“If you don’t tell them,” Rose Janowitz’s mother followed her daughter to their Lower East Side apartment door, first flipping up the collar of Rose’s beige, virgin wool sheen gabardine coat, the one Vogue Magazine swore was brilliantly manipulated to give tall girls the impression of a slim waist, then smoothing it back down again. As if the appearance of an article of clothing Rose would remove before being shown in for her interview, even if it were the most expensive thing either Rose or her mother ever owned – or touched – would make the difference between Rose getting hired or her resume being shunted into the trash. “No one ever needs to know.”
“They’ll have questions,” Rose predicted. The gap between her dropping out of Seward Park High School and starting at Hunter College couldn’t be papered over with a coat costing more than the weekly salary of the job Rose was applying for.
“You traveled. Every civilized young lady takes a tour of the Continent. It’s in Henry James. And Ernest Hemingway.”
Mama was no fool. Unlike Rose, she’d actually graduated from high school. She knew that the women in Henry James and Ernest Hemingway were named Daisy Miller and Brett Ashley. Not Rose Janowitz.
“If they don’t ask, there’s no need for you to bring it up.” Mama paused to give Rose a final once-over. Thanks to an investment they couldn’t afford to repeat even if they’d wanted to, Rose was the epitome of Christian Dior’s chic New Look silhouette; a full, triangular skirt in black with a cinched waist, softened by the rounded shoulders of her cream blouse. Definitely more Daisy Miller and Brett Ashley than Rose Janowitz.
Not that the rest of her would have fooled anyone. She’d brushed out her ebony curls as best she could and pulled the result into a bun, but stray tufts still insisted on springing forth no matter how often Mama dabbed her finger with spit and attempted to smooth them back into place. Rose’s elongated neck jutted beneath a pointed chin that might have been her most prominent feature, if not for a nose that superseded it. Her eyes loomed as dark as her hair, the only benefit being equally raven lashes so thick she needn’t bother with mascara, though it did result in brows perpetually requiring plucking. Mama smiled, projecting a confidence neither of them felt. She pinched Rose’s cheek for luck — and a final burst of color. “Zei gezunt,” be healthy — a traditional way of saying goodbye in Yiddish. She added the less commonly evoked, “Un shtark.” And strong.
The Procter & Gamble company may have operated a plant on the northwestern corner of Staten Island so massive that locals dubbed it Port Ivory, after the institution’s best-known product, but their corporate offices, including their advertising division, Compton, were located in midtown Manhattan. Rose could hardly believe that, after she’d ridden the elevator to the 11th floor and given her name, the girl sitting at the front, simultaneously answering two telephones, typing, and vetting guests, believed it when Rose said she was there to meet with Irna Phillips.
The Irna Phillips. The woman who had single-handedly invented radio soap operas (their nickname coming from the same product which inspired Port Ivory), and was currently the head writer of The Road of Life, Young Dr. Malone, The Brighter Day, Today’s Children, Joyce Jordan, MD, The Right To Happiness, Masquerade, The Guiding Light, and, on television, These Are My Children. Irna traditionally wrote and produced her shows out of Chicago. Three years earlier, after a lawsuit that began as copyright infringement and then turned into non-payment of taxes, Irna moved Guiding Light to CBS Radio and relocated its production to Los Angeles. But she was unhappy with the acting on the West Coast. She didn’t think Hollywood types sounded authentic enough for her wholesome, midwestern characters. So now, The Guiding Light was moving again, this time to the CBS Studios on East 58th Street. Irna being Irna, managed to requisition Liederkranz Hall, the larger of the second-floor studios. Now she needed someone to supervise production while she returned to the rest of her shows in Chicago.
Rose intended to be that someone. She’d spent money she didn’t have on an outfit that wasn’t her in order to make sure of it.
Except Rose didn’t feel sure of anything at the moment. The girl who’d checked her name off a list and beckoned for her to take a seat kept typing and answering phones. Rose kept waiting. And the more she waited, the worse of an idea this entire adventure seemed. Who was Rose to think she was worthy of stepping in for Irna Phillips? What had Rose done with her life up to this point? The one chance she had taken, the one time she’d thought for herself and not done the expected nice, Jewish girl thing, had been such a disaster that Mama still needed to remind Rose to keep quiet about it over a decade after the fact.
And yet, Irna — or someone who worked for her — had presumably seen Rose’s resume. They’d deemed it good enough to call Rose for an interview. Maybe they knew something she didn’t? Odds are, they knew lots of things Rose didn’t. Like how to move ahead in the world by staying out of trouble. She could learn a lot working here. If she got the chance.
A voice over the phone prompted the girl at the desk to stand up, grab a stack of papers and go running out of the room. Rose was alone. Still waiting.
After a few minutes, she wondered if the solitude was getting to her. Because she quite clearly heard a woman’s voice call out, “Rose!” It was coming from behind the closed office door behind the reception area. She climbed to her feet and inched towards it. “Rose! Come!” This time, she definitely heard it. Rose rested her hand on the knob, twisting it slightly. She swore it opened on its own. The office behind it was occupied by two women. The smaller sat behind a desk so large she might have fit into one of its drawers. Irna Phillips. After obsessively studying the paragon in preparation for this interview, Rose would’ve recognized that wavy, swept-off-the-forehead bob anywhere. Irna wore a gray and black striped blazer, no softening of the shoulders here, with a golden brooch in the shape of a leaf at the collar. The other woman was taller, her hair longer and rolled about her head in a style held over from the war. Yet it was obvious who the dominant figure was. Irna talked and talked and talked. The other woman merely nodded.
“Take this money and use it to build Cedars Hospital in Selby Flats. Oh, Dr. Matthews, we couldn’t! You’re too generous! It’s not generosity, I believe in Dr. Parker, Dr. Boling, and Dr. Leland. A woman can be as good of a doctor as any man. We’ll never forget you, Dr. Matthews. You take care of yourself, Bill. That new bride of yours is a special woman. Bert will be touched you said so. And your sister, Meta. You knew her as Jan Carter. Do you think she’ll be able to get her son, Chuckie, back from Ray and Charlotte? She aims to try, but we don’t know if that would be best for the boy. She’s his mother! She’s a stranger! So much heartache ahead!”
Rose’s head spun. Especially when this bizarre stream of consciousness was once again punctuated with the cry of, “Rose!”
“Yes?” she piped up instinctively.
Both women turned to stare at her.
“Who are you?” Irna barked, her tone completely different from the soothing, hypnotic drone of earlier.
“I’m… Rose. You called me?”
“I’m Rose,” the taller woman corrected. “Rose Cooperman. Miss Phillips’ assistant.”
Well, that explained that. Rose — Janowitz — felt like a complete idiot. She wanted to bow her head, hug her shoulders, and slink out of the office, back to the Lower East Side, where she could pull off these unnatural clothes and tell herself it was for the best. Rose didn’t deserve a job as potentially life-changing as this one. Rose deserved only the life she’d made for herself. Or, as Mama called it, the hole she’d dug for herself.
Alina Adams is the New York Times best-selling author of the As the World Turns tie-ins, Oakdale Confidential and The Man From Oakdale, and Guiding Light’s Jonathan’s Story. Check out her new historical fiction, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, available November 15, 2022!