As colleges wrap up spring semester, our graduated native sons and daughters will be returning to the Upper East Side; some to strictly paycheck positions (“Would you like to hear our specials for this evening?”) while they seek F/T employment, and others to positions in their chosen fields.
The timing is perfect for Renée Rosen’s new neophyte-in-the-city novel, which places “The Devil Wears Prada” in the era of “Mad Men.”
“Park Avenue Summer,” historical fiction set in the magazine publishing world of 1965 Manhattan, introduces us to Alice Weiss. The budding photographer has arrived from her flyover state and lands a job assisting the new, controversial editor-in-chief of a major woman’s magazine. Except reporting to Cosmopolitan’s Helen Gurley Brown, author of the scandalous bestseller “Sex and the Single Girl,” is not a job that a million girls — or guys — would kill for.
Alice, whose home base is an efficiency at 75th and Second Avenue, enters just as editors and writers exit in protest. Those who stay engage in office sabotage, a la Oh, you mean I wasn’t supposed to show anyone that confidential memo?
When the office Don Juan, with a Park Avenue lair and eyes for Alice, tries to seduce her into a scheme to take down HGB, the newly minted Cosmo Girl has some decisions to make.
As I began reading, I harkened back fondly to my own humble beginnings, but the story also reminded me of the time when I too was manipulated into an office imbroglio orchestrated by a supervisor trying desperately to get his boss’s job via misinformation, passive-aggressive behavior and ignored direct orders.
I have to admit, as scurrilous as our manager’s behavior was, my colleagues and I were all in awe of how he played politics with aplomb and seemed to be winning; each victory, we assumed, pushing our boss’s boss out of his corner office.
Then came the day when our superior suggested strongly we go to the head of HR and let her know how much we would all rather see him in the creative director’s chair.
When I told this to my attorney husband Neil, who was my boyfriend at the time, I almost went deaf from his explosion of, “Don’t do it,” screamed into the phone.
Although in my heart I knew he was right — especially since the organizer of the plan was not joining us, claiming he had set up his own appointment — my more senior colleagues deemed the situation “one for all and all for one.”
Honestly, I didn’t have the Henry Fonda in “Twelve Angry Men” wherewithal to stand up to my more practiced co-workers.
We marched en masse into the VP of HR’s office, and after getting the gist of why we were there, she cut the meeting short by equating our actions with students complaining about the teacher. Then she announced that if we didn’t like who was in charge, we should all go get new jobs elsewhere.
As we left, I could hear Neil in my head saying, “I told you so,” on a loop.
When confronted, our ever-so-slick supervisor stressed that no one had been coerced into going to HR, even though his instruction had carried a veiled threat about continued employment. He also added that, given the reaction we got, he would probably be cancelling his own meeting, which I never believed he’d had in the first place. (FYI: He and his boss were both eventually fired.)
Throughout the novel, I rooted for Alice to have the backbone that I once lacked. To be fair to my young self though, the book’s heroine had the benefit of a trailblazing mentor like the late Helen Gurley Brown, who not only turned Cosmopolitan into a successful publication still sold on newsstands today, but empowered single women everywhere to have it all.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the office-setting, comic novel “Back to Work She Goes.”