This image has to resonate with anyone with a dad from that generation
Today is my late father’s birthday
I got the idea for this post as we binge watched Mad Men for the umpteenth time in preparation for the series finale a few months ago. My father was around the same age as the fictional Donald Draper, and was also named Don. He came from a similar rural, poverty-stricken Depression-era background, served during the Korean war, was a man’s man with movie star looks (a bit of Robert Mitchum, Elvis and Rock Hudson) and then wrecked his appearance with alcohol, bad food, and chain-smoking. But most importantly, when he was young, he had taken correspondence courses to be a commercial artist.
When I was a kid, I used to sneak into the old carriage house/ barn we used as a garage and look through trunks containing my father’s youthful artistic efforts. Some of them were samples of advertising art he’d done during the 1950s, on poster board, depicting gleaming refrigerators, televisions with rabbit ear antennas, and smiling housewives serving tv dinners and jello. (In his aspirations, dad was thus more like the character of Sal than the pitch man Don Draper). My father’s draftsmanship was sometimes a little off, but he drew with a great deal of wit and personality. He had even been accepted to the Rhode Island School of Design.
For reasons that remained mysterious my father turned drastically away from a career in art, even commercial art, some time before I was born. All he would say was something about relatives (his mother? his brother?) accusing him of being a “sissy” for pursuing art. But surely the hang-up was all his, because if you were really talented and really wanted to do it (both seemed to be true of him) you wouldn’t let that stop you. But my father was also very strange about questions of duty, obedience and tradition. I really think if one of his parents had asked him to jump in front of a moving train, he would have done so. His people were extremely clannish, and really about the only socializing I ever saw my father do, at least on his own initiative, was with extended family. I think he would really rather do anything in the world rather than alienate his family, including deny his own identity, whatever that may have been.
But he was not one of those quiet sufferers. We heard about his sacrifices daily, and his resentments expressed themselves in violence with regularity throughout my childhood. The hyper-awareness that comes with fear was my constant companion. You become alert to every warning sign, every facial or body movement was like a tell for potential explosion. When I was quite young — seven maybe? — I decided that while I loved my father, I also hated him. For a great many years, I only hated him, feigning the love as a dumb-show of duty.
He gave ample reason for me to be standoffish, thus I could never let him know that I was interested in his art or cared about it. In reality, I was of course thrilled and mesmerized by it, inspired by it, it determined the whole course of my life in certain ways, but I could never show him more than a polite, perfunctory interest. And then he would be stung and hurt that I didn’t do jigs and cartwheels to show my approval. Mostly because he needed it so badly and it was one of the few powers I had over him, who had such sway over me. It felt necessary to hurt the old man and hurt him hard. I mainly regret it now because at a certain point he moved to a smaller house and chucked out most of his old art and of course now I would love to have ALL of it. I only have a couple of odd doodles I managed to swipe in earlier years, and some of his later painting (in his retirement he finally allowed himself to return to his art). Many people never knew he had ever been an artist. To others, he would often let it slip out, and then be mysterious about it. But in retrospect, he was always leaving things around for people to find, doodles and things. He wanted his talent to be seen and admired, but he was afraid to take the risk.
One huge difference between dad and Don Draper was my father’s lack of polish, and a seeming disinterest in conventional markers of success. My father remained the farm boy, and constantly professed hatred of all rich guys, elected officials, bosses and (from his military days), officers. The films of John Ford have helped me understand this contradictory, almost pathological attitude of his: he understood his role in life as to slavishly do your duty and be obedient and follow orders — and to hate and resent the people in power who gave those orders. This is an antique attitude, sort of unique to Southerners, I think. “I hate having to follow these orders, but there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll do it. I don’t ask any more of life than the shortest possible exposure to this misery.”
But this is America. Of course there is something you can do about it. You can BECOME the boss. You can get an education, even if it’s a self education, and gain experience and confidence, and talk yourself into better situations in which you’re not quite so powerless. To be fair, my dad did make a half-hearted attempt to climb the ladder out of manual labor. When I was about ten he began taking business courses on the G.I. bill at Johnson & Wales college. This was on top of a full time day job in the stock room at Woolworth’s, and having a family and all the responsibilities that go with that. The stress was too much for him; he melted down before graduating. And that was that. I’ve often wondered what he would have been like if he’d managed to trade his forklift for a white collar job. His appearance as a grown college student was a little unsettling. With his brief case and nerdy shoes, he gave off a vibe not unlike Charles Whitman. When he got really spruced up, he looked like he was from Bugtussle: an off the rack suit from Penny’s, and lots and lots of cheap cologne. My father was a smart guy. I have often thought his natural bent was philosophy. But he didn’t know how to play the role.
Then it occurred to me that the Don (I am also named Donald) who possessed the missing Don Draper ingredient was me, a generation later than the one who matched him in age and background. It was me, the actor, who liked to put on a fitted suit and tie and shed the earthy trappings of my class, and spoke with attempted erudition at parties, and married a congressman’s daughter, and landed a job that put me on speaking terms with nationally important journalists and historians, and allowed me to move among the likes of Henry Luce III and David Rockefeller and get to eat dinner with the Patakis and my colleagues at the Governor’s mansion. If you didn’t grow up in this environment, playing it cool takes a lot of energy, and looking backwards breaks that cool, so you do it as little as possible.
What is that thing that allows you to do that, that allows you to invent another self? No one of any depth is completely okay with it. It causes an internal tension. Successful actors and other show biz people are the most visible people who do this; I made it a sub-theme in No Applause for a reason. The private lives of performers are often a shambles, I think maybe because, having invented one self, they continue to keep inventing others when the new situation doesn’t work according to fantasy, and it’s almost like trying to outrun your own shadow. They’re in the habit of discarding old lives they don’t like. But it’s not possible in this world to have a gleaming, perfect, fairy tale one. You will hit more bumps. This is reality. So an invented life is not a solution. There really isn’t one. My father hated himself, stewed in his own juices and in some respects that bad energy killed him. Don Draper’s solution was to hate himself, then invent other, better selves only to self-destruct again many times.
And yet there were moments on Mad Men when glimpses of a third way, and a possible path to happiness emerge. There’s that scene at the end of season six where Draper shows his kids the dilapidated house of ill-fame where he grew up. There’s the scene (in the same episode) where he drunkenly spills his whole life story during a pitch to Hershey’s, which, yes, does jeopardize his professional life but does have the purgative virtue of him spilling the truth. And while it is hinted that he does eventually come back to being the old Don Draper we see a path he might have taken.
Like so many people I know (hundreds maybe) I’ve been trying for many years now to be a brand because we’re told this is a nation driven by marketing and that’s how you get ahead. But I’ve been really chafing at the expectations and restrictions of trying to be that brand for a long while. It has repeatedly interfered with and occasionally even hurt my art. It’s unsatisfying and false and even really boring at this stage. Inanimate, insensate THINGS are good at living up to their brand. Coke? That’s a brand. You’ll always get the same bottle of Coke, every time. But human beings (at least any worth knowing) are complex and rich and contradictory, like all products of nature. An “image” or a reputation is like a straight-jacket. It is less than the reality, and it is false. Artists need to transcend that garbage, know who they are, and be it.