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Ad executive offers her take on Madison Avenue of '60s

First impressions about "Mad Women" might be very wrong. They are these:

That the book is fluffy and tends toward the chick-lit end of the spectrum. (The red cover and image of a sheath-clad woman in stilettos, holding a martini and cigarette, may be to blame here.)

That the book is only for fans of the TV show "Mad Men" (which returns to the AMC network March 25) and its 1960s-focused ilk. ("Pan-Am," et al.)

That a book by a former advertising woman could not be in any way interesting to those outside the industry.

Wrong, wrong and wrong -- and that's what makes "Mad Women," slight as it is at just over 200 generously fonted pages, an intriguing story.

For this isn't just telling tales off Madison Avenue. This is history, or at least one woman's version of it, in the rawest possible form -- as a personal, opinionated, punchy and often humorous narrative. A story, then, of How I Think It Was, set in a long-gone world most of us will never experience.

Author Jane Maas, who is in her 70s now, began her career on Madison Avenue -- the mecca of the advertising world in the 1960s and beyond -- in 1964. She worked as a copywriter (think Peggy Olsen and you are not far off) and then ascended through the ranks to work as a creative director and advertising agency chief.

Along the way, Maas met and worked with big names in New York City -- Leona Helmsley and Gov. Hugh Carey among them -- and in the industry, including David Ogilvy, an iconic figure in the trade who wrote the talked-about book "Confessions of an Advertising Man."

Here, Maas offers up a lightly treated version of her story, hitting the high points (her work on the world-famous tourism campaign "I Love New York") and low ones (planning Gov. Carey's large and luxurious wedding -- enough said).

Maas does not offer this tale as a deeply serious historical study, but there are interesting observations along the way, including many about working women in the 1960s through the present day.

On that point, Maas, who was married to an architect for many years until his death, makes clear that she could never have had the career she did without a brilliant full-time nanny-housekeeper-maid-assistant, a woman she clearly adored. (And yet even this part of the story rings with poignant pathos, as the woman Maas hired had a child of her own that she was away from all week during these years.)

A saving grace here is that Maas does not try to make herself sound glamorous or brilliant or special.

She writes as much about awkwardness and mistakes as she does about successes: the time she had to wade out into the ocean in her business suit to board a waiting plane; the pitch meeting where the roof leaked and everyone had to sit under umbrellas. Maas is open and honest about her fears and regrets, as well. She writes that she spent an awful lot of time at work and away from home, while a mom to two young daughters, and says bluntly that her children had varying reactions and responses to that absence.

"Mad Women" is not heavy history, but it is a light and accessible window onto a time period that lots of people are curious about right now.

Timing, as they say in advertising, can be everything.

Charity Vogel is a News staff reporter.


Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the 60s and Beyond

By Jane Maas

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's

228 pages, $25