Ivy League Slaves of New York

The end of June is upon us, and thus the annual migration of bright-eyed graduates of the country’s more prestigious finishing schools to the doorman-converted one-bedrooms of Murray Hill and the Upper East Side, the walk-ups of Boerum Hill, and the lofts of Bushwick—pardon us, East Williamsburg—is also in full swing.

Most of these liberal-arts-minded young people have spent the spring worrying, their former dorm-mates from Princeton or Penn taking it easy while looking forward to their analyst positions at McKinsey or Goldman, Sachs (pity those poor Bear Stearns hirees!), sending out résumés in response to every editorial job posting on MediaBistro and, usually, hearing nothing back. The résumé has been perfectly formatted; the graduate is careful to list both his cumulative and within-major GPA, since, really, what bearing does that C+ in Physics for Poets have on his ability to read slush? (This, of course, is where the grades-optional Brown graduate has yet another advantage!)

Years ago, I too embarked on this rite of passage, taking an apartment in a Lower East Side tenement building where, every morning outside my window, at exactly 6 a.m., a delivery truck unloaded boxes of Domino’s Pizza by throwing them—thwack, thwack!—onto the sidewalk. I had no job, and made my way to an employment agency, which sent me out on interviews to magazines and advertising agencies and publishing companies, and within a week I had what I thought was a plum position as an assistant in the advertising department of a Condé Nast magazine. My Marlo Thomas days would soon be upon me!

It didn’t take long for the disillusionment to set in. I believe it occurred on my second or third day, when a co-worker informed me that the previous assistant had walked off the job in tears, and that the company required waiting nine months before applying to transfer, which seemed like an eternity. That was, like, two whole semesters! Oh, the injustice of it all. My bosses were mean, not surprisingly; I lasted three and a half months.

But, I thought, things were surely different today. I assumed that since The Devil Wears Prada and the subsequent spate of so-called “assistant lit” (see also: Bridie Clark’s Because She Can, her thinly veiled account of working for Judith Regan; or Rachel Pine’s The Twins of Tribeca, her thinly veiled account of working for Bob and Harvey Weinstein; or former Tatler assistant Clare Naylor’s thinly veiled novels about young, attractive women working as assistants at “glamorous” jobs), not to mention the rise of Web sites like Gawker (where I used to work), where any disgruntled assistant can regale millions with her tales of mistreatment—that things had, perhaps, changed for these downtrodden masses. Just look at how buddy-buddy Carrie Bradshaw was with her new assistant Louise in the Sex and the City movie — they were practically sisters! In a manner of speaking, of course.

Turns out, not really.

“When I was an assistant, they made us all fill out time sheets every week. If we worked fewer than 40 hours, including a doctor’s appointment, they would dock our pay. If we worked over 40 hours, we wouldn’t get more money,” said Lilit Marcus, 25. Ms. Marcus is the co-founder and editor in chief of Save the Assistants, a blog that collects anecdotes about bad bosses and offers empathy and survival tips for the 20-something set. Her first job out of college was as an assistant at a major media company she declined to name. “They went through 22- and 23-year-old girls like some people go through glasses of water. They didn’t care that they were hiring a new assistant every six weeks.

“They count on you being young and not knowing any better,” she continued. “They count on you being scared to say anything. I think, if anything, the books like Devil Wears Prada and Because She Can have made things worse for assistants, because now bosses are less willing to let you work on important things, at least in New York. They’re paranoid. They think, ‘What could my assistant rat out about me?’”

Ms. Marcus explained that her former place of employment had a policy about not hiring anyone who had gone to an Ivy League school, because “they didn’t want people whom they could perceive as a threat.” (The evidence bears this out somewhat: Ivy League grads do seem partial to cashing in via book deals; Lauren Weisberger, the author of The Devil Wears Prada, graduated from Cornell, and Ms. Clark is a Harvard alumna, though Ms. Pine is a graduate of SUNY-Stony Brook.)

But the assistant-boss relationship is often more complicated than it first appears, and those assistants who perform personal tasks for their bosses (hello, Louise from St. Louis!) soon find themselves relied upon in a way that necessarily blurs the line between professional and personal lives. (Even in The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda Priestly eventually finds herself confiding in, and heavily reliant upon, her assistant Andrea Sachs.) It’s a double-edged sword, though, as one former assistant to a literary agent told me: “My first boss told me she loved me, which was incongruous with the way she treated me—I was both her best friend and slave.”

A 20-something former magazine editor said that it can be just as uncomfortable for the boss. “The assistants were so close to my age that it seemed very natural to be friendly with them. One night I’m getting drinks with them, the next day I’m asking them to book me a car. It was awkward as all hell.”

Another young former fashion magazine editor admitted being horrified at her behavior with her assistants, who were, after all, only a few years younger than she was. “I think back on things that I did when I was first a boss and I’m sort of appalled at how mean I could be,” she said. “That was the culture. You’ve got 21-year-old girls being hazed by their 25-year-old bosses, and the assistants hav
e college students that they’re totally hazing. It’s just like a learned behavior.”

Ivy League Slaves of New York