Every boss is an asshole, at one time or another. It goes with the territory. I've worked for my dad (who drove me nuts), I've even been a boss. There are unpleasant moments. You have to fire people sometimes. Sometimes you're not interested primarily in your employees—your needs come first. But there is something about the fast pace and higher stakes that is life in New York that causes some folks to take such asshole behavior to a whole other level. As if New York and their own ambitions justify—well, just about anything.
When I first got out of art school I purposely avoided jobs that had any artistic bent—I wanted to keep my art pure. A job was just for earning money, making friends, paying the rent. So I mostly worked retail, and in the 80s that meant fun and funky fashion like Canal Jean Co. or Reminiscence. In a job like that you mostly see the crazy boss behavior from afar—temper tantrums, buyers getting chewed out, elaborate lie detector set-ups to reveal a known thief who's part of the boss's family—pretty much Godfather-lite.
A few years later I was experimenting, making movies, so I thought maybe I should try working at a film company. I answered an ad and was immediately hired at Troma Films, home of the infamous Toxie, the Toxic Avenger, if you follow really bad independent film. Critics have always been affectionate to Troma, which I've never quite understood, but I guess it's due to Troma's wholesale embracing (at least on film) of their work's mediocrity. But behind the scenes they were deadly serious—about making money and expanding their empire. The bosses were always freaking out, but it was usually hard to figure out exactly why. It was the first job where a boss made me cry. I have no idea now why he yelled at me or even what he said. All I can remember was that I knew I would quit, because no one had yelled at me like that since I left my father's house, and if I would no longer put up with that from him I sure as hell wouldn't take it from someone who made films I wouldn't ever want to see. I do remember two highlights of that job. I actually was the representative of the company at a film screening of their latest release, Girl School Screamers. The fun part was watching real critics come in and watch the movie, shake their heads in disbelief, and laugh. The not fun part was having to sit through the movie. The other fun memory was a lunchtime screening of a reel of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World by a co-worker who collected 35mm reels of really great movies. I never could understand why he stayed, film geekdom aside, as he was at the frequent end of a tantrum. Maybe that sort of behavior doesn't bother some people as much. Maybe they think they have to take it.
The other nightmare boss that comes to mind was a part-time job I took many years later at a downtown legal temp agency. Not a good time. This brand of a-holishness was more indirect, but no less lethal. It became clear after a day or two that the entire staff was completely cowed by it's boss, a woman who was sole proprietor, built the business from scratch (or possibly a payout from a divorce?) I didn't stay long enough to hear too much gossip and she was rarely in the office. She owned an apartment a few doors down, and kept constant tabs on her employees, frequently harrassing and haranguing them on the phone to get more temps placed in more jobs. The girl who was training me one morning covertly wrote down on a company stationery pad that we were being listened to—the boss bugged the office. I was at first perplexed, and then amused by the situation. What purpose did that serve? I imagined her, in her fancy apartment, tied to her intercom system, waiting to hear somebody slack off. Sad. But the girl and apparently other employees were genuinely intimidated, so I guess her tactic was successful. The girl had figured it out one day when she got off the phone and the boss called immediately and ask her an "uncanny" question about the client who had just called. I also remember one of the agents, a jolly sort, who convinced me to rent Glengarry Glen Ross, insisting that I'd love it. I guess he felt he was living it. The end of this job came for me a few days before a Thanksgiving vacation I had planned (and the boss had approved). I was suddenly told the afternoon before I was supposed to leave that I would have to cancel my plans, she'd changed her mind, I would have to work. A display of extreme power. I said no, you already approved it, I have plane tickets, I'm going. She said if you go you're fired. I said fine. Happy Thanksgiving!
This was the job most like The Devil Wears Prada and why I never could have written it. I never would have taken that amount of crap from Miranda Priestly. I have always respected my employers, but will never be abused by one. There is nothing in New York or anywhere else, for that matter, that warrants that sort of behavior. The book had many, many flaws, but it's supreme one seems to me to be how far it falls short of the movie version. This of course has a great deal to do with Meryl Streep, who actually takes the character beyond the petulant, childish behavior I've outlined above and outlines a method to her madness. The movie isn't great, but it has one great scene which almost justifies Miranda's over-the-top behavior. Sadly, the folks mentioned above were neither Meryl Streeps nor even Miranda Priestlys. The devil is in the details.