Books June 2006

How To Treat the Help?

The age-old problem of the rich has become the brand-new problem of the middle class

The emotional heart of the book is meant to be the cruelty and derision Hansen suffered at the Ovitzes’ hands, but on the evidence she presents, they hardly seem like monsters, either as parents or employers. Like most Hollywood titans, Ovitz was extremely proud of his children and—given the extent of his professional commitments—spent a considerable amount of time with them. (It may not be every little boy’s dream to have a dad who tells his secretary that he will “ALWAYS” take your call, but if you’re Michael Ovitz’s kid, that’s as sure a sign of love as any.) He was generous with Hansen, picking up the tab when she took a friend to Spago, giving her courtside Lakers seats, and paying for her to have a manicure from the beautician his wife frequented. When Hansen’s sister wanted to move to Los Angeles, he gave her a job in the CAA accounting office.

The association ended badly, however. Soon after Hansen had pocketed the huge check she was given for Christmas (the Ovitzes rewarded their personal staff the way Michael rewarded his agents: with lavish end-of-year bonuses, based on performance), she threw in the towel and quit. Michael tried to cajole her into staying longer, but she could not be moved, and in his last turn on the stage he is seen stomping down the staircase of his mansion, shouting to nobody, “This has really fucked up my week!” His threat that Hansen would never get another nanny job was empty. Actors are talent, but good nannies are stars. The best of them often come without references, because of the tendency for such jobs to end badly. Hansen was soon back in the saddle, first with Debra Winger, and then with Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman.

Hansen’s book falls squarely into an established, if minor, literary genre: the nanny confessional. In early 1950, Marion Crawford, who had been governess to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret for sixteen years, was commissioned by Ladies’ Home Journal to write a series of articles about her employers. Later that year, the essays were released as a book, The Little Princesses, and it became an immediate sensation, an international best seller that has been reprinted and rediscovered several times since then. And for good reason: it’s terrific. Novelistic and carefully plotted, it has pitch-perfect attention to the kind of details—of dress and of food and of housekeeping on the grandest level imaginable—that have evermore commanded the feminine imagination. The writing is wonderful, clear and unsentimental, and the book’s descriptions of nursery life are often profound. “It is impossible,” wrote Crawford, “to convey to anyone who has not known it the comfort and security those old-fashioned nurseries had.” The nursery is “a world in miniature, a state within a state.”

The essays were ghostwritten, and although the real author’s identity remains a mystery, he or she was clearly influenced by Rebecca, which had been published a dozen years earlier to enduring success. Both narrators were granted privileged glimpses into the lives of the well-to-do, and they shared the sensitivities of the outsider, cataloguing every china teacup and silver fork, running their fingers over thick damask and silk, taking it all in. They were supernumeraries, literary handmaidens to the main characters, with whom they had become obsessed.

The success of The Little Princesses was sufficient to give publishers the impetus for producing another book of its kind. There was no shortage of former nannies willing to spill the beans for a price; the problem was locating a set of charges who were already the objects of tremendous public affection and whose daily routines were conducted within the framework of historic events of international consequence. So it was not until 1965 that a second such volume was produced. White House Nannie, the account of Maud Shaw, who was for seven years the nanny to Caroline and John Kennedy Jr., was published two years after their father’s assassination, when the national hunger for information about the children had reached its zenith.

Shaw grew up in Malta, worked briefly as a nanny in England, Iran, and Egypt, and then moved to the States, hoping to take advantage of the American preference for English governesses. She was delighted to hire on with the handsome young senator and his wellborn wife. The three of them were made for one another. She treated them with the elaborate formality that the Kennedys pretended to abjure but secretly adored. (For example, she insisted on calling him “Senator Kennedy,” out of the belief “that if a person has a title, one ought to use it.”) They, in turn, treated her with the unerring decency and kindness that the privileged classes often reserve for their servants (and less frequently for one another). Jackie—who had been raised in a house full of servants, among them formally trained nannies—made it clear that she understood the most important point of pride to a nanny: that she is there to care for the children and no one else. “The seven and a half years I was with her,” Shaw reported admiringly, “she never asked me to as much as pick up a pin for her. Even in the White House, she never once asked me to do anything that was not strictly within my province.”

The differences between the worlds described in The Little Princesses and White House Nannie and that in You’ll Never Nanny in This Town Again are legion. Marion Crawford and Maud Shaw were employed by families who existed within social spheres—English royalty and the so-called American aristocracy, respectively—in which servant culture has a long history and in which employer and employee share a code of how they should behave toward one another. Expectations regarding attire, duties, forms of address—all were made manifestly clear. There’s nothing like a rigid class system to keep the potentially explosive territory of servanthood in check. But Suzanne Hansen was thrown into an entirely different culture: that of the Hollywood elite. It is a tiny community but a wildly heterogeneous one, composed of vulgarians and charmers, hucksters and geniuses, the near illiterate and the astonishingly erudite. It is a group of people almost bereft of shared values, save one: liberal politics of a kind entirely at odds with the notion of even having servants, let alone uniformed and regimented ones. Giving Hansen no notion of what she was to wear to work, and no clothing allowance, the Ovitzes unwittingly put her in many distinctly uncomfortable situations, the kind that uniformed servants of old never encountered. What was she supposed to wear on a first-class flight, for instance, or at an expensive resort, or to a star-studded Malibu party to which the children had been invited?

The Ovitzes’ mistakes were twofold: Hansen was too young and inexperienced for the responsibilities they gave her; and they were unwilling or unable to acknowledge that, as employers of someone working intimately in their household, they had obligations far beyond those of the traditional employer. According to Hansen, she was on duty twenty-four hours a day, required not only to care for the children in their waking hours but also to get up with the baby in the night. People of the Ovitzes’ station should have known that this is not the done thing; a second nanny should have been hired for nights, or Judy should have taken them on herself. Wrung out and peevish, Hansen started behaving badly. At one point she became so frustrated with the boy who disliked her that she got into a minor food fight with him. Grandpa Ovitz caught her in the act and put her on a time-out—a reasonable enough solution for the old codger, but Hansen was so humiliated that she stomped out to the pool like an angry teenager (which of course is exactly what she was). When a wealthy woman hires an eighteen-year-old girl as a live-in nanny, she has bought herself some help, but she has also—if she is a decent person—given herself the responsibility of taking a motherly interest in the young person. Leaving the girl to stew in her unhappiness was a grave mistake—one that led to several ugly incidents with the children and, ultimately, to the publication of this revenge book.

Presented by

Caitlin Flanagan has contributed to The Atlantic’s books section since 2000. A portion of this essay is drawn from her new book, To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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