of a lust that makes her ashamed.

Weiner’s Draper is obviously a creative composite of many men, and there’s no reason to think that he took Dan’s personal life as inspiration for Don. But one has to wonder if Dan’s first marriage may have more closely resembled Don’s own. When he was 35, as Draper is in 1960, did he, too, have a wife and two children in the suburbs? And did the demise of that marriage perhaps lead him to look more fondly on a marriage of equals? Or was it the opposite: that he was unable to look upon an attractive colleague without wanting to possess her? I can't help thinking that at 50, Don himself will surely not still be married to Betty (whose fate is one of the most compelling questions of the series). Will he be with a businesswoman like Rachel, the Jewish department store owner from Season 1, whose accomplishments and resistance to love most closely mirror Myra's story? A woman like Peggy, who seems like she could be a younger version of Myra? A Joan? A Midge?  Or just alone? 

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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