Frances Dodds | Longreads | April 2019 | 23 minutes (5636 words)
I’d responded to the Author’s anonymous posting on Craigslist, and when I showed up to the interview, I still didn’t know who I’d be speaking with. I was 23, in grad school in New York, piecing together my rent with odd jobs. The month before, I’d replied to an equally opaque Craigslist ad and found myself wobbling over cobblestones in stilettos, club promoting for a man known to the Meatpacking District only as “Doc.” Doc had informed me that I was an “8” among regular girls, but in club world I was only a “4,” given my 5-foot-3-inch stature. He wondered: Did I have many girlfriends over 5-foot-11 I could bring around? They didn’t need to be actual models, just tall enough to be mistaken for models by drunk men from across dark, strobe-lit rooms. I needed a new job.
The Author shuffled into our interview at his Upper East Side apartment, his velvet slippers whispering against the Oriental rugs. He was pushing 80, a small man with bushy white eyebrows and a bulbous nose that pressed flat against his face. He had a full, pouty lower lip and a thin upper lip that curled under when he smiled.
The Author had been a staff writer at an iconic American magazine for three decades and had written a remarkable number of books, mostly memoirs. He’d been blind since early childhood, and while his is surely a story of overcoming great odds, the Author was notorious for his poor treatment of assistants. He actually alluded to this in our interview, telling me there were some unsavory rumors out there and not to believe a word of them. I was dubious but desperate for money. And there was a small part of me that hoped he’d softened with age. Or maybe that he’d sense some unfulfilled potential in me. That he’d treat me with the care one gives to a rare find — plucked from the detritus at a yard sale, snubbed by foolish bygone handlers.
The Author, his wife, and their two adult daughters went to their house on an island off the New England coast every August, and I was expected to go along. The only way onto the island was a 20-minute ferry ride from the nearest seaside town. One road ran through most of the 14-mile island, a hamlet of spruce tree forests and rolling pastures. The island was a private sanctuary for the Northeast’s inconspicuous elite, and on the drive from the ferry station, mansions flickered through the trees. The Author’s house was at the end of a short, wooded drive. He’d built it in the ’80s, with the help of a Modernist architect who’d designed a few New York skyscrapers. By the island’s standards, the house wasn’t sprawling or flashy, but it was distinctively lovely, perched on an embankment above the frigid harbor. Down the hill toward the beach was a pool and a pool house, tucked into an alcove of trees. Past the pool, a pathway cut through high grass and down to the rocky beachfront. I stayed in a spare basement bedroom, with a window that looked out onto the harbor. Their cook, a Brazilian woman in her 80s, slept in a room adjacent to mine.
It didn’t take long to realize that my presence was more a thing to be tolerated than embraced by the family. I wasn’t asked many questions about my life aside from those necessitated by politeness. And to be fair, I can’t imagine what it would be like for your most intimate family memories to include a revolving cast of paid help, always on their way somewhere else. Anyway, it seemed like I was mainly there to enable the Author’s wife and daughters not to be there, so he and I were often alone. My job title was “editorial assistant,” though the only editorial skill required was basic literacy. I read the New York Times aloud to the Author every morning, then we perused headlines from The Guardian. Then we responded to his emails, of which there were generally few of note. Then there was lunch, his nap, a walk, and an afternoon activity. Aside from the nap, we did everything together.