In the early 1960’s, after an abysmal experience working for the beauty editor of a teen-age girls’ magazine and getting fired for, as she put it, being a “screw up,” I hid out for nearly a year, until I re-accoutered myself in those pantyhose and high heels, those blouses and business skirts, and went out to take typing tests and find a job.
The job I found was in the currently infamous building called 666 Fifth Avenue, owned by the Kushner family, where the big ad agency, Benton & Bowles, had a lot of floors.
Here’s an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, If Nobody’s There, I’ll Speak To Anybody — about my unusual and unusually exciting, sometimes funny, sometimes glamorous life working for men whom I hoped would be more supportive than my own father who had once called me a “juvenile delinquent.”
So I was looking for a better Dad. I found one in Don Wallace, the executive producer of the soap opera, “The Edge of Night.”
The building where I – in slobbering gratitude – went to work, 666 Fifth Avenue, was called only by its address, “Six Sixty-Six.”
On its highest floor was a restaurant called Top of the Sixes, popular with tourists. Great views, mediocre food. But 666 gave easy proximity to the headquarters of the three TV networks, especially NBC at Rock Plaza, and CBS, nicknamed Black Rock, at Sixth Avenue and 53rd. And around the corner was The 21 Club, where a great deal of money could be spent on boozy business lunches with clients you wanted to impress.
That’s working New York for you: clusters of business ghettos. Lower Fifth was linens; midtown Madison, advertising; Fifth to Sixth, the broadcast media ghetto.
Grand though its address was, the AIA(rchitects) Guide to New York City mordantly describes 666 as, “A million square feet of office space wrapped in embossed aluminum.” Sitting between 52nd and 53rd Streets, it offered up the draw of culture – lunchtime jaunts to MoMA diagonally across 53rd Street – or shopping at Saks down the block.
For me, though, the chief benefit of the location was that 666 squatted atop the Fifth Avenue stop of the F and E trains, which I caught at West 4th Street in the Village, an easy commute.
Inside the building, our portion of the million square feet of office space was indeed bland and ultra-regimented. The floor on which I worked held B&B’s TV department. Small box offices exactly the same size and containing exactly the same furniture ran along all four exterior walls; the corner offices were somewhat bigger and held executives with titles that confirmed their corner-office status.
Contained within those boxes were real people, some of whom were in “programming,” a power base for the entertainment industry. Programmers sprung out of advertising to become major TV and film producers and heads of TV networks.
One of them, red-headed Irwin Segelstein, who later headed CBS, became my friend, another better Dad. (I’d drop into Irwin’s corner office occasionally so he could express his opinion about my makeup, which he called “the clown look.” I was very fond of Irwin. And he was right about the make-up.)
Another executive programming citizen was a jaunty, sweet, well-dressed guy named Fred Bartholomew, a name that may ring a bell or two among aficionados of the Turner Classic Movies channel.
In his early 40s when I met him, Freddie had shed most of his British accent but he was a recognizable adult version of one of filmdom’s biggest child actors. Freddie had been the young David Copperfield and Little Lord Fauntleroy and had starred in Captains Courageous with Spencer Tracy.
Don told me Freddie’s bitter story. After the little boy had made a fortune, the parents who’d abandoned him when he was a baby sued him for the big bucks. All Freddie’s film star money had been leeched away defending against their lawsuit.
I was slightly startled when, while taking an introductory stroll around our floor, I saw the name “Phil Capice” on an executive plaque outside an office. “Edge” had a character named Phil Capice. The real Phil, built like a wrestler with a big warm smile – nothing like the faux Phil, a serious guy – had either cheerfully donated his name or hadn’t objected when it was appropriated for the show.
One happy day, Don told me he had been made a vice president. The following week, a couple of building workers rolled up a big cart containing the Vice Presidential Office Kit – carpet to cover the bare floor, a wood desk to replace the steel one; an upholstered couch and chairs to replace the no-couch and two steel chairs; a side table and a lamp with a lampshade.
The building guys were stoic professionals: in a few minutes they had stripped out the pre-veep furniture and installed the veep set.
Outside the office doors a wide corridor ran around the entire floor. This was my habitat. The secretarial desks sat in the corridor outside the offices they belonged to. If you were blindfolded and deserted somewhere in the corridor, even after you tore the blindfold off you’d have problems finding your way back to your desk. Any desk you looked at, any office you peered into was almost exactly like every other desk, every other office.
But crawling out of the anarchy of unemployment, I relished that very homogeneity. I got to be just one of the many secretaries in the corridor. For me at that time Benton & Bowles was not Kafka. It was the external discipline and anonymity in which I could hide, lick my wounds and build a semblance of self-esteem.
Here I wasn’t an Ex-Assistant Screw-Up, or a Juvenile Delinquent, good for nothing much on this earth. I was the Secretary to the Executive Producer of “The Edge of Night.”