WHEN I GRADUATED high school in the 1950s, I was age 17—and totally directionless. But living in New York City offered many opportunities, some of them right outside my front door.
At the time, the larger banks and insurance companies sent letters to recent graduates offering job interviews. I chose to accept an invitation from American Surety Co. I had no idea what a surety company did.
The venerable old company was housed in the second largest skyscraper in Manhattan—the American Surety Building at 100 Broadway in lower Manhattan, near Wall Street and across from Trinity Church. My best interview outfit was my almost new Easter outfit, a prim green and white checked suit worn with proper white gloves, white purse and appropriate pumps. I got an entry level job doing clerical work.
I soon got the lay of the land and was promoted to the stenography pool in the bond department. Nothing is more boring than transcribing notes relating to bond contracts. I often took dictation from an elderly lawyer who kept dozing off in midsentence. So much for my foray into the insurance industry. We all have to start somewhere, but it wasn’t for me and I was never one to delay action. It was time to broaden my horizons.
A minor but memorable distinction I achieved at American Surety: I won a jitterbug contest, more like a swing dance, with a coworker at the company’s 36th annual Christmas party. The company was serious about its contests, with a dance committee and all. First, there was a sedate waltz and fox trot contest, and then me and my spirited swing dance. It was the most fun I had at the company.
Onward and upward: The ad for the job of executive secretary at Melodee Lane Lingerie Co. caught my eye. It mentioned “a little modeling on the side.” Only kidding—there was no mention of modeling, but it did pay $35 a week more than my current job.
I had my own little office and nobody bothered me. The boss was easy going and traveled often. Most of my work consisted of typing letters recorded on a dictaphone machine. At least, at this job, I didn’t have to worry about dozing dictators. And I got a nice discount on the racy, er, lacy merchandise. Remember babydoll pajamas? Actually, the line consisted of nice quality, mid-priced lingerie. Victoria’s Secret had not yet been uncovered.
The office manager was a little intimidating and a character—a seemingly unattached woman “of a certain age” who used to come to work on Fridays with her hair wrapped in those big pink cylindrical plastic hair curlers popular in the 1950s and ‘60s. Her head would be swathed in a large scarf, making it look twice the size it was, in a futile attempt to hide the curlers. We got along fine, although Shirley was a little temperamental and I was glad we didn’t have too much contact. She was somewhat a Joan Holloway type, the curvy red-haired office manager depicted in the television series Mad Men, sans curlers.
The factory and warehouse where the lingerie was manufactured was part of the same building. The company wasn’t in the best neighborhood in Brooklyn, and the travel time via subway and bus was a little too long. I soon realized there had to be more in my future than my little office, the dictation machine, the typewriter and Melodee Lane Lingerie. Time to depart Petticoat Junction.
A close friend who worked for General Motors told me of better opportunities, with good pay, excellent benefits and chances for advancement, if only within the confines of secretarial work. I was assigned to the Chevrolet Division, which was at the pinnacle of its success following the introduction of its luxury sports car, the Corvette, in 1953 and after hitting a new record—50 million cars manufactured.
Thus began my first professional secretarial job in the corporate world. I enjoyed working in the Rockefeller Center area, in the heart of Manhattan. It was magical at Christmas time: the store displays, the tree, the ice rink, the lights. Everything was exciting—a wonderful, different time. I was age 19 and thought the world was my oyster. At least now I had some direction. I was a Chevro-lady.
A footnote: My first car was a 1963 red Chevrolet Corvair bought that year, a former company car with just 3,000 miles on it. I liked it so well I ordered the 1965 model when the design changed. By then, all the flaws had been addressed. But after Ralph Nader’s drubbing in Unsafe at Any Speed, the Corvair never bounced back in the minds of the car-buying public.
With the employee discount, I paid $1,763.12 for my 1963 Corvair, using money I’d saved up, because there was no room in my budget for car payments. Unfortunately, the bad publicity sealed the Corvair’s fate, coupled with the popularity of the 1965 Ford Mustang. To this day, the Corvair remains an object of detractors and devotees, both panned and praised.