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It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Men World

As a Lehigh undergraduate, Maria Mastras Jacquemetton '83 discovered her writing voice while on a Quest for Paradise. That quest eventually led her to Los Angeles, where - as a writer and supervising producer on the critically acclaimed TV show Mad Men - she is exploring the birth of the American Dream.

Emmy Award winner Maria Jacquemetton ’83

Maria Jacquemetton '83, second from right, basks in the post-Emmy Awards glow in September with her husband Andre, far right. Joining the happy couple, from left, are Lisa Albert, producer, Scott Hornbacher, producer, and series creator Matthew Weiner.

Long before the Emmy Award for Best Dramatic Series, before the two  Golden Globe Awards, before the Peabody Award exemplifying excellence in  television broadcasting, before the cover stories in the New York Times Magazine  and Entertainment Weekly and just about every other magazine and newspaper in America, before Mad Men exploded as a pop culture phenomenon whose influence far outstrips its modest basic cable audience …

Before all of that, Maria Mastras Jacquemetton ’83 knew.

“I think we knew, in our little bubble of the Mad Men show, that we had something really special,” Jacquemetton says. “It was whether or not the rest of the world was going to get it.”

The rest of the world got it, all right, as evidenced by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts’ recent recognition of Mad Men as best international TV series. The shelves of Jacquemetton’s home office in Manhattan Beach, Calif., are now lined with the top awards the television industry bestows on writers. In addition to the Emmy, Golden Globes, and Peabody awards, she also has two Writers Guild of America awards for her role as supervising producer and writer on the series.

Mad Men which returns to the cable channel AMC for its third season in August, is set in the fictional Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency in 1960s New York City. It features a talented ensemble cast led by actor Jon Hamm as Don Draper, the firm’s top ad man, who harbors a secret past, and moves between the cutthroat competition in the Madison Avenue boardroom and the carnal desires and duplicity of the bedroom.

While reveling in almost fetishistic detail in the fashions, culture, architecture, and music of the 1960s, it exposes the rot eating away at the soft veneer of the American Dream.

The Peabody judges wrote: “This shrewd account of American culture sliding into the 1960s, holding by fingernails onto the attitudes of the post-WWII 1950s, is as sharp as the creases in the two button suits, as precise as a narrow-knotted necktie, as wry as the rye on the bar.”

The whole mad adventure started almost 20 years ago in a Los Angeles coffee shop, where Jacquemetton and her husband/ writing partner, Andre, were part of a group of 10 struggling writers who gathered regularly for caffeine and encouragement.

“We would share each other’s pages and pitch ideas to each other and workshop our scripts,” Jacquemetton recalls.

Matthew Weiner was one of the writers in the informal support group. “We just kind of clicked at that point and we stayed in touch over the years,” Jacquemetton says. “When Andre and I were writing on Star Trek: Enterprise, Matthew was on Becker and his offices were right next to ours. We would hang out and go to lunch.”

One day in 2001, Weiner asked the couple if they would read a script he had written on spec for a TV pilot. It was a drama set in an advertising agency in the early 1960s.

“Andre and I read it and absolutely loved it,” Jacquemetton recalls. “We said to him, ‘Look, if you ever get this done, please find us wherever we are because we would love to work on it.’”

Weiner went on to land a coveted spot in the writer’s room starting in the fifth season of The Sopranos, the hottest and most critically acclaimed show on television at the time. But he never gave up on his pilot, despite being rejected by HBO (home of The Sopranos) and Showtime.

Finally, five years after Jacquemetton first read the script, Weiner got the basic cable network AMC (formerly American Movie Classics) to greenlight his show.

“He called us and said, ‘I know you guys can write and I’d love to work with you. And I know you love the project. Will you come be on the show?’ That’s how it happened,” Jacquemetton says. “This is an important message and it’s something that I always tell my students. The community of writers is such a valuable resource, not only because you need the input and you need the organic process of workshopping, of pitching to each other, but also because you never know where your friends or colleagues are going to end up. If you share a creative vision with someone, that’s how you end up working together.”

But before Jacquemetton developed her creative vision, she had to find her voice. And that happened amid the beautiful and imposing Gothic buildings she loved so much on the campus of Lehigh University.

Quest for Paradise

“I realize that I have awakened in myself a sort of inner voice whose existence I always knew of, but whose strength I underestimated. Actually, I don’t know if I’ve awakened the voice so much as I have gained the confidence to express it—or at least try to!” —Maria Mastras, Dec. 8, 1981, letter to Ed Gallagher, professor of English

Long before she moved to L.A. to forge a career as a television and film writer, and years before she set foot on Lehigh’s green and leafy campus, Maria Mastras knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“I wanted to be a writer from when I was a little kid,” she says. “I remember as soon as I could write stories, I was doing it. It was never even a question. My mom keeps all my stuff, and she found a box of stories that I wrote when I must have been 10 or 11, as soon as I could actually string sentences together in a coherent form.”

Growing up in Wellesley, Mass., the daughter of a physician father and a stay-at-home mom, Maria was a voracious reader.

“I read everything when I was a kid,” she recalls. “I would go to the young adult section of the bookstore in downtown Wellesley and I would buy a book every week and just burn my way through them.”

When the time came to choose a college, her parents wanted her to live at home and attend nearby Wellesley College, an elite, all-women’s school. But Maria had other ideas. When she visited a friend who was attending Lehigh, “I fell in love with the campus ... it was sort of the picture of what I had thought in my head when I was going away to college, that’s what it was going to look like. This beautiful enclave of higher learning. It’s a gorgeous campus.”

It may have been the beauty of Lehigh’s campus that drew her to Bethlehem, but it was the passion and inspiration of three gifted English professors—Ed Gallagher, the late Al Hartung, and Robert Harson, now retired—that turned her college years into a life-changing experience.

In his office at the top of the stairwell on the third floor of Drown Hall, Ed Gallagher pages through a report he submitted more than a quarter century ago, in 1982, regarding a special course he taught that year called “Quest for Paradise.”

“I’m just luxuriating in this after all these years,” Gallagher says wistfully. “It’s one of those courses you never forget.”

“Quest for Paradise” was a College Scholar seminar, using “Great Books” (from the ancient, epic poem “Gilgamesh” to Hemingway), art, and music to challenge students to gain a greater understanding of themselves and to formulate a coherent worldview.

Gallagher’s report, now discolored and fading with age, included excerpts from the journals that students were required to keep throughout the course. As Gallagher reviews excerpts from Maria Mastras’ journal, he says: “You can kind of see her come alive as a writer. I remember her well. She was quiet. There were only 10 to 12 students in the course. … She was one of those people who stayed out of the line of fire a little bit. You’d look at her and wonder, what’s going on in her head? And then, you’d read her journal and see that there was a lot going on in her head.

“Something clicked for her in that course,” he adds, with more than a trace of pride.

In fact, it was that tendency to stay “out of the line of fire a little bit” that led Maria to write the letter she sent Gallagher at the end of the course.

“I realize that I should be telling you all this in person, but as you well know, I am far more vocal through the written word than through what I consider the banalities of conversation,” she wrote at the time.

The confidence she gained in her writing voice during her “Quest for Paradise” helped make her career and her current success possible, Jacquemetton says.

“It was one of the best classes I ever took in terms of writing because it forced you to look inside and not just critique another writer’s work, but to actually find your voice,” she says.

Another class, this one taught by Al Hartung, has continued to influence Jacquemetton’s work years after Hartung’s passing. Jacquemetton loved British literature, and took several classes with Hartung, renowned as one of the preeminent Middle English scholars of his time.

“We had a fairy tale class that he taught that I use a lot now in my adult life as a writer because my husband and I are constantly looking for movie ideas and show ideas, and we find that we go back a lot of the time to these really classic, mythical stories that are in human culture,” Jacquemetton says. “That class was all about fairy tales and their origins and the similarities between various types of tales in different countries and different cultures. So that one, I draw from a lot.”

The course that Jacquemetton draws from the most these days, however, was taught by Robert Harson, who retired from Lehigh in 1995. The course, Harson recalls, “was probably the first and only course in America devoted exclusively to John Cheever,” whose 1978 collection of short stories won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a National Book Award.

“It was a whole term of Cheever, only Cheever,” Jacquemetton says. “I didn’t know his writing before the class; I fell in love with it during  the class. And here I am, more than 20 years later, working on this show that is in some ways—certainly tonally and in the types of storytelling that we try to do on the show—like a physical embodiment of a Cheever story.”

Harson is thrilled that his class had a lasting impact on Jacquemetton’s life and career.

“It’s always nice to know that good teaching has a payoff in the success of the students. That’s a good feeling,” he says.

And he shares her love for Cheever. “I’m glad that she was influenced by Cheever,” Harson says. “He’s a terrific writer. A wonderful writer.”

The love for Cheever’s writing that Harson nurtured in Jacquemetton is shared by Weiner, the show’s creator, who also has cited the books of Cheever’s contemporary, author Richard Yates, as an influence on the show. Both authors, Jacquemetton says, wrote about “the desolation of the suburbs and the sort of nihilistic, inner life of the American male and female of that era.”

Jacquemetton’s ardor for Cheever’s writing came honestly, Harson adds. “I know that she got a B in the course, which makes her one of the better students because I didn’t give out A’s too munificently,” he says, laughing.

Reflecting on the roles that Gallagher, Hartung, and Harson played in her life, Jacquemetton says: “Those are my three best writing teachers I have had in my entire education. They were so good. They loved writing, they loved literature, and they were able to inspire their students—at least me. If I ever win an Academy Award, those are the three I’m going to thank. They were influential in a huge way in my life and in my career.”

When told of Jacquemetton’s heartfelt words, Gallagher smiles, and says softly: “As a teacher, these are the things you live for.”

‘Can we top last year?’

Long before Mad Men and all of the professional accolades that have come with it, there was Baywatch—a show scorned by critics every bit as much as Mad Men is praised. And, it should be noted, a show that drew the mass audience that has so far eluded Mad Men.

After graduating from Lehigh with her English degree, Maria Mastras enrolled in a film graduate program at Boston University. She had grown up dreaming about becoming a novelist, but during the year she spent studying abroad in London while at Lehigh, Maria roomed with a Brown University theater department major who got her interested in film.

Through the Boston University program, Maria landed an internship with a husband-and-wife TV production company in Boston, where she learned the business and began writing scripts. Armed with that experience and a master’s degree in film production from the Boston University College of Communications, she headed west with a new dream of becoming a writer on a scripted television series.

She landed a job at an agency, then got a position working as an assistant for a film executive at Paramount Studios. It was there that she met her husband, Andre Jacquemetton. After moving from one assistant’s job to another, Maria finally landed a position as a writing assistant—where she got to sit in the writer’s room and participate in the story breaks and scriptwriting—on the sitcom Dear John, starring Judd Hirsch.

“That job was the doorway to actually becoming a writer,” she says. “I did that for a while, and then I got into the Disney Writing Fellowship. Walt Disney/ABC has a writing fellowship that you submit a script to and if you are accepted, they pay you for a year and they treat you as if you were a writer under contract. They basically train you to be a studio writer.”

One of the scripts she wrote during the Disney Fellowship was bought by Warner Brothers Home Videos and made into a movie called Billboard Dad, starring Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen.

With her first produced credit under her belt, Jacquemetton teamed up with her husband, and the couple started getting work in television. The first show that hired them on staff was Baywatch, perhaps best known for its slow-motion scenes of beautiful, bikiniclad women running down the beach.

“You know what? It was the best job we had, up until Mad Men,” Jacquemetton says fondly. “We wrote a lot of scripts, we got to be on set, we got to be in Hawaii, immersed in the culture there. So even though you’re writing about rescues and girls running on the beach in skimpy bikinis, we were still really immersing ourselves in the whole television writing world. That was our first staff job, so it was a great place to learn.

“I have to say … Baywatch, OK, people laugh when you say it. But it was one of the most successful television shows in history. And honestly, when you go to work on a show like that, you don’t set out to just phone it in. You don’t go, ‘Oh, I’m working on Baywatch, who cares what kind of stories I tell?’ If you’re a writer, you take your job seriously. You try to write the best Baywatch episode you can write. You always have to tell good stories with human emotion, keep your audience tuned in and connected to the characters and the action, and give them some eye candy. I mean, that’s what we do on all shows. That’s what all shows boil down to in the end, right?”

Their work on Baywatch opened the door to writing jobs on other TV series: Relic Hunter, Highlander, and then Star Trek: Enterprise. Jacquemetton, meanwhile, began teaching a two-day seminar on television writing at the University of Hawaii each year, and, in 2006, was hired by the Vancouver Film School to revamp and run their film and television writing program.

“I found that I really love teaching. So now, I try to do as much as I can,” she says. “I feel like I had such terrific teachers when I was coming up through the ranks that it’s all about giving back.”

Jacquemetton and her husband continue to write feature film scripts with the hope of getting one made. She also still harbors her dream of becoming a novelist. But for now, Jacquemetton has found happiness and fulfillment in the writers’ room of Mad Men, partnering with her husband at the office and at home.

“The only disadvantage—and this is the only one for us—is that we get paid as one person. So if one of us isn’t working, both of us aren’t working. But otherwise, there are no disadvantages. It’s amazing for us. Creatively, we complement each other. When you’re writing together, it’s much less daunting to face the blank page and 60 pages you have to deliver when you can split it into two parts. You’ve always got someone to bounce your ideas off of. We’re each other’s most brutal critics and biggest supporters.”

The couple has two children—a son, Luc, 12, and daughter, Tia, 6—and the professional arrangement works just as well at home as it does in the office, Jacquemetton says.

“We can work all day, come home, hang out with the kids, help them with their homework, go to their soccer practice and then they can go to bed and we can just sit back in the office and go back at it,” she says. “So it’s really worked out nicely for us. People always ask us how we do it, and we just don’t even want to analyze it. If you analyze it, it will stop working.”

During the first two seasons of Mad Men, Maria and Andre Jacquemetton wrote or co-wrote six episodes.

“The first season, we were sort of the little show that could, and we snuck in under the radar,” she says. “We were having a great time doing this show that was nothing like anything else on television. We didn’t even know if we were coming back for Season Two because it wasn’t a sure thing. It’s no secret that our ratings were not phenomenal Season One.”

During the hiatus after Season One, though, the Mad Men phenomenon gained full steam. It won the Golden Globe for best dramatic series, and actor Jon Hamm won for best actor. It won the Peabody Award, and the awards and accolades kept coming.

AMC renewed the show for a second season, and Jacquemetton says the writers and everyone working on Mad Men knew that the stakes had been raised considerably.

“Absolutely, there was more pressure,” she says. “You come back Season Two and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, can we do it again? Can we top last year?’”

The show made history in September 2008, when voters from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences made it the first basic cable program to win an Emmy in a best series category. It was a magical night for Jacquemetton and everyone involved.

“My reaction was, ‘Holy moley! Get up on that stage!’” Jacquemetton recalls, laughing. “You dream about that as a writer. You dream about winning prizes. It’s not like that’s why you do it, at least not in my case, it’s not why I did it. I never thought I’d win an award in my life. When it actually becomes a possibility, of course you want it. Of course you do.”

In the behind-the-scenes AMC Web documentary, Inside Mad Men, Jacquemetton says the show “is really about the birth of the American dream—how that started, what it means, and what lies behind it.”

And that helps explain the show’s outsized influence on popular culture, she says.

“I don’t think we have the American dream like we had back then. I think there’s a yearning for that hopeful time period when we felt like as a people and a country we could do anything and accomplish anything. I think in the world today, there’s a lot of disillusionment. Certainly the economy’s a disaster and people are hurting. I don’t think that kind of hope is as tangible at all. So I think part of the appeal of watching Mad Men is that feeling of, ‘Oh, look how we used to be.’

“Yet, things weren’t that great. It looked great on the surface, but people were still people. They still had basic, sort of carnal desires and competition and all the things that kind of balanced out the sunny side of that era. They were there, underneath the surface. 
 
Photo by Michael Darter

Story by Jack Croft

Posted on Friday, September 18, 2009

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