Nan Robertson

I’m sure there will be many words written about Nan Robertson and her personal struggles with toxic shock and alcoholism, but I read today about her death with a tinge of sadness.  Nan Robertson is responsible for what may be my only appearance (other than as a comentator on blogs) in the New York Times.

It was Miami 1972.  I a proud McGovern delegate to the Democratic National Convention.  She stopped me as I was making my way onto the floor and asked if she could interview me for a story about what women were wearing at the convention.  Mind you, I’ve never been a fashionista, but I was young and flattered.   I don’t have the link to that old article, but I have a copy. (Page 48, July 12, 1972)

Maya Hasegawa, a 25-year-old, tiny delegate from Richmond, Va, had suited up in a tank top and pants, with sunglasses perched atop her glossy locks.  “I’ve been marching since I was 13 years old,” she said proudly, “I’ve been very active in the peace and civil rights movements.”

And there is a picture of me, too – a head shot.  Everyone I know was excited.  And she spelled my name correctly which made my family happy.

She didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize for writing that paragraph about me, she won for her New York Times Magazine article about toxic shock which she suffer in 1981 .

The article unsparingly described the author’s swift, brutal encounter with the illness, which resulted in the partial amputation of eight fingers:
I went dancing the night before in a black velvet Paris gown, on one of those evenings that was the glamour of New York epitomized. I was blissfully asleep at 3 A.M.

“Twenty-four hours later, I lay dying, my fingers and legs darkening with gangrene.”

But I admired her book The Girls in the Balcony most of all. 

Ms. Robertson, who after a grueling rehabilitation was able to resume her career, wrote two books. The first, “Getting Better: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous” (Morrow, 1988), was both a history of the organization and a narrative of the author’s recovery from alcoholism. The second, “The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and The New York Times” (Random House, 1992), was in part about the suit brought by female employees against the newspaper in 1974.

Reviewing “The Girls in the Balcony” in The New York Times Book Review, Arlie Russell Hochschild called it a “warm, salty, wisecracking book.”

In 1963, Ms. Robertson began a decade as a reporter in the Washington bureau of The Times, where, as she said in an interview many years later, her de facto job description was to cover the “first lady, her children and their dogs.” Her years in Washington would furnish her with the title of “The Girls in the Balcony,” a reference to the cramped, second-story space in the National Press Club to which female journalists were then relegated.

“The Girls in the Balcony” was an account of the events surrounding Elizabeth Boylan et al. v. The New York Times, a federal class-action suit filed on behalf of 550 women at The Times over inequities including pay, assignments and advancement. (Ms. Robertson was not among the seven named plaintiffs in the suit.) In 1978, the suit was settled out of court for $350,000, with The Times agreeing to an affirmative-action plan.

(Nan Robertson in 1982 at the Times.)

Nan Roberton may have been sent to cover fashion at the 1972 Convention and give me a monment of fame, but she will be remembered by me  for very much more than that.

The “Recovery”

It is just before 6 am and I logged on to the New York Times.  Two headlines say it all:

“Federal Pay Czar Tries Again to Trim A.I.G. Bonuses”  and  “Still on the Job, But Making Only Half as Much”

The first story is about the difficulties in getting A.I.G to reduce or not pay $198 million to employees of the trading unit.  The same unit that is part of the cause of this recession.

But the Treasury’s special master for compensation, Kenneth Feinberg, is running into legal hurdles because those bonuses fall outside new rules against bonus payments at companies receiving government assistance. The bonus agreements at issue were struck before last year’s emergency rescues by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, and thus are not directly covered by the new rules.

The problem is a recurring one. A.I.G. payments early this year to the same employees elicited public outrage, though government officials said then that they had little legal authority to rescind pre-existing contracts.

The second story is about people who still have jobs, but have taken deep pay cuts and/or demotions in pay grade to keep their jobs.

In recent decades, layoffs were the standard procedure for shrinking labor costs. Reducing the wages of those who remained on the job was considered demoralizing and risky: the best workers would jump to another employer. But now pay cuts, sometimes the result of downgrades in rank or shortened workweeks, are occurring more frequently than at any time since the Great Depression.

State workers in Georgia are taking home smaller paychecks. So are the tens of thousands of employees in California’s public university system. The steel company Nucor and the technology giant Hewlett-Packard have embraced the practice. So have several airlines and many small businesses.

Let’s face it.  AIG is not solely responsible for the economic crisis.  Many of the rest of us were also riding high and spending beyond our means. The couple in the paycut story is an example.  Both seem to have their self esteem tied up in the amount of money they make. 

But most of the rest of the world must now scale back while a company which played a large role in the collapse still gives out bonuses.  Makes you wonder.  Hope the bonus recipients save the money for their rainy day.