Matthew Weiner on How “Mad Men” Is Driven by His Resentment of WASP Country Clubs
David Samuels is kind of the John Milius of magazine writers. (Here’s his 2009 article in The Atlantic on UFC fighter Rampage Jackson. Here’s his 2011 interview in The Tablet with Edward Luttwak. His 2008 article in The New Republic on Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright was one of the few at the time to pick up on some of my themes.)
Samuels interviews in The Tablet (which is edited by his new wife) Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, about how the famous TV show is driven by Weiner’s high school resentments of old time WASPs not letting Jews into the Los Angeles Country Club (honest to God). It’s an interesting discussion between two kinds of ethnocentric Jews: Samuels is very self-aware, and that’s driven him toward conservatism, while Weiner remains kind of clueless. As I wrote in Taki’s Magazine in 2009:
Weiner has the fetishistic, obsessive-compulsive observational skills to be a great satirist, but his heart’s just not in it. He’s a nostalgist.
Satire, from Swift onward, has been a Tory art form. In contrast, Weiner, at least consciously, identifies with the triumph of progressive liberalism. He is the loyal son of the kind of hard-working, left-leaning Jewish family (his father is a prominent neurologist, his mother a housewife and attorney) whose conventional wisdom has come to dominate our culture so thoroughly that, at least in his copious interviews, neither Weiner nor his interviewers appear to notice many of the ironies of Mad Men.
As a social commentator, Weiner is on the winning side in the culture war. Yet, as an artist, he senses a void in the brave new America. While he may lack the vocabulary to articulate it, this longing helps give Mad Men its romantic aura that lifts it above its own soap operaish and soft porn tendencies.
From The Tablet:
If I could meet any Jew for a dry martini at the Carlyle Hotel, I would choose Matthew Weiner, the creator of the most influential iteration of the mid-century American story and one of the great show runners in the new golden age of television. … The version of our conversation that follows has been subjected to the moderate degree of editing appropriate to a publication that is read both by Jews and by the people who love them.
You’re one of those Los Angeles Jews, right?
I grew up in Hancock Park in Los Angeles.
Hancock Park is a pleasant area of Los Angeles east of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
I went to a school where you know there was like 120 kids in my class, probably 15 Jews.
Weiner attended the Harvard School for Boys just south of Ventura Blvd.. where the Hollywood Hills trickle out into the the flat San Fernando Valley. This is obviously more interesting to me than it is to you if you didn’t grow up in this area, but I find it pretty fascinating because Weiner’s unbuttoning of himself to Samuels fills in some of the missing pieces about what people in the area were so worked up over when I was young. (I’m five or six years older than Weiner.)
Harvard prep school was the most expensive prep school in Los Angeles. (I can recall being astounded to learn around 1973 that Harvard’s tuition was $1,800 per year). Harvard HS was my Notre Dame HS’s archrival in debate. My debate coach’s wife was the debate coach of Beverly Hills HS, the most lavish public high school in the country at the time, so the Beverly Hills and Notre Dame debate teams were pals. We both disliked the team from Harvard, which is on Coldwater Canyon in-between Beverly Hills HS and Notre Dame HS.
In 1987, NBC aired a miniseries based on the story of the Billionaire Boys Club, starring Judd Nelson as Joe Hunt [a.k.a., Gamsky], Brian McNamara as Dean Karny, and Ron Silver as Ron Levin. This movie inspired Lyle and Erik Menendez to murder their own parents for money a few years later.
Anyway, Weiner is no doubt badly underestimating the Jewish percentage at his Harvard prep school during his time in the early 1980s. Here’s a 1981 article in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner by from when Weiner was a 15-year-old at Harvard prep school:
Berrisford is determined that anti-Semitism will not become part of the Harvard tradition, where – despite the school’s Episcopal affiliation – an estimated 40 percent of the student body is Jewish.
Weiner, as you’ll see from this interview, is convinced that that’s not true. Instead of his high school being 2/5th Jewish, like it said in the newspaper, it was more like 1/8th or 1/10th. But 2/5 seems pretty reasonable to me from my experience with Harvard prep school in 1972-1975.
Weiner goes on:
And I lived in a world where I heard a lot of stuff. I don’t know if I noticed it or not, but when I was teaching at a school, I was 19 or 20 years old it was a summer job in college. I overheard this in the faculty room: “Adding money and education doesn’t take the rude edge out of people.”
And Weiner is so suave and diplomatic that the thought of it still rankles him 30 years later.
Gee, I wonder which people they meant?
I knew the subject already: Somebody’s mom was coming to complain about their kid. And then, interestingly enough, as the Korean minority started making its impact, which is when I was teaching, I started hearing all the same clichés again: “They’re clannish, all they care about is money, they,” you know, “they’ll do anything to get their kid into medical school. I don’t know who they think they are.”
One difference between Weiner and myself is that he’s obsessed with the past, while I’ve always been highly cognizant of which way current trends are likely to take the future.
As a Catholic from the flatlands of the Valley, I was always kind of baffled by the dominant ethnic animus of the region, which was hostility toward WASPs, because we Catholics didn’t count because we weren’t very competitive or interesting. If you are a white Catholic in Boston, say, that’s potentially pretty interesting, but being a white Catholic in Los Angeles is just kind of random. If you are in Southie you can blame it on the Potato Famine, but if you are growing up in Sherman Oaks, it probably suggests that some of your ancestors had some good sense and spare change. We just don’t qualify as an oppressed minority:
Indeed, growing up, I didn’t know many Protestants. Almost all the kids I knew were either Catholic or Jewish. I played sports at the park a lot with one Protestant named Gary, whose father, comically to us Catholics, was some kind of bishop, but it was hard to resent him because he was so sweet-natured.
I heard many denunciations that there were stuck-up Protestants at USC (where Weiner’s dad was chairman of the neurology department in the medical school), Pasadena, which was off in the Smog Belt, and Hancock Park, which is nice but nothing special compared to Beverly Hills, which when I was growing up was the world’s most famous luxury suburb (e.g., The Beverly Hillbillies). Charles Murray’s Coming Apart reports that in 1960 Beverly Hills was by the richest neighborhood in America, with 25 percent higher median household income than the second richest locale.
But I wasn’t familiar with much in the way of organized Protestant power in the Hollywood Hills area. Take the three high school debate teams: Notre Dame was Catholic or quasi-Catholic (e.g., Jerry Lewis’s son was, I think, a senior when I was a freshman), Beverly Hills was Jewish, and Harvard was mixed Christian and Jewish.
Maybe there was some kind of snooty Protestant school that didn’t let in many Jews off in the smog of the San Gabriel Valley, but so what? The Hollywood Hills in the 1970s felt a lot more like the center of the world than San Marino did.
Looking back, I see now that Los Angeles Country Club, which excluded entertainment industry people, and occupies 0.9 miles of frontage on both sides of Wilshire Blvd. between Beverly Hills and Westwood was a perpetual sore spot, felt as a constant insult by Beverly Hills Jews. How dare a bunch of WASP golfers get here first and buy up the best land, leaving us only the Hillcrest and Brentwood Country Clubs (and Bel-Air and Riviera if you don’t mind belonging to mixed clubs).
… A lot of the history, a lot of the flavor of Los Angeles Jewry has to do with show business. It’s not like a Carnegie Deli kind of thing—it’s literally like the synagogues were founded by these people. The country clubs were founded by these people. The restaurants have sandwiches named after them. And they’re very assimilated. That’s kind of the history of the show.
What lies beneath the surface of that sunny California acceptance?
There was a thing at my high school called the Sons of Hitler. It was a scandal. And it was four or five boys printing up cards and writing graffiti, it was in the LA Times—this is when I was there.
Here’s the article in Los Angeles Herald-Examiner on March 4, 1981.
They are the scions of some of the most powerful people in Los Angeles. I finally had someone say something to me as an adult, explain it me, through a third party at a party, saying like, “Let me tell you about Matt in high school” or whatever. It was like going behind the curtain. And I’m saying it in direct answer to your question. This guy said, “You guys, that was our school and this was our world and then you guys came in and you were there with your big mouth and your black hair and your leather jacket.” That’s what he said. And I was like, “Oh my God, what, am I in like Chariots of Fire?” This is Los Angeles, the Sopranos was on the air, this was like 2004.
But Los Angeles was not integrated. Los Angeles had restricted country clubs.
A lot of people don’t believe me about how much of what you see on TV today is driven by great-grandpa not getting into Los Angeles Country Club and therefore having to found Hillcrest Country Club, but listen to the creator of Mad Men instead and he’ll say the same thing.
High schools and country clubs — they’re a big part of how people feel about life.
And Hancock Park had a cotillion.
And someone from my high school was arrested for defacing a synagogue. And there was, especially in Hancock Park, which was the old L.A. money, there was a thing of like, no show business here.
As opposed to two miles from Hancock Park in Beverly Hills.
W.C. Fields couldn’t live there, Cecil B. DeMille couldn’t live there, but it was a lot about keeping Jews out. Nat King Cole was the famous person who worked his way in there, and it was one of the most humiliating stories you’d ever heard in your life.
But when I was growing up, the mayor of Los Angeles was Tom Bradley, an African American, and you just sort of think, “Well, everything’s over.” Ronald Reagan doesn’t seem anti-Semitic, and he was in show business. But it was still really, really strong. Sterling Cooper is more like my high school in the ’80s than it may have been like an ad agency in the 1950s or ’60s.
That’s a pretty funny admission.
What isn’t a metaphor for how you felt in high school?
It finally occurs to me that I’d be more driven and successful if I hadn’t had such a nice time in high school. The greatest motor of ambition in modern America appears to be resentments left over from high school, and I just don’t have enough.
I’m not as angry, but I have overheard a lot of stuff of the type that an African-American person is never going to get to hear, unless it’s like the Eddie Murphy sketch where they’re wearing whiteface.
The old SNL sketch, where he finds out white people get everything for free.
… I lived in a world of the white power elite of Los Angeles where there was a lot of sexism and anti-Semitism, and I was in their homes, observing.
What you are telling me is that Mad Men is a Jewish show.
I did expect that somebody in what I considered to be the Jewish press or some Jewish reporter would notice that I was putting it out there. …
The department store business—that was an interest of mine that actually preceded advertising, the family department store. … So, I had to find a Jewish name that was not associated with a department store. I mean, good luck. Literally every single city in the United States had one. Casper, Wyoming, has a Jewish department store. …
When I was getting my MBA at UCLA in 1980-1982, one of the professors had to tell the gentile women interested in retailing not to try to get jobs at any of the Jewish-owned department store chains in Los Angeles because they’d never get promoted above buyer. It doesn’t seem to come up much nowadays, however.
… But thinking back on those immigrants, and then on the Holocaust, it’s a strange thing now with Jews in America, because they suddenly don’t count as a minority group anymore. They did a 180, from being the definition of a minority group to being the embodiment of white-skin privilege. Especially to white elites, who may find it useful to position the Jews as flak-catchers.
Well, here I can quote something that I read in Tablet—Howard Jacobson’s comment that the Holocaust made it taboo to be anti-Semitic, but now they can direct all of those words and emotions at Israel and not realize that it’s the same thing.
I think they realize it.
It’s the same sentiments, the same clichés.
Israel is definitely a useful word. But when someone looks at you and says, “Those Israelis are worse than the Nazis,” I think both parties know what’s being said, and to whom.
I remember the first time I saw, sometime early in the Intifada, that thing in Time magazine where they used Israel and genocide in the same sentence. I thought, “Wow, they must love doing that.”
I think it also plays into a particular politics in the media world in New York, which has been dominated by Jews for a long time. So, people come in, they feel like outsiders, and now they have a club that the Jews can’t dominate, even though of course they still try. And that combines in a funny way with the energy of new media, because old media is the thing that was supposedly owned and run by Jews. Therefore, the Israel-is-the-most-hateful-and-oppressive-country-on-earth meme is great because it expresses two kinds of hostility at once: The old resentments, and the will to power of the new medium.
Actually, I cannot agree with all that. It’s part of the story of the show, actually: The generation that was in the media that has a Jewish background or is actually Jewish is a minority—but soon as you own 20 percent of anything and you’re a minority, you own all of it, right? We learned that in high school.
There you go.
Our class was 10 percent Jewish, so therefore it’s 50 percent Jewish in people’s minds. Maybe they’re in charge of the yearbook and the newspaper, and the student-body president and the water polo team, but there is really only 10 of them. They don’t own anything—they are over-represented.
I’m fascinated by how much Weiner’s identity revolves around his being a minority at the top prep school in Southern California. I wonder if he read that Herald-Examiner article that mentions that Harvard is 40% Jewish and has been bugged by that ever since?
I can remember a brother of the Holy Cross at Notre Dame saying that Notre Dame’s student body was 20% Jewish, but I’m guessing that’s counting kids who had one Jewish parent.
I do think that we don’t get the same status as a minority because we’re white and that makes a huge difference. You can hide and pass and blend. Part of the story of Rachel Menken is that she’s not. She’s explaining to Don, she has a confidence about who she is, but that was what I thought of the nose-job generation. There were a lot of Christmas trees in those homes and a lot of like “Hey, you know, what’s wrong with this, let’s just be part of this thing.” And a lot of intermarriage. When I look at the media, I feel the same way. There are survival skills. But there is also a bending over backwards to not have a bias that I think has resulted in the conversation that then can get hijacked.
But to even in pride suggest that Jews dominated the media in any real way is foolish, David. Jews are over-represented; they do not dominate it. Even when they dominated the ownership of the studios, they were quickly taken over by public corporations. Jock Whitney is not Jewish.
Jock Whitney (1904-1982), the dashing grandson of Abe Lincoln’s personal secretary John Hay, has been dead for a third of a century. And the New York Herald-Tribune, the Republican newspaper he used to own, has been out of business for just under a half of a century.
Gulf and Western wasn’t a Jewish company.
I feel chastened, and rightly so. But, to play devil’s advocate, Charlie Bluhdorn was the head of Gulf and Western when they owned Paramount and made The Godfather and all those other great movies. And he was Jewish, even though he denied it. He was bonkers, too.
But the point still stands: When you are half of a percent of a population and you are so overrepresented, or you’re paying attention to business or are successful in some way, it becomes, “Oh, it’s all of them.”
Do you feel that Jews in America are still a minority group and still outsiders, except we get confused in our own brains and imagine we are not?
I’m a writer so I’m an outsider. It’s not from being Jewish. But I do believe that having lived undercover that there is a large portion of the population that views us as outsiders. Which is a fact that we might not want to accept.
And that we are for some reason not part of multiculturalism, even though we do have a culture, and we are a minority. I definitely think we’re a minority. We need an ADL! It’s not about having a parallel universe anymore. Whether you want to admit it or not, you see in the history of the world the times when the Jews are getting comfortable, and then they wake up one day and realize that they can be cut out of this bargain at any time, even if they’re intermarried, even if they converted.
Samuels has done a good job of getting Weiner to reveal just how bizarre is the ethnic animus that’s the motor at the heart of his success: Jock Whitney!
But, of course, the real lesson is that racial resentment can be a great goad for your career. Here’s Matthew Weiner, son of a leading neurologist and a lawyer who stopped practicing to keep house, yet it still drives him nuts that Jews were a minority at Harvard School for Boys. He gets up in the morning and goes to work to get revenge for that.