The opening scenes of Sunday’s season five premiere of “Mad Men,” set in 1966, depicted a sort of knucklehead-racism at work, when young men from the ad agency Young & Rubicam dropped bags filled with water on protesters picketing on the Madison Avenue sidewalk below. Wet and angry, several protesters came upstairs to demand to know who at the firm had dropped the water bombs.
One protester said in disgust, “And they call us savages.”
Some critics found the scene a bit too on-the-nose. “It’s a terrible line that should have been red-penciled,” wrote Matt Zoller Seitz for New York magazine. Mike Hale of The New York Times called it “unfortunately ham-handed.”
But no writer is to blame.
Everything in the scene really happened, written almost verbatim from an article on Page 1 of The New York Times on May 28, 1966.
“Poverty Pickets Get Paper-Bag Dousing on Madison Avenue,” read the headline. The article described more than 300 people picketing the Office of Economic Opportunity, between East 40th and 41st Streets, the day before, chanting, “O-E-O, we’ve got the poverty, where’s the dough?” Executives upstairs at Young & Rubicam, half a block from the building, shouted at the protesters, and hung up signs saying “If you want money, get yourself a job.”
And then: “A container of water was pitched out of one of the windows of the building, splashing two spectators,” the article said. “Later, two demonstrators were hit by water-filled paper bags thrown from the building.”
A 9-year-old boy was struck. Several women in the protest, including the boy’s mother, hurried up to the advertising agency’s sixth-floor offices and confronted a secretary about the water throwing.
“This is the executive floor,” the secretary said. “That’s utterly ridiculous.”
“Don’t you call us ridiculous,” a protester shouted. “Is this what Madison Avenue represents?”
“And they call us savages,” a protester named Vivian Harris said.
Somewhere in the room was John Kifner, a cub reporter for The Times who had been hired as a copyboy three years earlier.
“Kif,” as he is still known in the newsroom, would go on to cover more or less every armed conflict on planet Earth in the decades that followed, but on this day in 1966, he was on Madison Avenue.
Forty-five years later, Allison Mann, head of research for the writers of “Mad Men,” came across Kif’s clip while scanning front pages from that time, and gave it to Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator.
“I was blown away,” Mr. Weiner said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I just loved the level of outrage from the participants in the protest. It was so eloquently said, and it struck to the heart of the conflict. They were being lampooned. This was a very serious issue for them and a joke to everyone else.”
He quickly decided to keep Mr. Kifner’s dialogue. “His story was such that I thought it inviolable,” Mr. Weiner said. “The way that quote-unquote ‘average person’ got to the heart of it was way better than any writer could have made up. If I had concocted the story, I would have never written that. It was a great capturing of the lack of respect, which is to me what a lot of the show is about.”
He toyed with the idea of having characters from his fictional firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce dropping the water, but chose to keep the action at Y&R. “It was not a slight at Y&R at all,” he said. “It’s something I thought our agency would be amused by.”
David Sable, the present-day chief executive of Y&R, was not amused.
“Part of that story is sad but true — a few idiots dropped water balloons on protesters some 50 years ago,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “What I don’t know was whether or not they were fired. I certainly hope they were. Needless to say, their behavior was completely repulsive and not in line with the values of our company.”
The critics, informed that the scene that seemed to them to be wooden was in fact born of flesh and blood, stood their ground.
Mr. Hale: “There is no connection between the fact that it actually happened and the scene was taken from a New York Times article and whether the scene was any good or not.”
Of the “savages” quote, he said, “When she said that, it just rings so false.”
Mr. Seitz: It’s good to know that all that actually happened, but it’s still a terrible line in context of the scene, because it’s an editorial summing-up that tells us all how to feel.”
Mr. Kifner, 70, has no recollection of that day.
“There was a lot of poverty and racial stuff,” he said. “I had the poverty beat. It’s so long ago, and so many stories. I can’t remember.”
Mr. Kifner does not watch “Mad Men” — “My sister watches it,” he said – but when told he basically wrote a key scene for the hit show, he said: “No kidding! That’s great.”
There is a reporter in the background of the “Mad Men” scene, scribbling notes, a fictional Kif. “He knew that he had stumbled into a way better story than what he had shown up for,” Mr. Weiner said. “He is the poster for why somebody would want to be a journalist when they grow up. The whole thing smacks of adventure and intellect.”