Who Has the Toughest Gig in Town? Tense, Glove-Wearing Assistants

Trixie Flynn, assistant to the

husky-voiced actress Lauren Bacall, was anxious on

the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 12.

“I’m thinking of getting a pair of those disposable gloves,”

said Ms. Flynn, who is 50 and has worked for Ms. Bacall

for six months. “Do you think they would help? 

I don’t want to get hysterical, but it is a little scary.”

Ms. Flynn didn’t think her 78-year-old boss-who won a Tony

playing Margo Channing in the staged musical

adaptation of All About Eve (the personal assistant’s Bible)-

was actually a terrorist target. But she and her occupational brethren were

jittery after hearing that NBC anchor Tom Brokaw’s assistant, Erin O’Connor,

38, had contracted the cutaneous form of anthrax,

possibly from handling a suspicious letter addressed to Mr. Brokaw.

These are worrisome days for New York’s

personal assistants, the patient, underappreciated emissaries behind the fussy machers of finance, media and show business. Until a couple

of days ago, most personal assistants led busy yet stealthy lives-fielding

phones, arranging appointments, keeping ex-spouses and loony fans at bay. The

best assistants could 

swing a last-minute

table at Da

Silvano, find a perfect sweater at Bergdorf’s, or

locate Michael Eisner mountain-biking on the coast. Sure, the unlucky ones had

to temper volcanic outbursts from a banshee boss. But save for a flung Nokia

now and again, most of them felt safe.

On Oct. 12, that changed. Once hidden by the shadows of

their well-known bosses, 

New York’s

assistants suddenly feel exposed, threatened-and oddly united.

“Personal assistants are pulling together in this time of

need,” said John O’Sullivan, the New York

assistant to Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and himself the spokesman for an

80-member organization called New York Celebrity Assistants. “It’s the greatest

hour for personal assistants.”

Perhaps, but it’s also an hour of particular concern,

considering that Ms. O’Connor may have been infected doing something virtually

every personal assistant does at least once a day: opening the mail.

“That the infected person at NBC was Tom Brokaw’s assistant

definitely chilled me,” Dana Goodyear, 25, the assistant to New Yorker editor

David Remnick, wrote in an e-mail. “I open a lot of

mail with David’s name on it. The parallel made me feel almost marked.”

But unlike their bosses, who can hunker down for some

calming “me time” in the Hamptons if trouble arises,

the dutiful assistant must trudge into work, rain, shine-or biological warfare.

Many of them took a steely, no-B.S. approach to the news at NBC. Fran Kessler,

editor David Granger’s assistant at Esquire, went out on Monday, Oct. 15, and

did what Trixie Flynn had been  deliberating: She bought surgical

gloves.

“Everybody thinks I’m a little goofy, but I thought, ‘Wow,

I’d rather be on the safe side,'” said Ms. Kessler, who worked at New

York magazine for 20 years as assistant to Joe

Armstrong and then Ed Kosner, before following Mr. Kosner to Esquire in 1993.

Ms. Kessler noted that Mr. Granger gets a lot of “screwy

crack mail” that usually never has a return address. “I just happen to like

reading all that stuff,” she confessed. “Now that I have gloves, I can go on

reading it all.”

“I don’t open the mail,” said Donald Trump’s longtime

assistant, Norma Foerderer. “But I have great concern

for this young lady who does, and I don’t want to put her at risk.”

Ms. Foerderer said that all

packages sent to Mr. Trump are X-rayed, a practice that began before Sept.

11.  She guessed that the office would

soon get in a supply of anthrax antibiotics, just in case. “I touch wood and

pray to God that we don’t have that experience,” she said. Later, Ms. Foerderer called back to report that she had just ordered

some surgical masks and that Mr. Trump’s mail was now being opened in a sealed

room-though the X-ray machine was no longer working.

Naturally, the concern about mail was  acute among assistants in television

news, who could see themselves in Ms. O’Connor’s exact situation.

“I’m being cautious,” said Kim Akhtar,

who works with Dan Rather at CBS. “I don’t think there is a need for panic,

because panic doesn’t lead you anywhere, but it’s wise to be cautious.”

Ms. Akhtar said that she too is accustomed

to seeing strange mail addressed to her boss.

“People in the public eye-certainly people on television

night after night-tend to attract funny letters,” she said. “They tend to

receive oddball letters and oddball phone calls, and people like me have to

deal with them.” But what was happening now was more alarming than the usual

weird stuff, Ms. Akhtar said.

Of course, for some assistants, the sheer volume of mail is

an issue, too. Many assistants to high-profile people open hundreds of letters

each day. Ms. Akhtar noted that after Mr. Rather

appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman following the World

Trade Center

attack-during which the CBS anchor briefly teared

up-he received nearly 12,000 e-mails and 8,000 letters. However, nearly all of that

mail was positive, she said.

Other assistants noted that their companies had already

instituted new procedures for checking mail in the wake of the NBC incident.

“Mail is being screened,” said Luisa Weiss, the assistant to

Simon & Schuster chief David Rosenthal. “Personal mail is being held for

pick-up. Newspapers and magazines come through as usual. We got a normal amount

of mail this morning, and it was fine. It’s rare that David would get anything

creepy or out-of-the-ordinary in the first place.”

Meghan Sutherland, the assistant to Paper magazine editor

David Hershkovits, said her boss claimed the era of

the “weird  invitation”

is over.

“You know how, for fashion shows and for other events, you

can get these random, weird envelopes and packages to catch your eye?” Ms.

Sutherland asked. “He [David]was commenting on how

that’s not going to happen in the next couple of months.”

Some assistants said they were simply proceeding

business-as-usual with the mail and everything else, and felt no threat at all. 

“Nope. Nope. Nope,” said Kim

Connors, an assistant to Good Morning America and ABC News Prime Time Thursday

co-anchor Diane Sawyer. “I’m a very calm person, and we trust our mail

department to sift through everything.”

Of course, she said that before the night of Oct. 15, when

word broke that the 7-month-old child of an ABC News producer had tested

positive for anthrax and investigators were combing the West

66th Street newsroom. The following day, Oct. 16,

Ms. Connors declined comment when The Observer called.

To be sure, the anthrax threats have led to lots of

speculation about who could be next. Throughout the city, nervous assistants

were assessing their own safety-i.e., trying to determine whether or not their

bosses could be targets.

Away from the media business, most felt relatively safe,

like Aneris Montalvo, the

33-year-old assistant to assistant D.A. and mystery novelist Linda Fairstein.

“She’s not that much of a threat to anyone,” Ms. Montalvo said. “People who work for the news, they’re more

of a threat.  They’re the ones who have

been targeted.”

Vrinda Condillac,

the assistant to Sonny Mehta, head of Knopf publishing, also felt secure.

“There haven’t been any incidents,” said Ms. Condillac.

“I haven’t been scared to come into work or freaked about it. I just don’t

think they’re targeting publishers. I think [South Dakota Senator] Tom Daschle

is a lot more susceptible than publishers. Maybe you should call his assistant.

That is terrifying, working at Tom Daschle’s office. By comparison, working at

Knopf is pretty safe.”

But among some personal assistants, one could detect a faint

hope that the serious climate-and potential threat-might promote a new

appreciation of their work.

“I don’t know how many bosses really think about how much

they’re protected and screened from the outside world by a good assistant,”

said Jean Bickley, who assists Peter Brant, the chief

executive of Brant-Allen Industries and co-owner of Art in America

magazine. “Honestly, do you think it had ever crossed Tom Brokaw’s mind?”

Some assistants noted Mr. Brokaw’s visible anger on the air

during the Oct. 12 broadcast of the NBC Nightly News, when the anchor sternly

said he could not describe how he felt in “socially acceptable terms.”

“You could tell it really hit home,” said Margaret Aro, Tina Brown’s assistant at Talk. “Sure, the envelope

was addressed to him. But does he physically open that letter? No. His

assistant does.”

“If they hit Tom’s assistant, what if they decided to send

Tina and other media people en masse?” Ms. Aro said.

“Walter Isaacson, David Remnick, Howell Raines-what

if across the board they send it to all offices?  Who’s going to open that mail? Us.”

Indeed, one could detect the vague beginnings of a role

reversal-bosses were suddenly focused, even preoccupied, with the well-being of

their assistants. Mr. Granger at Esquire, for example, piled praise on his

assistant, Ms. Kessler, and her handling of the anthrax fear.

“On Friday, somebody brought down a letter, and Fran’s

attitude was basically, ‘Oh for God’s sake, give me the damn letter,'” Mr.

Granger said admiringly.

At The New Yorker, in fact, Mr. Remnick

was caught answering his own phone late on Friday afternoon. When The Observer

asked for his assistant, Ms. Goodyear, the Pulitzer-winner said: “She stepped

out.”

Of the potential threat to assistants and other staffers,

Mr. Remnick said: “We’re doing whatever we can to

make sure that nobody’s in jeopardy …. But you want to balance two things: one,

not to be alarmist, and at the same time to look out for the people you work

with, and who devote all their time to putting out the magazine. And that goes

not only for my assistant, but for everybody who works here.” 

When The Observer asked again if Ms. Goodyear was around,

Mr. Remnick hesitated for a few seconds. “Dana?” he

asked. 

There was some muffled discussion.

“Yeah,” Mr. Remnick said,

returning to the phone. “She’s really busy right now. Do you think you could

send her an e-mail? I’m sure she’ll be able to send you a thoughtful response.”

Mr. Remnick then dictated Ms.

Goodyear’s e-mail address. 

-Kera Bolonik

contributed reporting to this story

Who Has the Toughest Gig in Town? Tense, Glove-Wearing Assistants