City Stories

George Lois

I've been accused of being the inspiration for the lead of Mad Men (ugh!), the TV show [on AMC] about an ad agency in the '60s that depicts the exploits of cultural buffoons. So here's what a day in the life of a real Mad Man was like.

I would arrive at my ad agency [Papert Koenig Lois] in the exquisite Seagram building each morning at 5:45 (I kid you not) dressed in custom-made Meledandri suits, cooler than any suit ever seen on that "fashionable" show. I enjoyed the quiet and solitude of that time of day, joyfully creating and polishing ad campaigns as the creative head of the maverick group I founded the first week of 1960. The rest of my gung-ho gang would begin to show up for work starting at about 7am. Every day at noon, I would have a power lunch on the ground floor of this great Mies building at the most exciting restaurant in town, the Four Seasons (which was one of my first accounts). Here, my fellow creatives and I worked through lunch while dining like royalty.

Mad Men deals with the non-talents and phonies in the traditional world of advertising back then (they still exist, in droves). But in the '60s, a passionate breed of New York–born art directors and copywriters created breakthrough, culture-busting advertising that changed the world. Almost every week, I directed mind-boggling TV shoots, many starring celebrities in totally surprising campaigns whose seeming irrelevance to the product expressed a startling and outrageous selling idea: names like Salvador Dalí, Susan Sarandon, Ethel Merman, Jane Russell, George Raft, Mickey Rooney, Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra; iconic athletes of the 20th century like Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath, Willie Mays and Wilt Chamberlain; as well as Senate campaigns for Jacob Javits, Warren Magnuson, Hugh Scott and Robert Kennedy.

The '60s was arguably America's most roisterous and chaotic decade. Throughout that time, I reinvented the cover of Esquire every month, transforming each powerful cover into a jarring image that informed and disturbed: [boxer] Sonny Liston, the meanest man in the world, shown as the first black Santa; Andy Warhol drowning in his own soup; Lieutenant [William] Calley—who was awaiting trial for his role in the My Lai Massacre—posing with an obscene grin and surrounded by Vietnamese kids; and Muhammad Ali as the martyr St. Sebastian after refusing to fight in an evil war. I considered my task of creating covers the act of a cultural provocateur, and that attitude carried over into everything created at my ad agency.

Despite my workload, I still made time to play full-court basketball four times a week at the McBurney YMCA on 23rd Street [now located on 14th Street]—the best sign-up ball in the metropolitan area. Each evening, I always tried to get home to see my two boys, Harry Joe and Luke, before they hit the sack and to spend time with my wife, Rosie (and show her my day's work). During summer, I unknowingly started a tradition of renting summer houses on Fire Island among art directors with families. I would fly out on Friday afternoons in a seaplane and spend the weekend relaxing, working, playing volleyball and, of course, shooting more hoops. The whole time I was passionately in love with my beautiful blonde wife, a great mom and terrific painter. I was destined to meet Rosie on our first day of school at Pratt in 1949 and have been gloriously married to her for 56 years, living and working in my hometown, the most liberal city in the world.

Legendary ad man George Lois is the brains behind a number of popular campaigns (including "I Want My MTV"), but he is perhaps best known for the covers he produced for Esquire from 1962 to 1972. His most recent book, George Lois: On Creating the Big Idea, is available at now.