Leah Brenner, Executive Editor
n May 1, the
New York Post
makes the news official: Mimi Walsh has been appointed editor in chief of
magazine, to replace the recently deposed Louisa Harding. “Mayday!” I say under my breath, a private distress call that will eventually resound throughout the office. I estimate I have one month, tops, remaining in my post. As the former leader’s second-in-command, I am by default a relic of the old regime. I can feel the target on my forehead: mortifying and unmistakable, like a pulsing red zit.
Mimi starts the very next day. It’s a Wednesday, usually one of my work-from-home days, but I make a point of being on-site for the grand debut. A 5:00 a.m. alarm shocks my body awake, and I stumble through thick darkness to my mewling triplets for feedings. One by one I cheer them to suck, suck, suck, like some kind of demented stage mom. When all three are sufficiently sated, I make frantic (and mostly futile) stabs at turning the house into slightly less of a disaster zone. Then Maria, the girls’ nanny and my personal savior, arrives. She humors me while I prep her on the latest baby info that she’s likely known about for days. Next, I devote approximately ninety seconds to yours truly, racing to get myself to look somewhat presentable (I hope) or at least charmingly disheveled (I like to think). On my way out the door, I dig through my purse and replace toys and pacifiers and rice cereal with work folders and my planner and the breast pump. Gunning the gas on the way to the Westfield train station, I pray to dodge traffic cops and then—thank God!—I dash and manage to catch the 8:12 train. The fifty-six-minute ride to Manhattan, cramped with groggy bodies and smelling of burnt coffee, is the most peaceful hour of my day. Then it’s a subway ride and a short walk to the office. By the time I’ve made it to my desk at 9:30, I’m ready for a full night’s sleep.
At 9:45 sharp, the new boss calls the whole staff into the conference room. Physically, Mimi is the opposite of Louisa—big and broad and blond, where the old boss was petite and brunette and birdlike. She is imposing at the front of the room, like a gorilla who’s already staked out and claimed this new territory as her own.
“I can’t tell you how thrilled and excited I am to lead this team in the transformation of
magazine,” Mimi trills. No one points out that “thrilled” and “excited” are synonyms; it’s the type of thing Louisa would’ve had no tolerance for. “This title has such great potential. I can’t wait to share my vision for change, and to pool all of your fantastic ideas and create a sparkling new hit of a magazine.” We plaster on smiles and shift uncomfortably in our wedges and strappy sandals as Mimi casually dismisses the magazine we’ve proudly been producing month after month for years—we are a team that has stuck together.
Mimi continues: “A little birdie told me this office is known for—how shall I say it?—a laid-back schedule.” If by that she means working from nine-thirty to six instead of nine-thirty to midnight like many publications, then she’s right. “There’s nothing wrong with laid-back, of course, but that’s what weekends are for, right?” Mimi emits the first of what we’ll come to know as her notorious “Ha!”s, a staccato syllable closely resembling a real laugh, but lacking the latter’s underlying sense of humor. “Although the truth is, weekends might become a bit of a mirage this summer, too. We’ll be working hard to prep the relaunch for the November issue,” she says. “I hope you’re prepared to have your lives turned upside down for a while.” Nervous titters all around.
“OK, now introductions!” We go around the room and state our names and titles. “I’m Leah Brenner, executive editor,” I say with as much authority as I can muster, but I fear I sound like a fraud. Plus, I’m worried my heavy eyelids are drooping dangerously low, so I keep pinching my thigh; I can feel the beginnings of a bruise. To my left is Louisa’s old assistant. “I’m Jenny,” she says, “and I hope to be your assistant.” Mimi lets out another one: “Ha!” followed by, “You’re funny.” Within hours Jenny will be a goner.
I scan the room—everyone smiling anxiously—and I feel a surge of pride, marveling at this team of capable and decent workers, all of whom are clutching at the last threads of their jobs. We’ve all heard the urban legend about the new editor in chief who took over a publication—which one, who knows?—and didn’t fire a single person from the old staff; it’s apocryphal, of course, along with the Montauk monster and the chronically single New Yorker who on the night of her thirty-fifth birthday meets the man of her dreams, a rich doctor with a penthouse on Central Park West, and within the year has a giant rock on her finger and a fetus in her belly. Fairy tales. In my head I sing a doom-spelling ditty—
dum, dum, dum, dum, DUM!
—a handy distraction from the rest of the meeting.
That afternoon, I force myself across the threshold of my new boss’s office to introduce myself privately. I feel as if I’m walking off a cliff’s edge, until Mimi surprises me by inviting me in. “Sit down, make yourself comfy,” she says. “We’ll chat and get to know each other.”
I nod and nod as Mimi rambles on about how easy her new commute is, and how nice it is to finally work near an express train. “Where do you live?” she asks, but before I can answer she barks out, “Jenny, grab me a coffee,” and then starts in on the total gridlock that is Manhattan and how hailing a taxi these days is pretty much a request to sit in traffic and listen to honking horns and a man babbling in a foreign tongue and meanwhile to pay for the privilege. I’m just beginning to make out my thoughts over my buzzing anxiety when Jenny arrives with coffee, and Mimi says, “Thanks, dear. Oh, I should tell you—because there’s no point beating around the bush—I’ve already hired on my old assistant to take over your job.”
I gasp, then pray it wasn’t audible. I avoid Jenny’s eyes, fearing I might tear up. Jenny, always the professional, nods once and straightens her spine, doing her best to act as if Mimi just told her about a new filing system. “It’s nothing personal, of course,” Mimi says, then sips at her coffee. “Ooh, that’s way too hot. I nearly burned my tongue! Anyway, you’re welcome to stick around and collect a paycheck until the new girl arrives, or you can cut and run today. Totally your choice.” She smiles at Jenny as if she’s just offered her a pick between a trip to Paris or Rome.
“I’ll clear out my things by the end of the day,” Jenny says, then makes her exit. I silently cheer her bravery.
“All right, then.” Mimi turns to her e-mail with a level of focus that lets me know I’m dismissed, too. I slink out of her office, guilty with relief that the first ax has not fallen on me.
It would have been a different brand of cruelty had Mimi insisted Jenny stay on to train her replacement. But the result of Jenny’s swift departure is that when the new assistant arrives a week later, the girl’s job initiation falls to me. “You know the most about
right?” Mimi asks me in a way that an undiscerning person might interpret as flattering. But I know what’s coming. “Please be a doll and fill Laura in on the workings of the office.” I nod. What else can I do?
Mimi introduces a girl a full head taller than me with the posture of a weeping willow. “Laura Maxwell, pleased to meet you,” she announces, extending a hand as broad as a basketball player’s. Her grip crushes my own.
With as much grace as I can muster, I show Laura around, introduce her to Ed, the mail manager, and explain the e-mail server and copy routing system. I notice that Laura has frizzy hair and visible panty lines. I know I’m being unkind, but I believe I deserve to. I can feel all the editors’ eyes on me as I parade around the new assistant; she’s like some honorary guest and I’m her lowly tour guide. I’m trying hard to hide my humiliation.
In the kitchen, I demonstrate how to work the finicky coffee machine, jiggling the button that gets it up and rumbling again. “Mimi mentioned she likes her coffee black,” I offer, trying to be helpful.
“Oh, I’ve assisted Mimi before,” Laura says. I think I catch the hint of a smirk. “Back at the old office.” Right.
So then Laura knows what she’s in for. She knows and, with free will and open eyes, has signed on. She’s chosen to deal with the unreadable requests that Mimi scrawls in blood-red ink on Post-its and then drops onto our desks dozens of times a day. She’s chosen to field the endless list of ridiculous requests (yesterday Mimi complained of blisters caused by her teetering heels and sent our sweet intern, Erin, off to a pharmacy deep in Tribeca for a special brand of bandage). And she’s chosen to endure what I’ve officially named The Mimi Diatribes—those one-sided conversations that last up to half an hour, and make you feel like you’re on the dark side of a two-way mirror. During my seven days of service so far as Mimi’s deputy, I doubt my new boss has taken one real look at me. I keep waiting to be informed that she’s already hired my replacement, too.
Laura knows all of these quirks about Mimi, and still she’s chosen to saunter with her scuffed-up flats and unflattering T-shirt dress right into this battle zone, where I suspect the bloodshed has barely begun.
Rewind four months, back to January, to what should be a season of new beginnings—though for Louisa it’s the beginning of the end. On a day marked by the latest in a long stint of snowstorms, I face the morning marathon with my ten-month-old daughters, and then wrestle against a wall of sleet and wind to make it on time from New Jersey suburbia to midtown Manhattan. But my car takes forever to start, the streets are slippery, and the subway stalls; when my office computer blinks awake it flashes 9:37 like an accusation—
I suspect my always-punctual boss has beaten me to work, a premonition confirmed when Louisa wanders by my office and drops her glance to my snow-soaked boots. Busted. I refuse to wear the sleek, heeled ones that are trendy this winter—I’ve seen several of the fashion-y girls go slip-sliding across the ice while wearing them, and I’m horrified that any company would design winter boots with no traction. Still, I prefer to change into my heels before Louisa’s arrival, to always look the professional part.
“Morning check-in?” I chirp. Louisa nods, but there’s something—a twitch of the upper lip, perhaps?—that betrays anxiety. After three years as her number two at
and many years before that as teammates at other titles, I can read my boss’s face like the pages of a magazine. I can also read her outfit, the way she parts her hair, and her decision to leave the office door closed or open or slightly ajar. I’ve memorized her favorite adjectives and most despised adverbs, her children’s birthdays, and the two perfumes she likes to spritz simultaneously to blend into her signature scent. Sometimes it’s occurred to me that I myself possess neither a signature scent nor a list of my favorite adjectives, but usually I’m too busy tending to Louisa to focus on such details.
As I sit with my boss, reviewing the status of the next issue’s features and watching her sip her hazelnut dark (Louisa likes Dunkin’ Donuts, but drinks it from a Starbucks mug—the one chink in her armor of self-esteem), I consider that she has a meeting this morning on the thirtieth floor, the Schmidt & Delancey corporate suite, otherwise known as Head Honchos Headquarters. We’ve just completed
’ third redesign in a year, and today Louisa will introduce the newest vision to Corporate. I imagine the PowerPoint through its soundtrack—I compiled it, so I know it by heart. The presentation will encapsulate
magazine’s conception of the modern thirty-something American woman. As with everything I work on with Louisa, I can’t help but feel proud.
The story is, several years earlier, Louisa inherited a title so tired and frumpy that she had to search a dozen New York City newsstands before finding one that stocked a recent issue.
had become a suburban midwestern magazine, most of whose readers inherited subscriptions from their mothers. (My own mother, the consummate snob, scoffed when I accepted the job at
but then her own editorial career took place exclusively in the elite echelons of only the highest-brow magazines.) Back then, the
covers offered promises that seemed ripped from 1950s home economics course catalogs—“Secret tips to whip up your best chocolate souf-flé!” “Pretty patterns for your sharpest holiday outfit!”—and the people pictured on the pages were plain and doughy, the theory being that readers would prefer to see women who looked like them rather than beautiful, intimidating models.
Until this past year, each of Louisa’s redesigns has nudged
a bit sleeker, more sophisticated, upmarket. Recently, in response to readers’ ongoing economic woes, she’s reverted a bit to the magazine’s roots, including more bargain items and money-saving tips. I can tell it pains my boss to commission stories on supercouponing and bargain-basement items that can pass for designer, but she’s submitted, admitting it’s the way the wind’s blowing. For this most recent transformation, she’s been worrying about including a $250 Club Monaco blazer in the PowerPoint (she hasn’t said as much, but I’ve seen her add and then remove and then add the blazer again while tweaking the slides).
“The final cut,” Louisa says now, loading up the completed presentation on her laptop. I crouch next to her chair, thrilled as always to be in such close proximity to my boss. Not only has Louisa kept in the Club Monaco blazer, but she’s displayed it on the first slide; the sight sends a shudder of fear down my spine. Louisa flips through the rest of the presentation, and I notice she’s made some changes since I last saw it: slides of socialites and runway fashion mingle with those of gourmet meals prepared in lovely, aspirational kitchens.
“It’s stunning,” I say, because it’s too late to change anything. I feel a premonition of doom.
“Oh, good. Abby wanted me to lead off with the budget dining piece, but good lord, how depressing.” I nod like an idiot. “I’m going for sparkle and magic and drama—the kind of magazine that makes you dream.” Louisa makes eye contact, her irises shining with excitement, and—I can’t help myself—it’s contagious.