It Was Always Clear Who Was the Boss
New York magazine|April 26 - May 9, 2021
WORKING FOR: DIANA VREELAND, 1976
Wendy Goodman

1978: Halston (center) at his office in the Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue. He had the entire 21st floor, including workrooms, a showroom, and design rooms.

Sharp Pencils. No Crusts. And a Shot of Scotch.

It was always an event to get access to Diana Vreeland’s office in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the same floor as the Costume Institute, where she worked after being fired from Vogue in 1971. You didn’t get in unless you had a vetted appointment through her personal assistant, who would usher you into her sanctum, which was painted a deep lacquer red. There was natural light from one window high up in the wall covered with a grid of thick security bars that looked like ones from a Renaissance palace.

Mrs. Vreeland’s desk was covered in red oilcloth, with two rattan trays holding papers and yellow legal pads. She almost always had lunch at her desk, so if she invited you for lunch, that was where it would be. Her chair was aluminum with a red pillow. You sat opposite her. She had a green Rigaud candle and then, within the striped black-and-white candle container, a set of pencils, each honed to the sharpest point possible. She had an array of Pentel markers in red and green to use for emphasis on memos. Mrs. Vreeland’s chicken sandwich on white bread, no crusts, was delivered from William Poll on Lexington Avenue, and with that, she had a small shot of Scotch. When she didn’t have a chicken sandwich, she had a peanut butter and jelly, also from William Poll—white bread, no crusts. She would let you know lunch was over, and business complete, when she launched that smile. That was what she did instead of saying good-bye.

WORKING FOR: SHIRLEY CHISHOLM, 1964

Gravitas Speaks Louder Than a High-Decibel Tirade

# Nadine Hack, campaign volunteer: I was in high school, around 13 years old, volunteering for Shirley after class or on weekends. The only office I’d visited before was my dad’s—he worked at a very established law firm, Shearman & Sterling. There were men in suits writing on long yellow legal pads in their offices and women secretaries sitting at desks. It was the early 1960s, and the firm didn’t yet have any Black secretaries.

The headquarters of Shirley’s State Assembly campaign were utterly different. The office was filled with women, people of color, and idealists like me. I don’t have any memory of ever being treated like I was a kid. I never once felt condescended to or patronized. I was sent out to canvass, and we used index cards in shoeboxes to keep track of all the voters we had spoken to. I would occasionally run the mimeograph machine to make copies of flyers or use the typewriter. I remember ink all over my fingers. I just thought, This is what I was meant to do.

The office was extremely cramped, filled to the brim. Everybody was running in and out, sitting and standing, and dough nuts were being delivered. When I close my eyes, I see those curlicue cords from the old dial phones and people getting wrapped up in them as they walk and talk.

Shirley wasn’t there most of the time, but when she did show up, she commanded the room. I always felt her presence. She was always dressed impeccably and had the perfect manners, yet her strength was undeniable. She was very proper, perhaps because of her strict upbringing by Caribbean parents or possibly just her inherent nature. Shirley had this kind of controlled nature. She had enormous gravitas.

I still can feel the sting from a rebuke she gave everybody one day. Someone said, “Attention, everybody!” in a harsh voice. Shirley then stood up on a chair and in a really calm, quiet, but stern voice said, “You didn’t meet your door-to-door canvassing targets today.” Silence just fell over the whole room, which seconds ago had been in total chaos. Everybody’s skin was crawling with the feeling of having disappointed her. With Shirley, I didn’t cower. I didn’t feel like she was blaming or belittling me. Instead, I felt an enormous burden of responsibility to do better.

1974: Representative Shirley Chisholm at her office in Brooklyn.

WORKING FOR: ROBERT MOSES, 1968

He Had a Dozen Offices, But Only One Headquarters

# Robert Caro, biographer: Robert Moses created what we call Randalls Island by joining together Randalls and Wards islands and building the Triborough Bridge over it. He decided to put his headquarters on the island. The main attraction for him was that the public didn’t really know about it. It’s an unassuming two-story building, and it’s handsomely designed but not at all large and imposing. The office exuded the following fact: that the man who built it had a distaste for mingling with the public, so he built it in a place that really no one knew existed.

You took an elevator up to the second floor, and you turned left and there was a hallway, rather a long hallway, filled on either side with scale models of the things he had built. All of the bridges—the Henry Hudson, the Triborough, the Throgs Neck, the Bronx-Whitestone, the Verrazzano—and those two gigantic power dams, the Robert Moses Power Dam and the other one up on the Niagara Frontier, and the Jones Beach water tower. Above the scale models, both walls were filled to the ceiling with honors he had received, plaques.

The Office Could Shield Predators

Its Very Structure Protected Them

By Rebecca Traister

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