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Barbara Walters: The Original Peggy Olson

Barbara Walters: The Original Peggy Olson

By Sean Braswell

NBC News' Barbara Walters in 1965
SourceNBCU Photo Bank/Getty


Because if you thought Peggy Olson was a creative firebrand in a man’s world, then you may want to get reacquainted with a young woman named Barbara Walters.

By Sean Braswell

By the time a bright-eyed secretary named Peggy Olson walked through the fictional doors of the Madison Avenue advertising agency Sterling Cooper in 1960, one very real female pioneer was already hard at work down the street.

Like her Mad Men counterpart, the 84-year-old broadcasting legend Barbara Walters, who retires from television today, got her start as a secretary for a Manhattan advertising agency. And though Walters’ rise from the secretarial pool began much earlier, and took much longer than Peggy’s, it was no less dramatic.

Like Peggy Olson, Walters typed letters and took dictation as a young, single secretary in New York City.

It was 1951. Fresh out of Sarah Lawrence College, the 21-year-old daughter of a millionaire nightclub owner did what many bright, privileged female graduates of her generation did: Enroll in speedwriting school. But, as Walters confesses in her memoir Audition, her shorthand skills “didn’t get me my first job. My legs did.”

Her first boss was the head of a small advertising firm who, after following her up the stairs at an employment agency, sized her up and hired her on the spot — “standard operating procedure in the fifties,” according to Walters.

Barbara Walter writing at her desk.

Ask the Camera’ producer Barbara Walters in 1953.

Source NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

For a year, like Peggy Olson (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss), Walters typed letters and took dictation as a young, single secretary in New York City. From the start, she too had to fend off the unwanted advances of a “pink-faced” boss, which in her case resulted in her leaving the firm after he became too “amorous.”

In her next job, as an assistant in the PR department at NBC’s New York affiliate WNBT, Walters encountered other male characters straight out of a Mad Men casting call.

It was the early days of television, and Walters and the director of publicity, Phil Dean, made up the station’s entire PR department. Dean spent most afternoons “researching” in bars and restaurants, forcing Walters to cover for her oft-inebriated boss, but also giving her the chance to ghostwrite nearly all of the department’s press releases.

Barbara Walters wearing all red and sunglasses interviewing Fidel Castro.

Barbara Walters interviewed Cuban president Fidel Castro as they crossed the Bay of Pigs on an ABC News Special airing June 9, 1977 on the ABC Television Network.

Source ABC/Getty

Walters, like Peggy, was no stranger to office romance, and she even had her own Ted — named Ted. Like Ted Chaough, Peggy’s new boss and Season 6 love interest, Ted Cott — the general manager at WNBT — was a “brilliant and innovative” thinker, according to Walters. But he was also married with children, and their illicit liaisons spelled trouble.

In truth, the balding, older Cott had more in common with Peggy’s Season 3 paramour, Duck Phillips. Lovestruck and persistent, he would wait outside Walters’ apartment building, until one night, in a scene reminiscent of Duck’s drunken brawl with Mad Men lothario Don Draper, Cott caught her being taken home by another man and “emerged from the shadows and challenged him to a fistfight, right there on the street.”

Walters was only asked to write copy for segments targeted at female viewers.

The affair with Cott ended — as did Walters’ first attempt at marriage in 1955. But her successful career was starting, and later that year, she was hired by CBS as a writer for The Morning Show. As with Peggy’s initial forays into copywriting, Walters was restricted to writing copy for segments targeted at female viewers. 

If there was a Don Draper in Walters’ life, he was the boss at her next gig in the radio and television department at the PR firm Tex McCrary. The department head was no less than William Safire, the future Pulitzer Prize-wining New York Times columnist.Like her Mad Men counterpart, the underpaid Walters got up the nerve to ask her brilliant boss for a raise. And she, too, was turned down — brusquely. “Instead of money, [Safire] gave me a lecture about supply and demand,” remembers Walters. “Women looking for a job, he said, were in large supply. The demand for such women, however, was slim. Therefore I should be grateful for what I had.”

And, as with Peggy, Walters’ resulting insecurity and desire to please her boss pushed her to become a workaholic, “to eat lunch at my desk, never to miss a day of work … I rarely relaxed.”

Ultimately, though, Walters’ diligence paid off, as many Mad Men viewers hope Peggy’s will in the show’s final season, a two-parter that wraps up next spring. In 1961, Walters, with Audrey Hepburn bangs, became a writer at NBC’s Today Show, where she would become the “Today Girl,” then a reporter and eventually the program’s first female co-host. Walters would go on to interview everyone from Fidel Castro to Muhammad Ali to Katharine Hepburn.

“I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish,” Walters says, as she bids farewell after five decades on the air.   

And now the wait is on to see whether Olson — in retrospect, likely Mad Men’s true hero and protagonist— will do the same. Will the ambitious secretary, like Walters, finally earn her spot at the big conference-room table and the recognition that comes from a job — and a career — well done?

“To feel valued,” the television legend once observed, “to know, even if only once in a while, that you can do a job well is an absolutely marvelous feeling.”

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