In this mid–Season 2 episode of AMC’s Mad Men, Sterling Cooper ad agency account man Ken Cosgrove tells company artistic director Sal Romano about the latest short story he’s written, “The Gold Violin,” which he plans to submit to The Atlantic for publication. The gold violin, he reveals to Sal, is an exquisitely beautiful instrument, “perfect in every way” except that it doesn’t make music. Metaphorically, the gold violin reflects the dysfunctional plight of many outwardly beautiful and successful people in any era. But in early 1960s America, it applies particularly to women, most of whom were still aspiring to satisfy men’s needs by being beautiful but secondary creatures, rather than to see themselves as full equals with an independent set of needs and a voice of their own. In this episode, we hear the discordant rumblings of frustration emerging from Kitty Romano and Betty Draper, two beautiful women who dutifully swallow most of their self-assertive thoughts when in public, only to be punished rather than rewarded for playing their feminine roles.
At the office, Ken requests that Sal read his story and provide feedback. Sal, in turn, invites Ken to join him and his wife, Kitty, for Sunday dinner to discuss it. As the Romanos prepare for Ken’s arrival on Sunday, the beautifully dressed Kitty shares in Sal’s spirit of excitement while bubbling with sweet supportiveness: “That’s my favorite tie!” Meanwhile, feeling entitled to be the center of attention, Sal pays no particular attention to Kitty as he fusses over his homemade spaghetti sauce and worries that Ken is a little late.
Arriving with flowers and compliments for Kitty, Ken is polite, upbeat, and amiable. To impress Ken, Sal directs Kitty to put an aspirin in the flower vase to make the flowers last longer. Surprised, Kitty protests that she’s the one who taught him that little trick, but Sal keeps his focus on Ken. As the dinner progresses, Ken talks about himself and his story as well as about work, with Sal riveted by his every word. Occasionally Kitty attempts to become part of the conversation but is mostly frozen out. At one point she asks Ken where he lives, to which Ken responds a bit but doesn’t engage in further conversation with her. Next Kitty mentions that her cousin is in advertising in Montreal, hoping Ken will ask her more about that. However, Sal immediately cuts her off, almost scolding her with: “Oh, he’s not interested in that!” and continues talking to Ken about Ken, his hobby as a writer, and their work.
Ken leaves before dessert is served, and in the aftermath, Kitty asks Sal if he wants some of her homemade pie. Without a second thought as to how much time and effort Kitty put in to prepare for the dinner, Sal declines with a shrug. Kitty erupts: “Do you even care that I want pie?. . . I met these people once – how am I supposed to talk about them?. . . Do you even see me here? . . . A lot of people find me very interesting, you know.” Sal’s initial shaming reaction of “Oh, come on, Kitty!” fades to an apology, although a patronizing one.
At work the following day, Ken sees Sal in the break room and thanks him for the dinner, commenting that Sal and Kitty have the kind of marriage he hopes to have some day. Sal hides his sense of irony and brusquely walks away. In this situation, the lovely Kitty is a “gold violin” – effectively silenced by her internalization of the social mores of the time when around visitors. Moreover, their marriage is another gold violin – appearing beautiful to Ken, but bringing up unharmonious feelings for Sal that he remains silent about in public.
Shocked at the suggestion that Don and Bobbi could possibly have slept together, Betty lashes out at Jimmy’s Jewish heritage: “You people are ugly and crude.” Not quite comprehending, he responds, “What people? Comedians?” After Betty walks away, Jimmy walks up to the much taller, more muscular Don and confronts him about sleeping with his wife, bracing himself for a fight if Don should take a swing at him. As soon as Betty approaches the two men, though, Jimmy smiles and says goodnight. On the long drive home in their brand new Cadillac, a troubled-looking Don glances over at Betty, who is visibly upset but not ready to talk about it. Sitting deep in disturbed thought, she seems to sort through memories and perceptions to test how well they align with Jimmy’s claim. Finally, her body revolts as she suddenly vomits all over herself and the car.
Back at the ad agency, Smitty and Smitty, two young advertising creatives, give Don’s team advice on the Martinson’s Coffee ad campaign. To show Don how their generation feels, they first read an excerpt from the famous “Port Huron Statement,” a historical document drawn up by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the early 1960s that demanded positive social change. Their statement included: “We would replace power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance, with power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity.” The joke is that this protest document inspire Smitty and Smitty to develop a Martinson’s ad jingle featuring a nice, lilting tune sung by a man, with lyrics describing a “coffee-colored girl wearing just a cup of joe” (not even a woman, but a girl!) from south of Mexico who meets the singer every day for a cup of coffee and an exotic rendezvous. This is the very picture of old-style power based on possession, privilege, or circumstance by virtue of the singer’s presumed “superior” gender, color, nationality, and age. The twist is that, rather than the song telling people to buy Martinson’s Coffee, it simply tells a “nice,” suggestive story and then attaches the name of their product to the story. As the Smitty team coolly advises, “Our generation doesn’t want to be told what to do! . . . We want to feel.” Like the gold violin, what looks so “revolutionary” and idealistic in the SDS document turns out to be, in application, mostly empty rhetoric.
Another “gold violin” of sorts is the Rothko painting hanging in Senior Partner Bert Cooper’s office. When Paul tells coworkers Harry, Ken, Sal, and Jane that the painting is abstract expressionist, they all become curious. Jane brazenly announces that she’s going up to Cooper’s office to look at it. As Paul departs with the warning, “Call me from jail,” Jane leads the rest to sneak into Coop’s office to see the painting for themselves. Once inside this executive sanctuary, their perceptions of the painting range from “it’s smudgy squares,” to “it has no meaning in an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ sort of way,” to “it’s just an experience…you feel like you could fall in.” The following week when Harry is called to a meeting in Bert’s office, Bert advises him that the painting is sure to go up significantly in value by next Christmas – and that it’s a good idea not to think too much about the meaning of a painting “or you’ll get a headache.” Regardless of its meaning to others, Bert believes the meaning of the Rothko doesn’t matter; it’s strictly the external value, the appearance of the “gold violin” itself, that holds meaning.
One of the most interesting aspects of this episode is the backdrop of early 1960s America, a time and place in which the concept of democracy began spreading more forcefully into social consciousness. The SDS and other grassroots “radical” groups on college campuses (radical in the sense of demanding significant change from a corrupt status quo, with their demands conveniently demonized by the status quo) were speaking up and calling for social change based on greater equality, however imperfectly they applied their ideas. Ordinary people were speaking up by openly questioning the meaning of artwork rather than accepting some expert’s opinion, owning their own perceptions even if they ended up missing something about the art. The Civil Rights movement was sounding off and demanding equal rights for people of color (the Martinson’s Coffee ad echoes the old white-male privilege power structure that gave rise to this movement). And women were just beginning to speak up as they realized more and more that their role as beautiful objects not to be taken seriously by men is objectionable and needs to change.