By Kristin van Ogtrop
My start in magazines felt like an accident. It was like I was walking down the middle of the street in Manhattan and someone had left a manhole cover off and I fell into the hole and suddenly I was sitting in Anna Wintour’s Vogue office, wearing a red rayon dress with white polka dots that I had bought at the Ann Taylor outlet and that I believed was sufficiently stylish. That’s how much planning (and fashion understanding) went into the beginnings of my professional life.
Before Vogue, I worked at the local Westvaco paper factory; at a U.S. Senate office; for a creepy photographer; for a successful artist of limited talent; in a bookstore; as a temporary secretary in a big Philadelphia law firm; in the office of Columbia University’s General Studies department; and for a commercial film production company. In landing there—not at Vogue, per se, but at a magazine—I found my place and my people. I was eager and confident, and that feeling lasted nearly twenty years.
Things weren’t easy at the beginning of the Vogue job. I had a fairly useless graduate degree and was answering phones and getting coffee for editors who were essentially my age. But there was a Stockholm syndrome thing that happened at Vogue, and it trickled down to the assistants. Anna Wintour was She, and we all spent a lot of time wondering what She was thinking or what She meant when she scribbled See me in a heavy, furious hand across a manuscript that one of her assistants hurried back to its editor.
She reminded me of a praying mantis, the insect I fear most: impossibly thin and mostly silent, mysterious and all-powerful and spectacular in nearly every way. Most days, my fellow assistants and I would walk up Madison Avenue to Mangia on Forty-Eighth Street to get sandwiches for lunch, and even now, all these years later, I recall precisely how the basil parmesan chicken salad tasted. It was perfect, and not just because I was able to pay for it out of petty cash, that magic drawer that provided an endless supply of free coffee, free taxis, free lunch. (One fashion editor was said to have furnished her entire Hamptons house with furniture and props from her shoots, so everyone on staff referred to her house, with a mixture of derision and awe, as Petty Cash Junction.)
Eventually I was promoted at Vogue, and I didn’t have to answer anyone’s phone ever again. I got pregnant with my son Owen, which presented a clothing challenge, because without a trust fund or VIP access to the best sample sales, I had a hard enough time dressing well even without being pregnant. Throughout my pregnancy, whenever I walked into Anna’s office, finding her as always perched on the edge of her hard-backed metal chair, she would regard my midsection with a look that seemed to me to say, Ugh . . . it’s still there? Wearing lots of black on black seemed to be the answer. One week during my pregnancy I reported for jury duty in Brooklyn and a fellow juror, a kindly older woman, pulled me aside, squeezed both my forearms, and said, “You are in such a joyful time of your life. You should be wearing color, not black!” I smiled and agreed with her but thought to myself, Lady, you have no idea.
After Owen was born, I left Vogue for Premiere, which had a less wonderful office space and a more wonderful boss, Susan Lyne, who gave me a nice bump up from my Vogue salary. Unlike Anna, who traveled by car service, Susan—who was tall and blond, a former hippie who lived on the Upper East Side—took the subway to work. But she flew business class when she went to LA, and I got to fly business class when I went to LA too. Premiere was scrappy, staffed by journalists who cared about the art of filmmaking first and the lives of movie stars a distant second.
I was so happy. I was young and healthy and full of hope with a beautiful baby boy, a loving husband, a terrific two-bedroom rental in Brooklyn, and a fat tabby cat named George who could fetch like a dog and who escaped through the window when our apartment was broken into but returned the following day, because that was exactly the kind of luck I had back then.
After Premiere was sold to a new owner, Susan Lyne quit. She parlayed her Hollywood journalism experience into a big job at Disney. I should have watched Susan more closely.
There were women in the magazine world who could see the future, take their experiences and contacts, stir them in a big pot, and come out with a big beautiful bowl of new-job-in-new-industry. I would come to realize that not everyone had that talent.
From Premiere I went to Travel + Leisure (nice + boring), back to Vogue (better job + Stockholm syndrome), and then to Glamour, where I was hired by Bonnie Fuller, a genius Canadian who wore dresses like sausage casings and who struck me as the idiot savant of the New York magazine world.
Then I got a call from Time Inc. about the editor in chief job at a three-year-old magazine called Real Simple. Unlike every other place I had worked, Real Simple spoke to me as a reader—a busy working mother who was just trying to find a manageable level of control in her daily life. The photographs and design were so calming, they were like meditation, or Xanax. Plus, none of the cover lines exhorted you to buy designer shoes or improve your sex life.
There is something almost miraculous about having a job in which the skills you possess completely match up with the requirements of the work. It was as if each thing I had done up to that point—from factory to Capitol Hill, graduate school to commercial film production—was one thin piece of a multilayered, intricate lock, and when I landed at Real Simple all of the elements aligned with a soft click and everything suddenly sprung open. And inside was . . . magic.
Overseeing the editorial staff at Real Simple enabled—required—me to use what I knew about making a birthday cake from scratch and sewing on a button and planting a perennial and housebreaking a dog: the soft domestic skills I learned from the time I could tie my own shoes. The fact that I knew how to iron a shirt was not something I ever would have put on a résumé or mentioned in an interview (“And the strip of fabric that holds the buttons is actually called the placket!”), but this job was different.
As a Glamour colleague put it, “Real Simple is a magazine for women whose mothers never taught them all that stuff.” Suddenly I was Betty Crocker with a nineteen-million-dollar budget, a staff of seventy, and a corner office at Fiftieth and Sixth.
And the resources! When I got to Time Inc., the halls might as well have been wallpapered with hundred-dollar bills. You heard stories; my favorite was the one about the publisher who, under orders from his wife, used to take the drapes from his house with him on business trips so he could send them to the hotel dry cleaner and have the company pay for it. There was money everywhere, pouring in from happy readers all over the country and flying out the door like a magic carpet for those of us lucky enough to take the ride. For a decade, Real Simple was the darling of the magazine world and I was the darling of Time Inc., arguably the most historically important, pedigreed magazine company in the world, a company founded on solid journalistic principles with products designed for and produced by intelligent grown-ups who valued brains over beauty.
By the time I got there, Time Inc. was part of the Time Warner family, and when the company had its yearly internal awards ceremony, corporate communications would seat me next to the CEO because my magazine was growing and valuable and because I knew how to make small talk that conveyed that I was smart and important but knew the powerful man next to me was much smarter and much, much more important. What I didn’t realize as I discussed a mutual acquaintance with Dick Parsons or taught Jeff Bewkes one of the few Dutch phrases that I knew (Zit jij makkelijk, or “You sit comfortably,” which is what you say to a family member who won’t help with the dinner dishes) was that I was in enemy territory.
Because what the Time Warner CEO knew that I didn’t was that magazines were going the way of the Model T and the seltzer man and the player piano. Magazines as both cultural artifact and source of profit were in decline.
When a legacy business is dying, there is no one moment that signals the beginning of the end, just as there is no discrete moment when youthful confidence ends and midlife identity crisis begins. But there is a feeling, and you know it’s growing, even if you can’t define it. You begin to suspect you’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Magazine-making is a dynamic, collaborative, and, best of all, creative enterprise, but when Americans started reading everything on their phones instead of paying money at a newsstand, the bean counters took over. And when bean counters take over, they call in the management consultants, and then people like me begin to die just a little bit every day, like a plant someone mistakenly put in a south-facing window and then forgot to water.
Perhaps I would have grasped what was happening to my professional world if I had paid more attention to the signals. No doubt there were small, silent signs, like fruit flies in the kitchen that lead you to the rotting banana in the bowl on the counter. But I was busy running a sixty-five-million-dollar business and, more important, having a life. In that decade of bliss, I also:
- bought my dream house, a hundred-year-old shingled Victorian with turquoise kitchen walls, squirrels in the attic, knob-and-tube wiring, and bathroom pipes that froze if you didn’t keep the water running on cold nights;
- spent a lot of money renovating the dream house; and
- had another baby, because why not?
There was so much excitement and growth in my home life that I didn’t notice my professional lights beginning to dim.
But soon enough I was working with a management-consulting firm — which one was it? McKinsey, Bain, Boston Consulting Group? That company from Colorado that no one had ever heard of? God knows. I’d lost track. But I was firing people, and it certainly wasn’t my idea.
Firing an employee for cause is, if not easy, at least doable, in part because you know the person brought it on herself. And that person is usually not surprised. You have warned her time and again that she needs to change, and yet somehow she can’t or won’t do it.
But when you begin firing employees simply because some bullshit “efficiency” has been identified by a chirpy, overachieving consultant two years out of Wharton who has never picked up a magazine—well, those are the kinds of firings that leave you crying at your desk as soon as the shocked staffer who trusted you with her career and income walks out of your office and closes the door behind her.
It is hard to describe how much it sucks to hire a wonderful creative team, people you admire for their talent and love because they make your work- days so joyful, and then have to start firing them. A fellow editor likened the increasing rounds of firing to contractions—first you fire people every couple of years, then once a year, then every six months, and then each quarter before the earnings call. And what pops out in the end is not a new baby, not euphoria and magic, but an ugly facsimile of your magazine, full of factual errors and bad grammar and stock photographs supplied by some well-meaning but poorly trained colleague who works in Bangalore.
Yes, I was the firer, not the fired. All things considered, I was not entitled to complain. But years of dropping the guillotine take their toll. When I was in my late thirties and newish in the job, I used to, if not leap out of bed every morning, at least climb out with purpose and enthusiasm. But once I hit the ten-year mark at Real Simple and the fifty-year mark at life, I had not only started to drag—I had become a drag. There was a dull heaviness to the way I moved through the world, griping about the faux difficulties in my privileged existence. I hated it.
I began to develop a list of questions that seemed, like a gentle hand on the small of my back, to direct me toward the door:
- If every time someone on the executive team sends out a company-wide e-mail, my initial response is BARF, is that a problem?
- If, while putting mascara on one morning, I tell my husband that “a big job working for executive morons is not how I define success,” am I getting too toxic and cranky to be a good partner?
- If I get up in front of my magazine staff in full rah-rah mode and try to energize them to do good work but know I may have to fire a quarter of them within the next year, am I just a big fraud?
- If I can’t focus in meetings because I am too busy wondering whether I am going to have a glass of wine or a beer when I get home, does that mean I am deeply, deeply bored?
- If every time I have a budget meeting it feels like someone has said to me, Okay, we are going to cut off seven of your toes and then you will show us how you are going to become a professional ballerina, is it time to step aside?
- If I am driving on the Hutchinson River Parkway one morning and see a little ambulance called Shalom Ambulette with a “driver wanted” sign taped to the back window, and, even though I don’t speak Hebrew and have never driven anything for a living and don’t even know the difference between an ambulance and an ambulette, I consider for a second whether I would like that job, is it time to make a change?
. . . and finally:
7. If I believe that the men above me in the company hierarchy are incompetent assholes and yet I stay in the job, does that mean I am failing both myself and something larger? Am I failing feminism?
That last question came one day as I watched the CEO of Time Inc.—a man I considered a sexist nincompoop—give a town-hall speech and wondered, not for the first time, whether it would make me happy to see him fall off the stage. Was I such a horrible person that I genuinely wanted this man to hurt and humiliate himself in front of two hundred people?
In my experience, being angry is not a great mindset when you need to lead a team of seventy people whose livelihoods depend on you putting out a cheery magazine that is supposed to inspire two million American women every month. Anger is distracting, and even if you get Botox to make the frown lines disappear, as I did, it turns out you can’t Botox the anger away.
Still, I toed the line at work, head down, nose to the grindstone, conforming to all the clichés about achieving the American dream. Even when my job got suckier, even when I stopped being an editor and became a person whose job it was to look for loose change under the sofa cushions—even then I was a good girl. I was not a rebel, because here’s how a rebel would have be- haved:
Every time her tacky, ridiculous CEO bumped into her at a company function and, with a drink in his hand and a dress shirt stretched tight over his expansive abdomen, told her with disgust that her magazine spent as much money developing blueberry muffin recipes as Time magazine did in sending reporters to Iraq, a rebel would have replied, “That may be so, but those blueberry muffins make you a lot more money than those reporters do. So why don’t you go fuck yourself ?”
The first domino tipped when my new boss told me about the next round of draconian cuts I would have to make to my budget. And so I was faced with a decision: Do I keep firing my staff, or do I fire myself? I made an appointment to see him. He sat across from me with his hands on his knees as I took a breath and then said, “I’ve spent the last thirteen years building this business. And now you are asking me to tear it apart.”
“I’ll call the head of HR,” he said.
I nodded. By 5:30 that day, I had a severance agreement.
When I got on the train to go home, I made a list of things I would not miss about my job:
- high heels
- working out at 5:30 a.m. because that’s when I had time
- people who talked in meetings just to talk
- my e-mail in-box
- sitting all day
- talking about millennials like they alone had the secret to the survival of the entire species
- trying to do more with less
- Knoll office furniture
- having to swipe my ID card, Big Brother–style, to exit the building
- offices that were too cold in the summer and too hot in the winter
- waking up at 3:00 a.m. and worrying about person- nel problems
- office carpeting
- firing people right before Christmas
- firing people right after they’d had a baby
- firing people in the spring, summer, fall, and winter
- firing people because there wasn’t enough money
- firing people because someone else told me I had to
There were also things I knew I’d miss:
- making a product that was adored by countless people I will never meet
- my colleagues, except the ones I detested
- laughing at work
- corporate nonsense . . . when it was funny and didn’t involve firing people
When it was time, I gathered the magazine staff in the conference room, the Hudson River sparkling out the window and my new boss sitting against the wall. I had written a little speech on my phone, which I’d tried to memorize before I went into the meeting. I stuck to the script for seven seconds and then burst into tears. I looked for Ann, my longtime assistant and my rock; she was sitting halfway down the long table. “Ann! Fuck!” I exclaimed, helpless. “I didn’t want to cry.”
Then my new boss stood up. “When I got this job,” he began, “I met with the editors of every magazine in the company. I guess you could say it was kind of like speed-dating. We have a lot of talented editors here,” he said, “but there was only one I wanted to take back to the honeymoon suite: Kristin.”
“Blah-blah-blah,” he continued as I tried to process what he was saying, wondering what a honeymoon suite had to do with anything, wondering just how tone-deaf a grown man could be.
Oh, there were other indignities on the way out. Like the time the CEO, wearing a pastel golf shirt, walked past the glass-walled office in which I was saying goodbye to a former boss. He briefly made eye contact with me, then quickly looked away. (Note to CEOs everywhere: The generous, appropriate thing to do in that situation is not to speed up on the way to the men’s room but to pop your head in and say, “Heard you’re leaving—we wish you all the best.”)
On the day I actually left, I went through the open-plan office, aisle by aisle, cubicle to cubicle. I called out, “Walk away now if you don’t want me to hug you!” I was crying, naturally, but I wasn’t the only one. People rose from their chairs and gave me a standing ovation. I cried harder. I was carrying flowers wrapped in brown paper and a few small boxes and the stuff that was too fragile to send home by UPS. Laden with packages, I made my way to the elevator, the staff of the magazine that I had loved so much trailing behind. It was both the most awkward and the most touching moment of my working life. And then the elevator doors closed, and the best job I’d ever had was over.
When I was in my thirties I had two miscarriages in quick succession. After the second one, my friend Donald, who is an artist, gave me a brightly painted box and a thick gray shoelace. He instructed me to put my sadness in the box and use the shoelace to tie it closed. When I took the elevator down from the ninth floor and walked out of that building for the last time, I put it all in a box: the happiness and satisfaction and pride, the disappointment and sadness and anger— everything that had provided my sense of self for so many years. I tied the box closed with the shoelace, and it stayed that way for a long time.
Excerpted from Did I Say That Out Loud? by Kristin van Ogtrop. Copyright © 2021. Available from Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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