Revenge of the underlings becomes a literary genre
A subversive literary genre is sweeping the publishing industry: boss betrayal. Bookstores are suddenly being deluged with memoirs and romans à clef by servants and office assistants trying to cash in on former employers’ fame and follies.
They are a variation on the tell-all exposé, written not by peers or rivals or the principals themselves but by subordinates, books that all could be subtitled, ”You’ll Never Serve Lunch in This Town Again.”
It used to be that only movie stars, presidents and Kennedys had to worry about revelations by butlers, secretaries or bodyguards. Suddenly, magazine editors are prey. So are wealthy matrons and business leaders. The executive assistant of John F. Welch Jr., the former General Electric chairman, is writing a positive memoir. A former aide to Elizabeth S. Grubman, the publicist whose errant S.U.V. wreaked havoc in the Hamptons one night last summer — is writing a fictionalized account that is anything but positive.
Lowly assistants seem to be benefiting from a post-Enron populism — a skepticism about power and privilege now that the stock bubble has fizzled and corrupt business practices are coming to light.
”Tell-all books fell out of favor over the past few years,” said Amanda Urban, a literary agent with International Creative Management. ”But everything is cyclical. Maybe it’s the economy, but people seem to be up for it again.”
The tone was set by ”The Nanny Diaries,” a thinly disguised novel about the maternal indifference of an East Side socialite, written by two former nannies, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, and published in March by St. Martin’s Press. It was perhaps inevitable that someone at George magazine would write about its editor, John F. Kennedy Jr. — and Richard Blow, a senior editor, did.
But even less-pedigreed editors are targets. The Vogue editor Anna Wintour is the model for a book and two screenplays revolving around a chilly boss at a fashion magazine. And Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, is skewered by a former staff member in another memoir.
James J. Cramer, a former hedge fund manager, was accused of ill temper and insider trading by Nicholas W. Maier, the son of two of Mr. Cramer’s friends. (HarperCollins had to pulp 4,000 copies of Mr. Maier’s book, ”Trading With the Enemy,” when it turned out the latter charge was baseless, though Mr. Maier has said that government investigators talked to him about Mr. Cramer’s conduct.)
”The lesson I learned is that before you take so-and-so on as a favor,” Mr. Cramer said, ”you better find out if he has a literary bent.” His own memoir, ”Confessions of a Street Addict,” is battling for readers with the book by Mr. Maier, who worked as an entry-level trader at Mr. Cramer’s firm.
So far, most chief executives, like movie stars, have insulated themselves behind confidentiality clauses or severance packages that reward silence.
Mr. Welch’s executive assistant, Rosanne Badowski, 45, is writing — with her boss’s blessing, and veto — a book that will be part memoir, part guide to serving the powerful. Mr. Welch need not worry about betrayal. ”I told Doubleday I would not be writing about his personal life,” she explained delicately.
Such loyalty may soon go by the wayside. Kenneth L. Lay, the disgraced former Enron chairman, married his former secretary, but there are a dozen Enron books in the works, and many work the word ”shredding” into the title. ”The Anatomy of Greed: The Unshredded Truth From an Enron Insider” by Brian Cruver, who was a manager of product development, is due in September from Carroll & Graf.
L. Dennis Kozlowski, the former head of Tyco, also seems a ripe candidate for exposure by the downstairs help after his indictment for sales tax evasion.
”Listen, even I would pay seven figures for a book by Kozlowski’s art dealer,” Mr. Cramer said. ” ‘How I Shipped Empty Boxes Marked ”Renoir” to Exeter, N.H.’ ”
But most of the current crop of memoirs reveal employers’ moodiness, not malfeasance. Toby Young, a former Vanity Fair staff member, wrote a memoir, ”How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” that will be released in the United States on July 4 by Da Capo Press. A mocking account of his failure to impress the American elite, it focuses earnestly on the elite’s failure to appreciate his jokes and portrays Mr. Carter, the magazine’s editor, as taking himself — and celebrities — too seriously.
By Mr. Young’s own account, Mr. Carter was unamused when Mr. Young crashed a Vanity Fair Oscar party; still, Mr. Carter kept him on salary for two and a half years, even though Mr. Young produced just 3,000 words, a fraction of the book’s contents. This book, too, may be headed for the screen, as a British film company has optioned it.
Mr. Young said he felt no qualms about turning on his former boss. ”It’s not like Condé Nast is the Pentagon and I disclosed secrets and endangered lives,” he said. In any event, he said he thought that Mr. Carter was not too upset. ”He said the book was funny,” Mr. Young said.
If so, Mr. Carter had little choice. ”You’re forced into playing it cool,” Mr. Carter said, ”when all you really want to do is throttle them.” To complain, let alone sue, is the surest way to draw more attention.
Likewise, when Ms. Wintour was asked how she felt about ”The Devil Wears Prada,” a fictionalized account of life at a fashion magazine by Lauren Weisberger, a 25-year-old former Vogue assistant, she played it cool. ”I look forward to reading the book,” Ms. Wintour said.
She may also have to look forward to the movie. Ms. Weisberger, who sold her manuscript to the Doubleday Broadway division of Random House for more than $200,000, got more than three times that from Fox Searchlight Pictures.
The new tell-alls suggest a generational clash. Baby boomer bosses feel betrayed by a new generation of ”don’t wannabes” — protégés they see as choosing an easier, self-indulgent way to exploit their apprenticeship to power. Employees say they are taking a stand against the pomposity of the ruling elite. ”I don’t like the word ‘rat,’ ” Mr. Young, 38, said. ”I prefer ‘whistle-blower.’ ”
New York lags behind Hollywood, where revenge of the coffee-fetchers is a time-honored tradition. One relatively recent example, ”Swimming With Sharks,” a 1995 black comedy about a despotic Hollywood producer, was written and directed by George Huang, a former Hollywood assistant. Decades earlier, writers like Budd Schulberg and F. Scott Fitzgerald perfected the genre.
Linda Obst, a Hollywood producer (”Sleepless in Seattle”), is working on a romantic comedy that features a haughty, Anna Wintourish boss. ”I feel personally attacked by all these demonizations of powerful women bosses, including the one I am working on,” Ms. Obst said with a laugh.
For the disgruntled, but less literary, there are other outlets.
Mediabistro.com, a Web site that caters to media industry underlings, features a complaint box where staff members can complain about their bosses online. It is not entirely safe. A young woman who posted an anonymous jeremiad about her supervisor at the Hearst Corporation was unmasked and dismissed.
”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,” she wrote to her unnamed boss. ”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.”
It was unclear whether she was fired for insubordination, or for being unaware that working the copier was, in fact, her job.
Television may play a role. Baby boomers grew up with images of deferential household and office help — Alice, the workaholic housekeeper on ”The Brady Bunch,” or the devoted Miss Hathaway on ”The Beverly Hillbillies.” Generation X and its younger siblings may have been formed by Fran Drescher, the nasal, shopaholic star of ”The Nanny.”
Critics found ”The Nanny Diaries” genuinely funny. They were less impressed with ”American Son,” Mr. Blow’s tribute to John. F. Kennedy Jr., noting that it had too much Blow and not enough Kennedy. (His colleagues at George were not amused either. Immediately after Mr. Kennedy died, Mr. Blow banned the staff from talking to the media or writing about their boss.)
Literary or historical merit seems to count. Nobody faulted Charlotte Brontë for using her experiences as a governess to write ”Jane Eyre.
Michael Lewis may have betrayed his employers at Salomon Brothers in ”Liar’s Poker,” his tell-all book about bond trading, but he revealed a lot about the real ethos of Wall Street in the 1980’s. Mr. Maier, whose book about Mr. Cramer’s hedge fund has been compared, less favorably, to ”Liar’s Poker,” has a different defense of ”Trading With the Enemy.” He describes it as a personal coming-of-age story.
Correction: June 15, 2002, Saturday A front-page article on Wednesday about memoirs written by servants and office assistants about their former employers misspelled the given name of a Hollywood producer who is working on a romantic comedy involving a haughty boss. The producer is Lynda Obst, not Linda.
Editors’ Note: June 20, 2002, Thursday A front-page article last Wednesday reported a surge in the publishing of books written by subordinates about their bosses and cited the example of Richard Blow, who worked for John F. Kennedy Jr. at George magazine. The article said that immediately after Mr. Kennedy’s death, Mr. Blow barred the magazine’s staff members from talking to the media or writing about him.
The article should have described a disagreement over Mr. Blow’s version of the events. He says that when he instructed employees not to discuss Mr. Kennedy, he told them that he was doing so at the request of the family. But four staff members dispute Mr. Blow’s account. Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman for Senator Edward Kennedy, said it was ”highly unlikely” that such a request had been made. Autor: Alessandra Stanley