Part of Betsy Bradley’s argument in her forthcoming book on the Knickerbocker myth is that by the end of the nineteenth-century the Knickerbocker sensibility had become so ingrained among New York’s upper crust that a writer like Edith Wharton could draw on the Knickerbocker sensibility without ever having to name it. The society that Wharton depicts in The Age of Innocence (1920), for example, places a family with Dutch ancestry — the Van der Luydens — at the very top of their social hierarchy: their Dutch past gives them social clout that no other family can match.
This week’s Knickerbocker sighting is an example of this sensibility at work without mention of the name “Knickerbocker.” I’ve been catching up on the first season of the series Mad Men, which is set in New York in 1960 and centers on the life of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director at the Madison Avenue ad firm of Sterling Cooper. The fourth episode is called “New Amsterdam,” and it turns on Don’s decision to fire an upstart account executive named Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheimer), who has pitched his own idea to a client who isn’t happy with the campaign that Don has conceived.
We’ve already discerned that Pete comes from a wealth family with whom he has had some conflicts. Earlier in the episode, the recently married Pete goes to his parents to ask for help with the down payment for a Park Avenue that his wife has found. His father, sitting in a tan smoking jacket and shorts with a Scotch, refuses, in large part because he disapproves of his son’s choice of profession:
Pete: Why is it so hard for you people to give me anything?
Dad: We gave you everything. We gave you your name. And what have you done with it?
The punchline of the episode, and each episode seems to conclude with an unexpected turn, is that it isn’t the father’s name that’s important, but rather the mother’s. “Coop” (Robert Morse), the head of the firm and one of its founders, explains to Don and his boss, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) why they can’t fire Pete:
Coop: New York City is a marvelous machine filled with a mesh of levers and gears and springs, like a fine watch, always ticking ..
Don: Sounds like a bomb …
Coop: How much do you know about Pete’s family?
Don: Nothing, except they put out a mediocre product.
Coop: His mother is Dorothy Dyckman Campbell. The Dyckmans owned pretty much everything north of 125th Street, which — I don’t know how good your geography is — but that’s a fair chunk of the island.
Don: So they’re rich. So what?
Coop: Well, no, his grandfather dropped it all in the ’29 panic. Some people have no confidence in this country.
Don: What’s your concern, then?
Coop: Well, I don’t want Dorthy Dyckman Campbell standing on the dock at Fisher’s Island this summer talking about how badly Sterling Cooper treated her son. . . . We lose him, we lose our entree to Buckley, the Maidstone Club, the Century Club, Dartmouth, Gracie Mansion–sometimes. It’s a marquee issue for us. See my point?
Don: Absolutely. He’s more important to us than I am.
Coop: Don’t fool yourself. There’s a Pete Campbell at every agency out there.
Don: Well, let’s get one of the other ones.
Coop: You’re going to need a stronger stomach if you’re going to be back in the kitchen seeing how the sausage is made.
Don: I thought it was a big watch.
Coop [laughs]: You handle the words. You know how much we want you here with us.
Roger: No doubt about that. Don’s a big boy, Fred. Aren’t you Don?
Don: Well, thank you . . . sir.
Coop: There you go I’m glad we’re all better now.
The Campbells, in other words, may not have the most money in New York, but they have something priceless: the Dyckman name and the social clout that comes with it.
Mad Men, by the way, is a well-written series that deserves the accolades it has received. Its setting reminds me of a show I loved as a child — Bewitched (1964-72) — nearly every episode of which seemed to end with the non-witch, ad-man husband, Darrin (Dick York, then Dick Sargent), coming up with a brilliant ad campaign (often aided by his witch wife, Samantha [Elizabeth Montgomery]) that happened to explain away the kooky enchanted circumstances that occurred during the episode. Imagine Bewitched transformed into an hour-long adult series that substitutes smoking, drinking, and sex for witchcraft and slapstick, and you’ll have Mad Men. (Don’s wife, Betty [January Jones], even has a hair style that resembles Samantha’s!)
The first season is now available on DVD, and you can catch the second season on Sunday nights on AMC.