How To Treat the Help?

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

Twenty-five years ago I got fired. I had been employed as a thrice-a-week afternoon babysitter for the two-year-old daughter of a prosperous young matron, who used the free time to run errands or nap. I never met the little girl’s father, but I talked to him regularly. At least once a week, usually more often than that, the phone would ring thirty minutes after my arrival, and he would give me a message for his wife: he was working late in the city and wouldn’t be home for dinner. I would duly report these facts—often as an afterthought, while the wife was fishing in her purse for my pay—and she would take the news stoically, heaving a brave little sigh and nodding.

One day I showed up for work, gave the little girl a hug—we were fond of each other—and then settled the two of us down in the playroom. I made her a castle out of large cardboard blocks, and once she was happily playing inside it, I opened my French textbook and started to read. At no point did it cross my mind that by doing this I was in dereliction of duty. I was raised with my mother close by, but not hovering. Ditto my Saturday-night babysitters, whom I adored and who often did their homework as they sat beside me on the couch in the TV room. Anyway, while the little girl and I were enjoying the peaceful afternoon, the playroom door suddenly swung open—it was clearly a sting operation—and my boss glared at the scene as though she’d caught me in flagrante with the gardener while her child played with matches. I was sent home, and two hours later I was fired over the telephone. (“You were supposed to be playing with her, not studying,” she told me—perfectly reasonable, but I hadn’t known that’s what she wanted.)

So there I was: an eighteen-year-old college freshman who felt humiliated and angry, cut to the quick by a woman I had admired. When she’d been out running her errands, I would put the girl on my hip and wander through the large rooms of the house and imagine what it would be like to be married, to have a home and a baby of my own. I hadn’t taken the job because I needed money. At that time, I received a generous allowance from my parents, which arrived in my campus mailbox each month in the form of a check, cut and signed by their accountant. I had taken the job for the same reason I started babysitting at age eleven, for fifty cents an hour: because I liked children, and I liked being a contributing member of a household. And now I’d been shamed and fired. There was only one recourse: telling all my friends about the husband’s phone calls (“Maybe he’s having an affair!” someone said, which hadn’t occurred to me, but which quickly became the top line) and throwing in a few other facts of my former employers’ domestic lives, which I had either imbibed or discovered. (What babysitter in the world hasn’t idly pulled open a bedside drawer or peeked into a medicine cabinet?) Two weeks later, the woman’s name and phone number reappeared in the binder of babysitting jobs that was kept in the student employment office, and I drew a red line through it with a Flair pen. Over it I wrote, “Bad Family.”

In reviewing these facts, I would have to put myself in the category of “behaved badly” and my boss in the category of “had it coming.” If she had wanted different behavior from me, she could easily have gotten it, and if she’d wanted me out of the house, she could have finessed it without my being any the wiser. I’m old enough now—much older than she was when she fired me—to realize that the husband’s telephone calls, and the sting operation, and the outraged sacking, were not unrelated events. Through no fault of my own, and through the essential nature of the job, I had landed myself squarely in the middle of an unhappy domestic episode, and that fact had done me no favors when the time came to evaluate my work. But I’m also old enough to realize that in the particular imbalance of power that marks the mother/ babysitter relationship, an ugly falling-out usually leaves the employee with no artillery but her knowledge of the other woman’s private life. Hence “Bad Family,” and hence also You’ll Never Nanny in This Town Again, the confessional of a woman named Suzanne Hansen, who once spent an unhappy year caring for the three children of then-formidable Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz, co-founder of Creative Artists Agency, and his wife, Judy.

Hansen was a competent child-care provider, an unrepentant snoop, and a star-fucker extraordinaire, and she has produced a trash book of fearsome quality. The story takes place in the late eighties, when Ovitz was at the height of his powers and when Hansen, an eighteen- year-old who had recently graduated from a nanny training program in Oregon, eagerly moved to Los Angeles, “land of milk, honey, sunshine, and money.” She interviewed with a nanny agency and was quickly dispatched to the Ovitzes’ Brentwood manor house. She was hired at once, moving into a room next to the nursery and carrying out her duties with an efficiency that left plenty of time for a first-rate surveillance operation. She eavesdropped on the Ovitzes’ telephone conversations, looked through their mail and searched for financial papers, and conjectured about the nature of their sexual relationship. In her reflective hours, she holed up in her room, recording her findings in a diary. In short, a legendarily ruthless player got stuck with the world’s most repellent nanny, and now here she is—almost twenty years older, a mother herself—telling every secret thing.

Her portrait of the private Ovitz is consistent with what one has read about the public man: he was tireless, fastidious to the point of priggery, and obsessed by notions of loyalty and betrayal. His dedication to his clients extended even to the way his household was run: the front and side doors were never to be locked (the book is several times enlivened by the arrival, through one of these doors, of a movie star), and there was no telephone answering machine or service—every call was answered personally. Once, in his eagerness to return a call to Robert Redford, he dived into Hansen’s bed so that he could snatch the closest extension. When he rang off, he seemed suddenly to come to his senses, jumping up, fussily straightening the coverlet, and thanking Hansen, who was perched at the foot of the bed. The book’s single best moment occurs when the Ovitzes lunge upon a recently delivered anniversary gift from the Eisners, ripping the box open in a frenzy of greed and glee and then rocking back in horror at its contents: a stuffed Minnie and Mickey.

Judy is a more difficult character to assess, because—like every nanny in history—Hansen was obsessed with her mistress, and the reader needs to tease the facts about her from the miasma of anger, hurt feelings, and imagined slights in which they are suspended. The arrangement seems to have consisted of Judy’s doing the lion’s share of caring for her two school-age children (one of whom took an immediate—and apparently prescient—dislike to Hansen), with Hansen being responsible for the youngest, an infant. She was also charged with caring for the older two during the afternoons and evenings when Judy had social engagements. Judy was an at-home mom of a certain stripe: not single-mindedly devoted to her children’s care, but far more involved with their daily lives than many women of her wealth and social position. Hansen is censorious of every moment Judy spends away from her kids, but it seems to me that if you disapprove of mothers relying on hired help, you shouldn’t take a job as a live-in nanny for a prominent society woman.

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.

I grew up in Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s, and every housewife I knew had a once-a-week “cleaning lady,” the title itself an oxymoron that revealed perfectly the ambivalence the employers had about hiring help. The cleaning ladies were black; most wore uniforms, and all were the tolerant beneficiaries of an exaggerated white liberal guilt that lent itself to diatribes about the importance of integrating the schools, but not to relaxed standards concerning the proper way to wax and buff a hardwood floor.

Beyond that, my experience with hired help came from books and the movies, until I spent several years of my early adult life under the sway of a woman who had always had servants and who had been raised in a house full of them in the Deep South. She taught me how to treat the weekly cleaning person who came to my New Orleans shotgun house once a week: I was always to pay her, even if I was out of town and didn’t need her services (“Just because you don’t need her doesn’t mean she doesn’t need her check”); I was to be unconcerned and gracious about broken dishes or chipped candlesticks (“Whoever does the cleaning is going to do the breaking”); and I was to understand that it was the way of domestic workers to fall short of money, and the obligation of householders to get them out of scrapes. I came to appreciate that the various trials of the employee’s life were very much my business, that ours was inherently an association of unequals, and that decency demanded that I keep that uppermost in my mind and behave accordingly.

Then, eight years ago—no longer in New Orleans—I received the exciting and terrifying news that I was pregnant with twins. It was highly recommended by everyone I knew—including the nurse at the pediatrician’s office—that I get some “help” for the first year of their lives, at least. At the time, I was living in a cramped duplex apartment beside a construction site, here in Los Angeles, lacking many of the accoutrements—dishwasher, dining room, off-street parking—that normally signify middle-class life. Until fairly recently in America, this would not have been considered an ideal time to begin employing servants. But the vast and apparently untrammeled arrival of immigrants to this country—combined with our yawning need for child care and the stubborn human tendency toward laziness—has allowed a massive new servant culture to spring up in less than two decades. It is a culture in which people with no experience of having staff in their homes are becoming the employers of small retinues of servants—the nanny, the once-a-week housecleaner, the cheap “mow, blow, and go” gardener with his truckload of day workers. It is also a culture in which the servants oftentimes have no previous experience of a life in service (many were factory or agricultural workers in their native countries; many are educated). They are, moreover, cowed not only by their employer’s power over them but also by the fact that they are quite often in this country illegally and thus loath to make waves. It is a system that lends itself to extraordinary acts of generosity: I have known women who have immediately taken a deep interest in the lives and families of their nannies, finding jobs for husbands, straightening out bewildering immigration problems, sending children to their own pediatricians—and paying the bill—when a troubling symptom turns up. And, too, it is a system rife with the possibility of exploitation and virtual human bondage: all over this city there are upper-middle-class households in which a back bedroom is occupied by a female illegal immigrant who is terrified of being deported, who is paid almost nothing, and who is on duty twenty-four hours a day.

So there I was with my twins and my efficiency kitchen and my full-time nanny, and immediately the relationship entered territory I had never known before. I spent more time talking with her—a woman who had up to then been a stranger, a woman whom I was paying to spend time with me—than I did with my husband or any of my friends. Many of our most casual conversations caused me to feel extreme guilt. Among all the poor women I’d known, she was the first in whose miseries I was directly implicated. Certainly she would have had fewer difficulties if I doubled her wages—and fewer still if I quadrupled them. But I was paying her exactly what she’d asked for, and had happily thrown in the money for a bus pass when she asked for that, too. Confusion and guilt ruled the day. With little forethought, I had entered, with my nanny, the brand-new population of servants, masters, and mistresses, and discovered that the age-old problem of the rich—how to treat the help?—had become the brand-new problem of middle-class types like me. (The problem itself falls into two parts: legal and emotional. Both are fraught with complexity, ambiguity, contradictions—not least that many employers are so conflicted about having a servant that they try not to think about the fact too much, a dodge that helps no one.) What was my right relationship to my domestic staff? As much as I had admired my former mentor, the servant culture of the Deep South—even at its most decent—was hardly the moral template I wanted to shape my behavior around. More was required of me, and I knew it.

As Cheryl Mendelson notes in Home Comforts, her superb compendium of household management, “Few laws protect domestic employees on the job, but those few deserve our scrupulous observance.” Mendelson points out that most domestic workers take on jobs with “no health benefits, no pension plans, no vacation pay, no job security, no hope of advancement, and no redress for grievances and injustices except to leave a job they may desperately need.” The first way to do right by these people, to make their service less indentured, is to pay their Social Security set-asides—a legal requirement, although you’d hardly know it judging from the number of people who dodge it. It is not, of course, a benefit without cost to the employee. She will have to declare her income, and—above a certain level—she’ll be taxed on it. Fair enough: like anyone else, nannies use public services—schools and parks and police protection—and these things aren’t paid for by the king. They’re paid for by all of us.

Far thornier is the fact that this is a commercial transaction from which parents desperately, if selectively, want emotional results. In hiring a nanny, they’re asking—if you’ll forgive the pun—a relative stranger to love (and tolerate, and indulge, and tend to) their children as the children’s own mother or father would, for money. In short, they’re trying to purchase what ultimately can’t be bought. Furthermore, this love train is expected to travel only select routes. For instance, how many parents—while asking an employee to love them and their children like family—can promise the employee that they will be there for her in her old age, just as they would be for actual family members? Or—less dramatic, but perhaps more pressing—how many parents ask the employee to eat dinner with the family? Having the help dine apart from the family is the natural inclination of many householders, and it was certainly not a harsh requirement a century ago, when well-staffed houses had several servants, who kept company and ate dinner together in the kitchen. But if a nanny works long hours, and if there is no one to eat dinner with—if she is left alone in the kitchen with her plate night after night—she will not grow ever fonder of you, or the situation you have put her in. You can’t expect a mother’s love from a woman you occasionally treat like a scullery maid. Indeed, she will spend a lot of time thinking about how unwelcome and awkward she feels, and—while you are blithely going about your life, never expecting to be broadsided by a nanny crisis—she will begin quietly and purposefully looking for another job. One Monday morning, when you’re half out the door to work, waiting for her to arrive, the phone will ring, and she will tell you that her mother is sick in El Salvador or that her brother has been in an accident in Guatemala and that she is leaving the country for a while—an indeterminate amount of time—and that she will call you when she returns. But she won’t return; at least not to your home. What a lot she’ll have to talk about.

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.