‘Mad Men': Why Don Draper Understands L.A.

History is disposable in Los Angeles; it’s the poetry of constant reinvention that speaks to Dick Whitman

Last Updated: July 23, 2010 @ 1:51 PM

Don Draper understands Los Angeles.

Beyond the Edenic weather and low-slung subdivisions, Don says — without irony — to a would-be client that in California, “Everything is new, and it’s clean. The people are filled with hope.”

If you believe, as I do, in the notion that cities at the epicenter of cultural shifts embody the ethos of their era — for example, Boston embodied the revolutionary spirit of 1776, Chicago was welded together by the industrial revolution, whereas New York was a city that defined the immigrant experience and Victorian values — then no other city in the country is more representative of 20th-century modernism than Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is where the oppressive caste system of gray, dense, Eastern cities could be cast off and the promise of home ownership could be fulfilled. Whether this experiment was a success is debatable, but this is, at least, the story Los Angeles tells itself — and it is a story that has been believed. It is a magnificent pitch.

It is a city defined by the cars, space, celluloid, and hypnotic rhythms of the Endless Summer.

Like Don’s bungalow in Long Beach, Southern California offered the highest possible life for the middle classes: a small but airy home with an open yard that allowed the resident to move fluidly between den and patio. Where our continent stopped, there you could find a homestead replete with whooshing freeways, public beaches, and platoons of bronze-tinged California Girls.

Everything is new in Los Angeles because everything actually is new. It is a city obsessed with surface, from architecture to culture: Newness is the lifeblood of Los Angeles. When something gets old we tear it down.

History is disposable in Los Angeles; it’s the poetry of constant reinvention that speaks to Dick Whitman.

In Palm Springs, we never learn the full names or identities of the Fellini-esque aristocrats with whom Don escapes. Names like Rockefeller, Astor, Rothschild, Dykeman — or Whitman — mean nothing in the desert. The whole scene is drenched in a democracy of the sun. Nothing has come before and few think of tomorrow.

As Las Vegas would later be called, Southern California in 1962 was the epicenter of the Eternal Now. In their horizontal mansion they idle in concrete splendor and anonymity. The mansion itself is a triumph of modernism: horizontal, cool, open.

Waist-deep, arms outstretched, facing the abyss, Don submerges himself in the Pacific Ocean. Like the American in the 1960s, Don meets himself in the West. 

Natasha Vargas-Cooper's new book "Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America" is a series of essays examining the rich cultural and historical context surrounding "Mad Men," whose fourth season premieres Sunday on AMC. 

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