May 292013


Of all the trippy, trippy scenes in The Crash, quite possibly the trippiest of all — and maybe the trippiest in the history of the show — was the scene where a middle-aged African-American con woman who called herself “Grandma Ida” broke into the Drapers’ apartment where the kids were home alone, and had Sally and Bobby within a hair’s breadth of being convinced that she was, indeed, a part of their father’s past life. She slips in through the back door that Don has carelessly left open and, when caught by Sally, insouciantly relates a fish story about how she “raised” Don. She knows his name. She’s able to fake the rest of it, like knowing that Don was “handsome” and that Sally’s mother is alive and “still a piece of work.” Working likely with information overheard from domestic workers in the building, and able to sneak into the building through the back entrance disguised as a maid, she spins a character — a fried-chicken-fixing mammy stereotype — that she knows 1960s white suburban children are likely to buy, but which probably doesn’t have much to do with who she really is. (It wouldn’t surprise me if, when not running her con, she actually talked more like Cicely Tyson than Aunt Jemima.) And who is she, anyway?

I’ll tell you who she is. She’s the African-American female Don Draper.

Think about it. We’ve been watching an entire series about a man from a dirt-poor background who stole another man’s identity, cultivated a personality and image that wasn’t his but which he knew his con targets (in his case, advertising men and glamorous women like Betty) would respond to, and (at least figuratively) snuck in through the back door in order to land his dream job, by getting one of the partners drunk and taking advantage of his mental lapses while inebriated. Sound familiar? But Don is white, male, handsome, able to affect the trappings of being educated and middle-class, and thus, unlike the woman “playing” Grandma Ida, has thus far managed to elude prosecution. She will go to jail; he will get to go on and on, taking and taking and taking, because the world rolls over and plays dead for guys who look and act like him, and wipes its collective tuchus on women who look and act like her. He gets away with everything. She gets away with nothing. And it’s all about class and race and sex and looks.

I’ve seen complaints about how this show handles the issue of race, and I can’t really disagree with those who say that Mad Men has been superficial in its treatment of the life experiences of black people in the 1960s. And frankly, if they are going to do that, they need to hire some African-American writers who are around Grandma Ida’s age, because having young (or even middle-aged) white people write those scenes is mostly going to be awful. But the show has dealt head-on, more than any I’ve ever seen, with the issue of white racism in all its myriad forms, overt and covert, from liberals and conservatives, squares and hipsters, young people and old people, in a way that suggests no one, not even the most well-meaning white person, is immune. And Grandma Ida, if only for a few minutes, is able to exploit that; after all, Sally and Bobby were practically “raised” by a middle-aged African-American woman who probably had the intellectual capability of becoming much more than a housekeeper but was thwarted by prejudice, and their mother was “raised” by a domestic (Viola) too. So why couldn’t the same thing have happened with Don, as far as they’re concerned? He could be Batman or the Joker, for all they know.

But white racism being what it is, she can get only so far before she’s caught with valuables that were purchased off the backs of women much like herself but more morally upright, valuables she has no other way to obtain. Just like Don, who couldn’t have pulled himself up by his bootstraps because he had no boots, and had to steal someone else’s. Is Grandma Ida’s arrest a portent of what’s to come with Don? He might have gotten away with it a lot longer than she did, but that doesn’t mean the sand won’t run out on him someday soon.


  33 Responses to “Grandma Ida: An African-American Female Version of Don?”

  1. I really like this. Beyond just Don’s double life, SDCP operates on a series of cons: Roger’s airline con with the Chevy executive, the smash and grab operation of springing SDCP free of PPL, Don’s “solutions” to both Honda and Lucky Strike (changing the conversation), the method of acquiring of Jaguar. Ted derided SDCP as being “the wild west”.

    Lane’s money problems and suicide came down to an outsider unsuccessfully trying his hand at the executive con lifestyle that he saw everyone else in the office succeeding at around him.

    • i think bob benson is trying that “executive con” thing too but with bob, it is just coming off as odd.

  2. This parallel lives analysis was extremely insightful and rings true and is a portent for things to come in MM.

  3. Perhaps in Mad Men Logic ‘Grandma Ida’ is a con woman. Who knows, Matt Weiner might consider this crime to be a con. Certainly the uniform patrol officer did not seem to take the crime seriously.

    However, in the actual legal system, Ida committed several very serious felonies. The fact the service door was unlocked is not a defense from a charge of Felony Burglary of an Occupied Dwelling. Just the value of the items taken from the Draper apartment qualifies that as Felony Grand Theft. Probably the most serious charge would be Kidnapping of a Minor Under the Age of 14, namely Bobby Draper and Gene Draper. Kidnapping can be charged when a person is moved even within a room during the commission of any other felony, in this case burglary and grand theft. Sally was also kidnapped, but if over 14. In 1968 Kidnapping of Children under 14 carried a life without parole (LWOP) under NY law.

    Normally detectives would have been conducting the interviews with the witnesses and victims.

    • It’s possible the interviews were finished by the time Don came home. We don’t know exactly the order in which people arrived. We know that Sally tried to call the police and was caught. The next major scene in that storyline featured, Megan, Henry, Betty, and the police already there when Don entered.

      • Once detectives arrive on a crime scene, as would be SOP for such serious felonies, they do not later turn the scene back to uniform officers. Only a detective would discuss identifying stolen property.

        Of course that is in the real world. This is Mad Men Logic, so on the show anything goes.

        Sally’s call to the police today would have been recorded, but in 1968 it might not have been. Following an interview of Sally by a detective or a deputy DA, a charge of Felony Witness Intimidation could well have been added against Ida.

        • And if it happened today, they’d probably send over a cop (possibly along with a social worker) to make sure that everything was legitimately okay over there. There are kids that lie, of course, but I hated that the emergency operator just took Ida’s word.

    • CCA said:

      “Probably the most serious charge would be Kidnapping of a Minor Under the Age of 14, namely Bobby Draper and Gene Draper. Kidnapping can be charged when a person is moved even within a room during the commission of any other felony”

      If I were on the jury for Ida’s trial AND she were (seriously) charged with “kidnapping” I’d have a good time scorning the DA’s serious lack of judgement. At that point, I do my duty as a citizen, ignore the “law”, go beyond ruling on the facts, and hang the jury on the “kidnapping” charge.

      No problem voting to convict on burglary, theft, and perhaps even witness intimidation.

      (all this with the omniscence of the Mad Man camera)

      Sadly, in the real world, A District Attorney’s over-reaching “logic” carries a more serious consequence than dramatic “logic”.

      • In 1968 as today, it is a committee within the DA office deciding which charges to file based upon evidence available, not an individual DDA.

        In 1968 filing Kidnapping of a Minor in circumstances such as shown on Mad Men was routine in all 5 counties comprising NYC. The conviction rate in jury trials on those charges were over 85%. However, generally a plea deal was reached for less than LWOP.

        Now should a jury deadlock almost certainly a fellow juror will inform authorities that one violated the oath and did not deliberate in good faith.

        Fortunately Mad Men is fiction and it is unlikely we will be shown Ida’s trial.

        • I’m sorry to hear that so many juries convicted for “kidnapping” where the “kidnapped” were not actually touched or otherwise removed from their homes.

          As for deliberating, we’d have my version of a civics class in that room. Imprisioning “grandma” for that is serious business. Juries were originally formed to check the power of “authorities”. Now we “educate” jurors to validate the law – no matter how unjust.

          (and, I wonder, may juror read the law, or must they rely to judges and the attorney to paraphrase it?)

          Off screen, Ida will go down for burglary and theft – more likely, she will plea out.

        • One thing I’ve noticed is that we never see who the person “matching the description” is. We don’t know if the items recovered were that of the Drapers’ stolen property, and we don’t know if it was Ida who was arrested or not. In my neighborhood (in a pretty progressive part of Charlotte), when I described a black man who was running a door-to-door salesman front to case houses (long story on that, but it was a valid sighting of a known crime ring, not just me calling to say “there’s a black guy in my neighborhood”), the police stopped every male who looked darker than a Swede – and that’s 2013. In NYC in an era of noted racial profiling even more marked than today, one could imagine they may have arrested the wrong woman and Ida is still on the loose.

    • Yes, but the point of the article above is that someone gets to decide which of the two– Don or Grandma Ida– would be guilty of the (same) crimes they commit. And it’s not Grandma Ida types, that’s for sure. And that’s the definition of racism–not just the effects of racism, but also the way it’s institutionalized.

  4. I think Mad Men has handled race and poverty how they were likely handled–ignore it and pretend the issues would go away. The movie The Apartment, I remember the opening scene with Jack Lemmon in his massive Manhattan office…don;t remember any faces of color at all…that would be 1960. I have the DVD will have to check.

    But they have had African American actors in an increasing presence and that is a good thing…I wonder when we’ll we see Latin (or Asian) workers…it is NYC. We started with all white males in *real* jobs…now we have white women advancing…and African Am being hired.

    If Don Draper were not so good looking, he’d have to be Grandma Ida to survive–>down home country manner, out of date clothes, and making you eggs any way you like em…

    • the cleaner Megan fired seemed Latina, and the deliveryman Pete wanted so badly to interact with was

  5. Very interesting post, Meowser.

    Don has also had the good luck of meeting some people who were cooperative with him, for reasons of their own. Anna Draper probably wouldn’t have been so okay with him pretending to be her husband, if she had had a great marriage. But apparently the real Don wanted to marry her sister, so we know that the marriage between (real) Don and Anna was less than ideal.

    And Don had the good fortune of working for Bert Cooper who was indifferent to the fact that one of his top executives was not who he said he was. (Of course, Cooper later found a time to use it to his own advantage: “Would you agree that I know a thing or two about you?”)

  6. Excellent analysis. I’d have never thought of this but it is so true.

  7. When I first watched the scenes with Grandma Ida, for a moment I really wondered if she may have actually had a hand in raising the real Don Draper. I mean, Anna Draper could well be described as “a piece of work!”

    • I thought that too, but soon realized it was heading in a different direction. I don’t think Anna Draper could be described as “a piece of work.”

      • I personally don’t think Anna was like that, but others might describe her that way. She smoked dope. She was into metaphysics. She’d seen UFOs. For the 50s & 60s, she was unconventional. Even Don was skeptical about her Tarot reading.

        I think she was just a free-thinker and a little ahead of the societal curve.

        • I had only heard the phrase “a piece of work” used to describe someone tough. Tough is not the first adjective I think of when it comes to Anna Draper. However, if it could be used to describe someone unconventional (which would fit Anna Draper) than I see how the phrase could be accurate.

          • Ida is Southern (from the accent) and “a piece of work” could easily be used to describe Anna. Piece of work where I come from in the South just means unusual.
            I want to know how Ida knew Don’s name. Mail wasn’t exactly lying around in that modern apartment, and the building directory would only have last names at most. Plus most men of that era had their mail sent to their office, my grandfather probably never received but 3 pieces of mail total at his home after 30 or so. Ida definitely seems to have known something about the Drapers in order to target them. I have a theory that Bob Benson was hired by Cutler, Duck, Sylvia’s husband or even someone stalking Megan to get info on Don or Megan – perhaps Ida was someone who was engaged by whoever hired Bob as well and was told to get something specific for them but anything else she wanted to take was hers for the keeping – so as to make it all appear as a random robbery. The cop even said “it could happen to anyone”, catering to the plan’s intent. Given that this happens during Nixon’s era (albeit the watergate break-in happened during the re-election campaign), it’s certainly plausible in my eyes.

    • I think that’s why Grandma Ida was so good at her job of fooling/burglarizing people. To make a statement like, “Is your mom still a piece of work?” is very clever – that statement could really be applied to anyone, in a good or bad way! Reminds me of some people who do cold reading/fortune telling;.they make broad, sweeping statements that could apply to anyone.

  8. I see “Grandma” Ida and Bob Benson in the same light. I have not trusted Bob since I first saw him with that coffee cup (why is he ALWAYS holding a damn coffee cup?!) in the elevator; I don’t trust him now.

    We actually know more about how Ida accessed the Draper residence than we do about how Bob secured a spot at SCDP/CGC. IF he has a place there: “I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he told Joanie last week, and I believed him.

    This business of leaving doors unlocked, of trusting people: it didn’t work well for people in the late 1960’s. SCDP/CGC has as many reasons to be on guard against the Bob Bensons of the world as the Drapers have to protect their home against con-artist grandmas.

    More, actually.

    • Annie:

      How about this for creepy – those Greek coffee cups that Bob prefers are inscribed with “We are happy to serve you” on them.

      We West Coast kids never grew up with the iconic Anthora paper cup. I guess the redwood trees and surf had to suffice.

  9. I like this interpretation of Ida-as-Don and Anne’s interpretation of Ida-as-Bob. I wonder though why so many of the African American characters on the show this season are portrayed as criminals/untrustworthy people: The woman Pete caught his father-in-law with is a prostitute, Ida is a thief, Dawn lied for another secretary, Abe was attacked by minorities. Why are so many of the African American characters portrayed like this?

    Since I don’t believe there are many mistakes on Mad Men, I’m guessing it’s purposeful. It may be meant to show how crime is something disenfranchised people are often pressured into: Dawn was pressured by another secretary to lie, and Ida and the prostitute were likely pressured by socioeconomic factors to turn to illegal activities.

    However, like with everything on Mad Men, I like to think there’s more to it than such a simplistic explanation (this is also why I tend to interpret Peggy as someone other than just the saintly protagonist we should all root for). Maybe the influx of African American criminals is meant to show how the white characters – in their bubble of the advertising world of that period – tend to see African Americans. They don’t seem to make an effort to interact with black copywriters, artists, activists or community leaders. Perhaps all they interface with are criminals because none of them are concerned with any aspects of black culture unless it does harm to them and their white bubble. If you are only concerned with a given group of people when they are doing something wrong, then you may only interact with the members of that group that do wrong. So, my theory is that the S6 portrayal of African American criminals on the show is really a metaphor for how many of the white characters on the show interpret people of color around them.

    • I agree – the only reasons African-American concerns and the AA community was coming to the attention of white America in the 60s was because of the Civil Rights movement, the increase in crime and Viet Nam. We’ve also seen non-criminal African-American characters on MM before, of course, mainly as maids and elevator operators, roles they were “supposed” to play, so in those cases they’re non-threatening (until Betty needs a scapegoat, of course).

      I’m reminded of the movie “Imitation of Life” which was remade in 1959. It was about a friendship between a white woman and her black maid, originally filmed in 1934. In the ’59 version, there is a famous moment when the maid, played by Juanita Moore, tells her friend/employer, played by Lana Turner, about all the lodges and community activities in which she’s involved. The white woman expresses surprise, and says she never knew her maid/friend was so busy and had so many friends. The maid responds “you never asked.” It was the perfect description of how whites and blacks interacted in those days – black people had to be very aware of white America and its expectations, if they wanted to get along, but white people could be, and were, totally ignorant of the African-American world.

      Now, nearly ten years after that film, white America is going to learn about black America whether it wants to or not, and I think the series is really good at showing that.

      • i also was thinking of that tearjerker, Imitation of Life, when thinking of the theme of neurotic, unnecessary shame running thru this episode. don was so ashamed of his past, he had to renounce his background and make up a new one just to be able to stand being alive, just like the maid’s daughter in the film who renounces her mother in order to “pass” for white, with predictably tragic results. (don renounced his half-brother and that didn’t work out well, either.) i think this scary con woman image of a lady who calls herself don’s mom or grandmom fits well with the whole manic feeling of this “reefer (or speed) madness” episode, where everything is off kilter and one nightmare version of a mom is conjured up after another.

    • I’ve never seen Imitation of Life, but I’ll have to check it out. Thank you for mentioning it here.

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