Alice offered me the job in 2014: “I’d like you to come work with me, be my partner.” For the next four years, I was her partner. Morning, afternoon, evening, night. Every call. Every meeting. Every email. Every draft of every manuscript. Her third arm. Part of the job is anticipation—think like your boss. I will forever be the beneficiary of that requirement.
But there were legions of assistants before me. Her desk was a training ground—one that launched careers. Former assistants became chief players in publishing and media. Once you pass the Alice test, you acquire a certain confidence. If you’re lucky, you absorb 25% of what made her great—that’s enough to take you pretty far.
“I owe everything to her,” says David Shipley, senior executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion, who is now on leave to the Bloomberg presidential campaign. “If you were as interested as she was, then you had a master class in how to be an editor.”
Alice would hate this piece. I’m sorry, Alice. But part of her lives on through the assistants she cultivated. Ann Godoff, president and editor-in-chief of Penguin Press, worked with Alice for seven years. “There are things I do every day that I learned from her,” Godoff says. “The kind of publishing I do today was invented by Alice.”
“Almost everything I learned came from Alice,” says Jonathan Jao, executive editor at Harper. Her mentorship wasn’t overt. It was about witness and participation.
“You saw the manuscripts when they went into her office and you saw them when they came out, transformed,” Shipley says.
“She put you in this pool and said, ‘Go swimming,’ ” Godoff says.
Henry Ferris, an editor who has held roles at Houghton Mifflin, Times Books, and William Morrow, remembers, “Each morning my job for Alice was to copy her pages of editing and send them to the authors. I secretly started making an extra copy so I could take it home and study her work. People have asked if Alice taught me. Maybe not, but she let me learn.”
It was clear that being Alice’s assistant was an opportunity. “You know, he used to have your job,” Alice would remind me about this or that influential journalist or editor. It was a privileged perch, and I was along for the ride. Lunch at the Peninsula with President Carter, parties on Central Park West, wide-ranging conversations with Walter, Woodward, and Doris. It was rarified air.
As Alice’s assistant, I represented her. That’s a big responsibility. Every day was an adventure. She brought me into the fold, into her universe, gave me a voice. Alice never once introduced me as her assistant, always colleague. Life was exhilarating with Alice.
But Alice could be tough. “She had zero tolerance for incompetence, bullshit, pretension, or indecisiveness,” Jao says. “And she could be ruthless in her treatment of those who did not measure up to her exacting standards. But it was hard to argue with the results.”
Alice was unable to not speak truth—the kind of abrasive truth that disrupts professional niceties to reveal the center of an idea, a book, an author’s mission. “She was cut to the chase,” Godoff says, “on the page and in life.”
I learned to be an Alice whisperer, translating her more explosive reactions into results. She did not suffer fools gladly. Her petite frame was misleading. She could yell. I miss her yelling.
Alice’s relentless enthusiasm never really stopped. “She was doing exactly what she was meant to do on this earth,” Shipley says. She was acquiring books until her last week.
“The love of the work is what she transmitted,” Godoff says. “She gave me that forever.”
The best bosses become models; their example constructs your reality of how the job is done. The most rewarding assistant jobs are profoundly formative. “There’s no one I’ve worked with before or since who has as much to do with the person I am today,” says Serena Jones, executive editor at Henry Holt. “I proved myself to her; I also proved myself to me.”
As the months pile up, after observing and taking notes, one starts to mimic, to emulate, to try on for size the best parts of a boss’s mastery. Without really trying, they raise you.
Eventually, you outgrow the job. You’re never really ready to leave the nest, you just kind of jump. We joked that being promoted off of Alice’s desk was more of a demotion. Out in the wilderness, no longer under her aegis, you figure out who you are as an editor. You quickly realize it’s a fool’s errand to compare yourself. She’s incomparable. But some of the muscle memory is in place. You’ve seen her do it a thousand times.
I frequently ask myself, “What would Alice do?” I expect the refrain to stay with me the rest of my life.
Stuart Roberts is a senior editor at Simon & Schuster.