For some reason, every year I found myself checking the New York Times obit pages to see if Nadine had died. And today when I did I saw she had. We weren’t close but in the span of one year- during my 22nd and her 59th- she was my first boss. We shared a spacious office at Conde Nast International: her dominant side with a great glass desk overlooking Park Avenue, my smaller version tucked in the corner, filled by an incessantly ringing phone and a typewriter I slowly hunt and pecked at. It was because I knew the European editor for Vanity Fair from my childhood that impressed Nadine during our interview and smoothed over the current state of my shaggy French she said was “de rigeur”
Even though she was American. Nadine was the point person for all the Conde Nast French design magazines: thick, glossy editions filled with homes I would never see produced by people thousands of miles away whom I only spoke to when they called first thing in the morning looking for Nadine who never seemed to be there when they needed her. “I’m sorry, she’s engaged…” I’d try saying in both English and Frnech but no one sounded like they ever believed me. You could practically see the smoke from the editors’ cigarettes coyly twist out of the land line as they chirped “C’est urgent!” When the publishers called with their clipped “Bonjour,” they hung up as soon as they heard it was me.
And finally she’d arrive, rarely before 10 am, plopping her many leather satchels on top of the stacks of phone slips that curled upwards, already a few hours old. “For the love of god WHO wants WHAT?!” she'd shout while squinting at the message over her tortoiseshell half glasses. “Francois says it’s urgent,” I’d repeat what I had written. She’d toss off her Dr Scholl’s sandals and in manicured bare feet start calling Paris, I’d half listening along as the initial pleasantries would soon percolate into boiling hot words ending in a hang up that rattled the glass on the corner of her desk. Nadine’s French was blunt, but elegant, like her. She was partial to wearing silk pant suits and always kept her many ringed fingers (stack rings from the Greek jeweler Lalaounis) slightly bent like a cat waiting to claw. Part Two:
Nadine was single and like so many successful working women of her generation, without children. Her ex-husband Philip, with whom she appeared still very friendly, would come into our office unannounced, with the humble acceptance of Eeyore. In his 70s, he always wore a suit complete with a pocket square and a heavy camera hung around his neck, hunching him further forward. He was a photographer and Nadine would send him out to scout pictures before he was even finished shuffling into our office. Clearly still in love with her, he did what she asked without complaint. Nadine had gone through many assistants before me and so conceded my flaws with a resigned annoyance like she had mistakenly been given a bad seat at the opera. When I took down a wrong number by a digit, she told me I had hearing issues and sent me off to a Park Avenue specialist who determined after charging me $500 that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my hearing. Sometimes she would treat me to a lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant where we had coupons after she bartered space in one of our regional issues.
She’d saunter down the sidewalk ahead of me slightly breathless. “I hope you’re hungry! We have a lot of coupons to burn through!” No matter how much we’d order it always seemed like we could never break even $50. So Nadine would order food for her dog and as soon as we got back to the office she would give it to our lovable messenger Mike, for him to then walk it over to her doorman who in turn, would give it to the dog walker to give to the dog. We all adored Mike. The gentlest of souls, he stood over 6‘6“ and probably weighed almost 300 pounds yet he delivered all of our packages around the crazy New York City grid without fail. A few months after I started my job, an announcement was made that Nadine had been promoted to director of all of Conde Nast International and all of the US editors on our floor would now report to her. This did not go over well, and the floor soon buzzed like an angry UN meeting with overseas calls frantically dialed to complain. Nadine called me into her office and said that I was being promoted to her position. Cont’d Part Three As I walked home to my little apartment on East 76th street I passed the Lalaounis window and bought one stack ring even though I had nothing to stack it against.
That Christmas Nadine used her Doubles Club membership to treat us all to an office party. Some of us had bought Mike a tie to wear to the occasion and were dumbfounded when an hour before the lunch, Nadine had a mystery emergency package she needed Mike to deliver and therefore avoided bringing an African American male into the club on her membership. After the lunch all of the assistants from the Italian, German and French Vogues tearfully gathered in the kitchen where Mike had a stool for his rare down time to await his return. We each had a boxed dessert to give him. I threw out the pretentious meringue in mine and wrote him a note instead. One of the Nadine’s first request as director was to order a modern, red leather chair from Italy so that she could read the different magazines in her kingdom at the end of the day. (“Mais pas trop cherry red!” ) When it was finally delivered it looked about as home as a tropical parrot on an iceberg. I never saw Nadine sit in the chair and read any of those magazines in fact I never really saw her do much of anything when it seemed that she was always in the middle of doing everything. I slowly realized that what had seemed to take her hours of time at her old job, took me less than an hour in my new position. After six months, resistance against Nadine was too strong and we got a notice from headquarters saying how everyone would report back to their bosses overseas. I was called into her corner office where she was sitting in the red chair flicking her stack rings. Her voice slightly quivered as she told me she was getting her old job back. Personnel would help find me a new job at the American editions. As soon as I got out on the sidewalk, I took off the stack ring and tossed it into the trash.