Part of the Mad Men Moments Video Essay Series
Serena Bramble, who has already created several dazzling montage tributes to film noir, Powell and Pressburger, and Steven Spielberg, among others, unveils her latest work, weaving dozens upon dozens of clips into a jazz-like succession of motifs, mapping out the resplendent world of Mad Men.
Bramble's video includes an excerpt of Don Draper reading Frank O'Hara's poem "Mayakovsky" from the premiere episode of Season Two. Writer David Ehrenstein takes that scene as the starting point for the following meditation on the poem, its author the poet Frank O'Hara, and their significance to the series:
Don Draper reading Frank O’Hara’s poem "Mayakovsky" was one of the most startling yet oddly right cultural cross-references in all of Mad Men. Don is of course extremely intelligent and very much aware of the arts -- but hardly what anyone would call an intellectual. His romantic exploits have brought him in passing contact with late 50’s /early 60’s New York bohemia (jazz clubs, loft parties) but he’s never evidenced a desire to be part of them. His chance encounter with an O’Hara poem is part and parcel of his magpie-like instinct to gather up information for possible future use. Had Don actually run into Frank O’Hara it’s doubtful he’d have anything to say to him. O’Hara, of course, would have been sure to put the make on a Total Babe like John Hamm.
Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) lived a life that in some ways mirrors that of the Mad Men characters. He went to Harvard (Edward Gorey was his roommate) studied music, but became profoundly interested in poetry -- especially avant-garde French and Russian poets Stephane Mallarme, Arthur Rimbaud, Pierre Reverdy, Boris Pasternak and Vladimir Mayakovsky. He got a job working in the card shop at the Museum of Modern Art and in a very short space of time worked his way up to being one of the Museum’s most important curators. This Peggy-like rise was aided by the fact that he became personal friends with the Abstract Expressionists the Museum was collecting. His essays reveal him to be one of their most vocal and direct champions. It wasn’t lofty and “theoretical” with O’Hara at all. A prodigious imbiber, the fact that he could drink any abstract expressionist in the house under the table was why this very openly gay man with -- in his words -- “the voice of as sissy truck driver” doubtless impressed this decidedly straight and very macho crew. Here’s the greatest love poem ever written (IMO).
O’Hara wrote constantly. His powers of inspiration never waned. The poem he reads above is about Vincent Warren -- a dancer in the chorus of the New York City Ballet. O’Hara had been invited by John Ashbery to accompany him on a State Department sponsored Cultural Tour of Europe (hence the cities listed in the poem). The minute he said “Yes” to the trip was the same minute he discovered that he was in love with Vincent Warren. O’Hara’s open celebration of joy in his sexual and romantic self is something Mad Men’s Sal couldn’t possibly bring himself to so much as dream of.
Frank O’Hara died in 1966 as a result of injursies sustained when he was hit by a slow-moving dune buggy on Fire Island coming back in the wee smalls from a party. He was in mid-conversation with Babe du Jour J.J. Mitchell, when J.J. suddenly realized Frank had stopped talking. He looked back and there Frank was on the sand. He was flown back by helicopter to New York where he died in hospital while trying to comfort his distraught friends. His last words were to Willem de Kooning. “Oh Bill, you’ve come by. How nice.”
It would be nice if Mad Men makes mention of it when the time comes in the story arc.
Serena Bramble is a film editor currently pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Teledramatic Arts and Technology from Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.
David Ehrenstein is a film critic and writer whose books include Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000 and The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese. He lives in Los Angeles.