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By Marilyn Heywood Paige
It was so long ago, it’s not even on my resume. I was three years out of school and nothing in my undergraduate English degree program prepared me for the serpents’ nest I landed in that was disguised as an entry-level dream job. The two years I worked at this event planning business revealed that nothing was as it appeared in Manhattan’s upper eastside elite. It made me question my worth, my sanity, and all my assumptions about the work world.
Diana, a wealthy socialite, ran her boutique event company out of a room in her sprawling 5th Avenue penthouse apartment. Five-foot-five, blonde, tanned, and tennis fit, she was 49 and looked ten years younger. She was the cream of the New York society, on the board of important charities, married to a titan, and from an “old money” family. Her company planned tiara-and-ball-gown galas and Tavern on the Green luncheons for nonprofits looking to fill their coffers from the largesse of the 1%.
It was a world about which I knew nothing.
Raised in a suburb of Philadelphia by working-class parents, I went to public schools and a college that is ranked “best value” by US News & World Report. My friends were all from middle-class suburbs, so I had no exposure to the culture of wealth and privilege into which I stepped.
On my first day, Diana asked me, "What’s your middle name?" “Paige," I replied. “Paige is a much better name.” She called me Paige for two weeks until I said, “Diana, my name is Marilyn.” She then begrudgingly used my proper moniker. This was the first of many slights that communicated, “You’re not our kind, dear.”
But I discovered she didn’t reserve these criticisms just for me. Diana made everyone around her feel like they’d been raised in a barn. By barbarians. Who ate their young. In her presence, I became self-conscious about how I spoke, dressed, walked, and ate. Her judgments weren’t overt. They were subtle and so even more cutting. She’d give you an appraising look, a “hmm” and then say something like, “You should wear your hair in a bob.”
The first time I saw The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep's character reminded me of Diana.
Diana wasn't mean like Miranda Priestly, but the scene where Meryl Streep purses her lips, looks Ann Hathaway up and down, and Hathaway runs from her office nearly crying, was eerily familiar.
While Diana was challenging, I quickly realized that it was her connections and influence that made the business run. The week I landed there, the company was producing a fundraiser for the then mayoral candidate, Andrew Stein. It was a black-tie affair at the iconic Waldorf Astoria Grand Ballroom, (the room that hosted New York society events with people like JFK, Queen Elizabeth II, and Grace Kelly).
The evening's entertainment was Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, and Shirley MacLaine. The thousand people who were there that night are the only people on the planet who can say they saw those three legends perform. Together. In the Grand Ballroom. It was Diana’s social currency that garnered the clients whose friends were entertainment royalty.
Diana’s business partner, Janet, managed budgets, event logistics, vendors, and client expectations as Diana sometimes promised things we could not deliver. Sylvie, the bookkeeper, managed the finances and paid all the bills. They hired me to keep track of all the RSVPs and donations and manage the freelance staff that hand-addressed the thousands of event invitations they sent out on behalf of clients every year. It was just the four of us in that little office producing some of the most exciting fundraising events in New York. It was a great career opportunity, and I wanted the acceptance and respect of my coworkers and Diana.
But I was naïve. I thought doing my job well would make me a valuable part of the team.
For months, I worked on digitizing their processes because they kept track of nearly everything in Word. Word processing can’t handle extensive sets of financials, lists, sorting, categorizing, or any of the key functions needed to manage seating charts, thousands of RSVPs and ticket sales, or a dozen other necessary operations. It was madness.
I introduced them to Excel spreadsheets and researched databases that could make cross-referencing information easier and less error-prone. This was before there was software available for every conceivable business process, so I was trying to build a custom application for them.
The harder I worked and the more improvements I made, the less they liked me. It was bizarre. It took about a year for me to realize that the business was Diana's hobby. It ran willy nilly because my coworkers stopped trying to improve things long ago. Everyone yes’d Diana to death regardless of how inefficiently she ran things or how poorly she treated people.
I was the only idiot trying to advance the business processes, and I fumed that no one gave me the memo.
I wanted to get out of there, but jobs were scarce. I felt trapped, which only made my anger and frustration multiply. To say that I developed a poor attitude at work would be an understatement.
Things got weirder when Sylvie brought in her cousin.
The cousin, Miriam, had no event experience and little computer acumen, but they paid her $2 more an hour than I made. I was hurt and furious. The new hire didn’t thrill Janet either. That’s when it all began unraveling.
Janet discovered Sylvie embezzled thousands of dollars from the business.
Sylvie surreptitiously put her husband on the payroll and used Diana’s credit cards for several Pierre Hotel stays with her lover. It wasn’t hard for Sylvie to do because Diana had given her complete control of the money. Sylvie was the only one who looked at the bills when they arrived and she signed Diana’s name to the checks she used to pay them. Diana had given Sylvie permission to forge her signature ages ago, so she, Diana, didn’t have to be bothered with any bookkeeping tasks.
Janet, Miriam, and I were all equally astonished by Sylvie's felonious and extracurricular activities. It was an awful discovery akin to a punch in the gut.
Diana’s response to Sylvie’s theft and betrayal was even more shocking.
I vividly recall standing with her in the elevator foyer of her apartment, listening to her soft-peddle the entire situation. She said she was inviting Sylvie to Thanksgiving. In disbelief, I said, “Diana, you need to hire a forensic accountant to see how much damage she did. Why in the world would you invite her to Thanksgiving?”
Sylvie committed a crime, a felony. She should be arrested. Was Diana so used to being betrayed that it didn’t even register? Was she in denial? Did she have so much money that it didn’t matter? What kind of psychopathology was this?
As her business partner, Janet kept the wheels on the bus, making sure Diana’s hobby could function as a viable enterprise, keeping the promises Diana made to clients and doing the heavy lifting of the actual work. I can only imagine the conversation she had with Diana when she discovered Sylvie’s theft.
I wasn’t privy to their discussion, but the fallout lead to Janet stealing a company laptop and never returning it or herself to the office. The laptop contained some kind of sensitive information which Diana wanted to keep a secret. So much so that Janet blackmailed her with it. Sylvie got her payday and Janet made sure she got hers.
Again, I didn’t know all the details or the amount of the payout, but Diana blurted out this turn of events, half laughing, one afternoon as if she was recounting a movie she’d just seen. Once again, I was aghast at her nonchalance, as if this were some pesky inconvenience and she was recounting gossip about a stranger. Was this commonplace? Had this happened before?
My anger and resentment towards Diana turned to pity.
She was playing a part, putting a smile on her face and making everything look perfect. Her life was full of elegance, parties, and the trappings of wealth. She had two luxurious homes, two beautiful, accomplished daughters, a smart, wealthy, respected husband. She had everything money and status could buy. And not one genuine friend. It was sad. And disturbing.
I continued to show up to work every day while desperately searching for another job. Diana replaced Sylvie and Janet with Michael, Nick, and Heather, another cast of sycophants who said glowing things to her face and trashed her behind her back. They disgusted me and I made no effort to ingratiate myself to them or join their games.
It was a mistake because they had Diana’s goodwill, and despite my hard work, I did not.
Diana retained that forensic accountant to uncover the depths of the financial damage. In the cruelest of ironies, she had the accountant fire me. She didn’t even have the decency to do it herself. I don’t remember the reason the accountant gave me as the cause of my termination. It stunned me that someone I’d never met before who I encouraged Diana to hire was now tossing me out.
My time at Diana’s event company showed me a world where who you know is more important than what you know.
How well people like you and how well you play their game determines your success, not your skills or work ethic. It sickened me and threw my idealistic young self into anger and despair.
My depression continued for about a month into my unemployment until I assessed what I contributed to the situation. The truth was, it didn’t matter what I saw as ineffectual or how much I thought I could improve things. It was Diana’s business. Her game. Her rules. My opinion didn’t matter. If I didn’t like the way she treated me, it was my responsibility to leave. I wasn’t a victim; I was a volunteer. Perhaps Janet and Sylvie’s actions resulted from similar, prolonged feelings of resentment and being trapped.
That hall of mirrors was my first real career job.
It shook my entire faith in the work world. Coupled with being broke on unemployment, it propelled me to audition for any singing job that would see me. My mantra became, what’s the difference if I’m broke as a secretary or a singer?
A third-rate touring pop and dance band hired me and I left New York for busses, serial hotel stays, and club gigs up and down the east coast and Midwest. It wasn't a dream gig, but I was grateful for a reprieve from New York, and the backstabbing world of 9 to 5.
Two years later, I interviewed at Princeton University for a job in their alumni relations office.
One of my references was Diana. The hiring manager called her and left a voicemail asking her to call him. She didn’t return the call. I called and left a message asking her to please call him back. I didn’t know if she would or if I really wanted her to.
The manager said that Diana called and left him a long message about her ties to Princeton and how I always worked hard and went above and beyond. He said it was her phone call that made him decide to give me the job.
All I could think was, “I never thought she noticed.” Apparently, she had. I went through hell working for her, but she did me a solid in the end. So, like Andie in The Devil Wears Prada, my Miranda gave me the recommendation that landed me the job. That was the biggest shock of all.
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