The Roger Sterling Diet: An Attempt
At some point while watching my way through the most recent season of Mad Men, it occurred to me that this might not really be a show about Don Draper starring John Hamm. It might be a show, at least at its core, about the booze-soaked world this man inhabits. The wet bars pretty much outnumber the typewriters in the Madison Avenue offices of Sterling Cooper — and even more so at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, or whatever it’ll be called when the show returns this month. Manhattans, martinis, gimlets, and neat Scotches are quaffed with such rhythmic regularity over the course of the show’s 52 episodes that you almost forget they’re even there, but there’s one instance of workday drinking that takes front and center. It happens during the show’s first season, in episode seven, called “Red in the Face.”
A refresher: Draper catches Roger Sterling flirting with his wife. In a method fit for Greek tragedy, he avoids outright retaliation in favor of enticing Sterling into his own downfall with martinis and oysters at lunch. Draper matches Sterling drink-for-drink, saying he’s following the “Roger Sterling diet” that day, but like that Dread Pirate Roberts guy in The Princess Bride, Don has spent years building immunity to this poison. After slyly arranging for an office-elevator outage, Draper stalks the ghost-faced Sterling up 23 flights of stairs and then looks on as his boss projectile-vomits at the feet of potential clients. (See the whole thing here.) It is a warning, a reckoning, and one of the most amusing servings of revenge in television history.
The scene also takes to its logical extreme a question Mad Men is constantly begging us modern-day professionals: How the hell do they drink so much? How do they stay awake? How can they interact with actual human beings? Is this something I can apply to my own life?
In honor of the season-five premiere, I decided to settle these questions for myself by trying my hand at the so-called Roger Sterling Diet: 3 vodka martinis, 2 dozen oysters, a long-ass haul up 21 flights of stairs to Esquire’s office, and an attempt to conduct an afternoon of business as usual.
For lunch, I chose Keens Steakhouse, a New York institution that would no doubt have been a favorite spot of Draper’s and Sterling’s. I brought my editors along to keep me honest, and we ordered our first round of drinks at 1:15 p.m.
The hardest thing about a three-martini lunch is the time crunch. We’ve all enjoyed three martinis over dinner (haven’t we?), but to get that volume of hard liquor down the hatch during your midday break requires near unwavering attention to your glass, plus prompt refills (Sterling opts to instruct the waiter that he doesn’t want to see the bottom). Then there are the oysters, which, for all their delicious creaminess, don’t provide much in the way of insulation against the ravages of vodka. (Gin, in fairness, is probably worse.) But all things considered, by the time we settled the tab and made our way back uptown, I was still feeling reasonably sharp.
Back at the office, the stairs proved a more ardent challenge, though not defeating. It sure as hell isn’t pleasant to break a sweat with slippery bivalves swimming around in your stomach, but at least I didn’t lose my lunch, Sterling-style. Chalk that one up to being twenty years younger, and likely in considerably better physical condition than a man who smokes a pack of Luckys every day and whose only genuine form of exercise is cavorting with secretaries.
The work was another story. Should you ever attempt to write something drunk, I would not recommend an iPad for the job; it can be difficult to the point of embarrassment. After about 45 minutes of fumbling with the touchscreen, then fumbling with a pad and pen, it became obvious as to why Sterling and his ilk employed an army of assistants to do the typing (and why said assistants never really found themselves three drinks in at 2:30 p.m., unless they were sleeping with him). I settled on dictating my thoughts into my phone’s voice recorder, and left them to be dealt with the following morning.
Putting the actual writing aside, for most of the afternoon I was pleasantly surprised by my ability to make genial and fairly lucid — even witty! — conversation with my colleagues. Everyone could tell that I was hammered, of course, but they were all pretty nice about it, if not exactly on par with a mid-20th-century ad firm. Again, points to Sterling’s occupational instinct.
The daze really set in at about 5:30, when the headache-y drowse set in. At this point, Sterling would likely have been passed out on his office couch, with Draper well on his way to Penn Station, hat over his eyes. Boozy lunches are not only not for the feint of heart; they’re not for anyone who plans to work into the evening.
The conclusion: If you mainly talk and listen for a living, you can just about get away with working like Roger Sterling. Why not give it a try? For the rest of us, proceed at your own peril.
One of my best friends and I used to drink a bottle of wine before our late night creative writing classes (college! so scandalous!) and, I must say, we were far more interesting, talkative and constructive than we ever were while sober (i.e. we actually gave a fuck). So I can’t wait to try this when I’m a semi-important person (getting paid to be drunk! what what!)! Although, what will I substitute for the oysters? Even if I wasn’t a vegetarian, oysters are still something I wouldn’t want to put in my mouth.
Or carrot sticks?
Oh man, so many choices!