I have a confession to make: I have seen “The Devil Wears Prada” about 1,566,734 times. I kid you not. Every time I flip channels and see that movie (which seems to be playing in HEAVY rotation on various cable networks) unspooling across my TV screen, I have to stop and watch. It’s a good movie, sure. But the real reason for my fascination is how the story (well before Andrea’s makeover and the trip to Paris) seems to mesh with my first job after college. The only difference is that my boss was nowhere near as crusty and demanding as Miranda Priestly (the thinly veiled satirical portrait of Vogue editor Anna Wintour) but she wasn’t exactly easy to work for either; truthfully, I didn’t have the best attitude.
Here’s my personal essay on that experience:
In another time or place, she could have been my greatest mentor. Or maybe that’s what I like to tell myself when I look back at the ten months I spent working for Laura Powers (not her real name).
It was my first job out of college and unlike the other job interviews to which I had been sent by commission-hungry headhunters, I was kind of interested in this one‑‑the creative services assistant at a top radio network. Although I wasn’t sure exactly what “creative services” meant (later I learned it was a popular catch-all term for advertising, PR and publicity combined), it sounded good to me–certainly better than working as a secretary at a brokerage house or an engineering firm.
Frankly, I was unsure about what I wanted to do with my life. Sure, I had some vague aspiration of being an actress or journalist, but I was so benumbed and disoriented by youthful indecision, I felt stymied about how to take the next step that would lead me closer to my dreams.
Of course, being forcibly ejected into the cold, cruel job market after spending four years living the carefree, cossetted student life, was a harsh adjustment. Far worse was a painful event whose aggregate effect unsettled me to the point that I felt completely discombobulated.
A month and a half before I graduated from NYU, a close friend of mine, who was not known to have a history of drug use or health problems, was found dead in his dorm bed by his roommate. The circumstances of his death were mysterious and despite my amateur sleuthing efforts, I never found out the cause of his untimely demise. Just a litany of reasons that seemed so canned and rehearsed by the school–natural causes, heart attack, water in the lungs, etc. I strongly suspected I wouldn’t find out the truth and I never did.
Without even stopping for a second to fully process this loss, I shoved it into the cobwebbed confines of my memory bank and moved on. Then I met Laura Powers, the vice president of creative services. Luckily for me, she wasn’t looking for a crackerjack typist, although the job was entry-level and required some secretarial duties. According to her, clerical skills weren’t as important as being smart, enthusiastic and “promotable”–which I guess meant doing the job and playing the office game.
So she hired me, telling HR that I was very smart and enthusiastic. How she was able to ascertain that considering my interview with her lasted five whole minutes–much of which was spent watching her field a succession of calls–I haven’t a clue. Still, I guess because I looked like a younger doppelganger to her save the eyes (hers were turquoise and mine brown)–shoulder length dark curly hair, slender bird-like figure, freckles spackled on pale skin and exact height , I was practically hired on the spot.
Unfortunately, a month into the job, I realized I hated it. Just hated it. Hated answering the phones, hated typing letters, hated doing errands for someone who was not only never around due to her daily three-hour lunches but seemed to be resistant to uttering an occasional “thank you” when I was in her vicinity.
Soon the cheery face I wore on my first day at work gave way to a sullen, moody visage.
Also causing conflict was my recurring desire to be an actress. Now that I saw that the job was not working out for me, I started thinking more about that dormant childhood desire still festering within. I was still very young, with so much of my future yawning ahead of me. If I wanted to take the risk and pursue acting, a profession that invariably favored youth, particularly for women, I would need to get out now.
Then the dreaded but expected intercom request came: Laura called me into her office for an ominous “talk.” Nervously, I entered, adjusting my 1980s quarterback shoulder pads. It was show time now. How would I handle this? Would she put me on probation and give me a warning? Or sack me immediately? I predicted it would be the former. I was correct.
“Can you please close the door?” Laura said in a cold monotone as she quickly diverted her eyes from me to fiddle with one of her meticulously manicured fingernails.
Robotically, I shut the door and sat immobile in the chair facing Laura’s wide desk, bedecked with photos of Laura and her husband, number three I believe and she was currently 37.
I said nothing but stared dutifully at Laura, waiting, just waiting.
“Did I misrepresent the job?” she asked, as she furrowed her brows and narrowed her turquoise eyes.
A pause. Sensing this was my cue to reply, I broke the chilly silence.
“What do you mean?”
“Are you happy here?”
“What?” I countered, my face dissembling confusion. “What do you mean?”
Laura let out an exasperated sigh, then started twisting and turning her Rolex watch around her very thin wrist. “I hired you because you seemed really bright, enthusiastic and,” she smiled wanly, “it seemed like you were really interested in the job. But now, I’m not sure.”
“I am interested,” I said defensively but with very little conviction.
“Unfortunately, you don’t seem it. Yes, you do the work and you do it fine. But if I wanted to hire a clerk typist, I would. That’s not what this job is about. It’s not just about the secretarial work. It’s also being interested in the work and in the department and acting like you are part of this team.”
I stared blankly at her, knowing that would be the safest tactic for me to take without being fired pronto. When being verbally castigated by a superior, don’t make waves, be expressionless as if frozen in relief. This wasn’t a tenet of survival I gleaned from “The Art of War” but rather a precept I picked up about the art of self-preservation from my father, the Holocaust survivor. .
She continued. “For example, when you answer my phone, be friendly and gracious. Say, ‘Good morning, Miss Powers’ office.’ I don’t want curt, clipped responses when people call or ask you for something. And that applies to everyone in the office, regardless of their position. I won’t stand for cold, officious behavior. We are the creative services department. People expect us to be friendly and cordial.”
She then fixed an unwavering gaze at me, as if to make sure that I knew she wasn’t kidding and if I disobeyed her admonitions, I’d be fired.
I was waiting for her to dismiss me. That seemed to be the next beat in this very predictable scene, which I had seen play out in myriad iterations in movies and on TV. Small wonder I was dumbstruck when Laura threw out this question, like a gauntlet, to me:
“Iris, what are you really interested in doing?”
The disarming candor of this question jarred me so much that for a second I couldn’t think of an answer.
“Wha-wha-t do you mean?” I stammered. Did she REALLY care about what I wanted to do other than serve her? How was that remotely possible? I thought all execs like Laura only cared about their assistants catering to their every whim.
She dropped the professional veneer, revealing an almost vulnerable person bubbling underneath, one who didn’t seem so calculating or condescending.
“Seriously…what do you really want to do?”
Because my level of trust in fellow human beings was somewhat abject thanks to my being fed a semi-regular diet of the monstrous evil that men were capable of inflicting on others by my father, I retreated back to my inner fortress, the emotional wall that protected me from others. Not that I was anyone nefarious, like a serial killer or a child molester or someone of that rank ilk, but I was taught early on that complete and unadulterated honesty was not always the best solution to weathering a difficult situation. So I told her a half truth.
“I want to write,” I said softly.
She nodded, her translucent eyes assuming a caste of slight tedium that made me wonder how many times she had heard this familiar tune sung by so many of her past secretaries.
“I don’t know. Articles, stories. Anything.”
“Okay,” she said as her eyes darted from mine and focused on some intangible circumference point above me. She wasn’t looking at anything, in particular, just burrowed deep in pensive mode, thinking.
“I can toss you a press release now and then but that’s all. I can’t guarantee you anything more than that.”
The next week, Laura did ask me to write up two press releases: One was about a bubblegum pop duo who were promoting an album and making an appearance at the in-house studio while the other was about a story that the sports department was putting together on the then much maligned and admired Yankees manager Billy Martin.
Both garnered their share of praise. “This was very well done,” said the VP of sports, an affable man who has since gone on to become a popular, in-demand broadcast journalist for a number of well -known outlets, most prominently ESPN. His kind words made me feel both vindicated and validated. But Laura never threw another bone at me.
She did shortly afterwards ask me to help her with a high-profile project though. The network had partnered up with the management of a reigning rock star for a promotional campaign involving 12 markets or cities in the country. The campaign was as follows: each market would give away an all-paid expenses trip to New York City to see said rock star at Madison Square Garden. Then after the concert, the rock star would do a meet and greet with all 12 winners.
With Laura’s help, I scoped out several hotels in midtown Manhattan that were neither fleabags nor four-star establishments before selecting one where the winners would stay for their weekend whirlwind trip. Then I met with the rock star’s management team to score better seats for the winners as opposed to the nosebleed section they were providing.
Laura also gave me carte blanche to find a cute, hip restaurant in the Village for an after-concert party. I chose the Be-Bop Cafe on Eighth Street, where I was a frequent patron. And except for several minor glitches, the promotion went off well. Most of the winners (except for one trashy looking gal from Ohio who grabbed the rock star’s crotch during the backstage meet and greet photo op–before he ran out snarling and cursing) were well-behaved and appreciative of our efforts in making their weekend trip come off without a hitch.
Sadly, the afterglow didn’t last. Soon, a brouhaha would unfold over the course of the next few months that would culminate in the company being sold off to a rival. The FCC had charged the company with deliberately overcharging advertisers. Audits were conducted on the premises. Then the president and the vice president resigned, which led to resignations of top execs from each department save programming, creative services and engineering. It was clear that this once storied radio network was in a freefall. How much longer could it hang on to its former glory?
In the wake of these shakeups, the office was in deep disarray. One secretary was fired after being found keeled over in a bathroom stall following an overdose of Quaaludes. Laura was nowhere to be found. When she would wander in, she would cloister herself in the office of the programming head Dan, with whom it was later revealed she had been having an affair with for months.
Seeing I had accumulated a few vacation days, I booked a trip to London with the idea that I would seriously plot my exit strategy after returning. But then something happened between Laura and myself that fast-forwarded that move. As she was perpetually not around, I left her a note that I would be observing Rosh Hashanah and thus taking off for that holiday. Apparently she didn’t get it or maybe it slipped from the center of her desk, because the first day of the holiday she called my parents’ home number and yelled at me:
“Why aren’t you at work?”
I looked at the clock. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, probably when she came in.
“Didn’t you get my note? I’m Jewish, Laura. I’m observing the holiday.”
Long pause. “Oh.” Then another pause. “Well, then why didn’t you tell me in person?”
“Before you’re never around.”
The following Monday when I returned, I gave notice. I had enough of this passive-aggressive merry-go-around from her. Or maybe it was the pretext I needed to quit.
Laura nodded quietly. “Sometimes you just don’t think dear.”
I left her office and said nothing.
On my last day, Laura, in a conciliatory gesture, told me she wanted to take me out for lunch.
She asked me about my trip to London, while I ate a Spanish omelet. I noticed how she barely touched her meal, only smoking and sipping one glass of wine followed by another.
“You know, Dan and I talked about this the other day. We said we should have bummed around Europe after college–get into that adventurous spirit. We asked ourselves why didn’t we do that?”
When I left, she said goodbye to me and wished me well, shaking my hand.
“I wish you well, Iris, in whatever endeavors you decide to undertake. Good luck and thank you.”
A few months later, I picked up an industry trade that reported that the radio network was being sold to a rival and many staffers had been downsized. I also ran into an old colleague who told me that Dan had left the company a few weeks before the sale to go back to his hometown San Francisco, with Laura in tow. She had left her third husband and was apparently on her way to having a fourth.
But they never married, although Laura did stay in the Northern California area where she later opened a PR firm whose clients included a ballet company, a local film festival and a movie star. I know all this not because I had run into yet another person I had once worked with at the network but because I had googled her one Sunday a few years ago and read her obituary.
The headline read: “Marin County Publicist Powers Dies After Battle With Lung Cancer.” According to the article, Laura was only 61 and survived by her husband of three years and two sisters.
The obit, which teemed with quotes from friends and clients, was accompanied by a photo of Laura smiling in her California office.
“I always said professionally, the best thing I ever did was to hire Laura Powers,” said one client. “The work she did for us elevated our reputation in the industry. We certainly couldn’t have done it without Laura.”
I hadn’t seen her in years and even though there was no real cause for me to feel this way, I was greatly saddened. At this point, I was working as a journalist and editor. After returning from London where I stayed for a month, I decided to give it my all and pursue acting, then gave it up after an eight-year spell for the only other thing I ever wanted to do–journalism.
Before I saw her obituary, I was travelling a lot to industry functions in California and had sometimes fantasized about running into Laura where I would show her how much I had matured since that period when I was her assistant. She would see that I was no longer that flighty, lost young girl she hired years ago to be her assistant and that maybe in another time or place, she could have been the mentor I had always needed and I her protégée.
But I guess it wasn’t meant to be.
Photo courtesy of Pixiebay.