A scene in the first episode of Mad Men, one of what would become many such scenes of smoking and drinking and debauchery, shows the off-the-clock behavior of men viewers assume must be good at their jobs. That’s the only way such bacchanalianism could be justified — letting loose after a successful day of work. For one man in the circle, though, work and extracurricular activities bear the same responsibilities. There’s a careful attention to detail in the fey way the head of the art department, Salvatore Romano, holds his cigarette too close to his face, in a seeming parody of masculinity, and, too, in his overdetermined leer of “I’m gonna do more than look tonight!”
As a graphic designer, Sal has aesthetically arranged his life as an arch joke, a carefully choreographed routine selling something, an image or a fantasy. Years before Susan Sontag’s “camp” and the catharsis of Stonewall, Sal’s man-about-town jauntiness is meant to read as virile heterosexuality in the Rock Hudson mode. It is only audiences that know what happened to the real Rock Hudson — and have experienced the great growth in visibility of gay people in America — that can register just how transparent the joke is. For his coworkers, immersed in a pre-irony ad age where perception is still reality, Sal’s response when asked if he dates a woman, “I’m an Italian!,” is an effective slogan. It’s not just dodging the issue.
Sal so strenuously works to establish all the bona fides of a straight playboy because sexuality, in the Mad Men world, is not even an issue to be dodged. Queerness is invisible. But gay men need not be, as long as they are willing to follow the rules. (Instructive here is the case of Joan’s roommate, who confesses her love only to be gently, firmly told she is delusional.) Sal’s quips about Ann-Margret’s sexiness, for instance, are too easily dismissed as comical, impossibly false by the 2000s audience, but why would an individual in the 1960s have any reason to think Sal didn’t find Ann-Margret a dish?
She wouldn’t! Unless, that is, she knew something barely comprehensible about Sal’s private life. Sal’s wife Kitty is the only one who knows that her husband isn’t performing the marital duties he seemed to promise when she courted him; her realization, as her husband ducks out of sex by singing “Bye, Bye Birdie” in an Ann-Margret imitation, is one of the series’s great, sad moments. Marriage is, for Sal, essential in maintaining his image — not simply of heterosexuality — but impossible to maintain. Finally, his wife sees him for what we know, what he must know, he is, and sits with him in the kitchen, stuck in her marriage. It is her tragedy, too.
Mad Men is absent of the identity politics that swirl around 2000s sexuality. It’s concerned with archetypes, and just as the Grace Kelly housewife and the Cary Grant husband are crumpled and smeared by Betty Draper’s daytime drinking and Don Draper’s affairs (and vice versa!), the man-about-town suffers a blow in the form not of Sal’s homosexuality but his duplicity. Recall that Don doesn’t even care, really, that Sal is gay, when he encounters him in bed with a man — Don doesn’t have the language to describe that way of being. He just wants Sal to keep his image intact, his business private.
With Sal’s private life exposed by an important client who wanted him and went through the gnarled, secretive 1960s channels to obtain him, Sal is fired to keep the company afloat financially. The fact that so many of Don’s former coworkers join him at the new firm formed at the end of season three, but not Sal, is telling — Sal’s an exposed wound, revealing not simply his own indiscretions but the potential for those of others.
In his presence, Sal too often seemed a joke told from the 2000s about the 1960s, but he indicated, too, a way of reframing gay rights. He less needed parity than a separate sphere, removed from the influences of Don and Betty’s corrupt straight culture. Sal maintains a socially approved image designed to exclude himself. Of course he’s volatile, unsustainable even, as a character. And I hope he doesn’t come to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, at least not until the tenth season or something, after Stonewall. In his enforced absence, he’s a far more accurate portrayal of how the culture perceived homosexuals; he’s not leering or fumbling or moving ahead in the office and struggling in the bedroom. He simply isn’t there.