The Business Desk

Flora Whiteley, Four feet, 2008. Courtesy the artist and Vane.

Entertainment for Women

When it launched, Playboy was a literary power, nude photos or not. Its offices also happened to be an interesting place to work—for women.

For years I’ve known that my mother lived in New York City in the early 1960s and was a secretary before she married my father. Recently I was reminded that she’d worked at Playboy magazine. She said I knew this—how had I forgotten?

This was Playboy at its peak, when it was an intellectual magazine as well as a pinup, when people really did subscribe to it for the articles. But it was also when the Playboy Clubs were ridiculously popular and Nora Ephron was told that “women don’t write at Newsweek.”

I pictured my mom in a tight sweater typing away, wishing the world would change. Was this right? She agreed to an interview and the following conversation occurred by email over the course of several days.


Jessica Francis Kane: Mom, how did you get a job at Playboy?

Mom: I signed on with a firm that sent me on interviews to companies with empty positions to fill. My second interview was with Playboy. The head secretary, her name was Joan, gave the screening interview and the typing test. She was just as beautiful as the one on Mad Men, but more elegant, none of us dressed that sexily. Well, skirts were short, getting shorter, and tight, and most of us had hourglass figures now that I think about it. Anyway, I met with her approval, so she sent me on to be interviewed by the head ad man. The ad men were all men, no breakthrough female, and they were, of course, selling ad space in the magazine. Playboy was in its heyday, the club was a huge success. I was notified the next morning by the hiring firm that the job was mine if I wanted it. I was intrigued, and Joan and I had hit it off right away, so I said yes. I worked there for a little more than a year, from September of ’63 to November of ’64.

JFK: What was it like to be a woman (and, Mom, you were gorgeous) in such a sexy workplace at such a weird time for women?

Mom: It was very exciting! There was not a more jaw-dropping job in the city for a young woman at that time. I had to be very careful when meeting someone new, however. Dad… we started dating the summer of ’63 before I was hired, so Dad knew me and thought it was a hoot. All the secretaries dressed very nicely, conservatively. Some spoke with the accents of their homes, Bronx, Brooklyn. I had no accent, so it was always assumed I was English! I had fun, Jessie, dated a lot, so many wonderful dinner dates. The date always paid, Dutch treat was unheard of—at least by me. Joan and I saved a great deal of money on food.

JFK: Joan became your roommate?

Mom: Yes, my roommate and later maid of honor. We got a very small apartment between Park and Lex in the low 60s. A converted brownstone. We had the rear apartment on the third floor with windows overlooking a tree in the courtyard. We loved that tree. The landlord was a single, handsome man in his thirties. I think he was wealthy, I don’t remember him working. He was determined to date either Joan or me, he didn’t care which, but we could not stand him. We were afraid we were going to have to move, but he got the idea, finally.

The Playboy offices were 10 blocks downtown. We walked, Joan and I, in our high heels. It was great. We had one single bed each, some kitchen stuff, Joan’s small kitten, our all-important clothes and that was it. No furniture, no TV. We truly were there just to sleep and wash our hair. We were awfully popular, so lots of dates. It was hard for young women to find other young women to live with in the city. All the other secretaries lived with their parents or near home and they were so envious of Joan and me. We had good jobs, made good money, and this is why Sex and the City drives me crazy—it is so false and misleading, unlike Mad Men.

There was another firm on our floor and we would sometimes meet those secretaries by the elevator and they would mumble and actually lower their eyes!

JFK: Um, did you really all have hourglass figures?

Mom: Yep, we really did. We wore body-hugging skirts, blouses with bows at the neck, and suits, if we could afford them. Women, even secretaries, wore suits. But mostly skirts and blouses and dresses. It was not very comfortable, especially sitting in those skirts. They would ride up, of course. But we all dressed very formally, always. Men: suit and tie, and that’s a proper suit, no jackets and slacks. Women: girdle, stockings, high heels, always. No sneakers to walk to work; we would not have been caught dead in them.

JFK: What was the office environment like?

Mom: Sexual overtones were in the air, like breathing. It was the culture, not just at Playboy. Women were objects of desire, period. However, this was the office of a highly successful magazine and we were expected to work well and professionally and we all did. There were, as I remember, five of us, including the head secretary. We sat in a line at our desks in a large room and the ad men’s offices opened behind us. Each ad man had a small office, but with a window overlooking Park Avenue, a nice desk, chairs for visitors. We each worked for two or three ad men directly. There was flirting, innuendo, double entendre all the time, but rarely was it serious. It became serious only if the woman allowed it in the work place and this hardly ever happened. Not at Playboy while I was there, but certainly somewhere, and abortions were illegal. I knew one young woman who flew from New York City to Mexico for one.

JFK: How did people react when you told them you were a secretary at Playboy?

Mom: Men with double takes, truly, and undisguised curiosity. Women with a “You are kidding, how awful” attitude. I quickly changed their thinking. It was fun working there, Jessie, and fun seeing people’s reactions. There was another firm on our floor and we would sometimes meet those secretaries by the elevator and they would mumble and actually lower their eyes! We thought it was hysterical.

JFK: Did you ever go to the club?

Mom: No, we never went to the club. We actually considered ourselves superior. Bunny costumes? Really. We were the serious ones. Without our successful office there would be no magazine, and no club. We never even had Christmas parties together. Our advertising offices were very insular.

JFK: Did you read the magazine?

Mom: Yes, we all did, at the office. After all, it was the pieces and the ads that made it interesting. This was the mantra, and it was true, too. The articles were forward thinking and well written. However, we would not ever have been seen buying one at a newsstand.

JFK: What did you like about your job?

Mom: The people. We were all so young and really sweet and innocent. So strange as I look back, because we felt so grown-up and elegant and sophisticated. We weren’t. We got along so well, the girls together and the girls and the men. We respected each other and we got the job done. We were all very nice to each other. So many offices are not that way, but I didn’t know that then.

JFK: What didn’t you like?

Mom: A lot of the transcribing was repetitive, very boring. But we had an hour for lunch and we were in a wonderful part of Manhattan, near the park, the Plaza, Fifth Avenue. So many windows to look in. It was like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but without the bad parts. Joan and I would get a sandwich to eat and walk. Tuna or egg salad, or a warm bagel or roasted chestnuts in the winter. We never had a weight problem with all that walking, never even thought about it. Also, the men were funny, respectful, and they would share funny stories about their sales visits. Sometimes one of us would go to a corner store on Lex to get buttermilk for them before one of those three-martini lunches. They really were just as depicted on Mad Men, but the men did not always stay sober. Joan and I quickly learned not to accept any lunch dates.

JFK: On the one hand, Mom, you say “Women were objects of desire, period.” On the other hand, you say the men and women respected each other and worked professionally. Are these extremes possible?

Mom: Yes. Absolutely. I meant objects of desire, generally. The Playboy Club, for example. I sent you a link which shows women’s lib started slowly in the late ’60s, then went ballistic. Those of us who remember its beginnings are extremely sorry about the reputation it has now. It produced you, Jessie. I was a women’s libber on your behalf, for you. You were going to be as capable as any man and no one was going to send you to secretarial school against your wishes, or tell you that’s the only way you can support yourself.

JFK: Could you have imagined an office where sexual innuendo wasn’t constantly in the air? Would you and your co-secretaries have liked that?

Mom: I could imagine it because Weissberger & Frosch [an entertainment law firm where she worked before and after Playboy —ed.] was totally sexual-innuendo free. Extremely boring atmosphere and work: legal briefs, contracts, typing and more typing, facing a blank wall. But then, say, Richard Burton or Robert Goulet would enter and the air was charged from the minute they walked in. Flowers for Louise [the head secretary] from Goulet; a hug and kiss for her from Burton, and then a wink for me. All the women sat straighter, smiled more on those occasions. So, we women were just as prone to noticing good-looking men as the men were at noticing a magnificent Claire Bloom, or an adorable Shirley Jones, or us.

Playboy was so exciting: clients, those martini lunches, the stories that came from them. The sexual innuendo was not necessarily a bad thing, nor was actual flirting. Awkward, embarrassing, emotionally painful, or crass approaches were not welcome or allowed by anyone at Playboy, men or women. And they did not happen. But a job-well-done hug, or a “happy birthday” kiss on the cheek, or a compliment on a dress, these were not given a second thought. None of them are allowed today, I gather. Joan and I and all the girls appreciated the positive, job-well-done aspect. But of course, if we had been men, none of this would have occurred, so yes the behavior was geared toward hardworking, good-looking, young, single women.

You were going to be as capable as any man and no one was going to send you to secretarial school against your wishes, or tell you that’s the only way you can support yourself.

JFK: Did the men at the office ever joke about women’s lib, and if so, in what tones?

Mom: No, it was not on anyone’s radar, not in the early ’60s, not at Playboy magazine, anyway. Goodness, wasn’t this when Gloria Steinem was working at the Playboy Club? Admittedly, she said the resulting magazine article was the reason for the job. Betty Friedan’s the Feminine Mystique was published in ’63. I married Dad in May of ’65 and the phrase did not exist to my knowledge, not in my life anyway. We secretaries at Playboy were very advanced and liberal, not every young woman in the early ’60s would have worked there.

JFK: Were any of your co-secretaries career women, or were they all just working until they got married?

Mom: Two wanted to sell ad space in the magazine, but no woman would ever have been hired at that time to make the rounds. But maybe they eventually got their wish, attitudes did change ultimately. (By the way, I politely object to the phrasing above, the “just working until.” Take out the just and I am OK with it.)

JFK: What would you have said if I came home after college and told you I’d gotten a job at Playboy?

Mom: I would have said, “But… but it isn’t considered forward, or exciting, or risqué any longer! You won’t be considered interesting or especially liberal because it’s Playboy.” No, I would have said, “Congratulations! Good for you. In New York, right?” (Hefner and mansion are in LA. That, I might have worried about.)

JFK: After you married Dad, you left New York. You went from the center of sexy publishing in New York, to Ann Arbor, and later Berkeley, where you stopped working when I was born in 1971. What were those transitions like?

Mom: Oh boy. After our honeymoon I started working as a secretary at the University of Michigan. The hours were eight to five! (At Playboy, they were nine to five, lovely New York hours). We only had Thanksgiving Day off, not the Friday after, only Christmas Eve afternoon and Christmas Day, not a lovely few days. The work climate was truly no fun. And it was so hard for me to be at work at eight! But, it was a busy university town. Lots to do, as you know. And somehow calmer, quieter. I had been ready to leave New York in many ways.

JFK: You were a stay-at-home mom in an era when lots of women were trying to have families and careers, too. Were you happy?

Mom: I had worked as an extra in movies and on TV. I’d earned money as a bonded worker in the box office of Westport Playhouse, worked in New York City and at the University of Michigan. Ten years all added up… enough. Now I was going to raise you and D. Was I happy? You and D and Dad were all I ever wanted. I know, I should have wanted more, but that was not me, and it was in fact very few women of my generation. Was I happy? Yes. There is little I would change. Thank God we lived in Ann Arbor come to think of it. Suburbia, oh lord, it would have killed me for sure. Ann Arbor was as small as I could have taken.

JFK: Did you tell the mothers in Ann Arbor and Berkeley that you’d worked at Playboy?

Mom: It certainly gave me a mysterious air because of silly assumptions people made. I was not in the centerfold office, or the editorial office, I was in the all important revenue office. But I looked the part. All the secretaries did. I did not realize it then, but I now think it may have been part of the hiring requirements. When it did come up, right after our arrival in Berkeley, I was in the last trimester with you. I always got a strange look and a “Really!?” When I got my figure back, it was “And which month were you?” Always, always. Men were slow to catch on to the new manners of “equality.” After all these shenanigans, men and women usually wanted to know what it was like in advertising, in New York City. As much as anything it was the New York part first, Playboy second. Oh, and did I meet any of the centerfolds? The answer is no, never, not any.

JFK: What do you think of the fact that it took me so long to start watching Mad Men, a show I know you love?

Mom: I am very glad you are now. It made me sad. It hurt my feelings. I had so highly recommended it and I didn’t—don’t—understand what took so long.

JFK: Are you remembering that we didn’t have a TV for a few years and that you hardly ever read the books I recommend?

Mom: No matter. You were very busy and you didn’t know what you were missing. Also, maybe you were afraid. Your mom had told you, “My God, this was my life.” That could be scary, maybe.

JFK: I’m going to catch up this summer and then we can watch season six together in the fall.

Mom: That makes me very happy.