Whatever happened to the days of three-martini lunches and swank book parties? Publishing used to have such a glamorous sheen that even a young editor's job had cachet. So when did we stop carrying cigarette holders and start showing up in flip-flops? Though I'm aware that nostalgia can make even the toughest boot camp seem like Guys and Dolls, I watch so many bleary-eyed colleagues drag themselves out of the subway every morning, lugging overstuffed canvas bags and gripping their BlackBerries, that I can't help but pine for an era I missed.
No one captured publishing's heyday better than Rona Jaffe in her bestselling 1958 novel, The Best of Everything, later made into a movie with Joan Crawford as Amanda Farrow, the deliciously wicked publishing version of Mommie Dearest. The book—recently repackaged with a photo of Lauren Bacall look-alikes sipping cups of mud and mooning over Mr. Right—puts an attractive face on the catfights and illicit affairs that seemed de rigeur in the days when women had to claw their way into a gentleman's profession.
Young women from Ms. Jaffe's world didn't have much money, but they had class, often sporting kid gloves and "pink or chartreuse fuzzy overcoats" as they filed out of Grand Central station and shimmied their way to skyscrapers with Random House and Harper & Row handpainted on their frosted glass doors. Forty-seven years later, junior editors still make a pittance, but fuzzy overcoats (or anything pink or chartreuse) are chic-er than most of us can manage on our best days. I don't even bother to dry my hair, much less do pin curls.
But must we act like such sad sacks? Carting bags of manuscripts home every night may have given us all S-shaped spines by 30, but we could at least make the effort to hem our pants and dust the cat hair off our sweaters. Reading is a lifetime's pursuit, but applying mascara only takes a few seconds.
Some might say that's too much to ask of young women who scurry around copying 1,000-page tomes on cranky Xerox machines by day, and attempt to edit them on crowded Queens- and Brooklyn-bound trains by night. Not everyone can look like she's at a magazine shoot while answering nonstop phones and countless urgent e-mails, but is it really that hard to slap on some powder and make it look like we're having a good time? The sassy Suzies and Janes of Ms. Jaffe's era managed to fetch coffee and still look cute while coughing up a few ideas over a sidecar with their bosses. Why should the party be over for us? Being in a position where we can actually become the boss someday ought to be reason enough for us to stop complaining about precious little beauty sleep and start putting on some lipstick.
Fortunately, we no longer need great gams to get ahead (although it never hurts), but we've taken the old challenges and traded them for new ones. Let's face it: women have made extraordinary advancements in the last half century, but competition is tougher than ever and the chances of getting that coveted editor's spot are slimmer than a pencil skirt. Buying a book nowadays also requires a lot more than marching into the publisher's office with a little bit of moxie and an indignant pitch for great literature. While our nicely coiffed predecessors may have mixed business and pleasure as if they were pouring gin and vermouth, publishing has always been a hard-knock life for anyone balancing secretarial and editorial work while hanging onto the lowest rungs of the literary stepladder.
Ms. Jaffe wrote her novel as a warning to women considering careers in publishing (she took her title from a New York Times ad promising would-be editors "the best of everything"—a glitzy job with decent pay for thrilling work). We chuckle, but why bother showing up every day if we haven't found some sliver of truth in the fairy tale? We may not have the energy to bob around the office like Doris Day on original Coca-Cola as we juggle the needs of our own authors with those of our bosses. But we just might be able to win over a varied cast of characters snacking on turkey sandwiches in the next acquisitions meeting if we remember to put on those cat's-eye glasses and smile. Odds are that most of us will fare better than the girls in Ms Jaffe's novel, who ended up getting pushed out of cars and dangling from fire escapes. Living the dream may take work, but why not make the effort in vintage stockings and kitten-heeled shoes?
Safko is an assistant editor at HarperCollins.