Thursday, May 25, 2017

Big Bosses

Althea McDowell Altemus (1885–1965), a secretary to “big bosses” in Miami, Chicago, and New York, wrote an account of her working life, recently discovered and now published with detailed annotations and minimal editing. Altemus begins:

Neither beautiful not dumb I had received my first assignment as private secretary to probably the world’s oldest and wealthiest bachelor playboy.

With the mature judgment of twenty lovely summers and fewer winters, fortune had come my way following three years of the now elapsed matrimony which bequeathed unto me a tiny liability of the stronger sex. It was 1922, America had been at war, money was tight, work was scarce, and years loomed ahead in which to furnish the wherewithall for cute little Tidbits.

I wasn’t hard to look at, i.e. if you didn’t look too hard, and here was opportunity as secretary to the Ex-President of Teaser and Reaper, Inc.

Althea McDowell Altemus, Big Bosses: A Working Girl’s Memoir Of Jazz Age America, ed. Robin F. Bachin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Though Altemus passed for an unmarried college graduate (years younger than her age), she entered the workforce as a divorced mother of one. “Tidbits” is her son Robert.

Big Bosses has wonderful scenes of conspicuous consumption and workplace intrigue. And what dialogue. Here Altemus is about to reveal Tidbits’s existence to a co-worker:
Miss Hewitt shook me and said “What’s that - did you say something about going home - snap out of it Kiddo - drink that coffee straight and lets get going. Well for crying out loud - what are those tears for - for heaven’s sake whats eating you?”

“Nothing, I’m all right but I was just thinking of something. You know, Miss Hewitt, I like you and you’re my friend and I’m going to tell you a secret - that is, if you won’t tell.”

Miss Hewitt - “Well if its interesting, shoot, but make it snappy.”
My favorite episode: Altemus is hired by a big boss’s wife to find out where he spends his nights and ends up hired by that boss as well. Complications ensue, complete with a secret passageway. Drink that coffee straight and lets get going.

Related reading
Big Bosses (University of Chicago Press)

[“You know, Miss Hewitt”: That’s the way my paternal grandmother would recount a conversation. No one does that anymore.]

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