Although I was barely out of college, having never worked in a “real” office before, it didn’t take more than a day on the job for me to realize that the firm of Goldwynn, Shipp and Sullivan* had been out of the PR business for a very long time. At best, Howard Goldwynn’s dwindling roster of clients were sticking with him out of obligation, pity, sentiment or most likely, because they didn’t even realize that he was still representing their companies.
He was very tall, very old and very bald – like a human Jiminy Cricket in his three-piece suit (minus the spats and the top hat). His face was dwarfed by oversized, black framed glasses. A few wispy strands of flossy white hair lay placidly across his age-freckled head.
Mr. Goldwyn spent most of his days acting the role of a feudal landlord – hovering over a motley group of small time entrepreneurs and elderly retired businessmen who rented the empty desks and offices that had once been workspaces for G S & S employees when it was a powerhouse PR firm that handled press for a Major Movie Studio and other big time clients.
And the characters who passed through the doors of G S & S were an interesting and varied bunch: there was Myrna, an eccentric, Japanese woman who was an artist’s rep – who only wore white. Then there was the tall, extremely dapper African American gentleman who described himself as a Movie Producer with a “Big Deal” in the works — with a Major Star (he was not at liberty to divulge the identity) who was “under contract.”
Another desk squatter was a sad specimen – a man who had clearly been fired from a lot of jobs and had worked his way down and out of many respectable corporations. He was trying to sell ad space in a start-up magazine. But every morning he arrived in a pungent cloud of aftershave, his breath smelling of vodka, and he became increasingly incoherent and disheveled as the day progressed.
In the ritzy window offices were the retirees — Mr. Atlas, Mr. Guthrey, Mr. Matus — lawyers, mostly. Like Goldwynn, they were using the space to have somewhere to go, for companionship and to retain a sense of importance and purpose.
But the most notorious tenant was Jane Byrne, Chicago’s first lady mayor, who had recently been defeated in her run for a second term at City Hall. She had a nice office with a great view — and two sweet, gregarious and doting middle-aged assistants who came in twice a week to pick up her mail.
What was my job? Mostly to provide a friendly voice to answer calls and take messages, and perform some light bookkeeping and typing for Goldwynn and his renters. Under ordinary circumstances this would be an easy gig — after all, how much is there to do in a sleepy office populated with part-timers and retirees?
Unfortunately the aged and decrepit infrastructure of the office paired with Goldwynn’s diminished mental capacity and vile temperament presented some unanticipated challenges.
The typewriters were the old fashioned black Royal manuals (retro cool!), yet the old man banned the use of any kind of correction tape or White Out. One small typo on a two-page letter meant re-typing the entire document from scratch. Perfectly. Should Goldwynn have a change of heart about the wording in one of his eloquent missives? Complete re-write.
Adding to the long list of technological deficiencies was the fact that he was too cheap to buy a photocopier — instead, he favored the messy, smudgy, smelly duplicates rendered by 1940’s “state of the art” reproduction technology…… carbon paper! Forgot to load the carbon paper onto the platen? RETYPE THE LETTER! A one page thank-you note could occupy the entire day – and if the old man changed his mind about a word here or there, the task could exhaust reams of paper – as well as my patience.
In addition to my typing woes, there was the ongoing mortal battle with the antique switchboard that routinely disconnected calls, created unintended party lines and was the subject of frequent visits from the perplexed Illinois Bell repairman who would disappear into the supply closet for an hour and emerge grasping a handful of colorful wires while shaking his head, declaring that he hadn’t seen this system in at least “twenty years.”
Goldwynn couldn’t remember when he dipped into the cash reserves to tip bicycle messengers, or the building’s Super, or to purchase the all-important rubber bands he needed for some reason. So another time-filling activity was the “Who Stole The Petty Cash?” game — followed closely by the “You Broke The Postage Meter!” challenge.
When the need arose (just about every week), Goldwynn would send me on a fruitless scavenger hunt in the old file cabinets for his Movie Studio correspondence from the 1940’s which he used to write his friends’ obituaries. These disorganized, messy, file cabinets held an amazing trove of old movie stills and press releases and personal letters to- and from- the stars, and having just graduated from college with a minor in film history, I could have spent days amusing myself just reading them.
Since the files were in a logical order only the old man could understand, it was never a simple task for me to find what he needed. Goldwynn wore crepe soled shoes, and if he sensed I was spending too much time at the files, he would silently creep up behind my back and declare, “No wonder you can’t finish that letter! Hrumph!” Then he’d dig into a random drawer where he’d locate the precise document he was seeking.
But the entertainment didn’t stop there! Oh, no….there were always amusing mini-dramas that played out in the background, while I was re-typing letters and wrestling with the antique office equipment. Just enough to keep things lively.
Goldwynn spent at least an hour on the phone each day, schmoozing older reporters into writing stories about his washed-up (former) clients, and calling his few living friends to gossip and make lunch plans. Mostly he enjoyed terrorizing the obituary writers at the large daily papers (usually beginner cub reporters) since they seemed to receive the vast body of his work — and were most intimidated by his rants.
Frequent offenses involved misspelling the deceased’s name, cause of death and location of the funeral. Inevitably all these egregious errors were reproduced from the very material he‘d submitted. When this fact was brought to his attention, usually by an irate editor, Goldwynn would locate his carbon copy, check to verify who was at fault, and call the poor reporter back with a sweet sounding, grandfatherly, yet face-saving apology: “So sorry for the trouble, my ‘girl’ made the mistake…..” (that would be me!)
But relief came every Wednesday in the form of his weekly luncheon at the Tavern Club in the penthouse of the office building. Frequent honored guests included old geezer reporters from the Ben Hecht days of yore, doddering entertainers in town performing in the latest version of “Sugar Babies” and a smattering of elderly retired lawyer types who seemed impressed by the other attendees. They would all convene at our offices to drop off their trench coats and briefcases, and wool Homburg hats before taking the elevator upstairs to lunch.
*All names changed;-) **photo credits: Lee Bey & Gentlemen’s Emporium