Saturday, March 5, 2022

Goodbye, Mrs. Wagner

Mrs. Wagner (Jeanette Sarkisian Wagner) left this earthly plain last week.  She was ninety-two.  For me, she will be always be that elegant (and slightly scary) older woman in the executive headquarters of Estée  Lauder.  Her office was right next to Leonard Lauder's office, and I was just outside, sitting at a desk, ready at a moment's notice to serve and assist Mrs. Wagner.   (I wouldn't dare call her by her first name.) 

I knew I was in close proximity to Cosmetic Royalty. 

Every morning, Mrs. Wagner swept into the office, usually wearing some kind of cape, and the air around her would suddenly ignite with the fragrance of Cinnabar.  She would pause at my desk and demand something--a letter, a memo, an explanation for why I had forgotten to give her the pile of pink While you were out slips.  Or perhaps she would just stop and look at me and say, what is that you're wearing, Jamie?

This job was a way for me to get my foot in the door.  I was hired as a temp, but I was grateful to have work.  I was a young mother with a six month old daughter in daycare.    I was still nursing, and in fact I spent my lunch hours pumping breast milk in the Lauder ladies room.  My wardrobe consisted of thrift store finds from Screaming Mimi's and Antique Boutique and yes, the Goodwill.  This was in the days before we used the term "vintage."  We said "Second Hand."  But, oh--the second hand clothes back then!  I found silk cocktail dresses from the 1930's for five dollars.  Taffeta skirts with red tulle ruffled slips.  I found a 1940's gabardine wool suit with the kind of shoulder pads that only Mildred Pierce could truly appreciate.  The 1980's was the era of the power suit--and so I was right in vogue.

At least, I thought so.  Sometimes, I missed the mark.  This misstep would usually involve polka dots (a weakness of mine), and in this instance, Mrs. Wagner would squint her eyes at me and then once she was able to stop staring, she would ask for her tea.  In the china cup with the linen napkin.

She could be tough and exacting.  I felt as if I was in a kind of cosmetic industry boot camp.  I loved every moment working for her, that is, except when she made me cry.  Which was at least once a week.

I remember one afternoon in particular.  It was close to five and there was an error on the letter I had typed up for her.  I misspelled someone's name.  The head of marketing.  This was an important man.  How could I do this?  I stood there letting her words wash over me, the scolding--which I deserved, but at the same time, I really had to leave.  I needed to get to daycare to pick up my baby.  And my breasts were swollen with milk to the point that they ached for my baby.  I stood there, hot tears falling down my cheeks.  I could feel the prickly pain as my breasts swelled and Mrs. Wagner's words of admonishment began growing fainter and fainter as if she were talking to me from some very far-off mountain top, and I was standing in the valley below struggling to understand what she was saying.  

And then, she suddenly stopped speaking.

She was starring at me.  Well, not starring at me, but staring at my chest. 

I looked down at the front of my pale blue 1950's cotton dress to see two perfectly round wet spots slowly forming around the nipple area. 

"Sorry," I said.

Now, Mrs. Wagner did not suddenly get all sweet and comforting with me.  That's not who she was.  She was a tough cookie who had been the first woman to get to the top of Estée Lauder.  In truth, back then, Lauder may have been a company created by a woman, but it was primarily run by men.  Still, Mrs. Wagner told me I should go home.  And then, she actually smiled.  

Okay, I think she smiled.  Maybe I just imagined that.  At any rate, I left the office.

Six months later, I was hired in a full-time position (with benefits!) as a Marketing Coordinator in Lauder's International Division.  I cannot help but believe that Mrs. Wagner had something to do with this, although she never admitted it.  She was tough like that.

Creative Friends, your assignment for this week is to build a reputation.  I want you to think about what makes you who you are.  Is it a cape, a fragrance, a gesture, an expression?  This can and should be mutable and evolving.  You are not a brand.  Think of yourself as a very living, breathing work of art.  A masterpiece-in-the-making.  Play with the possibilities of arrangement and rearrangement.  

Embrace the idea that you are always becoming and that one day, someone will remember how you changed their life by your very presence--by your authenticity, your quirks, your preferences, and the way you can surprise another with just a smile and the simple directive to go home.

And like Mrs. Wagner, you will never be called a brand, but rather, you will get a reputation for being endlessly fascinating, tough, fair and completely beloved.

And, as always, have fun!



If you'd like to read more about Jeanette Sarkisian Wagner, please link here.


  1. Good story Jamie!
    Back in the days before White-Out..thoughI doubt that would have sufficed for Mrs.Wagner.
    And the good ole days of Good Will!

  2. Dear Carol--Hah! Actually, we did have White-Out back then (thank goodness!) but still, I would make mistakes and not even see them! In my own defense, I did type at 104 words per minute! I miss you and hope to return to Paris...perhaps in the fall. Love, Jamie

  3. I never SEE my errors either. The plus side of dyslexia
    Aren’t we lucky ;))


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