When exactly did the word “nanny” become synonymous with “naughty”? Wasn’t it just yesterday that nannies were dowdy, Mary-Poppins-and-Fraulein-Maria-esque models of discretion and discipline, wearing starched aprons and stern expressions and offering up comforting cups of cambric tea? This moralistic, Brit-inflected archetype still pops up on shows like ABC’s Supernanny, but these days au pairs are much more likely to be young, tabloid-tattling temptresses, like the one who busted up the engagement of Jude Law and Sienna Miller, or confessional careerists like Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, who parlayed their caretaking experiences on the Upper East Side into the 2002 best-selling roman à clef The Nanny Diaries.
And now here comes Suzanne Hansen, an erstwhile lactation consultant and labor/delivery nurse and married mother of two who’s written a tell-all about her time (a couple of decades ago) as nanny for the former super-agent Mike Ovitz and his family. Her pretty, pink-covered, palm-tree-bedecked book mushes together two subgenres: the inexplicably unstoppable category of “assistant lit,” like The Devil Wears Prada; and the jaded Hollywood homily—hence the title, a reference to the late producer Julia Phillips’ big hit You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (1991).
You’ll Never Nanny is scads less cynical—and far more lightweight—than its namesake. Ms. Hansen arrives in La-La Land as a wide-eyed adolescent from Cottage Grove, Ore. (“a cross between Dodge City in the 1800s and Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show”), having matriculated at the shabby Northwest Nannies Institute because she lacked career direction and, you know, always sorta liked baby-sitting. She’s a bit hung up on her hick of a high-school boyfriend, Ryan, and misses her “Norman Rockwell painting” upbringing—but she’s hungry to explore the glamour of Tinseltown. Imagine her surprise when she discovers the real seedy Los Angeles (a rite of passage for outsiders that’s perpetually diverting to us residents): Oh my God, what’s with all the mini-malls? Where are all the movie stars? How can you stand this … smog?
After a placement agency sends her on a few amusing false starts, Ms. Hansen lands what seems to be a dream gig with Mr. Ovitz, his wife, Judy, and their three children: a stubborn brat named Josh; an only slightly less stubborn brat, Amanda; and an adorable baby, Brandon, whose mother has seemingly never administered a 4 a.m. feeding nor followed through on a time-out. Unbelievably, the savvy power couple fails to draw up any sort of written contract for their new employee (was she paid off the books, one wonders? This was before Kimba Wood), an arrangement that leaves Ms. Hansen underpaid, dissatisfied, and scribbling feverishly and frequently into her diary—or “journaling” as she puts it—about life chez Ovitz, with one-liners like “Me working here is like trying to mix Metamucil in
Like Bridget Jones and a flock of other scatty chick-lit heroines before her, Ms. Hansen has a remarkable tendency to get into scrapes—sometimes quite literally, as when she plunges headfirst down the slide of the family swimming pool during a stolen nighttime swim, hitting the bricks of the deck and “hurtling through the short length of the pool like a torpedo launched from a nuclear submarine,” ending up with a wound that demands eight stitches. Then there’s the time she borrows a housekeeper’s Chevy truck on the way to a game-show audition (only in L.A., kids) and ignores a parking-structure sign that reads “maximum clearance 8 feet 6 inches.” Or the time she trips hurrying to catch a flight out of Eugene, sending tampons and loose change and self spewing across the tarmac, to the raucous amusement of the waiting passengers.
The Ovitzes, meanwhile, come off as variously clueless (“How do you put him to bed?” asks Mrs. O. re Brandon); crass (she lets Josh pee on a front-lawn tree); cheap (though Disney head Michael Eisner proves even cheaper, sending stuffed Mickey and Minnie Mouses as an anniversary present); and downright cruel: “You make a good coat rack,” remarks the imperious employeress, piling ski paraphernalia on poor Suzy so the family can take a photo op sans nanny in Aspen, during a trip which leaves Ms. Hansen feeling like “the Griswolds’ Aunt Edna in Vacation.” Mr. O. emerges somewhat more sympathetically: worrying that his own kids don’t recognize him; impressing the impressionable Suzy with his wardrobe and unflappable mien (“his very being demands respect,” she “journals” a bit moonily, “maybe it’s because he’s always so impeccably dressed”); procuring her and a friend dinner reservations at Spago; and even occasionally taking her child-rearing wisdom seriously—to the intense displeasure of his wife, of course. One can’t help feeling that the young Ms. Hansen was something of a doormat for the overbearing Ovitzes. Why doesn’t she just quit? you wonder, again and again.
Eventually, she does quit. Predictably, Mr. O. threatens to make it impossible for her ever to work for an entertainment figure again, but she manages to find two more bearable posts: helping dedicated mommy Debra Winger (a staunch proponent of breastfeeding); then tending to the jolly brood of the diminutive duo Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman.
Ms. Hansen isn’t a bad writer. And thanks to her keen memory and nattering network of friends in the nannysphere, the book is full of celebrity cameos (Dustin Hoffman is cranky during a private movie screening! Tom Cruise, né Mapother, is nice on a phone call to an Ovitz child!), not to mention transparent blind items: Gee, wonder who “the daughter of a famous dead rock star and a certifiably crazy mother whose nanny actually wanted to adopt her because she feared for her safety when her mother was on a drug binge” might be? This stuff might have passed for delicious in the People-magazine era of 20 years ago, but at a time when gossip about the famous is measured and digested in gigabytes to the second, it feels about as fresh as warmed-over formula.
Alexandra Jacobs is features editor of The Observer.