I once had a boss who was impossibly glamorous. Like all very stylish women, her style belonged to just her; it would be impossible to replicate what she did. Indeed, anyone else would probably look quite foolish. Everything about her was impeccably her; there was a wit to her. In those days, the turn of the century, we all wore our hair straight and long. Her hair was short and curled, like a pixie flapper, and her lips were always Shocking Pink or a dark ruby red. Her jewelry was remarkable, like the rest of her taste. She had very white teeth, and when she was thinking hard, she would tap them with a perfectly manicured nail in Chanel Vamp. “Lookit…” she’d say, starting her thought, the only remnant of her Long Island childhood. She lived with her husband, a photographer, and their new daughter in a loft in SoHo. When you walked past her address, you could see the neon lights that marked the number in hot pink. On cold days, she would sweep into the office in her floor length Prada car coat. Once in her office, she would switch out her street shoes- classic navy Gucci Loafers, the ones with the bit- for her Manolo Blahnik BBs. The Manolos were to Condé Nast then as Nikes are to the NBA still. Necessary and ubiquitous, only competing with Jimmy Choos.
These were the high days of Carrie Bradshaw, and the apex of the magazine business- The Devil Wears Prada years. A job could be found anywhere once you got past the gate. In my first interview the HR Director said to me “Do you know how many girls would kill to have a job here?” (We were all girls back then.) I nodded because I did know. In those days we sent our resumes on thick white paper through the mail. Then we waited and waited and waited. A real person called us if we had passed the test.
“How are you at the three “f’s”? Phone, file, fax?” the HR Director asked.
“Oh, I’m great.” I said. I felt lucky to get in the room, though I had as much experience in magazines as a new graduate could have, having worked in the beauty department at McCall’s and already been published in Seventeen. None of this mattered. I was not talent, I was an eager beaver at the edge of a golden wood. I should pay THEM to work there! (We all felt that way, except for those of us who felt it their birthright, like getting into Harvard for the third or fourth generation, or knowing about Nantucket reds.) The native sounds of Condé Nast in 1999 were; Manolo BB’s clicking down the hallway, plastic lids popping off Hale and Hearty salads at desks, and of weeping in the bathroom. It was not a nice or very friendly place, at least at the fashion titles. I had a friend at Details, and they had a lot of fun there, it seemed.
I was my boss’s second choice. Someone actually told me this after I’d been hired. I’d gone through the interview process just after graduation, in June, and made it to the third round, which was to meet with her, and the managing editor, and to shake hands with the Editor in Chief at their offices on Madison Avenue. There were boxes everywhere, as Condé Nast prepared to move to 4 Times Square, a move that would remake the gritty porno neighborhood into a brand mecca, and which, coincidentally, was my dad’s law firm’s new office building too. She was about to go on her maternity leave; the baby had been born, as I recall, and she was taking the summer. The moment I saw her, I knew I was dressed terribly, in wide white Ellen Tracy pants and a cerulean (no, I’m not even kidding) tight top. At home, I thought I’d looked Katherine Hepburn, but when confronted with extreme chicness in the form of a perfectly beautiful and perfectly fitted floral dress (Catherine Malandrino if I had to guess), I was clearly dressed like a 40 something Suburban mom. Worse, I mispronounced Sephora, which had just opened its first store in New York. It went fine anyway… I thought.
I’d never not gotten a job I’d interviewed for (total number of jobs in my life at this time: 4, including camp counselor, and family-run silk flower factory set-of-hands.) In fact, I had a pretty good offer on the table at that moment; one to be the assistant beauty editor at a now defunct magazine that was aimed at the plus market. But, stupid snob that I was, I much preferred to tilt at the windmill of Conde and Allure, which, after all, was the “beauty bible”, even if it meant a lesser title (editorial assistant) and less money ($21K/year plus overtime.) Thinking I was clever, I was tried to keep the plates spinning while I waited to hear the verdict on my employment.
I waited and waited. And waited and waited, as I sat in the bullet proof cubicle that functioned as the receptionist’s desk of the start-up where I was killing time and making actual real money until the invitation to climb Mount Olympus-Nast arrived. June melted into July. I called the plus magazine to accept the offer. There was a long pause as the editor thought about how to handle this particular piece of stupidity. “I’ve already given the position to someone else. You took too long to get back to me. I didn’t think you really wanted it.” Blunt and fair, and I only minded a little, though my pride was bruised.
And then, finally, the gilded call. I accepted the offer before the words were fully out of the Human Resources Associate’s mouth. Yup, yup, yup, tell me when and where, and I’ll be there. And I was, all bright eyes and bushy tails. I should have sensed something when the electronic gates hit me hard in the hips as I tried to enter the brand new building.
It turned out that the girl my boss really wanted to hire had been spending the summer touring Europe, contemplating her future, and been hard to reach in Sardinia, and Capri, and Ibiza. It also turned out that she much preferred Architectural Digest and to start in November. So that’s what she did. You see, she was one of the birthrights, and was more desirable as a result. She would come down to the Allure offices to visit, and she and my boss would giggle and chat, something my boss never did with me. And to be fair, the first choice was very nice to me too. I once ran into her at Union Pacific on E22nd Street. She couldn’t have been friendlier.
I began in August, while my boss was still out. This was perhaps not so wise.
I was an assistant with no one to assist, with no point in meetings, with nothing much to do, except answer phones, telling people that she wouldn’t be back until after Labor Day. One exciting thing I did was re-organize the beauty closet, which was a large walk-in, but not large enough. I installed plastic bins and went crazy with the label maker, but there still wasn’t room for everything. We spread into the fashion close too, where I made a friend in the only person as low in the hierarchy as I was, the fashion closet girl (see, another girl.) But unlike me, she was insanely busy and a striver to boot. She’d gotten her foot in the door by sending her photography portfolio to Anna Wintour, who had liked it, and helped her get the job. She was cool and dramatic, and I think she went on to be on TV somehow, and then to marry an oligarch of some sort.
Otherwise, I’d toddle from the train to the office in my too high heels, and mostly sit at my desk, reading emails, opening mail, and unpacking boxes. I was like furniture, running errands when needed, or lugging things. I was essentially invisible and knew nothing. And then she, my boss, came back. But since I had started this way, invisibly, now I felt I was doomed to stay this way, and so I did. My confidence had withered on the vine after weeks of being in a bustling office speaking hardly a word to anyone. When I did engage in conversation, I was the awkwardest I’ve ever been in my life. Sometimes an editor would swan over to my desk to ask when my boss would be back. “After Labor Day,” I’d answer. “She’s just the best,” they’d say, looking off into the distance, as if manifesting my boss’s greatness.
Things were essentially the same, except now I was visible to one person, my boss. The other assistant in the beauty department was a very smart, rather chilly, girl next to whom I was extremely not smart, and whom I assumed was my age, to my peril. She was not. She was an intimidating 26, having spent some important years after college skiing in Aspen or Jackson, before assisting a notoriously hideous editor at Vogue. Allure was a way station for her; she was only an assistant for a moment. Just a week or so after I started she was promoted, and promoted again and again throughout the years. She was terrifying; not a friend so much as an ally, eventually, covering for me when I truly botched things, which I did frequently.
Her: “Do you have the red lips for the Feb issue meeting today?”
Me: Blank stare
Her: “The ones we discussed at last week’s meeting? That you were going to call in?”
Me: More blank stare.
Her (eyes rolling): “Ok, we’ll see what we have in the closet.”
Her (to our bosses in meeting): “We have some classics here. We’re still waiting on seasonal samples from the brands.” (This was actually true as I found out that very day, when I frantically began calling all and sundry.)
And despite her panache and popularity, my boss didn’t really ever settle into her position either. Formerly, she’d had a huge role at a huge cosmetics company. But her big job every month at at the magazine was to affix sticky notes, each with the name of an advertiser, to a print out of each image in each big fashion spread. Hardly satisfying work for a seasoned professional. She would then call me in, and I would carefully take down the images with the stickies and make a small pile on my desk. My big job every month was to fax said image to the named advertiser (or their PR agency) so they could tell me the products used in each image. I would then write up the spread credits and send them back to the advertiser to approve before dropping them into Quark for circulation. The advertiser would also send samples, so we could make sure that what they thought the color was actually matched the spread. (Do I need to tell you that the advertiser’s colors were not the actual products used in the spread? We may have said Chanel here and Revlon there, but Giselle was probably wearing M.A.C in both, or whatever else Kevin Aucoin or Pat McGrath favored that day. Curtain, lifted. Sausage, made.) Other than that there were the endless lunches and launches, and my boss was clearly very bored.
Once in a while, on the rare nights when she didn’t have a late work event, I’d run into her on the train platform in Times Square. She’d stand out there, a vividly colorful bird of paradise in a sea of cackling grackles and brown sparrows. A sparrow myself, sometimes I’d fade back into the background, and let her go. Other times, I’d approach her, and we’d take the train downtown together. On the train, the professional veneer of the office dropped, and she’d talk to me wistfully. She was a new mom at 40, in a new job. And in me, she did not have a great assistant. In fact, she had a terrible one, though she always treated me mostly well, despite my organizational limitations.
She resigned in the spring, and emboldened by her boldness, I with her. I was always the weird new girl, and never in a charmingly eccentric way, just in a “um, what?” way. Indeed, new girls started after me, quickly becoming fixtures while I was still always new. I was also never much good at the phones (always hanging up on people, also try saying “Hello, Allure” fast), filing (by brand? But what about when agencies sent multiple pitches? Did each piece of paper have to go in its own folder? Was that ok? Or wrong?), or faxing (actually, I got really good at faxing). I wrote one story while I was there; it was a review of an incredibly terrible smelling fragrance from a big advertiser, and also the worst thing I’ve ever written. I wish I could find it so you could laugh at how terrible it was. I compared the scent to the nectar of the gods and I’m not even kidding.
When I resigned, my boss told me just how bad an assistant I had been, but that that wasn’t such a bad thing. She herself had not been a very good assistant, but it was so clear to all that she was smart (not to mention very chic), so she’d been promoted and promoted. It took the sting away to hear this, because I’d always known she thought I was not good, and of course I wanted to be good. I just couldn’t ever be what she’d wanted, which was the Southern debutante with impeccable handwriting and the organizing skill of a martinet, though, to be fair, even just having the organizational skills would have been ok. I do have a talent for large scale logistics- I can produce the hell out of an event or TV show- but not small scale organizing (just ask my husband). Phone/file/fax was not my thing. Well, faxing was.
On our last day, there was a party that was much more for her than for me. I was only invited because I was leaving and her assistant. There was dinner at The Mercer and there was dancing after at Joe’s Pub, where I finally made a real friend that worked at the magazine. On my last night! It was the first time I thought “Hey, I like these people.” Suddenly, they were just people, not smarter, prettier, better, people. Well, too late now. I was off to produce TV (for the internet.) She was off to go back to her old job, only even bigger.
Ten or so years later, feeling flush with a new job, I was at Bergdorf Goodman’s on a shopping expedition with a group of friends. It was a frigid day in January. We ate at the diner on 61st and Madison (a classic, honestly,) and spilled across and over to the halo’d halls. (I suppose Barney’s was feeling rather bare while we were feeling baroque.) We tried things on from the clearance racks and assailed the beauty department. Last but not least, we went to the shoes, delaying our gratification ’til the very end. And there they were, on display, an array of colors spread out, so beautiful, angular and curved and sexy. I picked them up and regarded them. They were birdlike in my hands, lighter than expected and softer. On, they were art. Art that was very hard to walk in, but who cared. I could stand still and gaze at my feet in them for hours (minutes standing if I’m honest, hours if sitting). I was long out of the magazine game, and had nowhere to wear them, but maybe that’s why I had to have them; they reminded me of a me that could have been, if things had gone in a slightly different direction. If I had been a different assistant, or had a different boss, or we’d started at the same time, or if I’d just been a totally different person. Maybe I would now be sitting behind a pretty desk, an arrangement of dahlias or peonies in front of me, in a large, wonderfully fragrant office, with my Blahnik shod ankles crossed, my Prada car coat hanging in the closet, my sticky notes on the walls, meeting publicists for lunch and going to product launches in the evening, with an assistant to call my cars and manage my schedule. But then, I wouldn’t be me.
But the shoes are amazing, aren’t they?