Manhattan, When I Was Young

I was 21 when I began my career at Vogue, working for the managing editor, Laurie Jones. Like Anna Wintour—and like Anna’s alter ego, Miranda Priestly, as (lightly) fictionalized by my former colleague Lauren Weisberger—Laurie had two assistants with two slightly different jobs, both of which I held over the course of my time there.

As the junior assistant, I answered Laurie’s phone, ordered her cars and lunches (almost always ordering something for myself and the senior assistant, too—the magazine reimbursed up to $10 for “working lunches”), and edited the Horoscope and the Table of Contents. I also handled the contracts and payments for the magazine’s many freelance writers, a somewhat difficult task made much, much more so by the fact that it required me to employ an antiquated (even for 1998) accounting program that lived on its own off-brand laptop, which I kept under my desk.

One afternoon, three weeks into my tenure, Laurie paused in the hallway outside her office to inquire as to how I was getting along. “Are you figuring it all out?” she asked, pointing at the PC.

“It’s a little confusing,” I admitted. “But yes, I think I am.”

“Good,” she said, smiling brightly. “Because the last girl didn’t, and we had to get rid of her.”

Roughly a year later, the senior assistant left, and I assumed her duties, which included writing and editing the Contributors’ pages. I had also begun writing for the culture section of the magazine; I’d polished up another assistant’s piece on the band Shudder to Think, timed to coincide with the release of the movie Velvet Goldmine (for which they’d written and performed a few songs), and been rewarded with my very own assignment, a short profile of the actress Monica Potter, then appearing opposite Robin Williams in Patch Adams.

The editor of the section was one of Laurie’s best friends, a kind, excitable man named Richard David Story. Aside, perhaps, from Laurie herself, he was the person most directly responsible for what I saw as my incredible early success: A careful, thoughtful editor who improved my work without re-writing it, he pointed out my missteps with a sanguinity that stopped me from feeling too sheepish about them. (Case in point: When he asked me to propose a headline for the Potter piece, I—having picked up on the magazine’s proclivity for puns on things I’d heard of but wasn’t always entirely familiar with—suggested “Potter’s Field.” He was unconvinced. “Because it’s about her career, you know, her field?” I said. “But what is a potter’s field?” he asked. “Isn’t that where they bury poor people?”)

As the senior assistant, I was also, absurdly, put in charge of coordinating the magazine’s move from 350 Madison Avenue to 4 Times Square, an assignment which required me to inform the editorial staff’s many smokers that they'd no longer be permitted to light up in their workspaces. One of my favorite co-workers, an Associate Editor named Charles Gandee who’d given me the very valuable advice that I’d have to embrace my nosy side if I wanted to make it as a writer, took this especially poorly—he decamped for Talk Magazine not long after we relocated. (At the time, the New York Post reported that he’d left behind a three-page single-spaced screed complaining about, among other things, the size of the window in his new Times Square office. His on-the-record response? “I’ve never written a single-spaced letter in my life. It’s unaesthetic and shocking.”)

And, again as senior assistant, I got to bid a very cheerful farewell to the laptop and the freelancers, assuming responsibility instead for the magazine’s Contributing Editors, a much smaller group whose contracts were renewed only annually and whose checks were processed automatically, at the beginning of each month.

Still, there was some potential for peril: One well-known columnist called to complain every time his payment was delayed by even a day or two, as though ensuring the timely delivery of his mail was my job and not that of the post office. Later, while traveling, he somehow missed several payments in a row—something his assistant, I’d think, should surely have picked up on—and he threatened to hold me personally responsible for the interest he said he would have earned had they been received and deposited in a timely fashion. Laurie, upon hearing this, cackled. “How does he plan to collect it?” We both knew, as did the columnist, that he made more in two months than I made in a year.

On the flip side, Vogue had at least a couple of so-called Contributing Editors so wealthy that they sometimes didn’t bother to cash their checks at all; on more than one occasion, someone in the company’s Delaware-based accounting department forced me to call and remind them to do so before the checks expired and had to be reissued. One of the two, if memory serves, apologized and asked if future payments could be made directly to the New York City Ballet. (I should note that these women made less than the professionals who made a living writing for the magazine—only around twice my annual salary, rather than six or seven times it.)

All of this to say that, at the turn of the century, I had good reason to believe that I might be able to make a decent living writing for magazines for many years to come. All of Vogue’s most regular, well-compensated contributors were significantly older than me, which suggested that it was a viable long-term career path. Not that I ever thought too far ahead back then. What 22 year old does?

I knew I’d been fortunate to get the job, right out of college. And indeed I continued to be very lucky for quite a while. But now, less than two months ahead of the twentieth anniversary of my start at Vogue, after countless changes in the media landscape that I’m sure I needn’t go into here, I find myself, for the first time in all that time, without even a semi-regular magazine gig.

I’m not complaining. Well, maybe I am complaining a little bit. But I’m also just kind of wondering what to do next. Very possibly, I’ll double down—start pitching again, try to find a few new outlets. But in the meantime, as I try to finish writing my novel (more on that later), it seemed like as good a moment as any in which to take a look back.

Not that that’s all I’ll do in this newsletter. I’m sure I’ll also write about the things I always want to write about: pop culture, books, mom-hood, politics, and in keeping with the times (although I actually got an early start with my now-defunct and little-read blog, You Think You Cute), beauty and skincare. If you like me, you will probably like it. If you don’t, well, good thing it’s free.