As conceived by its creator, Matt Weiner, the television show Mad Men is a running catalogue of dissolution: Its various characters lie, cheat, steal, drink, smoke, and fornicate their way up the corporate ladder in a 1960s New York advertising agency. Weiner frames their sins as occupational hazards, the natural result of a Madison Avenue culture that peddles deception and excess. Each episode alternates brainstorming sessions for the agency’s ad campaigns with scenes from profligate lives led away from the office, a narrative parallel that suggests advertising—and, by extension, the marketplace—is a uniformly corrupting affair.
But with Mad Men in its final season, fans might do well to consider the alternative vision of L. E. Sissman (1928-1976), a real-life advertising executive in the 1960s, who appeared to survive the experience with his soul intact—even deepened.
Along with his advertising career in Boston, where, over the years, he worked as a creative vice president at two leading firms, Sissman built a national reputation as a man of letters, penning book reviews for the New Yorker, a regular first-person column for the Atlantic, and several books of poetry. John Updike was a big fan, admiring Sissman’s literary work as an expression of an “amiable, attentive intelligence.” Other contemporary admirers included fellow poets Anthony Hecht, Richard Howard, and Howard Moss. The writer behind Sissman’s poems and essays seemed centered, charming, humane. “A sensible, decent man: that is the voice,” Updike said of his friend.