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,
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
“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
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”
“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
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
“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
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
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.
contributed reporting to this story