In Serving the Famous, Is a Ringside Seat Enough?

By David J. Morrow
(The New York Times)

There is nothing like a will to give billionaire watchers something to gab about. And one morsel in Harry B. Helmsley's estate should keep them buzzing for quite a while.

The New York real-estate mogul, who by most accounts was golden-hearted compared with his wife, Leona, left Ceil Fried, his longtime secretary, $25,000, a minuscule part of his $1.7 billion estate. That is all that decades of dictation, menial tasks and juggling one of the world's busiest social schedules was worth to Helmsley.

At least Ms. Fried got something. Pamela Harriman, the international socialite and Ambassador to France who died in February, cut Janet Howard, her personal assistant of 16 years, out of her will after the two quarreled over money, people close to Harriman have said. And she twisted the knife, not only making $20,000 bequests to two gardeners, a cook and a chauffeur, but even finding it in her heart to leave half her estate to a daughter-in-law estranged from her son.

These slights from the grave have raised the eyebrows of estate lawyers and the ire of many of the nation's 2.6 million executive assistants, personal secretaries and other servants of the rich and powerful. "It's common today for wealthy employers -- chief executives and celebrities -- to leave their longtime employees some form of a bequest," said Don Howarth, a partner at Howarth & Smith, the Los Angeles firm that drew up one of the last wills of Doris Duke, the billionaire tobacco heiress. "It is regarded as a bonus, sort of a final severance. What you don't want is for the bequest to be taken as a slap in the face if it's too small."

Neither Ms. Fried nor Ms. Howard would comment on the financial brushoffs they got from their former bosses, though the experiences of both women have the makings of network mini-series. But conversations with the former top assistants to some of the most formidable movers, shakers and celebrities of recent American history help explain why some people put up with lifetimes of toil in service of the famous, with only faint hope of ever getting a big payoff.

The personal attendants to these luminaries -- who include Duke; President Lyndon B. Johnson, the wheeling-dealing, arm-twisting architect of the Great Society and the escalation of the Vietnam War; Bette Davis, the tantrum-throwing Hollywood siren, and William S. Paley, the charismatic founder of CBS -- report only fond memories of catering to the whims and coping with the mood swings of their former masters.

Never mind that their financial rewards were relatively small and they were never personally in the limelight. And no matter that their powerful mentors, who often had giant egos, could be demanding, unpredictable, quick-tempered and downright weird. It was enough, it seems, for them to take a ride down the road of history-in-the-making.

Yet it was a road that many more or less stumbled onto by accident. Marie Fehmer had just finished her senior year at the University of Texas in 1962 when a friend called and asked her to try out for a secretarial position in the nation's capital. A recruiter would be on campus the next day, and school officials were worried that no one would show up.

"I had planned to go to accept a fellowship in another state," Ms. Fehmer, who is now 59, said in a telephone interview. "I heard her say 'Washington,' and I told her, 'No, thank you. That's a big bad city.' But she insisted. So I showed lip as a favor to her."

Little did Ms. Fehmer realize that she was about to tangle with one of the most famous Texans in history. For an hour, she was interviewed by a government official, who asked about her dictation and typing skills. Then he left the room for a few moments and returned, asking her to follow him up a flight of stairs for one more interview. She passed several plainclothes officers that she later recognized as Secret Service men. Sitting in a room at the top of the stairs was Johnson, then the Vice President.

"That time was the only time in my life I fooled him," Ms. Fehmer said. "He mistook shock and numbness for grace and poise. He asked me several things that surprised me. He wanted to know if I minded working with a black person. And I told him no. And then he wanted to know if I was a Democrat. I told him that I was an independent. He said that was 0.K., just as long as I wasn't a Republican."

She got the job, and though there were three other secretaries to share the pain by the time Johnson became President in 1963, he ran them all ragged. Rising at 6 A.M. he would immediately hit the telephones, rousing Congressmen and Cabinet officials -- and, often, his secretaries. Arriving in the Oval Office at 8 A.M., he would unleash a torrent of commands that would continue until 8 P.M. or later, interrupted only by his 20-minute midafternoon nap. And Ms. Fehmer was expected to be there every minute her boss was.

"You'd never know when he was going to call," she said. Although her colleagues would eventually put themselves on shifts, she added: "President Johnson was the strictest taskmaster I ever met. When he wanted something, he wanted it right then."

When a superboss is unhappy, the world around him or her catches fire. Unfortunately, executive assistants are often the first to get flamed. Ms. Fehmer remembers being summoned into the President's office one afternoon and ordered to find a certain legal aide immediately. When Ms. Fehmer replied that the man was at his mother's funeral, Johnson exploded. "Why did she have to die today?" she said he asked.

Yet Ms. Fehmer had such a calming influence on her boss that she was often sought to rescue male colleagues from his tirades. When aides were caught in the full force of his fury, one would jab the buzzer on the President's desk when he wasn't looking, summoning the executive secretary into his office.

"I'd come in and say, 'Yes, Mr. President,' and he'd just quiet down and say that he had not called me," Ms. Fehmer said. And Johnson would go along with the ruse. "One thing was true about President Johnson. He was a Southern gentleman who treated women well."

She added that she had "heard about his temper," but that he never resorted to his coarsest vulgarities in her presence.

Maybe Johnson, who died in 1973, watched his language around young women, but it is unlikely that Bette Davis did. "I was a legendary terror," the actress, who died in 1989, once recalled. "I was insufferably rude and ill-mannered in the cultivation of my career. I had no time for pleasantries. I said what was on my mind, and it wasn't always printable. I have been uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile and ofttimes disagreeable."

That was not the personality that Kathryn Sermak dealt with for the final 10 years of Davis's life. Hardly immune to tragedy, Davis was said to have mellowed after suffering several strokes and breast cancer and enduring a scathing memoir written by a daughter, B. D. Hyman.

Ms. Sermak, like Ms. Fehmer, came into the job almost by chance. She wasa secretary for the sister of the exiled Shah of Iran in 1979 when the agency that placed her asked if she would be interested in working for Davis.

"I knew that Miss D. was an actress, but I wasn't one of her big fans," said Ms. Sermak, who is now 40. "I wasn't intimidated, but she did want to know things I didn't expect. She asked me when I was born and my sign. And then she asked me if I knew how to cook a three-minute egg. I told her I didn't know what that was."

Honesty went a long way with Davis, who hired Ms. Sermak on the spot. And far from acting like some sort of mad queen, the film star turned out to be a warm and fun-loving companion with a penchant for playing practical jokes on house guests, Ms. Sermak said. When high-powered Hollywood lawyers dropped in to sign contracts, for example, she gave them pens that spurted fake ink onto their white shirts or served them Champagne in glasses that dribbled the contents onto their Armani suits.

For all the fun the two women had together, Ms. Sermak took her job seriously. "With any of these jobs, you have to be totally flexible," she said. "Your responsibilities aren't really set in stone. When I first started working for Miss Davis, I knew nothing about the film business. I just read her lines with her. But near the end of her life, I was beginning to help produce films. These menial tasks that you receive from your boss help you to learn and grow."

And there were menial tasks aplenty. As part of Ms. Sermak's training, Davis wanted her to learn how to take care of the house. To accomplish this, Davis sent the maid home for a week and took her assistant into a bedroom, where she pointed at the unmade bed. "This is how I want it done," she said, snapping the sheets in place. For the rest of the week, Davis gave her assistant instructions on scrubbing and cleaning every room.

The lesson was one of many from Davis, and they ultimately led Ms. Sermak into film production. After her boss and mentor died in Paris, Ms. Sermak was rewarded with half the actress's estate, the total value of which is estimated at $600,000 to $1million.

The speed with which Ms. Fehmer and Ms. Sermak were hired is rare in the world of the rich and powerful. More typically, candidates are put through tryouts. And the grande dame of tryouts was Doris Duke, who tested and shucked more than 300 chefs in her last 30 years.

The final one was Colin Shanley, who came to Duke in 1988 after once having worked for the family of the late Shah of Iran. Despite his royal connections, Mr. Shanley's appointment was no done deal. On Labor Day weekend, he came to Duke's estate in Newport, R.I., to prepare her meals. His only instructions were to cook anything he liked and to try to enjoy himself. For his troubles, he would pocket $800 -- roughly one week's salary.

The weekend stretched into three weeks, and still Mr. Shanley heard nothing from Duke. Then one day, while he was picking herbs in the garden, Duke stole up from behind wearing an electric-blue robe, her long, curly hair falling casually into her face. She was carrying his menu book.

"We sat down at the kitchen table and she went over everything she had eaten over the past three weeks," said Mr. Shanley, who is now 37. "I served her baby vegetables one day, and she told me she didn't like them because they were an affectation. She liked the work I had been doing but said to stick to the recipes that she liked."

He must have done something right because he lasted four years and received a $10,000 bequest, even though part of his tenure was stormy. After conflicts with Chandi Heffner, who was adopted at age 35 by Duke, Mr. Shanley quit in October 1989. But after Duke parted ways with Ms. Heffner in January 1991, Mr. Shanley was asked to come back. He did, and stayed until Duke died in October 1993.

"I came back because I liked Ms. Duke," Mr. Shanley said. "She was nice to me."

Duke, famous for her reclusion and eccentricity, was a woman of many contradictions. She left most of her $1.2 billion fortune to charity, and was renowned for her generosity toward her staff, frequently inspecting the refrigerators at her homes in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Hawaii and Manhattan to make sure there was enough lobster for them, even though she herself ate little meat or shellfish.

Yet one of her lawyers -- Mr. Howarth of Howarth & Smith in Los Angeles -- tells of the time she sent a butler back to the local five-and-dime in Newport to demand a replacement for a defective tube of glue that someone on her staff had bought. "She never spent $2 when $1 would do," he said.

In fact, a common trait of the superrich is their quirkiness, which could thrust their servants from a humble task one day to a high-level mission the next. "Any job like this depends on the man with the money," said John Minary, the former executive assistant to Paley, the CBS chairman. Minary died last month shortly after he was interviewed for this article; Paley died in 1990.

"Sometimes they're fun to work with and sometimes they're not," Minary said. "Mr. Paley was great fun, but that didn't help relieve the boredom on those days I had to prepare menial reports for him."

But if Minary had days of drudgery, he also rose to become chancellor of the exchequer in the Paley court. He was given the responsibility of overseeing the family finances, and biographers said he occasionally tangled with Paley's wife, Babe, over how much she could spend on Christmas presents.

"Anything he needed me to do, I did," Minary said. "Bill wanted to keep the company and family businesses separate, and he did that. When he died, I was not only an executor of his estate but a trustee of the foundation. So, in a way, I'm still working for him, paying bills and running interference when necessary."

These tasks were endless. After a gall bladder attack in February 1988 left Paley in critical condition in New York Hospital, Minary was summoned to his boss's bedside. According to Sally Bedell Smith's biography on Paley, "In All His Glory," Paley asked his devoted assistant to report the latest office happenings, no matter how small.

One item put Paley in a frenzy. Laurence A. Tisch, who had been mounting a challenge to Paley as head of CBS by buying large amounts of stock, wanted to nominate his brother Preston to the CBS board. That would never do, in Paley's view. As if Minary did not have enough to do with his boss flat on his back, Paley gave him an important mission: Tell the CBS directors, for him, to scuttle the nomination. Aided by Paley's lawyer, Arthur L. Liman, Minary managed to have the election stalled until fall, when Preston Tisch ultimately became a director.

For Minary's service, he did receive a $100,000 bequest from Paley's $500 million estate, but it was far from an easy road. Although he worked for Paley for 44 years, he did not receive paid medical coverage until his 30th year of service. And he got short shrift in Paley's autobiography, which mentioned him only once in 372 pages. In contrast, Minary received 12 citations in Ms. Smith's book.

It is not uncommon for these assistants to perform personal chores for their bosses, and even fuss over them when they are out of sorts. One of Ms. Fehmer's duties each Christmas was to buy President Johnson's presents for his wife and two daughters. And Juanita Roberts, another Johnson secretary, recounted a story in "Means of Ascent," Robert A. Caro's biography of Johnson, that on one evening she actually put her boss to bed and fed him his pills.

The biggest duty of any personal assistant is to stand by her employer. One of the most demanding chief executives in recent memory, Harry J. Gray, the retired chairman of the United Technologies Corporation, sometimes struck terror in the company's executive offices in the early 198o's by belittling potential successors at board meetings. But his secretary of 11 years, Bea Stokes, remains as loyal to her former boss as a military-trained bulldog.

Mrs. Stokes, 72, insists that Mr. Gray was a fair man who kept an open-door policy for anyone to air a complaint. "Mr. Gray was a wonderful boss to me," Mrs. Stokes said. "He never hung over my shoulder, which was wonderful. And he got me gifts at Christmas when he didn't have to. Now, every once in a while, he might lose his temper. But as long as you did your job, you never had to worry."

Mrs. Stokes is so concerned that women are not choosing to become executive secretaries that she called a reporter three times to stress the rewards of that profession. And when asked if she expected to be remembered in Mr. Gray's will, Mrs. Stokes exclaimed, "Heavens, no!" and added: "Mr. Gray was my supervisor and friend. There is no reason for him to leave me money. His friendship was reward enough."

Mr. Gray, now 77 , is running Harry Gray Associates, an investment firm in Farmington, Conn. He did not return telephone messages seeking comment.

For all their pains, the servants of the high and mighty rarely get rich. Their salaries today are generally in the $40,000 to $60,000 range. Minary not only worked without health insurance for three decades, he said he never saw a single share of CBS stock and rarely received a gift.

White House staffs fared a bit better. Ms. Fehmer received a salary of $17,000 in 1964, or $87,000 in today's dollars, and President Johnson handed out gifts to his secretaries each Christmas. Most of the male aides, many of whom had law degrees, earned $36,000, a $185,000 salary today.

"Of course, no one was working for the money," said Ms. Fehmer, who also received a $3,000 bequest in President Johnson's will. "An experience like that was priceless. And President Johnson let us get close to his family. I was in one of his daughter's weddings. But when it came to money and the hours involved, it sometimes didn't add up."

Even hefty paychecks, though, rarely make up for the stress of tending to the needs of the rich and famous. And the stress is likely to get even worse because there are more high-powered autocrats these days and fewer factotums willing to do their bidding. Consider that from the mid-198o's to the mid-199o's, the number of people who earned $1 million annually increased fourfold to some 70,000, according to the Internal Revenue Service. At about the same time, the number of office secretaries and household servants dropped 41 percent, to 2.6 million, the lowest level in 25 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Reasons for the decline include corporate downsizings, which eliminated some midlevel executive secretary positions included in the Government count, and the inclination of the nouveaux riches to hire one assistant for a job once performed by a large entourage.

If big money lies outside the grasp of secretaries and civil servants, so generally does the pleasure of gossiping publicly about the idiosyncrasies of their former employers. Within weeks of taking their positions, most come to realize they are expected to maintain silence about their boss and his or her activities. This creed of secrecy has only recently begun to change, as employees attempt to correct misconceptions left by a growing band of biographers eager to give blistering posthumous makeovers to celebrities.

So what possible reward remains? That's where the wills come in, and the question: Do secretaries and personal assistants, who may have spent their entire careers working for one person, have any legal claim to their bosses' estates? Are these Guys and Girls Friday merely wage earners, or are they crucial decision makers whose selfless devotion was a factor in increasing their patrons' wealth or public standing?

Executive assistants point to their responsibilities and years of service as cause for inclusion in their bosses' wills. Many estate lawyers agree, believing that a bequest serves as an employee bonus and an act of good will.

Whether bosses believe it or not, they need their secretaries even from the grave. Surviving family members may need the secretary's help to find documents or to assist with a biography, and that little bit of farewell cash may buy mouthfuls of glowing praise.

Excluding a longtime assistant from a will may not be wise. Secretaries sometimes make claims, as did several former employees of Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. (Garcia's acupuncturist, trainer, personal manager and former housekeeper are seeking chunks of his estate.) Most, however, have a slim chance of winning.

"It's definitely possible the employee could win a claim against a will," said Herbert E. Nass, a Manhattan trust and estate lawyer who wrote "Wills of the Rich and Famous." "It helps the case greatly if there was some written document or some intention that was understood. But the assistant could collect."

For years, estate lawyers believed that employees who were included in wills were a random lot. This may not be the case. Bosses who write wills when they are dying are much more likely to include their employees. John F. Kennedy did not update his will during his Presidency, and thus excluded his longtime secretary, Evelyn Lincoln. But Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis rewrote her will in her final months and left not only $250,000 to her assistant, Nancy Tuckerman, but $50,000 to her private White House maid, Providencia Paredes, and $25,000 each to several other employees.

While it is unusual for employees to inherit a windfall, it does occur, usually when the boss is childless or squabbling with relatives. After Davis disinherited her daughter, Ms. Hyman, she left her estate to her son, Michael, and to Ms. Sermak, in equal shares. The two now are collaborating on a plan to create a Bette Davis Foundation.

Perhaps the most infamous inheritor of recent times is Bernard Lafferty, Duke's extravagant butler. Without children to whom she could leave her fortune, Duke selected Lafferty to be co-executor of her estate, along with the United States Trust Company of New York. That chore allowed Lafferty to pocket $5.5 million for his troubles. Accusations that he was squandering the Duke fortune were rampant and he agreed to step down as executor before he died last year. Only recently has the Duke estate been settled.

Estate lawyers say the controversy was unfortunate because it took attention away from Duke's benevolence. Aside from showering charities with money, she left each of her employees one month's pay for every year they had worked for her, with a minimum payout of $1,500.·On top of that, she asked her executors to find jobs for her current employees, either at one of her foundations or estates.

Other longtime assistants should be so lucky. Many estate lawyers believe that they deserve an inheritance of at least two years' salary from their bosses, and more if the service has been especially complicated.

While a mention in the will is nice, some executive secretaries say their role in making American history was its own reward. After Johnson left the White House in 1969, for example, Ms. Fehmer joined the Central Intelligence Agency, eventually working her way up to senior intelligence officer. The CJ.A. was tough turf for a woman.

"You learn to believe in yourself," Ms. Fehmer said. "And a lot of that came from President Johnson. He believed that women were strong and were capable. I wouldn't trade my experience there for anything. I was at Parkland Hospital after President Kennedy's assassination and on Air Force One when President Johnson was sworn in. I had a front-row seat to history. How many people can say that?"