Philadelphia: birthplace of freedom.

And advertising.

The first ad agency in the country, N.W. Ayer & Son, opened here in 1869. "When it rains, it pours" (1912) for Morton Salt; "I'd walk a mile for a Camel" (1921) for R.J. Reynolds - those were N.W. Ayer & Son.

In the late 1950s and early '60s, Philadelphia hosted its own world of account executives who courted the country's biggest companies.

But was the Philly ad-agency life like the one depicted in AMC's much-praised Mad Men? There, it's Manhattan, where Don Draper and a bunch of hard-drinking, chain-smoking 1960s agency guys battle for the big accounts. Women are around for only two reasons, one of which is typing.

Was it like that in Philly, back in the day?

David Lane, 64, of Wyncote, president of LevLane Advertising, calls the Philly advertising scene "more sedate, more conservative" than hard-driving Madison Avenue. Merion Station resident Victor Sonder, 67, who was cofounder of Sonder, Levitt & Sagorsky and is now creative director of his own ad agency, HOT Productions, uses the word staid.

Villanova resident Chet Harrington, 83, started his career at Ayer. He says, "We were more genteel than New York. We were cordial but competitive. It was a hardworking life, but a lot of fun."

Gene Shay, 75, started out as a copywriter for Firestone & Associates while simultaneously spinning records on local radio. One story he tells illustrates that even in genteel Philadelphia, competition was competition.

"Ad executives from four different agencies were taking the train to New York, all with appointments at different times but at the same place," says Shay, of Penn Wynne. "They all sat together, and two guys made the mistake of visiting the club car - and two other guys threw their portfolios out the train windows.

"I wasn't there, I just heard about it," Shay says. "I could believe it, but it sounded extreme."

Smokes and drinks

"Smoking and drinking, there was a lot of that," says Harrington.

Smoking was part of the life. Allan Kalish, 85, cofounder of Kalish & Rice Inc., lives in Gladwyne. He's also chairman of WorkZone, an online resource for ad agencies, in Blue Bell. He says, "No question, there was a lot of smoking. It was the stylish thing to do. We were all seeing Gary Cooper or Cary Grant, cigarette in hand, surrounded by good-looking women. In our agency, there was absolutely no limitation on smoking."

Harrington recalls traveling to his client, R.J. Reynolds, in Winston-Salem, N.C. A receptionist came out with a tray of smokes and asked, "Which brand do you prefer?"

"You did not say, 'No, thanks, I don't smoke,' " says Harrington. "You'd get the door closed in your face. Everyone would light up during the meetings. Even if you didn't smoke, you learned how to smoke a cigarette without choking to death."

Harrington remembers one of the giants of the Philly ad world, Robert Wilder, then of Lewis & Gilman. "Bob Wilder smoked cigars," he says, "and you'd go to a meeting, and out would come the cigars. He wouldn't ask anybody, he'd just light up the big stogie. Made him look like a big shot, and he knew that."

As for drinking, account execs might not have their own wet bars in their offices, as on Mad Men, but booze was a choice lubricant. "People weren't drinking wine back then," says Kalish. "It was martinis or hard liquor."

Like several interviewed for this story, Kalish recalls New York as even more bibulous. At one Manhattan agency, "there was a huge room called the 'file room.' Every wall looked like a wall of file cabinets, with brass handles. But there were no files, just a facade. It was a bar the company had installed."

Berny Brownstein, 74, of Bala Cynwyd, is founder of the Brownstein Group, and is, according to son Marc (now CEO), "truly one of the mad men," who began as an art director at Ayer and in 1964 founded his own company.

He says that "the account execs - the white shirts, narrow lapels, skinny ties - it was their job to keep the clients happy. Martini lunches, dinner, they absolutely wooed these clients, they did it all the time. It was the culture. The clients liked it, and the clients expected it."

Account execs might take the more buttoned-down client to lunch at Bookbinder's, or to the Union League for a drink and a two-hour lunch at a private table. For "the client who was more the partying kind," Harrington says, there was Helen Sigel Wilson's L'Auberge in Wayne. It was favored by admen from Life, Look, and Time.

At the office, drinking had a particular place. Account executives and ad directors, along with secretaries and assistants, stayed long into the night preparing and rehearsing big presentations. Around 4:30 p.m. or so, many offices would open a bar for the late-nighters. "It wasn't a getting-drunk libation," Harrington says. "It was just having a drink, almost in recognition of the hard night ahead."

Looking at Mad Men, you have to wonder how anyone did good work.

Says Brownstein: "They didn't. That's the answer. They did mediocre work. And at Ayer, they came close to losing a big account - AT&T. That was a wake-up call, and it led to a lot of changes."

Kalish recalls that generally "there was a kind of tension between the account executives in the suits, and the crazy people in creative." Brownstein concurs: "We never hung around with the account executives. We partied by ourselves." But Shay, who came in a little later, says that by the 1970s, the account side and the creative side "worked together and drank together after work."

Amoral and bulletproof

And extracurricular activity, almost as frequent on Mad Men as client meetings? "The rule was," says Kalish, "you didn't get involved with people in your own organization. It was just not wise. But there were always exceptions."

"Womanizing was prevalent then," says Brownstein. "Every once in a while you'd hear, 'So-and-so is going out with so-and-so,' or 'They're going away on a shoot together.' It was the same as it is today. If two people look at each other and hear cymbals crash, they do it after work."

Steve Levine, 71, now retired in the Orlando area, was executive vice president and general manager for Kalish & Rice, and worked before that at Procter & Gamble in New York. He says he never saw the Mad Men degree of compulsive sex among ad folks in Philadelphia, but "the show is probably accurate about a general amorality in the business in the 1960s, which did attract beautiful women, highly intelligent men, a high percentage of sociopaths with an aura of amoral bulletproofness."

Woman's place? "Any women in the business," says Harrington, "were the good copywriters and artists, on the creative side." Brownstein agrees: "There were no women account executives. For women, it was the creative side, or the steno pool, or secretary."

Strong men, weak character

As for Mad Men itself, opinions vary. Sonder, though he likes it, calls it "overdone." But Levine says, "I love the show. It's a Reader's Digest version. It's accurate but condensed. It's also exaggerated in spots." Brownstein says, "I never miss an episode."

One person in whom Mad Men has "really struck a chord" is Karen Spiro, director of development events at the Philadelphia Zoo. Her father was Walter A. Spiro, of Spiro & Associates Inc., later Earle Palmer Brown. "He was Don Draper," she says.

She says the show nails "the style, the clothing, even the receptionists. Especially in the first two seasons, the office, that was Dad's office, at Ninth and Chestnut. My sister Pam in Texas, who worked at that office, calls me after an episode and says, 'Did you see that lamp? That's Dad's lamp.' "

It goes beyond decor. "My long-suffering mother," Spiro says, "was left alone with the kids in the suburbs while he was off having a good time." Pam Gowers e-mails that their father, who died in 1997, "told me he used to come back from a three-martini lunch and sleep on the sofa in his office for an hour or two and then wake up . . . and work until 7 and then take a customer for dinner."

Given the lifestyle, why were these guys able to function? "Because it was the way they always did it," Karen Spiro says, "and so they were used to it."

Mad Men has led many of Walter Spiro's old associates to get back in touch via Facebook, as have friends whose fathers were in various businesses in the 1960s. "All them resonate to the show," his daughter says. "All of them had fathers who were strong figures with weak characters.

"Sometimes, it makes me sad to watch. Most of the time, though, it makes me happy. I'm back there."

Contact Michael D. Schaffer at mschaffer@phillynews.com or 215-854-2537. Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or www.twitter.com/jtimpane.