For men, height may still be a factor when career-making jobs are on the line. Merv Kaufman tells his story.
“You’re young, you’re tall, you’ve got the world by the back of the neck.”
This was tossed off, with seeming disdain, by a man bent with age, whose professional life was defined by his status. He’d spent his working years as a clerk in a corporate mailroom.
When I heard this, its poignancy took awhile to penetrate, as I was negotiating a difficult phase in that particular chapter of my career. I didn’t feel I had the world by the gut or the balls, and certainly not by the back of the neck.
Height? It was never a factor, even though, I could remember my mother sniping about “that shrimp” or “that pigmy” when describing an unworthy male applicant for a sales job in the retail business she ran with my father. I mean, who really cared whether a guy was short or tall, right?
Not every employer, it seemed—only those guys who happened to be height-challenged.
This point was driven home to me when a magazine I worked for suddenly became the property of a consumer-magazine legend, a man whose successes in that realm would far outweigh his lapses—or shortcomings.
“JMC is not just short, he’s minute,” a female colleague snorted, when we learned that he would soon occupy our empty corner office. I ignored her jibe; I looked forward to working with a man whose reputation, even then, had begun approaching the status of legend.
I’d heard he was immensely charming. Women who worked for him successfully always spoke of him as occupying a notch just below sainthood. The men? I knew very few males whose careers more than overlapped with JMC’s and eventually began to comprehend why.
The day he arrived on the scene, he summoned both the editorial and sales staffs to his office. Was he really so short? I couldn’t tell. He neither sat nor stood; instead, at that first meeting, he was perched on the edge of a very large desk. There, he unloaded some ground rules, only one of which I recall with clarity: He welcomed—demanded—idea submissions regularly from each of us but insisted that they be delivered to his number-one secretary in memo form by noon, each Friday.
Said secretary would spend all her days plugged into her Dictaphone as she typed out responses to received mail and internal communication. She was not young; she was obviously a longtime dedicated employee; she never said anything other than “Good morning” to anyone on the boss’s staff.
“JMC works well with people he’s always worked with,” my savvy female colleague insisted, and in that she was right on the mark. Most of my female colleagues were to feel rebuffed and shut out by our new employer, no matter how hard they tried to exact a measure of approval—or charm—from him.
Men fared worse. There was only a handful of us, and each experienced mostly back-of-the-hand indifference. JMC had two secretaries—I don’t know what the other one did. Together, they formed an unseen, though very obvious, protective wall that none of us could penetrate uninvited. The atmosphere in what had once been a cordial, relaxed office situation was now abruptly ice cold.
Christmas approached, and suddenly we were being invited into JMC’s sanctum for an eggnog toast. Men, women—none of us wanted to attend, though we knew we had to; we had to appear eager to wallow in the hollow joy that the coming holidays seemed to foretell.
We crept into the corner office, each of us entering as though weighted feet were holding us back. JMC’s post-teen son was there—chip off the old block—attempting to be charming as he dispensed plastic cups of the creamy drink. But silence prevailed. It was the only Christmas party I’ve ever attended that was conducted almost entirely in whispers.
How long to stay? When to leave? I knew I couldn’t just return to my desk or exit the building without saying something, so at one point I sought out the boss, whom I found standing idly by a sheet of plate glass, looking out toward the windows of other Manhattan office towers.
He smiled as I wished him well. And he shook my hand when I said—with sincerity—that the months I’d spent working for him, so far, had been edifying. I also laid myself on the line, insisting that I’d learned more in that time—from him—than I had in all my prior years in the magazine business. In this, I was exaggerating only slightly.
Some weeks later, after firing our long-time managing editor—a woman he obviously never hoped to charm—he announced the appointment of a new executive, someone—yes—whom he’d known and worked with in an earlier situation.
I was not alone in feeling that I’d been slighted, that I should have been considered for that number-two slot. JMC obviously knew what my reaction would be, so he sent for me, a day or two after the announcement had been made—a Xeroxed memorandum that each of us found on our desks when we arrived one morning.
I put on my jacket and approached the corner office. Secretary number two nodded that I would be permitted to enter, which I did. JMC looked up, as I walked through the door, and something about the way he glared at me commanded me to sit—anywhere—as quickly as possible.
Yes, I was six feet tall, but I’d never considered that particularly boast-worthy, not even after the mailroom clerk had dropped his decidedly bitter aside. As I seated myself, I tried to recall—over the previous months—how often I’d stood beside or near JMC, and realized that the occasions had been rare. I also realized that the men who had been closest to the great man, over the years, had been medium tall, no more.
Clearly, this man did not like looking up to anyone, certainly no other man.
I sat quietly while JMC shuffled the papers in a stack in front of him. He finally pulled off his glasses and addressed me. Or tried to. He was at pains to explain how much more qualified his new-hire was, how much this man’s knowledge and experience was needed to prop up an obviously ailing magazine. All this I would have understood, except that what the great man actually said was, “And, of course, you had a lot to learn, didn’t you?”
Suddenly I felt four feet tall—and maybe twelve years old. I’d been bettered by a master, a champion, a man who, as I would later learn, had built a career stepping on and over the bodies of men much taller than he. Besting them had been his driving force. He succeeded in his particular corner of the magazine world by competing fiercely and funneling years of suppressed rage.
Without realizing it, I’d given the man a gift—an ideal Christmas present—the edge he needed, at least in that particular context, and I would have happily acknowledged the loss. At that moment, however, I was only concerned about how to extricate myself from JMC’s office without crawling out the door. But, you know, I didn’t have to crawl; I could stand as tall as I wished. My legs had already been cut out from under me.
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