What Frank O’Hara Tells Us About Don Draper


In the first episode of last season’s Mad Men, Don Draper sits at lunch one day and notices a young man next to him reading a copy of Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency.  Making small talk, Don suggests that reading a book of poems “makes you feel better about sitting in a bar at lunch.  You feel like you’re getting something done.”  The young man, looking Don over and noticing his pressed suit, perfectly groomed hair, and close-shaven face, rejects this fraternal gesture, saying with an air of dismissal that “Yeah, it’s all about getting things done.”  With a nod, Don recognizes the young man’s tone but proceeds to ask if the collection is good.  The man gives him one final look and answers, “I don’t think you would like it.”  Don is seemingly put into his place as a corporate shill.

For those of us who are regular viewers of the show, however, the young man’s comment is rather amusing, for Don Draper – or Dick Whitman, as we know his given name to be – is much more than what his appearance would lead one to presume.  Against the advice of the young man at lunch, Don purchases a copy of O’Hara’s book and this collection plays a recurring role in the show, gradually evolving into a major motif during the second season to such a degree that the final episode is even entitled, “Meditations in an Emergency.”  Frank O’Hara, it turns out, has quite a bit to tell us about Don Draper.

The use of O’Hara as a central touchstone for the second season may at first register as a surprise.  O’Hara was one of the mainstays of the New York School of artists in the 1950s and 1960s.  A gay man, he was an accomplished and well-known poet and published a number of well-received volumes before his untimely death at age forty.  He worked as an assistant curator in the Museum of Modern Art and was close to a number of the most important painters of that time, including Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers, and Joan Mitchell.  These biographical details do not much connote the life of the Madison Avenue lifestyle of Don Draper.

However, there is in O’Hara’s poetry a crisis of identity and identification that very much evokes Don’s life.  “To the Harbormaster,” the first poem in Meditations in an Emergency, begins, “I wanted to be sure to reach you;/though my ship was on the way it got caught/in some moorings.  I am always tying up/and then deciding to depart.”  These lines establish a theme of desire unrealized and of ambivalence that O’Hara maintains throughout the collection.  The speaker of O’Hara’s poems rarely, if ever, achieves communion with another person. For instance, in “For Grace, After a Party,” the poem begins, “You do not always know what I am feeling.”  In O’Hara’s poems, the speaker’s emotion is perpetually misplaced or misses its mark, as if there is a fundamental alienation at play that no one can breach.  This tone seems very much appropriate as a complement to Don Draper.  During the first season of Mad Men we learned that on a special assignment in the Korean War, Dick Whitman was working alone with the real Don Draper when their base was attacked and Don was killed.  Dick took advantage of the situation to switch dogtags and to assume Draper’s identity, thereby helping him escape a life that held very little promise for success.  In this first season, though, Don repeatedly battled issues of identity, including a brief reunion with his brother, who he rejected and who subsequently committed suicide, leaving Don feeling especially alone by the end of that season.

O’Hara’s poetic style appears inviting and familiar, but it maintains a rigorous distance.  As a New York poet, he set the great majority of his poems in the city in which he was deeply entrenched and with which he was fascinated.  Cramming his work with references to specific restaurants, clubs, and city landmarks, O’Hara detailed the places and products that someone in New York would encounter, lending his work a tangible familiarity.  Moreover, in the majority of his poems he constructed a first-person speaker who not only references familiar places but who uses a language of everyday experience.  At the same time, however, O’Hara’s speaker does little to reveal anything of his emotional, intellectual, or spiritual essence.  The corresponding distance resonates throughout O’Hara’s work, and makes him a natural fit for Don Draper to read.

At the end of the first episode of the second season, Don finishes reading O’Hara’s collection, places it an addressed envelope, seals it, and drops it off late at night in his neighborhood mailbox while taking his dog for a walk, having made sure that no one has seen him.  As this action takes place on screen, Don speaks in a voiceover, quoting the fourth (and last) section of the final poem of the collection, “Mayakovsky:”

“It may be the coldest day of/the year, what does he think of/that?  I mean, what do I?  And if I do,/perhaps I am myself again.”  In the lines, “what does he think of/that?  I mean, what do I?”  The poem wonderfully evokes a crisis of identity that closely matches that which Don experiences during the show.  Having adopted the name of Don Draper and having masqueraded as him for years, he has no close friends or even intimates.  Indeed, as the first episode ends, we might ask, what would it mean for Don to be “myself again”?  Who is the essential Don, or Dick Whitman?  These are questions that Don wrestled last season.

Before Don placed the book in the envelope, he wrote a short note to the recipient of the package.  It reads, “Made me think of you – D.”  We don’t know the recipient of the package, nor why it reminded Don of her, until the twelfth episode of the season, when we find out it was Anna Draper, the woman who was married to the real Don Draper.  Anna lives in California, and by this point last season Don has come to Los Angeles on business.  He is in a crisis – he has engaged in an extended affair with a married woman, endangering his marriage and his power at work.  His wife Betty has discovered the affair and has kicked him out of his home.  It is at this lowpoint that he goes to see Anna, and that we start to discover more of Don’s backstory.  In a series of flashbacks, we watch as Anna first challenges his authenticity when he moves to New York and adopts Don Draper’s name, and we see them develop a close relationship over the years, at least in part because of the secret that he has and that she agrees to keep in exchange for his financial support.  Ultimately, Don seems comfortable with Anna, relaxed and at ease in ways we don’t see him with other people, not even Betty.  He comes back to her now, in the present, because as he says to her, he’s “screwed it all up” and he wants to figure out what to do.  This is the set-up for the return to O’Hara’s collection, for in this episode we discover that Anna is the person to whom he sent the book, the one he thought of when he read the poems.


In this key scene, Anna offers Don a tarot card reading, during which, looking over the cards, she tells him that he is “definitely in a strange place.”  But she identifies one card as “the soul of the world.  She’s in a very important spot here.  This is you, what you bring to the reading.  She says that you are a part of the world – air, water, every little thing is connected to you.”  Don replies that this is a nice thought, but asks what it means.  Anna answers, “It means the only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.”   Anna not only comforts him in this reading, but also gives him the assurance that he is part of a broader community. As Don listens to the reading his eyes keep drifting to the window as he feels the ocean breeze; in the final scene in the episode, he goes to the Pacific and walks fully clothed into the water.  In that moment he is figuratively cleansed, reborn in a type of baptism.

In the final episode of the season, Don returns to New York, reconnected to the world, no longer alone.   He goes back to his job and manages to weather the storm of his firm’s merger with a British advertising agency with his position as Creative Director intact.  Along with the rest of the country he perseveres through the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  And perhaps most importantly, he reunites with Betty and his children, and at the end of the episode discovers that she is pregnant.  The season ends with the two of them holding hands, looking to one another, unsure of the future but attached to one another as a family.

Mad Men’s use of O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency to dramatize Don’s crisis frames last season and its central question of what it means to forge real, emotional connections with others – echoed in the stories of Betty, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, Joan Holloway, Roger Sterling, and virtually all of the characters on the show.  In Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, Marjorie Perloff argues that the typical O’Hara speaker “makes no attempt to reflect upon the larger human condition, to derive meaning from a series of past incidents, or to make judgments upon his former self.”  Don, in contrast, does seem to want to face the reality of “the catastrophe of his personality” and what he has wrought by creating such an emotional distance from those that love him, trust him, and work with him.  However, as we prepare to enter the third season, still uncertain is whether Don will actually be able to successfully immerse his full self in this world of his making and to make sense of his life, especially when his actual identity is a lie.  We might well wonder what it will take – to return to the language of O’Hara in the final line of “Mayakovsky” – for Don to “become [himself] again”?


6 Responses

  1. […] Frank O’Hara’s poetry aloud at the end of the first episode in the second season, and that reading and the subsequent uses of O’Hara and his collection told us much about Don’s frame of mind.  But let’s face of it, pretty much all of what […]

  2. […] A cross-posting: please go check out Invisible Culture, which is hosting a blog on Season Five of Mad Men in relation to their latest issue, which has a number of articles on the show (including one on Frank O’Hara, a topic near and dear to my heart). […]

  3. Thank you for this. I really love this reading in Mad Men but it was only on an instinctive level I knew it fit with the character. Facinating to see the underlying connections.

  4. Thanks so much for this! It’s a wonderful read, bringing together two very amazing things – Frank O’Hara & Mad Men! 🙂

  5. This was an enjoyable read, very nice. May I offer a correction: Don is fully clothed when he walks into the ocean in that he is wearing swimming trunks.

  6. A very thoughtful post! I was wondering about all this and now I understand it better. I’m interested enough that I’m going to read the book.

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