The Assistant Economy

“It’s like an ever-descending spiral for you…” (Michal Dzierza / Flickr)

In 1975 Susan Sontag, the American intellectual famous for On Photography and Against Interpretation, was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer and survived after a radical mastectomy, extensive radiation treatments, and thirty months of debilitating chemotherapy. In the aftermath she needed someone to help her catch up on her correspondence. Her editors at the New York Review of Books recommended a former Review assistant named Sigrid Nunez, who lived near Sontag on the Upper West Side.

Strictly speaking, Nunez was Sontag’s assistant for a very short while. But the psychological fallout was significant. The first time Nunez arrived for work, Sontag grilled her for gossip about the Review. The second time, Nunez met Sontag’s mother. The third time, Nunez was set up with Sontag’s son, the nonfiction writer David Rieff. Soon they began dating, and Sontag invited Nunez to move in because she couldn’t bear the thought of her son moving out.

Nunez was no longer an assistant, but Sontag still expected deference. Nunez, then an aspiring novelist (now an established one), would wake up early to try to snatch the solitude she needed to write, only for Sontag to knock on her door and cajole her into eating breakfast. Sontag wanted to edit Nunez’s fiction, and she was hurt when Nunez didn’t accept her suggestions. Nunez found the whole relationship difficult, perplexing, and at times almost obliterating.

She also learned a great deal about books and culture from Sontag and through her met some interesting people. In the case of the poet Joseph Brodsky, Sontag’s one-time boyfriend, she ate Chinese food with them. “Do I even need to say what an enormous privilege it was to hear them both?” Nunez writes in her memoir of Sontag, Sempre Susan. “Looking back, I only wish that I could feel more joy—or, at least, that I could find a way of remembering that is not so painful.” But why was it painful? While Nunez grew into her own as a writer, Sontag could only ever see her as a naïve student. Much later, when Sontag called Nunez to congratulate her on winning the prestigious Rome Prize, Sontag added, “You know, they offered that prize to me once.” Thirty years later, writing her memoir, Nunez was still trying to explain the depth of the wound.

When I was an undergrad at Harvard, the English department produced fancy brochures about the opportunities available to its majors: teacher, editor, Rhodes scholar. Personal assistant was not listed. I hadn’t even heard of such positions until senior year, when older friends, artistically inclined friends, started snagging them. It’s the position I think I’ve heard most about now.

Nearly every exclusive field runs on assistants. The actor James Franco, like Buddha before him, had an assistant keep track of his meals and school assignments. The critic and writer Daphne Merkin has employed a steady stream of Ivy-educated elves. They’re tasked with everything from editing to returning dead houseplants. Bestselling novelist John Irving (The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany) has an assistant who types up his roughly twenty-five pages of handwritten manuscript a day. He recruits exclusively from liberal arts schools in cold climates like Middlebury and Vassar, to ensure his hires can survive the winter at his home in Dorset, Vermont. During the 2008 presidential season, recent Harvard grad Eric Lesser impressed senior advisor to the president, David Axelrod, with his color-coded system for tracking Obama’s campaign luggage. Lesser was taken on as Axelrod’s “special assistant,” assuming responsibility for everything from supervising his boss’s diet to organizing the first-ever presidential Seder.

Welcome to the main artery into creative or elite work—highly pressurized, poorly recompensed, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes menial secretarial assistance. From the confluence of two grand movements in American history—the continued flight of women out of the home and into the workplace, and the growing population of arts and politically oriented college graduates struggling to survive in urban epicenters that are increasingly ceded to bankers and consultants—the personal assistant is born.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were almost 4 million secretaries and administrative assistants in the United States in 2012.Office and administrative positions” is one of the largest occupational groups in the United States, and continues to grow. And yet the title “secretary” is all but nonexistent in the arts. Doctors and lawyers have secretaries or administrative assistants. Artists, intellectuals, politicians, and “creatives” have personal assistants—aptly named because the job responsibilities are so intimately bound up in the personality of the employer. And because of this, because of the ambitious nature of the people these assistants serve as well as the ambitious nature of the work assistants someday hope to do themselves, personal assistants are simultaneously more devoted to the job than an administrative assistant, and less.

I. Recruiting

One of the most exceptional—and mysterious—personal assistantship programs is run by a hedge fund billionaire in New York. For years, his human resources staff used to tuck the same discreet, neatly boxed advertisement in alongside the dense criticism of the New Republic and the New York Review of Books, as well as in Ivy League alumni magazines:

RESEARCH ASSOCIATE/PERSONAL ASSISTANT New York City—Highly intelligent, resourceful individuals with exceptional communication skills sought to undertake research projects and administrative tasks for one of Wall Street’s most successful entrepreneurs. We welcome applications from writers, musicians, artists, or others who may be pursuing other professional goals in the balance of their time. $90-110k/yr to start (depending on qualifications). Resume to: gen8R@spsfind.com

The firm recruits and interviews year-round, whether there are openings or not. In addition to ads, the billionaire’s people email Phi Beta Kappa and summa students from top colleges about openings at the firm, though they are also likely scouting for assistants. “Although much of our work involves the use of advanced mathematical and computational techniques,” the email reads, “we are equally interested in speaking with brilliant liberal arts graduates, regardless of major, who are open to the possibility of a career they may never have previously considered.” It might be the only time in their lives that art students or English majors are courted by a potential employer. “The firm,” the email continues, “ . . . can give serious consideration only to individuals having extraordinary intellectual capabilities, communication skills, and general ‘real world’ competence.” Of the many who apply, a handful are called to New York, where their “real world competence” is quantified in no fewer than five management consulting-style interviews. Interviewees sign non-disclosure forms, and if hired as personal assistants, are essentially barred from saying where they work. When pressed, they might say they are writing books or “making music.”

The truth about this job is stranger than fiction, but, given the non-disclosure forms, only fiction can hint at what it’s like to work in positions like these. Here is Edna, the protagonist of The Mistakes Madeline Made, a play by Elizabeth Meriwether (creator of New Girl), who once worked as an assistant herself:

I am one of fifteen assistants to a family. . . . This family may be the Platonic Essence of Rich. Their rich is a higher order of being . . . Dad runs his home the way he runs his hedge fund—using a model to protect his family against the possibility of loss or waste or even just the unexpected. Oh. Oh. I hate them all.

Edna especially hates Beth, the overachieving (and older) leader of the “Household System.” Beth is introduced to the audience glorying in the team’s latest achievement: “I have finally received email confirmation that George likes the pair of sneakers we bought—listen to this—I believe he told Judith: ‘Yay. Mommy. Yay. I love my sneakies.’”

Socially demeaning labor may be par for the post-graduate course, but it’s uncanny how people like the hedge fund billionaire and others knew to target the creative types. It’s as if they’ve spotted an inefficiency in the market of underemployed, educated people and turned it to their advantage. Agencies like the Celebrity Personal Assistant Network have also been cropping up to match assistants with employers. Countless other powerful people, however, find impressive assistants through their networks alone.

II. Snagging an Assistantship

The assistants I know didn’t get their jobs through agencies or learn their craft from handbooks. One Harvard sophomore approached New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik after a reading and offered her assistance over the summer. She postponed her first semester of junior year to extend her stay. A classmate of hers took his fall 2008 semester off to assist former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, whom he became acquainted with when, as president of the Harvard Republicans, he had invited Rove to speak on campus. As he recalled, at the time, the speech was one of the only ones that Rove had given at a college campus that went off without a hitch. Rove wrote him a thank-you card, and then that summer sent a signed letter to his home in the oil-rich city of Midland, Texas, asking if he knew of anyone interested in an internship. He certainly did.

In other words, the assistants I know capitalized on what is perhaps the greatest benefit provided to them by their elite universities: access. The ones who snagged assistantships—and ultimately advanced from them—were not necessarily smarter or more creative, but they were more socially competent. They excelled at chat—a skill that comes naturally to those accustomed to attending their parents’ cocktail parties, and less naturally to many a middle-class nerd who has previously had no reason to doubt the meritocracy.

Harvard’s Office of Career Services told me they do not have advice for a student looking to become a personal assistant. “If you have a passion for something,” an OCS spokesperson told me, “you find a way to get in front of the people you want to work for.” The skills required are really more like manners: a feel for how to mix deference, intelligence, and, most importantly, shared cultural references into conversation with a successful person. If you weren’t brought up with these manners, you can’t help but acquire them, at least to some degree, at an elite college. Manners are the mark of social and class affiliations, and assistantships, won by means of manners, ensure that exclusive professions remain the province of a certain class.

I asked the counselor if Harvard kids were actually any good at serving others. “A lot of students are used to running things on campus,” she said. “And Harvard students are strong both orally and in communication and can multi-task.”

Did she know any students assisting someone famous? She knew a sophomore who had assisted Dustin Hoffman over the summer, but he hadn’t found the job through OCS. “A family friend put him in touch with somebody, though I know he did a lot of theater around here.”

“Do you know anyone else?” I asked.

“Don’t you?” she said. “Oh, there’s one other person. He works in the White House now. I think he carried Obama’s bags. He made sure they got from one hotel to another. . . . He was written up in the Times.

III. Tasks

As a post-production assistant working with the film director Robert Altman, CJ Gardella, a recent graduate from the School of Visual Arts, recounted how assistants from time to time helped fabricate fan mail, like:

Dear Mr. Altman,

I loved Mash. I loved Nashville. You’ve got to make MASHVILLE!

Love, 

Your biggest fan

As it happened, Gardella and the others  genuinely liked and revered Altman; the notes were, in their own way, earnest. They were then tucked into the newspapers cushioning the materials being mailed to Altman—the “questionable materials,” as Gardella referred to them, meaning weed. By Gardella’s account, one package arrived ripped and empty, but most of the others made it to Altman in London or Los Angeles, or, during the summer of 2005, in Minnesota, where he was shooting his final film, A Prairie Home Companion.

Gardella’s father, a contractor, was renovating a home for a friend of one of Altman’s producers when he learned that Altman needed an assistant. (He already knew, of course, that his son was looking for work.) Gardella interviewed and started as an unpaid intern in 2005 and after several months entered the payroll as a post-production assistant. He logged footage, ordered lunch, dispensed “questionable” mailings, and made DVD “dups” (duplicates of footage). He toted Altman’s lifetime achievement Oscar across town in a grocery bag. “The eagle has landed,” he remembered Altman saying when he saw it in the office.

Gardella’s position bore all the marks of an elite assistantship. It was prestigious: when people heard about his job, they were impressed. The work was both high-pressure and menial, not always the most pleasant combination, but he was also invited to screenings and exposed to industry giants. Gardella saw all the emails and phone calls that got a movie made, and, luckiest of all, he loved his boss. “With Altman I was [literally] wearing his shoes,” Gardella told me. “They were black Pumas and everyone who saw me wear them said they were old man shoes. But in the office, they were the coolest.”

 Longitudinal studies of the data in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) have found that the status of one’s employer and project typically matters much more than the skill level and responsibilities of one’s position. Over time, researchers suggest that assistantships tend to move towards mentorship, especially among those of the same gender. The ideal gig offers persistent contact with an employer, even if the job is more about fetching coffee and less about substantive creative work.

In 2010, New York magazine ran an infographic—“The Amazing Human Launching Pads”—about employers whose underlings go on to great things. It included people like chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, TV writer-producer David Chase, and Robert Silvers, the editor and co-founder of the New York Review of Books. A staffer at the NYRB told me that every assistant in the office sent the charticle to his parents as proof that they weren’t wasting the $160,000 that had been spent on their college education.

But make no mistake: today’s assistantship is not an apprenticeship, which would be tightly regulated to ensure its utility. Apprentices training to be anything from an able seaman to an elevator constructor “earn as they learn”—on average $16.01 an hour from the first day. Apprentices have on-the-job mentors, and they get additional training from technical schools and community colleges. The average apprentice makes $33,301 per year—as much, if not more than, the average assistant. Upon completion of his or her training, an apprentice earns $54,829, or nearly double the salary of an assistant. (The hedge fund billionaire, because he himself is so far removed from what the people he hires want to be doing, must pay much more.)

An assistantship, then, may be more like an internship. The very word “intern,” as Ross Perlin writes in Intern Nation, connotes both “privilege and exploitation.” Privilege because of the intern’s proximity to prestige, and because of his (presumed) ability to forego a salary. Exploitation because of the menial and un(der)paid work. Like an intern, an assistant typically learns by observation and performs nebulous duties particular to the personality of the boss. In both cases, what’s earned, if anything, is less valuable than the perceived professional benefits—the condoned voyeurism, the network of current and former assistants, the interesting email addresses, friendly introductions, free galleys, and so on.

And the sheer ubiquity of assistantships and access to the most intimate details of one’s boss has fed a pop culture boomlet—the assistantship novel as contemporary upstairs/downstairs narrative. Over a hundred novels about glamorous and beleaguered personal assistants have been published, almost all since 2000. The Devil Wears Prada is the best known, but there are countless others: Boss Lady, Safe at Second, As Long as She Needs Me, Life With My Sister Madonna, Chore Whore, A Total Waste of Makeup, The Lying Tongue, Final Witness, and—rather wistfully—Out-foxxed.

As in The Devil Wears Prada, fear of the boss and the ever-present threat of dismissal line the personal assistant’s work with both dread and excitement. Scott Rudin, the superproducer behind so many Oscar-nominated movies every year (in 2008, Rudin’s There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men were nominated for eight Oscars each), is notorious for his temper (revealed on the front pages most recently by the Sony leak, in which he called Angelina Jolie a “minimally talented spoiled brat”). He has four or five assistants at any one time, and his former underlings now fill some of Hollywood’s most prominent positions. But while practically every studio head has once served Rudin, the majority of his assistants don’t survive the fourth month. The Wall Street Journal once quoted an estimate by some of Rudin’s assistants that he had gone through 250 of them in five years. Rudin admitted to 119, excluding the kids who hadn’t survived what he referred to as the two-week “trial period.” Sometimes he fires them all at once. They tramp to the café across the street to await a call from the office manager, who often rehires them.

And to think: Rudin was once himself an assistant to the Broadway director and impresario Kermit Bloomgarden. “When I’d come home, my mother would ask, ‘How was your day?’” Rudin told the LA Times. “And I’d say, ‘I made lunch for Burt Lancaster.’” 

IV. Advancement

Senior year of college, a friend of mine who was majoring in film struck up a lengthy email correspondence with the assistant to director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Black Swan, The Wrestler). He eventually learned that the assistant would soon be leaving and snagged the job. After my friend’s first day, he went out to dinner to celebrate. At 8:00 p.m., he remembers receiving a call and was about to silence it when he saw it was his new boss. “Do you have a paper and pencil?” Aronofsky allegedly asked. My friend took a second too long to respond. “The first rule of the job,” he remembered Aronofsky saying, “is that you have a paper and pencil. Call me back.”

What made the position appealing, my friend told me, was the implication that, “If you do this job, you can do what I do.” Not in terms of the creativity, but in terms of the time commitment, the need for organization, the need to deal with people, the practical things. “It’s not like, ‘If you do this job for me, I’ll let you make movies.’” What distinguishes one smart kid from another, in a world full of them, are organizational skills and an up-for-anything diligence.

One problem is that the assistant’s diligence cannot lead to a promotion. Technically, promotions don’t exist. You can’t become the person you assist, and so the strategic assistant curries favor, an especially fickle and undignified form of wage labor. In his memoir, The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, Jon-Jon Goulian, a former assistant to the NYRB’s Bob Silvers, wrote about the decision to quit a job that had once seemed so perfect:

There was the matter of my ego. When Bob was thirty-four years old, he was commander in chief, at the helm of the ship, steering the New York Review to greatness. When I was thirty-four I was sharpening his pencils, and feeding him dried blueberries.

It didn’t take more than a couple of years for Jon-Jon to accidentally call Bob “Baba,” a bastardized version of what Jon-Jon called his father—Dada. It was a frightening slip, because isn’t the point of getting a job to begin to grow up?

V. Stagnation

When Gardella’s gig with Robert Altman ended, he became director Noah Baumbach’s (The Squid and the Whale, Kicking and Screaming) assistant. According to Gardella, although the two sat in adjacent rooms, Baumbach communicated almost exclusively by email, requesting groceries, cars, and flight confirmations. Gardella says he learned by osmosis and by being around during initial cuts of the film. When Baumbach first screened Margot at the Wedding, Gardella distributed blank sheets of paper and pencils to the audience, who were instructed to write whatever occurred to them freely and anonymously. As Gardella waited to collect the responses, he took a sheet and wrote what he thought the director would most want to hear, simply “so good. He recalled that the next day, Baumbach brought out a stack of responses with that one on top. “See that?” he said. Gardella nodded.

When Margot wrapped, Gardella was out of work. He became an assistant to Gene Stavis, an influential film historian and one of Gardella’s former teachers at the School of Visual Arts. “It’s like an ever-descending spiral for you,” Stavis joked. Gardella put all of his savings into the shooting of his first feature, Shunka. “I gave [the film] to Noah and he didn’t get back to me,” Gardella told me. “But, you know, he’s busy.”

Indeed, this may be just the job for Noah Baumbach’s new assistant.

VI. Resignation

Nothing becomes an assistant so much as leaving his or her job. “The worst thing to be called,” Aronofsky’s assistant told me, long after he’d moved on, “is a really good assistant.”

Diligence and deference have an expiration date, or at least they should. Assistantship fiction, usually written by former assistants, enacts countless fantasies of escape. In Chore Whore, by Heather H. Howard (“a personal assistant to some of the biggest names in Hollywood for more than two decades,” according to her bio), a Hollywood PA named Corki, no longer young and no longer quite so enamored of backstage grit, gets out. Or, rather, she’s replaced—the cowboy boyfriend of her boss of twenty years swaps in two twenty-year-olds from one of his foursomes. But regardless of whether Corki quit or was let go, the dignity that leaving affords her is just the same. In Meriwether’s play, Edna eventually rebels against the tyranny of the Household System by stealing the hypoallergenic handiwipes, specially ordered from abroad for the son, and in doing so, precipitates the system’s hysteric meltdown. Most famously, in the book The Devil Wears Prada, after a year of servility to the icy and abusive Anna Wintour–like fashion magazine editor named Miranda Priestly, twenty-three-year-old Andrea is too terrified to ask to leave Paris Fashion Week when her best friend is hospitalized after a drunk driving accident. Ashamed of prioritizing her job, she quits at Priestly’s next tirade and, in short order, starts publishing her writing. In other words, these books always end with liberation from bondage. Assistant fiction is incapable, it seems, of imagining any other narrative arc.

For my own part, I graduated from college having spent three years working on a literary magazine, where it was considered uncouth to talk about a professional future. In high school, I’d never felt there was anything embarrassing about buying a study guide for an AP exam, but I never thought of buying one of the professional success books that fill the shelves at Barnes & Noble and the warehouses at Amazon. My assumption that I didn’t need conventional career guidance betrayed a privilege I was as yet unaware of. Though I wasn’t able to articulate it as such at the time, I believed that the creative class was immune to professional plotting and monetary concerns—that if I just worked hard enough on my essays and articles, I’d make enough money later in life, doing interesting work. I was the first in my family to attend a four-year college, and needless to say, I was very naïve.

In some ways, I lucked out. An essay I wrote caught the eye of a professor who recommended me to the New Republic just when they were looking for a literary assistant, and a friend guided me through the application process. After a year and a half in Washington, I moved to New York, where I freelanced and took on fact-checking gigs, surviving on oatmeal, cereal, and Negra Modelo. My 2009 tax returns show an income of $14,000. The only food I bought out was two falafels and a meal with another former assistant, who asked me out on a date and then argued that I wasn’t that poor if I could afford milk (eating cereal, he said, was expensive). When it was time to pay, he had no cash—and this West Village restaurant didn’t take cards. Then I found another literary assistantship. It was to be my last.

Years after Sigrid Nunez broke up with Sontag’s son and moved out, Sontag decided that she wanted an actual personal assistant. She called up Nunez for a recommendation, and when Nunez suggested a young girl they knew, Sontag raged, “I don’t want some kid! I’m not looking for a typist! I need someone who knows me and knows my work and the things I care about. Oh, just forget it. Clearly, you have no idea what it means to be in my situation.”

Sontag was chronically lonely, never more so than when she was left to her own thoughts. Not every boss’s hunger for daily affirmation and support is quite so palpable. But often, an assistant is hired as much for the fawning as for the typing—whether it’s conveyed through knowledge or attentiveness or actual praise. Ideally, the assistant is a forgiving fan, the perfect receptacle for inchoate ideas.

But inevitably, the boss’s inchoate ideas and preferences press upon the assistant, sometimes forever. “Boring, like servile, was one of her favorite words,” Nunez writes.

Another was exemplary. Also, serious. “You can tell how serious people are by looking at their books.” She meant not only what books they had on their shelves but how the books were arranged. . . . Because of her, I arranged my own books by subject and in chronological rather than alphabetical order. I wanted to be serious.

But perhaps the real expense of this work is how much the boss—and the idea of the boss—occupies his assistants after hours. Witnessing the behavior of a man or woman with no time for privacy only makes his or her inner life more fascinating. Is he aware that his mind has flip-flopped? Or that he just assumed his assistant’s idea? Who is he angry at when he chucks a no. 2 pencil across the room? Look at that love letter! This mythologizing is relentless and trifling, but it fills a real need: the need to justify your job by making your boss as big and as marvelous as possible. And that, after all, is what the boss always wanted.


Francesca Mari is an associate editor at Texas Monthly, in Austin.



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