A One-woman Finishing School

I once read that Carolyn Bessette Kennedy credited the development of her aesthetic sense to her job at Calvin Klein. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I had much in common with poor departed Carolyn, but I do believe my time at a former job with Estee Lauder Companies did make me more aware of design. Things like brand equity were taken very seriously, and I remember a huge debate that broke out when a creative director decided to put models in—gasp!—bathing suits in an ad. (Even very modest one-piece suits “were just not done.”)

One of the best things about my time there was Maureen.  She named products, and had been at the company forever. Since space was at a premium, I was placed in front of her office—where an assistant would go, if she had one. On my first day, a very short, very chic woman of a certain age stalked past my desk.  Suddenly, she whirled toward me.

“Dear,” she said, “I know I haven’t introduced myself, but I’m Maureen. I apologize for being so rude, but I’m all in a tizzy because of those c**ksuckers in legal.”  I think I managed to keep my jaw from dropping, as she pushed her carefully coiffed hair behind one ear and smiled sweetly. (I later discovered that she always had it done by Kenneth, who–of course–had been Jackie Kennedy’s stylist.)

Over time, Maureen and I became great friends and she regaled me with tales of her transformation from Catholic schoolgirl to former Vogue editor. She worked for Carmel Snow and knew Diana Vreeland—or vice-versa. I could never quite keep it straight, even though I found it fascinating.

Best of all, Maureen was full of advice. She told me to buy a home outside New York City so I wouldn’t “be stuck working as an old lady.” She also believed that I always need to be doing something that would make me more interesting. (She very much approved when I told her I was running a marathon,  because “it gives you something to talk about at cocktail parties.” When I told her I wasn’t very fast, she said, “Just don’t mention that part to anyone.”)

Apparently, it was vitally important that I shop at Barney’s and Bergdorf’s, even if I could only buy one or two new things a year. Maureen window-shopped at one store or the other every lunch hour, and adored a high-end fashion designer whose name was suspiciously like Zoltar, the fortune teller in Big. She would (despite the fact that she was presumably working at age seventy or so because she needed the money) occasionally give me presents of pieces of clothing that she thought would be “chic and useful.” I suspect she thought I needed the help.

Naturally, she always asked me about boyfriends, and when I occasionally didn’t have one, she’d tell me I’d get one if I’d stop “being so funny.” After all, she said, men like to be the entertaining ones. And of course it was sexist, darling, but it was true.

Maureen and I had a few lunches after I left that job, but then I found out one day that she had retired. I wasn’t sure how to find her—all I knew was that her husband was a former architect named Jack and she had a son who was a chef. To be honest, after some time went by, I was afraid to search, because I feared I’d find that she’d passed on.

Sometimes, she would say to me when she left the office, “Darling, you are loved. Know that.” Maureen, you were loved, too.


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