Jul/Aug 2010 Nonfiction

Back East And Glad Of It!

by Julia Braun Kessler

Artwork by Costel Iarca

Michigan's magnificent open country was inspiring, but getting back to the real action—that was better yet. So when my student husband was offered a job teaching at a college in New York City, we pulled up stakes and literally raced for the exit. It had been close to four years now that he'd put into intense scholarship in search of a graduate degree—one which could provide eligibility for a position in college teaching. The work had been completed other than the doctoral dissertation itself. We knew this could take years longer.

And, despite warnings from his professors about abandoning the University of Michigan before completing it (given the distractions of full-time teaching), he refused their offer for a small grant to undertake that thesis and we made our bold move back.

I, for one, had been ready to return to the world I'd abandoned when I'd married, eager to find out where it might lead. My Michigan posts, those various work assignments, had each been illuminating in their turn, but now, the time had come to quit "the boondocks," to get back to what we saw as "the big time!" No doubt, a preposterous notion, yet inevitably, one inbred in us as New York natives.

My husband was ready make his move away from school, to take his chances; prepared to venture into the world and manage his teaching and scholarship. He needed to get back into society and felt he could carry the whole lot without flagging.

How energetic we were, what resources were at our command! In any review of that time of life, they still astonish. Without trepidation, we could undertake what faced us, bring forth enthusiasm for remote potentials, always with a certainty which only inexperience can provide.

Off we went, making our goodbyes to good friends and colleagues in Michigan, convinced, too, that we were not leaving them behind, since "everyone surfaced in the metropolis at some point." Little question that Manhattan stood at the center of the world.

Returned, however, we were only to find that the whirling hub hardly awaited. There was little place for us there that we could discover. Except by our doting parents, our absence over these years had gone unnoticed, our school and college friends having moved on to their own affairs. The city seemed almost alien in its aspect.

Instantly, we faced the problem of accommodation. Manhattan, always prohibitive, was, in that post-war era, an impossibility. Apartments were unavailable, clogged or unimproved by landlords.

We checked classifieds and walked the streets with little to encourage us. And then, as if by divine intervention, we chanced upon a spot just off Central Park on 85th where we could see the old structure outside, a fine old Whitestone mansion, being torn apart to make over into three rentals. A first floor, subsequently our place, consisted of a huge room and a bedroom behind it, with improvised appendages of bathroom and kitchen added. Formerly, the space had served as the library of the elegant establishment, with its high, plaster-work ceilings, immense wood wall panels. All was splendid even now, though it was deserted and its bookcases sat emptied.

If still reflecting its former grandeur as an apartment, it remained problematic thus rebuilt. Much in the manner of our Michigan rental—where we knew that the bath had been tucked into the basement to make it function at all—here both kitchen and bath were set in a mere corner as you entered from the public hallway. A shabby imitation of a kitchen it was, too, with a mere two-burner stove, and under that, a miniature refrigerator. The tiny toilet and shower stall nearby was not much more functional.

At night, we'd wander out in the dark from the bedroom behind that immense living room, staggering our way in search of those facilities. We consoled ourselves with the thought that at least this time the bath wasn't in the basement. Mostly though, we rejoiced at having found a place in Manhattan at all, even at the steep rental demanded. Josh had his teaching, and I would soon enough weave my way once more through the hazards of Madison Avenue's wilderness. How could we fault our find?

My job hunt this time around turned more arduous. I was soon to discover that New York City careerists had funny notions about "loyalties." When I tried calling old buddies, many already installed in exalted spots at magazines, book publishers, or PR establishments, their contemptuous questions came instantly and loudly: "Where have you been? We had you dead, or worse, with six kids in the suburbs." There was little patience for any deserters. These women, for they were almost exclusively women, saw themselves in the forefront of an evolving phenomenon: namely, pioneers in the movement towards liberation.

I had, to be sure, prepared my patter beforehand. In the pitch, all about working steadily over those years—if out of New York City—in remote Ann Arbor and Detroit. I could openly boast of my exposure to the "heartland." This, truth told, was a place New Yorkers never ventured anywhere near, yet depended fully upon for audiences. They resoundingly made up such opinions for their markets and were the prevailing determiners of sales of clothing and home furnishings among adolescent girls.

I discovered soon enough how desperate these sophisticated New Yorkers were to learn what "middle America" was currently thinking. Born and bred in the Metropolis, they hardly had a clue!

I developed this angle as my spiel, nattering on about my sense of what "real' Americans talked of, what they read. And with each attempt, I caught more of what fired such contacts up, incorporating bit after bit. I hadn't even cracked the public education system as yet, and I could see that in any magazine's future, given my work at Detroit's "soft sell" (the Jam Handy Organization, with their schemes to penetrate the grade school curriculum). But that was to come.

Curiously, the opportunity came at an interview I'd landed through some employment agency, and which brought me the best hearing I'd had so far. It took me to an immensely popular fashion magazine for teens. There I managed to make my impression through my newly acquired "heartland expertise." If I could be writing slide films for second graders on how to drive an automobile, I argued, I could do equally as well for "Home Ec" teachers of the national secondary school system. So went my talk.

For them, I would devise study plans for their classes on how to choose their clothing, teaching what is most prudent and stylish to buy and what not. End result: Home Economics teachers would clearly need to require their students to subscribe to said teen magazine. How else might they study such subjects and be truly "of the moment?"

This ploy came off. Before I knew it, there I was with a call back to meet the magazine's publisher, and soon after I was hired! I had landed a spot as School Editor for the magazine's supplement. Better still, the salary seemed astronomical when we compared it to the ones I'd managed back there in the Midwest.

Yet how little we knew of New York City living! For this was Manhattan, unlike the boroughs we had grown up in, with parental housing and the allowances that went along. We soon recognized what spending was really about. Restaurants, taxis, and tickets to the theater could consume any week's earnings handily.

Just the same, gadding about with our new friends, the whole ambiance suited us, and before long it seemed like we'd never left our Metropolis. Yet Josh's teaching schedule took him to several campuses a day and with assignments that almost overwhelmed his hopes of writing that dissertation. At times, it had him scurrying about, grabbing a moment here and there between subway rides. Determined lad that he was, he kept working away, even as he commuted. There was an eagerness to see that tome written and approved for the degree.

As for my own fortunes, I made my way through the various factions at the women's magazine I'd joined, ever ginger in my associations, careful in casual chatter. The atmosphere there was charged. Little warning had I, and no hint of the fervor, passions, resentments one could inadvertently step into. I was soon to learn, however, that a business atmosphere entirely staffed by women was altogether unique. Despite former experiences in office life, where I had seen battles before—shouting matches, intense contests, even covert office romance—these now became run-of-the mill, just part of the deal! At the magazine, there was a vendetta style. One tried desperately to stay clear of it, though it soon became apparent that steering clear was virtually impossible.

Within my particular department, however, I encountered a far more crippling problem. I discovered the on-going penchant of my immediate superior to virtually chain her newly-acquired School Editor to her desk. Late afternoons, she tossed her scattered notes upon it for processing. These, it seems, were scribbles she had managed at her various appearances among school officials.

Each day, dressed in stylish outfits, cloche hats, and matching purses and gloves, she promptly exited the magazine to attend her events at various school locations in the City. She was feted at these with luncheons and lavish attentions from Home Economics teachers. Yet, as the reporter designated to depict such occasions subsequently in our supplement, I remained at the office considerably handicapped by never having so much as heard or seen any such events and without any notion of how they proceeded. Writing about them with flair, and above all speed, was all but impossible.

Sources unavailable, I improvised. Soon however, she escalated the work load, awaiting my pieces, usurping ideas, and claiming them for her own with little acknowledgement to the publisher.

Inevitably it made for an impasse. Deadlines were close. I was now writing entire supplements to the magazine's monthly issues. They ran a full eighteen, two-column pages, each filled with sparkling lesson plans attempting to attract these high-school teachers. To produce this fast-talking text and keep it coming by the hour became something of feat each month. It was, in fact, unworkable, given my ignorance of what these sessions really looked like.

Yet, alas, when I suggested that I needed to attend a few such afternoons with her, she frowned and looked disapproving, only to add, "Certainly as a professional, you will manage! I trust you will continue to do so." And with that, she left me to those assignments.

After some months of such frustration, and by then, at my wits end, a bizarre, if embarrassing incident occurred. One day, while enclosed in one of the stalls at the ladies room, I chanced to recognize and overhear the voice of her secretary outside it. I soon understood that she stood there gossiping about me to one of her friends. Alas, what she revealed that moment as they stood washing up was how, that very week, her boss was "planning to fire her School Editor"!

As they stood before the mirror, this news, so inappropriately revealed, came through as a cruel blow. I can recall my decision right then to stay put in that place for a time before emerging, not only to compose myself, but to be sure the two were gone safely back to their offices before I did. Stunned and unhappy to the point of tears, I did not want to be observed in my state. Not by those in my own office or by any of the other editors around.

The oddest part of the whole episode was just how this situation itself was to conclude. Not only did I not lose that job, but I managed instead to snag a promotion to the magazine's editorial staff!

This circumstance came about quite by chance as well. I happened to have been scheduled for lunch with a friend I'd found there, a charming lady who'd recently come to work as secretary to the magazine's newly appointed publisher. Unable to contain myself, I confessed my humiliation to her that afternoon, and she too sat outraged by the circumstance.

"Disgraceful," she moaned, "to hear of this impending firing so, and especially in such reduced circumstance."

Not only that, but apparently, she returned to her office directly to request a moment of her boss' time to inform her of it, and within minutes, I was summoned to the Publisher's inner sanctum to describe the incident. I reluctantly told my tale to that formidable lady, recalling my chagrin, while desperately trying not to break into tears.

Her own rage was instantaneous. First, she lamented of her Director of Home Economics' carelessness, "How could she make such revelations 'to a secretary,'" and next, how she could do so "prior to the fact!" "Simply unacceptable," was her conclusion, along with an expression of disdain upon this elegant lady's exquisitely cosmetic face.

Then, pausing for less than a minute, she declared: "No, no, no. This unconscionable behavior will not do! Ms. Earle will hear of this!"

But what followed next was what brought my true astonishment. She promptly proceeded with a generous offer, "My dear," she chimed in those upper-class New York tones, "we have only lately lost our Features Editor. Would you perhaps consider taking that on instead?" Would I indeed! Thus was the matter happily concluded.

Yet, the very best of the whole fracas came at the next Editorial session in that same office that week, where the upper editorial staff met regularly for planning and review of their upcoming issues. This arrived as our "grandee" Publisher made her announcement of my elevation and the news was greeted with the usual enthusiastic congratulations from other editors. And it, accompanied by my former superior's scornful expression, was a beautiful sight to behold! I might only add that in the extended period of my employment at the magazine, that lady never once addressed me directly again, no matter the urgency of the magazine problem at hand!

Such were my adventures in the fashion trade, and that was barely beginning of that journey. As the Publisher's own discovery, for a short but lovely period, I was regarded as something of teacher's pet, reporting to her alone. It gave me the chance to show my mettle, to reinforce her initial confidence in me. I knew I needed to act swiftly, to depart from the former editor's patterns, introduce something distinctive for my section. And, having apprenticed as School Editor for its monthly supplement, I had a good sense of what might yet be tried. As Features Editor, I began to see vast potential outside the immediate fashion text in seeking out even greater readership.

I thought, why not find a way to extend the magazine's presentations of teen's own talents? Why not develop a new series which could focus upon the artistic, intellectual, career potentials for the young female? Why not seek out such marvels in the form of first-person narratives of true experiences? Our Fiction Editor (my new office mate) already sought such experiments in fiction, with poetry and short story contests. Why not musical, visual, or even professional talents or aspirations on view?

This proposal struck our Publisher as "exactly" the direction she wished to see her magazine take. Off I took to initiate the series, digging up teen talent. The work became my preoccupation for the next several months. I set up locations to accompany such stories all over the country. It proved an exacting enterprise, one of huge responsibility with these teens, and a whole new direction for the magazine. An immediate hit! I flew from one destination to the next, always on expense account, together with the photographer carefully chosen by our Art Director.

Among such triumphs was a story about an aspiring cellist from the Midwest, no more than 16 years of age at the time, for whom we had facilitated a summer session at Tanglewood with no less than the Boston Philharmonic. During the period, the orchestra was still under the conductorship of the great Serge Koussevitsky. A sparkling cast! Yet the number of tangles we encountered in the process, together with the problems our own presence caused there that weekend, could hardly have been anticipated. For one thing, our heroine was overwhelmed by the celebrity she had met of late, but even more so by the attentions she herself suddenly commanded. She preened and minced, and she could hardly concentrate upon her cello performance.

And when we observed her casual position in front of that large, ungainly instrument at early rehearsals, legs spread wide-apart as she performed, we felt we must suggest to her a more suitable pose—at least while the photographer was at work—given the standards of the magazine and the nature of our very young audience. Her contemptuous response that this was an "impossibility" was instantaneous. The friction between us was palpable.

Still other occasions brought on different crises altogether, and ones that were not always involving the teen herself. I had by then unearthed a 17-year old whose enthusiasm was focused upon teaching the very young. She had already taken up her first apprenticeship in a fine primary school in Manhattan, where we found her happily engaged with her charges. And since the school afternoon was to consist of an excursion to the Metropolitan Museum, we decided to photograph her expedition as well.

That was when trouble began in earnest with our prize-winning photographer, a formidable woman, whose outrageous demands were—by some unknown rule of journalism—consistently honored in securing her story! It came as a nagging complaint upon how the winter sun was no longer in the position to make for proper light upon her poses of the children.

The group must, she commanded, cross the street to get a better angle. Easy enough to arrange, I thought, at least until she followed this by her insistence upon the addition of a dead-weight self-standing New York City stop sign, to accompany us from the other side! She absolutely "must have it for authenticity!" and, tiny little woman that she was, she herself proceeded to turn leaden weighted sign on its side and begin rolling it off the curb.

My protests came fast but to no avail. Not only was this a danger to her person, it was clearly against the law. My words were were simply dismissed with a brush of the wrist, however, and the confident, "Surely as press, you will know how to handle such a little matter!"

Before we knew it, the police surrounded, screeching at us—teachers, children, and magazine people together, while the usual New York City onlookers accumulated—and the whole incident turned to a cause celeb. Fortunately for us, New York cops could still be wooed, especially by press. And, in the company of some twenty or so little tykes who delighted in their presence, distracting them from their duties with their endless questions, we survived.

I might just add that the picture which ran in the magazine suited everyone, especially our police officers, whose names were carefully noted in captions, and who were shown tending to these children with loving care.

Probably the most dramatic of all such incidents (involving fanatic photographers), however, occurred when I was working with a teen-nursing student already embarked on her training. She was connected with a hospital out across the river in Newark, and we tramped our way out there, together with all our complicated photographic equipment. Purist that this particular fellow was, he was unsatisfied with the various hospital scenes already conceived for him, though all featured the girl properly white-uniformed and nurse-hatted. Immediately, his demand was for a shot of her attending at a surgery in process, which must be the real thing, to assure the true drama of the moment. And, there was no settling him down until he'd gotten his way with intimidated hospital officials.

My own instincts had dictated against the idea. Our novice had never yet been exposed to such a bloody scene. Given that inexperience, I had proposed to the staff that we might simulate the process. Our ambitious young "artist," however, was stubborn and saw little potential there. His photographs, he explained with pomp, had no meaning if they were not "authentic." Nothing prevailed, and when the hospital authorities, eager for any publicity for their New Jersey establishment, went along, I knew any further resistance was futile.

The hospital schedule for that day included a surgical procedure towards noon, so we accepted and promptly began preparations, together with the scrub-up, the gowns, and the masks—in fact, all the gear which had provided drama for the movies for years. Unfortunately, that particular surgery turned out to be one of the most intricate, a last hope attempt to save a patient well-advanced with a cancerous growth. Hardly the choice amateurs would easily tolerate.

It was puzzling altogether that hospital officials would permit such distractions in their midst! Yet such was and is the persistent power of press! And immediately as I entered the operating room, together with our photographer carrying his bulky equipment, the head nurse whispered at us her stern exhortations:

Surgical procedures require the strictest observance of silence at all times. Should you feel weakness during this action, or at any time find yourself faint, or in danger for falling , IT IS imperative that you FALL BACKWARDS, NEVER FORWARDS!

Indeed, one sensed this warning came as no idle suggestion. Disasters had happened before, experience had taught. Such cautionary reminders were a necessity even among the seasoned professionals and training staff!

Surgery progressed, and our eager photographer moved swiftly to get his shots, close-in and gruesome as they were. We looked upon our 17 year-old youngster, masked and outfitted as she experienced her own first, highly-intense operation. And, if her eyes were any indication of her feelings, as they reflected her terror, she was clearly in as much danger as the rest of us for potential collapse. Even so, she and our determined photographer saw it through along with the rest of the team.

As for my own reaction, that head nurse had predicted it, and I managed to slip myself quietly out of that room as fast my benumbed limbs would cooperate. Later, as I stood observing the surgeons leaving the scene and shedding their masks, I noted their solemn expressions boding ill for the patient. Unfortunately, this completed the job for me, and I rushed to the nearest facility with a violent reaction.

It was only shortly after, at lunch time, when we'd reverting to our proper business of that day, that I could take notice of the lack of color in my "purist" photographer's face. He stood by his tray at the hospital's cafeteria and took in the smells of the cooking food before him. He presented a sorry sight. His special shade of gray-green told his tale. And though he bravely went through the process of choosing his food, I watched as he sat before it without so much as an attempt to eat. Contrarily, I wolfed mine down, hungry after my long and difficult morning.

But the crowning payoff came days later when his photos had been submitted to our art director, and he'd specified his definitive selections among the long lists of proof. His choices, in fact, were completely unusable! Nor was there, on this matter, any compromise to be had from me. Given the nature of our young audience, along with the constant oversight by their anxious parents who paid for such subscriptions, we needed to chose meticulously from among the many taken, and that one must be the one which seemed the least likely to offend.

I studied the vast numbers of shots on the proof sheets and came up with such, then agreed with our art director to go forward with a layout presenting a huge enlargement.

What followed was yet another temper tantrum by our up-and-coming photographic artist, which I patiently oversaw, yet conceding nothing to his rage. And when our double page spread of his photo managed to take a coveted prize, there was little complaint from our purist, or in fact from any of our magazine team.

Daily struggles, persistent excitements—not only with teens, photographers, but in-house, among editorial staff as well, where intrigue proved the code word for every situation. Even so, compliments and kudos came fast with each achievement, and the work week was filled with the fervor of Madison Avenue. For me, there was the constant seeking for and sighting of talents of every stripe, from every direction, over this great nation.

The pleasures of such discoveries were never-ending. I had found a niche, and I was the richer for fulfilling it.


Previous Piece Next Piece