The Fabulous (and Sometimes Dead-End) Opportunity of Being an Assistant

Photo by Peas

Nearly every exclusive field runs on assistants. The actor James Franco, like Buddha before him, had an assistant keep track of his meals and school assignments. The critic and writer Daphne Merkin has employed a steady stream of Ivy-educated elves. They’re tasked with everything from editing to returning dead houseplants. Bestselling novelist John Irving (The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany) has an assistant who types up his roughly twenty-five pages of handwritten manuscript a day. He recruits exclusively from liberal arts schools in cold climates like Middlebury and Vassar, to ensure his hires can survive the winter at his home in Dorset, Vermont. During the 2008 presidential season, recent Harvard grad Eric Lesser impressed senior advisor to the president, David Axelrod, with his color-coded system for tracking Obama’s campaign luggage. Lesser was taken on as Axelrod’s “special assistant,” assuming responsibility for everything from supervising his boss’s diet to organizing the first-ever presidential Seder.

—At Dissent, Francesca Mari examines the rise of the personal assistant. Creatives take assistant positions to network with professionals in their fields and to go behind-the-scenes in their craft. But it can’t last forever: Whereas internships might one day result in full-time employment, the role of the assistant stagnates in the end: “The worst thing to be called,” [Darren] Aronofsky’s assistant told me, long after he’d moved on, “is a really good assistant.”  (h/t Michelle Legro)

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