Portrait

What if Mad Men's Peggy Olson were still gracing our TV screens in her late 70s?

By Jacquelin Perske.

Being Peggy

When I first encountered Peggy Olson on television, she was a secretary in a New York advertising agency in the 1960s. She crawled out from under her boss’s shadow of stale cigarettes and whiskey and became the first female copywriter in the company. Peggy faced awesome obstacles. She made us remember how drastically the path for women has changed, and reminded us that pioneers such as Peggy were the shoulders on which we now stand.

I wonder where Peggy Olson might be today, if 25 future seasons of Mad Men were played out. I think she might live in my apartment block.

My Peggy is in her late 70s. She lives alone, in a basement apartment with her cats, piles of newspapers and magazines and her electric typewriter from her days as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson. My Peggy was also a glamorous pioneer in the world of advertising, and like many a spirited gal with plans, she learned how to be a man on the inside and a woman on the outside. My Peggy faced a choice none of my contemporaries can imagine – to have a career or to marry. 

TV Peggy Olson never gave a toss for the domestic arts. Aprons were shackles, fridges were for ice and olives, and no one cleans toilets on TV. Likewise, my Peggy is blind to the domestic. However, my Peggy’s apartment is not on TV – it’s real and it’s filthy. Dust cakes every surface, food scraps lie on the floor – tossed to her kitty cats called Dreamy Girl and Freddie Paws. Her kitchen is not for cooking. It’s a messy cupboard of sugar spills, honey speckled with ants, half-eaten packets of biscuits and tinned soup. My Peggy lives on tea, sherry and cream cakes. Fruit and vegetables are known collectively as “Doctor’s Orders”.

Peggy walks around the apartment building in a long flannel nightgown and pink lipstick, a grudging habit entered into only to “keep it all turning over”. Her long addiction to cigarettes means her lungs “give her the rotten puffs” and so she stops along the way. This is where our first conversations began, and she quickly enthralled me with her breathless, silvery glamour.

I gained entry to her catacomb apartment when she asked me for advice. She led me to her bug-infested dot matrix printer, which was out of paper. I was bamboozled – where would I begin to look for a roll of perforated-edged printing paper? She was astonished to find it wasn’t still readily available. To soften the blow of such a glitch in her understanding of technology, I bought her some cream buns. She squealed like a mouse when she saw them. 

My Peggy never married and had no family – one suspects they were tossed aside, along with their criticisms and judgements. “My mother was a nightmare,” she whispered to me one day, her voice still thick with the pain of rejection.

My attention was caught. Yes, I was being neighbourly; but I was also hungry for her exotic company and tales from the dark ages. Might I mix us some whiskeys at five and tap our toes to one of her blues LPs? Could we share some toast and sardines and watch Bette Davis films together? Is it possible we might be … pals? I gave her my phone number.

The first call came at 11 the same night. My Peggy could hear a terrifying sound behind her television. “Could I pop down and have a squiz?” There was no rolling back the rug and dancing with a clinky drink. I cleaned up a nest of cockroaches and heaved the heavy 1970s TV set back into place. Peggy sat on the couch drinking warm milk – I suspect Freddie Paws, smug on her lap, was sharing it with her. My Peggy waved me away with a “Shut the door on your way out, honey.” I wasn’t going to be Peggy’s gal pal. My Peggy had sniffed me out, lured me in and cast me in a role of her choosing – I was to be her fucking concierge.

My Peggy calls me whenever she needs an errand run, a light bulb changed, a postage stamp licked, a pair of glasses found. When I’m unavailable she will use my children – “Could your boy pop down and grab a box for me; I’m wobbly today.”

Who knows where Peggy Olsen ended up in season 25 of Mad Men. But I like to think that, like my Peggy, she was still steely of mind and purpose, determined to squeeze the fun out of the shabbiness of every day, with
a concierge only ever a phone call away.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "Being Peggy". Subscribe here.

Jacquelin Perske
is a screenwriter. Her credits include Little Fish, Love My Way and Spirited.