Feb. 12, 2004 | For the past week New York noses have been guiltily buried in the tabloids, reading about Douglas Faneuil's testimony in the obstruction of justice-conspiracy trial of Martha Stewart and her broker, Peter Bacanovic. What readers were greedily snorting were the accounts of Faneuil's treatment at the hands of Stewart, a client and friend of his boss. In 2001, Faneuil was a 26-year-old assistant to Bacanovic, charged with answering his phones and apparently doing his dirty work. In court, it was revealed that Stewart had referred to Faneuil as "a little shit" and "an idiot." In an e-mail, the harried assistant had written to his boyfriend that he had "never ever been treated so rudely by a stranger," and later crowed, "Martha yelled at me again today but I snapped in her face and she actually backed down. Baby put Ms. Martha in her place!"
No kidding. Baby got her back, and how. His testimony, that acting on orders from Bacanovic he tipped Stewart off to the sale of ImClone stocks by the company's founder, Sam Waksal, may be the nail that seals Stewart's well-appointed legal coffin shut.
Those above such celebrity glop -- or perhaps those mired even more deeply in it -- may have spent their mornings perusing this month's bloated Vanity Fair, which features a profile of American Media editorial director and former Us Weekly editor Bonnie Fuller. The story contains stomach-churning boasts from Fuller's Us assistants about how they let her walk around with "Wash by Hand" tags stuck on her freebie designer clothing and once contaminated her take-home dinner by rubbing a loaf of bread in their pants and spiking her mini-chocolate soufflé cakes with ... well ... with snot. "I swear to God, we're really nice people," one ex-staffer said. "You just don't know what we went through."
Nope. But if it prompted you to transfer the contents of your nose into a mini-soufflé cake, we're imagining it was pretty grim.
The type hasn't even dried on the paperback edition of "The Devil Wears Prada," Lauren Weisberger's badly veiled (and wasn't that the point?) bestseller about her stint as Vogue editor Anna Wintour's assistant, but a year later it's duck-hunting season again. And this time, former assistants are aiming their rifles at their squawking, flapping former bosses with a precision that is in some cases more deadly. Faneuil's potentially empire-ending charges and Fuller's public humiliation, as well as an upcoming "Prada"-style roman à clef by former Miramax assistant Rachel Pine, suggest that those who suffered most at the hands of power-mad bosses during the economic boom of the 1990s may in fact be sprouting wings of their own.
The practice by which power brokers employ educated but unskilled moppets to do their bidding has become institutionalized in the media, business and entertainment worlds. In an ideal universe it goes like this: a Busy and Important person hires an eager Eve to help with phones, correspondence and organization. Eve follows her, tracking every personal detail, attending to every need. In turn, Eve gets an eyeful of power, armloads of experience and a professional leg up on her peers. In some cases, this exchange goes off without a hitch. But often, you're liable to find little Eve scrambling out of Dean and DeLuca, eyes full of tears, arms full of half-caf soy lattes, legs flailing madly as she dodges the cellphones being hurled at her from the window of a town car. And if Eve turns out to be Eve Harrington -- or Douglas Faneuil or Lauren Weisberger -- woe betide her Busy and Important boss.
"Swimming With Sharks," 1994's ur-handbook for boss-hating amanuenses, begins with the following voice-over, "The system dictates that one must first be a slave before you can become a success. But this can be a very demanding process. Only a few people have the drive to endure the thousands of indignities and hardships that make up the system."
I did it, twice. After college I was personal assistant to a tough-guy actor, and then took a desk job as editorial assistant to an editor at a nascent national magazine. In other words, I was the Step and Fetch It Monkey, then the Step and Fax It Monkey. The jobs were very different, but they included some of the same gratifying, maddening conditions. At both, I was introduced to influential, sometimes famous people. I watched deals being made, handled paperwork that shifted more money than I'd ever conceived of, had access to overdeveloped Rolodexes. I fretted about getting the right tickets in the right seats to the right night of the right show. I knew everything about my bosses' lives. Their partners, kids, parents, home renovations, real estate deals, illnesses, prescriptions, vacations, salaries and dinner plans were not simply my purview; they were often my responsibility. The level of trust implicit in my employment was mind-boggling. My half-hour interview with the actor, when I was 22 years old, consisted of three questions: Could I cook, drive and speak Italian? I answered yes to all three and the next Monday I reported for work. Before I filled out any tax papers or gave anyone my home address, I was handed the actor's house keys, car keys, bank account numbers and safe codes.
"Personal assistants see a lot," says Peter Biskind, the author of "Down and Dirty Pictures," in which he turned to some former Miramax Films assistants for information about the company and its founders. "Some are kept at a distance, but some assistants really do know very, very intimate details about their bosses' lives."
And if that boss treats you badly, or if that boss's friends treat you badly, the impulse to retaliate by taking advantage of the job's intimacy can be overwhelming. You've got to get pretty close to Bonnie Fuller's dinner before you can blow your nose in it. And you've got to have pretty constant access to Martha Stewart to become the conduit for a tricky stock sale.
The trust, of course, is hubristic. It's the rush of power born of too many Oscar nominations or Page Six appearances that tells a boss that he will always be powerful, and that conversely, the child currently filling out his daily phone sheet and fetching his beet-ginger juice will always be a child. But as Stevie Nicks put it, "Time makes you bolder, children get older." Assistants get older, too. They learn how to speak to reporters; they occasionally become reporters; they get book contracts or film contracts. Sometimes they even figure out how to make deals with federal prosecutors.
"Did I ever want to kill him? No. But I had moments of wanting to kill myself," said Rick Schwartz, former assistant to Harvey Weinstein, one of the Miramax bosses whose tough-to-work-for reputation is retailed in Biskind's book. "It had nothing really to do with him, it's just that I never worked as hard as I did for those two years." Schwartz, who was promoted within the company and was until Friday a senior vice president in charge of production, is moving on to become an independent producer. He started as Weinstein's assistant a few years out of college. What he remembered most was the physical exhaustion. "He's got 20 years on me, but sometimes you get on a plane and you realize, I cannot physically do this. How is he still moving?" Schwartz also pointed out that "I saw him more than anyone else in my life."
Part of Schwartz's fatigue was probably the result of living a period of your life as a limb on someone else's body. As an assistant, you have no identity. As Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey) tells his right-hand man Guy (Frank Whaley) in "Swimming With Sharks," "You. Have. No. Brain. No judgment calls are necessary ... what you think means nothing. What you feel means nothing." When I worked for the actor, I briefly lived in Europe and shared meals with other actors, famous directors and a legendary rock star. I talked to these people, laughed with them. Some asked me questions, some were exceptionally kind. But the truth was, I didn't actually exist; I was a plant, a dessert fork, a button on my boss's jacket. An overdramatic diva in my personal life, I found that I enjoyed the cool weightlessness of erasure; it may have been what turned me on to journalism, where an invisible presence can be a professional superpower.
There were feelings I liked less. That low-level thrumming tightness at the base of my spinal column when my phone rang in the middle of the night, or when I realized that a FedEx tracking number had disappeared, or that the car turned up at the wrong entrance to the building. For those of you who have never experienced such moments of illogical professional terror, it's like the involuntary clench you get when you see police lights in your rearview mirror. It's the feeling of having very little control over what is about to happen.
Biskind, whose earlier book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" chronicles 1970s Hollywood, says that the stratified power plays between bosses and their minions have become more intense over the years. "People had personal assistants in the '70s but it was more relaxed," he says. "In the '80s it got to be abusive because that was also the cocaine period. It's risky to employ someone who knows about every little pimple on their boss's butt. But in the coke period people thought they were bulletproof. Plus assistants were so lowly that you didn't think of them as people. You didn't imagine them rising through the ranks. It fostered a false sense of security. You were so powerful and they were so nobody."
That power is not exactly imaginary. Past assistants who tried to strike back were frequently stamped right out. As recently as June 2002, an anonymous editorial assistant at Hearst, which publishes Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Harper's Bazaar among many other titles, posted a letter of complaint addressed to "editors" in the Bitch Box column of Mediabistro.com. "Get off your fucking high horses and come down and smell your trash," read the missive. "We are your editorial assistants -- not your maids, your mothers, or your personal assistants ... I'm half your age, make a third of your salary, and after baby-sitting you for over a year, could do your job and still have time for a manicure. The copier is push-button, occasionally the printer does need paper, and the production department is just down the hall. Chimps could do half this stuff."
Thanks to some nifty Big Brother technology, the offending complainant was tracked down through e-mail logs and browsing records and efficiently canned the next day. "It certainly dampened the enthusiasm of a lot of the bitchers out there," said Mediabistro's founder, Laurel Touby. "A lot of those major media companies will gun you down like a wounded animal and put you out of your misery if you are unhappy and voice it."
But it's easier to quell an extended online whine than it is to muffle the howl of a smartly constructed, biting novel about your experiences as minion. Last year, former Miramax assistant Rachel Pine began to shop her proposal for "The Twins of Tribeca," a novel about an assistant at a film production and distribution company called "High Art Pictures." Mavericks when it comes to harnessing young energy and converting it into buzz and profit, not to mention wrestling bad publicity to the ground until it's dead, Miramax's book division promptly bought Pine's novel based on the proposal.
"This isn't a 'revenge of the assistants' kind of thing," said Miramax Books director of publicity Hilary Bass. "It's more write-what-you-know, and this is what she knows." When asked about the possibility that Pine's book might ride the Fuller-Faneuil tide of boss baiting, Bass responded, "What's happening with Martha has real-life repercussions. With Bonnie's assistants, it's pretty gross but not potentially life-altering. In Rachel's case, I think in many ways it's enlightening and all for good fun. No one is going to suffer any life-threatening repercussions because of what she's doing."
True, though according to a copy of the sample chapters from her proposal, some people will probably not be psyched.
"The development department at High Art Pictures was run by a pit bull of a woman named Angela Winter," reads part of Pine's sample Chapter 5. Angela, continues Pine, was "something of a legend at our company ... a favorite of [High Art co-chairs Phil and Tony Waxman, she] had started out as their assistant in the early days when they shared just one." In the proposal, Angela, whom Pine describes as in a bad mood after the discovery that she is the only unmarried Tri-Delt from her UCLA class, rips into an eager publicity intern named Trisha for writing her a fawning note asking for professional advice.
"'So you think you can just write me a letter?'" Angela bellows publicly at Trisha in a "nasty, sneering voice." Trisha "looked like she was trying to protect herself like an opossum and curl into a ball ... trying to play dead."
'Do you think I'm your friend? Just because I'm incredibly successful and I'm close to your age doesn't mean that you can just pick up a pen and write me a letter!'" Trisha the intern is fired.
It's funny cause it's true. Or not funny. Or maybe not exactly true, but familiar. Sure, hundreds of former Miramax employees -- even some eagle-eyed viewers of the company's in-house reality show "Project Greenlight" -- will probably be able to venture a guess about which real-life viper is the basis for Angela Winter. But the tale will send frissons of recognition down the spine of anyone who has labored at countless other powerful work camps. Pine's unfinished book may turn out not to be a revealing takedown of any individual, but of the prevailing corporate culture at high-glare, fast-rising, ego-driven institutions. While it already promises a couple of sharp-clawed swipes at company co-chairs Bob and Harvey Weinstein; Pine's direct boss, former Miramax publicity maven Marcy Granata; and the executive model for the delightful Ms. Winter, "The Tribeca Twins" may turn out to be a broader paean to the delusional, dehumanizing effects of pure power, as well as a commentary on the whippersnappers willing to queue up to do a line themselves.
When I was an assistant, my assistant brethren -- yup, we all knew each other -- could be divided into two groups: those who swore that they would never behave that way toward anyone, and those who could not wait to get assistants of their very own. Just a few years out of servitude some of them already have them; I often wonder who makes the coffee in their relationships. I don't think it occurred to any of us that we might someday wield enough power to hurt our own boss's careers, their reputations, or even their feelings. For me, the night sweats and aggravated digestive system was paid back in takeout dinners from Nobu, days spent on movie sets, meeting Madonna, all the Academy screeners I could stuff in my bag, getting to go to a millennial blowout party that was covered in all the newspapers. I also groomed house pets, wrestled a dead king cobra on a Manhattan street corner, wrapped Christmas presents through the night, and on several occasions, gave in to drunken temptation and prank-called Jack Nicholson.
People are constantly throwing around the term "Stockholm syndrome" with regard to assistants. One of Fuller's assistants accuses her new, seemingly happy crew at American Media of simply having learned to love their captor. Pine's book references Stockholm syndrome as the condition that the High Art interns suffer toward the program coordinator. A New York Times story about Faneuil suggested that he had actually had Stockholm syndrome with regards to the trial prosecutors who have been coaching him. I wonder why few people point out that Stockholm syndrome might have at another time been called corporate loyalty, or the acknowledgement that even though circumstances were piss-poor, the future looked brighter because of them.
Altogether, I loathed being an assistant. And though I sort of loved both of my bosses, I would rarely have leapt to their defense had they been tried for petty crimes against my goodwill. I'm still in touch with both of them. What I did get -- what I knew I would someday value -- were great seats to the best show in 1990s New York: power at its best and worst.
After the letter-yelling scene, Pine's protagonist, Karen, goes to the roof of the High Art office building and looks at the Statue of Liberty. "As corny as it sounds, I thought about countries where people were sent to jail for writing letters. I thought about what I had just seen -- an ugly, abusive display of power, all to make one person feel superior to another, and guaranteed to poison everyone else with a creeping fear. As my experiences with High Art grew over the following months, I'd revisit that day in my memory again and again."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
About the writer
Rebecca Traister is a staff writer for Salon Life.
Send us a Letter to the Editor
Did Bonnie Fuller really betray women?
Female editors condemn the Globe for running a tawdry photograph of Kobe Bryant's accuser.
By Rebecca Traister
When personal assistants attack!
Lauren Weisberger talks about life as an underling at Vogue, how her editor shields her from negative press, and her new roman a clef, "The Devil Wears Prada."
By Elizabeth Spiers