Being Gay in the World of Mad, Mad Men

Monday, May 21st, 2012

David Leddick explains what it was really like being gay in the world of mad, Mad Men:

Yes, some agencies were like the one where Don Draper works. But these stuffy, old-line agencies were the big ones — BBDO, J. Walter Thompson, Leo Burnett — not agencies like Draper’s. They were top-heavy with upper-level management from Ivy League schools; they were agencies where women could only be secretaries or work in what was called the “Women’s Division” (food, fashion, and cosmetics). In those kinds of agencies, if you were gay, you were probably closeted, like that poor character on Mad Men. But more likely, if you were gay, you didn’t stay long at such an agency, as many of the smaller agencies were quite different — fun agencies to work for, where being gay was not an issue.

The fact that no one at the Mad Men agency changes jobs is very unreal. In the advertising world I knew, you rarely worked anywhere more than two years, as other agencies wanted you for your knowhow on whatever account you had been working on. And your salary soared. You almost doubled your salary each time you moved. I went from $95 a week when I started at Kenyon and Eckhardt to something over $22,000 a year at Hockaday Associates in four agency moves. In the early 1960s that was good money. I spent two years at BBDO and only about a year at J. Walter Thompson, and voilà! Everybody did it. Why didn’t Salvatore?

After I left BBDO, a friend told me he’d overheard comments about me in the elevator, along the lines of, “So, they were in a lot of trouble here when the queer that was writing all the great stuff left. But then they found another queer who could write just as fancifully.”

When I finally hit Hockaday Associates, a small agency specializing in high-end fashion, furniture, cosmetics, and the like, it was a different world.

All the art directors were gay, and all the account executives were women. The agency president was in fact a Miss Hockaday, and she had her own take on the 1960s. Everyone really dressed to the nines. Everyone was good-looking, and there was wall-to-wall green carpeting in the foyer. A lady with a cart served tea every afternoon at 4 o’clock. Clients came in and were overwhelmed by the chic and wonder of it all. We were famous in the advertising world because Miss Hockaday dropped the Elizabeth Arden account. After Miss Arden kept her waiting for an hour for a meeting, Miss Hockaday swept in and said, “Miss Arden, you are a tyrant. We do not want to have this account,” and swept out.

Can we please have more scenes like this on Mad Men?

The gay men on staff knew everything there was to know at the time about clothes, interior décor, you name it. I learned a lot. This was the early 1960s; being witty was important then. And let’s face it: This was New York, where being gay was hardly a hidden-away phenomenon. In Greenwich Village the gay men were lined up every night along the western side of Washington Square. They sat and lounged against the low pipe railings there, which were called “the Meat Rack.” You could drop in at Mary’s on Eighth Street or go dancing at the Cherry Lane bar (men did the two-step there, clasped in each other’s arms), right next door to the Cherry Lane theater. There was a large sign by the door: “Out of Bounds to Military Personnel.” If you were gay in New York, you didn’t need to run around hiding it.

And there were plenty of places in the advertising world where you could work and it just didn’t matter. What outsiders little realized was the tightrope danger of the advertising industry. There was not a day you went to work that you couldn’t get fired, regardless of whether you were straight or gay. If the client vamoosed, the entire group servicing that client was fired. Immediately, to not waste salaries. You deserved “flight pay,” we called it, like the pilots in the Air Force. Employees who could hang onto those slippery, shifting clients were highly valued. I was one of those employees. And I didn’t care who knew I was gay. I was myself. Lots of ladies in the office told me that their closeted gay friends would sigh, “If only I could be as openly gay as Leddick.”

And then I went to Grey Advertising…

I always said that everything I was or ever hoped to be in advertising I owed to Revlon. I was hired as the Worldwide Creative Director of Revlon at Grey Advertising in the mid-1960s. Grey Advertising was huge, the largest agency in the U.S. It was not like stuffy BBDO and other biggies. It was like Hollywood. It had scale, it had dough, and it was heartless. Revlon was the same thing, but only more glamorous, with more money, and heartless in their way, but very loyal to those they valued.

I was never “in” the closet, and actually, I enjoyed making all those white, heterosexual, tough guys face up to the fact they had to have me in that job, because Revlon liked me; they liked a creative director who was taller, blonder, and better-dressed than anyone else in their meetings. When they screamed and cussed and bellowed in their meetings, I would say, “Keep this up and I will lose my enthusiasm.”

And during a tense meeting, when I took out my lip balm, my crew knew the meeting was over.

Every year on Advertising Age’s “worst clients list,” Revlon was always voted the number-one worst client in the United States. And I didn’t care, because Revlon liked me, and they liked me for what I could do.

In meetings with Revlon, a head honcho would be chewing out the president of Grey Advertising, saying things like, “You guys are useless. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re a waste of time. The only reason you have this account is him!” And they would point to me. Gee, it felt great. They were loyal to those who truly were on their team.

At one point, my staff went on strike and told management that it was either me or them. They didn’t want to work for me anymore. The head account executive called Revlon while they sat in front of his desk in assembled mutiny. He spoke briefly to the client and hung up. He said, “They like David. You’re all fired.” I only found out about this later.


We were anticipating the 21st century about half a century before it arrived.

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

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