Meryl Streep is a pussycat

Meryl Streep nearly got an Academy Award this year for playing a willful, demanding boss who rules her fashion magazine domain with an iron fist in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Many reviewers called her the “boss from Hell” or the “world’s worst boss.” In the movie, she makes employees pick up her dry cleaning and deliver it to her house at 10 p.m. She calls her assistant at night and on weekends. She changes long-set schedules at the last minute. Bad boss? Nightmare boss? Hardly. She’s a cupcake compared to many of the bosses who’ve fired me.

I walked past an editor’s desk years ago while he was screaming into the phone, swearing oath upon oath, his face contorted in rage. I’d been on the receiving end of that phone call more than once and had nothing but pity for the poor miserable victim on the other end of that line. The last thing he screamed before he slammed down the phone was, “If you ever call here again, I’ll come over there and stick my fist down your mouth and pull your heart out through your throat!”

“Who was that?” I whispered to his secretary.

“His Mom,” she whispered back. I went back to my desk and started updating my resume.

One boss I worked for would call the office in the middle of the night and leave two or three hours worth of memos and notes on a special answering machine he had installed. The machine could hold eight hours worth of messages. In the morning all his midnight ramblings had to be typed and on his desk by 8 a.m.. Several times, especially on the weekends, the machine would run out of tape long before he was finished. As far as I know, not one of these very important ideas was ever used in the business.

In “The Devil Wears Prada,” Streep expects her assistants to bring her coffee morning, noon and night. This is how we know she is evil. Apparently, it’s OK for waiters and waitresses to bring you coffee and for airline attendants to bring you coffee and for the host of a dinner party to bring you coffee, but if you ask your 22-year-old, clueless assistant on her first job to get you coffee, you are Satan’s evil twin.

“What do you think I am, some kind of servant?” Well ... yes. I had one boss who hired an assistant just to fill out his extensive expense account reports. Because every moment he spent doing his expense account was a minute he could not be out spending even more of the company’s money. The entire time I worked for him, I never filed one expense report. It was highly discouraged. They eventually had an Enron moment, but Mr. Expense Account landed another job the same day. All the business lunches he had expensing had been job interviews with other companies.

Another publisher felt he wasn’t doing his job unless he sent his assistant home in tears every day. You may ask why she stayed. Because, underneath the tears, she was much tougher and smarter than he was. Today she runs a big New York City advertising agency. As far as I know, the publisher’s magazine has never gotten one ad from any of her clients. Never will.

One division head I worked for would leave the office for lunch and loudly tell his secretary that he’d be back at 1:30. At 1:30 he’d call her and say he’d be back at 2:30. At 3, he’d call and schedule a department head meeting for 4:15. At 4:30 he’d call and say he was tied up and reschedule the meeting for tomorrow morning at 9. He usually pulled this stunt on Friday afternoons, but sometimes he’d do it on other days of the week. And every now and then, he really would come back to the office. Because his employees believed he was coming back, he kept the entire office from slacking off, even though he was gone for the day. It was always an Academy Award performance.

Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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