THE NANNY DIARIES
by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
Book review: The Nanny Diaries
Sorry, Madam, but your worst nightmare has arrived. It appears that the help has been taking notes, and good ones. The help is very sharp-eyed indeed.
Apparently it has been noticed that you neither cook nor eat, that you import toilet-bowl cleanser from Europe, that your idea of a permissible outing for your 4-year-old son is a trip to the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and that you have been known to sip Perrier while the little lad was desperately thirsty. How unspeakable of your nanny to have noticed.
Then again, maybe she had the right idea. Because the servant's-eye view is always satire-ready, and the person in charge of child care has a splendid vantage point for skewering her employers. Thus we have "The Nanny Diaries," a diabolically funny New York story about a Park Avenue family and the college student who is hired to baby-sit. For everyone in the household, not just the neglected son.
"The Nanny Diaries" is a collaborative first novel by two recovering child-care workers who between them claim to have worked for more than 30 New York families. However these two, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, were employed, they know their territory cold.
Their characters are the kinds of women who instruct new employees: "Now the dry cleaner's number is on there and the florist and the caterer." Yes, but how about a pediatrician? "Oh. I'll get you that next week."
Their composite heroine, whose actual name is supposed to be Nanny, is a vastly entertaining narrator and impromptu social critic.
Given the author's backgrounds,they could have written a nonfiction tell-all book, but the material has been winningly transformed into fiction, thanks to an antagonist whom readers will love to hate: Mrs. X, the quintessential spoiled, imperious, spa-trotting matron.
What is she busy with all day, "helping the mayor map out a new public transportation plan from a secret room at Bendel's?" Whatever it is, it leaves only the most infrequent moments for spending time with her son, and those moments are no fun for either of them. "Go get into bed and I'll read you one verse from your Shakespeare reader," she tells him, "and then it's lights out."
The son is named Grayer. And after a rough get-acquainted period, he and Nanny bond out of self-defense. They're in it together when Mrs. X insists that Grayer be kept wrinkle-free before his portrait sitting, and when she makes him wear a Collegiate sweatshirt before he has been accepted at that prestigious school. "It was a very competitive year!" Mrs. X explains, upon learning that her 4-year-old hasn't made the grade. "Grayer doesn't play the violin!"
Because the authors have made fine sport out of shooting fish in a barrel, the X family also includes a gruff, high-powered husband who supports the household in extravagant style but is almost never around. Cheating on Mrs. X makes it hard for him to get to family vacations to Aspen, Nantucket, Lyford Cay and other stops on their social circuit and keeps him distracted even if he shows up.
Nanny, who is told that it's quite unreasonable for her to want to attend her graduation from New York University when the family needs her at its rented beach house, is witness to it all.
Not surprisingly, "The Nanny Diaries" fades slightly when the X's are out of sight, despite the boyfriend and family matters that are meant to fill out Nanny's story. The heart of the matter remains perfectly pitched social satire, from the children's birthday parties ("We really had to put our heads together to top last year's overnight at Gracie Mansion") to the kind of house where African, Venetian, Art Deco, Empire and Winnie-the-Pooh styles heedlessly collide.
And in all the domiciles described here -- places where it is deemed very important to have lavender water in the steam iron -- the point is that nobody's really home. Nobody but the servants and the children. This book is saved from self-righteousness not only by the authors' cleverness but also by their compassion.
East Side Story
After 'The Nanny Diaries,' The View From the Penthouse Is Greener Than Ever
By Alona Wartofsky
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 1, 2002; Page C01
Let's say, just for a moment, that your bosses are heartless and nasty, and they underpay you. So you sit down and write a book about them, and it becomes a huge bestseller. Sweet, sweet revenge.
This is the enviable position of Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin, the former nannies who authored this year's biggest literary sensation, "The Nanny Diaries." The book is a fictionalized comic account of a nanny (named Nanny) who is employed by an affluent, dysfunctional Park Avenue family. The Xes, as they are called in the book, may be fabulously wealthy, but they are truly awful: Mrs. X, who keeps her lingerie in labeled Ziploc bags, devotes her considerable free time to pampering herself and exploiting her servants. Mr. X is a potbellied philanderer oblivious to any concept of humanity. Their neglect of their small son is criminal.
Four months after its publication, "The Nanny Diaries" is now in its 15th printing. There are 650,000 copies in print. It's been on the New York Times bestseller list for 15 weeks, and foreign rights have been sold in 28 countries. Miramax bought the movie rights for a reported half-million dollars, and Julia Roberts narrates the audio version, which is also ringing up impressive sales. A second "Nanny" book is already in the works.
Not bad for two first-time authors, both 28, who say they wrote the book as a kind of personal experiment. "We wrote it for ourselves, really," says McLaughlin. "We wrote it to share with our parents and our close friends. And we wrote it to see if we could."
Kraus and McLaughlin met several years ago while attending New York University. Once they discovered they were both nannying on the Upper East Side, they became fast friends. "That really cemented our friendship . . . trying to do the same juggling act of balancing that kind of work with trying to complete our undergraduate studies," says Kraus. "We would point out to each other while we were in class that there were so many nannies in the [literature] that we were studying, which was interesting to us."
Several years after graduation -- Kraus continued to nanny and tried to break into acting, while McLaughlin did business consulting -- they started thinking about writing "a woman's story" together. "We hit upon the idea of Nanny as a really good starting-off point," says Kraus. "It was such a profound experience for both of us -- the good and the bad. It just felt like there was a lot of material there that needed to be mined."
Because they've just finished a photo shoot on a hot afternoon, Kraus and McLaughlin arrive for an interview at the Upper East Side's Stanhope Hotel in heavy makeup that has succumbed to the effects of sweat and gravity. They retreat to the bathroom to clean up, and when they return, they are still wearing a lot of makeup and they are giggling.
McLaughlin is married. Kraus has a cat. In conversation, they occasionally finish each other's sentences. Not long ago, when the book tour brought them to an enormous suite in a Dallas hotel, they were so overwhelmed by it all that they slept in the same bed, talking and laughing into the night with the sheets pulled up to their chins. They shop together, and they like to wear outfits that complement each other, which may explain why both are wearing similar cleavage-baring frilly tops.
McLaughlin grew up in Upstate New York, where her father taught college philosophy and her mother owned a landscape design company. She tends to speak with a saccharine but firm, no-nonsense tone that she may have picked up from some of her former employers.
The bubblier Kraus is a child of the Upper East Side, where her parents own an art bookstore and she attended private school. Neither Kraus nor McLaughlin says she was cared for by nannies, though Kraus's family employed a housekeeper. "The landscape of Manhattan was very different when I was a child," says Kraus. "The economy hadn't spiked to the extent that it did when we were nannies."
The book devotes many pages to mocking the materialism and pretensions of Manhattan's moneyed class, the sort of people who dress their toddlers in $300 Bonpoint ensembles and buy toilet cleanser imported from Europe. Nanny is instructed to prepare Coquilles St. Jacques for the Xes' 4-year-old son, Grayer. The boy's permissible "nonstructured" outings include visits to the French Culinary Institute and the New York Stock Exchange trading floor.
Part of the considerable appeal of "The Nanny Diaries" is this voyeuristic peek into the presumably magnificent lives of the elite. "You're seeing a glamorous world in New York City, and that's always had global appeal," says Miramax co-president of production Meryl Poster, who is overseeing the film project. "This is like . . . a cousin of 'Sex and the City.' "
But "The Nanny Diaries" may have more in common with that old '80s nighttime soap opera, "Dynasty," in which Joan Collins's wicked Alexis Carrington Colby would strive to ruin the lives of everyone around her while nibbling on lobster and caviar. We love watching rich people behave badly because they do everything in excess -- and because it allows us to feel superior.
How ghastly are the Xes? They are cruel to their son and their servants, but they are also vicious to each other. As the marriage begins to disintegrate, Mrs. X retreats to a spa where she refuses to take calls despite little Grayer's high fever and croup. When Mrs. X is out of town, Mr. X's mistress moves into their apartment, where she starts ordering the servants around.
As New York magazine critic Daniel Mendelsohn has pointed out, "backstairs" literature -- the help's insider account of how the well-off live -- "serves a crucial cultural purpose: not to sell us on the haute life but, if anything, to reassure the middle classes that the best possible thing is to be middle-class. Books like 'The Nanny Diaries' allow us to . . . ogle the designer-decorated Christmas trees, the private plane, the lazy days of cappuccinos and seaweed wraps, even as we sneer at the (cliched) inability to have warm, loving family lives."
There are other explanations for the book's runaway success, says Jennifer Weis, the St. Martin's Press executive editor who paid a $25,000 advance for it after seeing a partial manuscript. "It's a very talkable book," she says. "It touches on a lot of issues that we are all thinking about and concerned about. It's a book that people ask each other about, to reaffirm their own views about things."
A talkable book makes for hype-building television appearances -- Kraus and McLaughlin have appeared on "Today," "Entertainment Tonight," CNN and dozens of local channels around the country -- which leads to more talk. "It struck a chord," says Miramax's Poster. "People have a lot of issues about child care. But it's also juicy summer reading. I think that it's mostly women who are reading the book, and I think they're trying to guess. People always play games with comic books: Are they a Betty or are they a Veronica? With this book, are they Mrs. X or are they more like Nanny?"
Here in New York, "The Nanny Diaries" spawned another guessing game, one that seeks an answer for the tantalizing question: "Who is Mrs. X?" In March, the New York Times ran a story that named one possibility as the model for the character: CBS correspondent Lisa Birnbach, perhaps best known as the author of a different publishing sensation, "The Official Preppy Handbook" (1980). Birnbach told the Times that Kraus had worked for her as a babysitter.
Kraus and McLaughlin did not approve of that story. "Unfact-checked. Unfounded," says Kraus.
"We have never in any venue ever revealed names of people we worked for to anyone -- " says McLaughlin.
"Not to our agents, not to anybody, ever -- " says Kraus.
"So that was the New York Times sort of picking a fantasy and running with it," says McLaughlin.
Reached through her CBS office, Birnbach declined to comment for this story, as did Alex Kuczynski, who wrote the Times article.
Kuczynski's story also quoted Robin Kellner, executive director of a Manhattan nanny agency, railing against the book. Kellner said it was "unfortunate" that "someone has decided to imply that their former job is a source of all this gossip, and exploit it and capitalize on it."
McLaughlin shakes her head. "We had no idea or intention while nannying that it would ever be something that we would write about in any way," she says firmly. "I love nanny agencies and high society co-opting the word 'exploitation.' "
Giatree Singh has worked as a nanny for 17 years and 30 families, at least 20 of them on the Upper East Side. " 'The Nanny Diaries' is factual," she says. "They're stating that it's fiction, but it's factual. I myself have experienced a lot of those things that were described in that book."
Singh, who is from Trinidad, owns two copies of the book. She bought the first. The second was a gift from one of her employers, a woman who inscribed the book: "To my dear friend and my lifeline."
Seated on a bench in Central Park's 96th Street Playground, Singh keeps one hand on an infant's stroller as he sleeps through the afternoon heat. "I wish I had thought of it first. I really regret not coming up with that idea," she says, and she's laughing. "I'm going to put a copy of that book on my coffee table, right next to Nostradamus."
In recent months, McLaughlin and Kraus -- who, between them, claim eight years' nannying experience -- have often been asked whether an emigre from the Caribbean or Central America would have written the same kind of nanny book. After all, Nanny is a college-educated American citizen, with the option of retiring from nannying at any time. "A woman from the Caribbean could absolutely have written this book," says McLaughlin. "I mean, it's a novel.
"Do women from other countries get terribly exploited in this job? Yes. . . . Are there terribly unfunny stories out there? Yes. Terribly unfunny." She clasps her right hand at the base of her neck. "This is an unregulated profession, completely unregulated. It happens completely in the closet of our culture, and therefore, you name it, we've seen it happen," she says.
Not long after "The Nanny Diaries" was published, the Village Voice ran a story chronicling the struggle of nannies -- many of them immigrants who are underpaid and otherwise abused by their employers -- to unionize. "The Village Voice really set itself apart," says McLaughlin. "Really, it has been disappointing to be greeted for the most part by a media . . . that was interested in running stories of he-said, she-said, the mommy side of it, the nanny side of it. It was just so divisive."
At one point, Nanny bonds with another full-time babysitter, a former engineer from El Salvador who is able only once a year to see the sons she left behind. Finding a balance between serious and comedic passages, say the authors, was part of the writing challenge.
"I don't think either one of us was really interested in writing a sad book or writing a funny book," says McLaughlin. "We wanted to . . . write something that would take you in a lot of different directions in a manageable way, that would really give you this full experience."
This is why even though Mrs. X may be one of the most hateful villainesses since Cruella de Vil, she is also pitiable, which serves to complicate Nanny's feelings toward her. "That's out of respect for nannies," McLaughlin explains. "The nannies that we knew and worked alongside, no matter what country they were from, were incredibly, incredibly compassionate -- not just about the children, compassionate about the women that they worked for."
There's plenty not to like about "The Nanny Diaries." The characters are cliched and the fun grinds to a halt whenever the Xes are out of the picture. Nanny's family, parents and grandparents are cloying, and her life away from the Xes is profoundly uninteresting. And at times, it seems that Nanny is just as materialistic as her employers, noting every designer in Mrs. X's wardrobe and rejoicing at the castoff Prada shoes she gives her. The chapter titled "Holiday Cheer at $10 an Hour" culminates with Nanny's shock and disappointment when she finds that all the Xes have given her for Christmas is a pair of earmuffs.
Kraus, in fact, was the ungrateful recipient of black rabbit earmuffs from Saks Fifth Avenue. "The issue was not that they were earmuffs. It's, as we showed with Nanny in the book, it's that she's at the bottom of the bonus totem pole," says Kraus.
"The majority of women who have this job, with children of their own in outer boroughs that they don't see for 13 hours a day, or that they're sending their money to in other countries, endure so much more disrespect and degradation than getting a pair of earmuffs," says McLaughlin.
Still, the earmuff fiasco, she explains, seemed like a good way to show precisely where nannies are placed in the servants' hierarchy. "The people who came to plump the pillows had gotten a Gucci handbag and a fat check, and Nan had gotten nothing even close to that."
"You can have great shoes, that's part of appreciating the aesthetics of life," says Kraus. "But that doesn't mean that you have the right to stomp all over people."
March 10, 2002
'Who, Moi?' Mummies Ask on Park Ave.
It is the question furtively whispered at cocktail parties, bandied about the hallways of Manhattan's private schools and grumbled about behind bedroom doors in Park Avenue prewar duplexes: Who is Mrs. X?
From the fictional point of view, Mrs. X is the piquant central character in "The Nanny Diaries," a novel from St. Martin's Press that arrived in bookstores about two weeks ago.
The authors, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, worked as nannies in the 1990's for about 30 New York families, by their count. Drawing on their experiences, they wrote a novel about the high-end misbehavior to which their heroine, Nanny, is privy.
The characters are fictional, "the products of the authors' imagination," according to the disclaimer at the front of the book, so standard and ho-hum it almost dares the reader to doubt it.
Just as Lexington Avenue must rumble periodically with the subterranean roar of the IRT, the limestone and brick canyons of Park Avenue must also tremble with the gossipy roar of a who's who parlor game. Guessing games have entertained seasons past. Who was the real-life person who inspired the mistress in "The Bonfire of the Vanities?" What about Mr. Big in "Sex and the City?" And which society wife was a Madame Claude girl?
"The Nanny Diaries" looks like this year's Manhattan succès de scandale, already earning the authors a Miramax movie deal, acclaim from some quarters as Chekhovian social narrators and denunciation from the yummy-mummy set as pure opportunists.
The book portrays the self-absorbed Mrs. X as a stay- at-home Park Avenue mother, who does not seem to do much of anything except her nails. She stores her lingerie in labeled Ziploc bags. Obsessed with her Prada shoes and coordinated Lilly Pulitzer outfits, she cares solely about status and appearance. In one scene, she asks Nanny, the novel's narrator, to make sure that her toddler son, Grayer, is suited up in a Collegiate School sweatshirt for a picture to send to friends, even though he has not yet been admitted to that bastion of private education.
Not fair! say the real-life mothers of this world. Helen Schifter, a resident of Park Avenue and the mother of a 7-year-old daughter, said in her circle it has been suggested that the authors were inflicting vicious untruths upon innocent employers.
"People I know feel it is very biased and mercenary," said Ms. Schifter, who has not met the authors. "I think these two were very calculated and said, `Let's make some money, we'll be the Candace Bushnells of the nanny world.' "
Like Ms. Bushnell, who turned her observations of New York social and sexual habits into "Sex and the City," Ms. McLaughlin and Ms. Kraus observed the private lives of New Yorkers and told the hired help's side of the story.
Ms. Schifter said she had read only passages from the book, but the tone struck her as patronizing. Most of her friends, she said, were simply boycotting it. But she conceded that there are parents who are not kind to their nannies.
"I will admit there are a few bad apples out there," she said.
Ms. Kraus found inspiration for fictional bad apples at 1000 Park Avenue, the building where she lived with her parents, who run an art bookstore on the Upper East Side, while she was working as a nanny. A Miramax executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that one of the models for Mrs. X was Lisa Birnbach, a CBS correspondent who does on-the-air stories about child care on "The Early Show" and who used to live at 1000 Park Avenue.
Ms. Birnbach, reached at her CBS office, confirmed that Ms. Kraus had worked for her and at least one other tenant of the building as a baby sitter.
"I considered her more of a play date for my child," Ms. Birnbach said. She would not comment further.
There is little similarity between Mrs. X and Ms. Birnbach. The real- life 1000 Park Avenue is at 84th Street. The building in the book, the fictional 721 Park, would be at 71st Street. Ms. Birnbach has a career. Mrs. X does not. Mrs. X's husband is a banker. Ms. Birnbach's husband, Steven Haft, is a producer. And those who know Ms. Birnbach, the principal author of "The Official Preppy Handbook," published in 1980, attest to her polite manner, solid reputation as a reporter and general regard for others.
But there are similarities. Ms. Birnbach has dark hair. So does Mrs. X. Mrs. X is an acquaintance of a famous shoe designer and his wife, who comes from a political dynasty. Ms. Birnbach is an acquaintance of the shoe designer Kenneth Cole and Maria Cuomo Cole, the daughter of the former Governor and sister of Andrew M. Cuomo. And Mrs. X, the narrator complains, thinks of Nanny only as a play date for her child.
Another woman who was named as a possible model for Mrs. X, one who still lives at 1000 Park Avenue, did not return phone calls for comment.
Last week, Ms. Kraus said she did not think it inappropriate to use former neighbors as fodder, nor did her parents, who still live at 1000 Park. "They are very proud of me," she said. She added that she had never mentioned Ms. Birnbach's name to anyone at Miramax.
Ms. McLaughlin, her co-author, said, "It is drawn from our experience but is a work of imagination."
For all the hand-wringing and who- moi? righteousness, there are plenty of mothers who are snickering. Ileene Smith, a senior editor at Scribner and a 1000 Park resident, said that the novel offered some keen insights into the mind of a certain kind of cosseted Park Avenue mother.
"Chekhov must have been thinking about Park Avenue when he said every family has a secret," she said.
Heidi Selig, an Upper East Side mother whose friends are reading the book, said "The Nanny Diaries" is nasty, sure, but if you can't épater the bourgeoisie, whom can you épater?
"Why isn't it permissible to poke fun at these women?" she said. "Lighten up."
At a book-signing last Thursday night, about 100 people crowded sweatily into the Lenox Hill Bookstore to eat tiny sandwiches of salmon and cream cheese, drink white wine and listen to Ms. McLaughlin and Ms. Kraus talk about their nannying experiences.
"The tenor of the novel is in no way an exaggeration," Ms. Kraus pronounced.
"Wow!" said Elizabeth Kingdale, a nanny from England who has worked in California, Ohio and New York. She added that she was curious whether New York mothers were as awful as the book made them out to be. "I guess it depends on the family. I've been lucky."
The novel has had an immediate effect at some nanny agencies. Robin Kellner, the executive director of the Robin Kellner Agency in Manhattan, which provides live-in household help like nannies and nurses, said that the novel is unfair and has prompted calls from families.
"I can't believe any mother would think this was acceptable social commentary," she said. For families with help, she said, issues of trust, privacy and security are central.
"I think it is unfortunate," she added, "that someone has decided to imply that their former job is a source of all this gossip, and exploit it and capitalize on it."
Ms. Kellner said families who have heard about the book have asked her if they can trust the help they hire not to write or talk about their personal lives.
Clifford Greenhouse, the director of the Pavillion Agency and the Nanny Authority, both in New York, said all of his nannies sign a confidentiality agreement as a condition of being placed by his agencies.
At 1000 Park, a resident who did not want to be identified said that the building ought to institute rules against somebody's fictionalizing the lives of other tenants. "Last week, the board sent out a memo about the weight limit of your dog," he said. "And now we learn that one of our residents was a snitch. I think that's a more important issue."
Alexandra von Furstenberg, an Upper East Side mother, said that she protects her family by asking prospective nannies to sign a confidentiality agreement. Her nanny, she said, is fascinated by "The Nanny Diaries."
"She said the two nannies are going to be at Barnes & Noble, and she asked me if she could go," Ms. von Furstenberg said. "Of course I said yes. It's not like she's going to side with them. She just thinks it's funny."
Ms. von Furstenberg paused.
"And I guess you can chuckle about it. If it's not you."
From the March 4, 2002 issue of New York Magazine
The Nanny Diaries, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus's gimlet-eyed novel of dysfunction in the 10028 Zip Code, begins with what you fervently hope is a big fat lie: a "Note to Readers" insisting that while the authors worked as nannies for a total of more than 30 New York City families, the "characters are the product of the authors' imagination." Damn. The whole point of reading a book like this is to get the dirt on real people -- in this case, the kind of really rich people who make you glad you don't have a billion in the bank; and I, for one, would be inconsolable to find that the crack-addicted ex-beauty queen who has frosting fights with her 4-year-old in a vast East Sixties townhouse, or the Park Avenue fortysomething who alphabetizes her panties by designer, turned out to be products of anyone's imagination.
Nicola Kraus, left, and Emma McLaughlin parlayed eight years of nannyhood into a novel
Anyway, could anyone really dream this stuff up? I don't mean the plot: This one -- about a nice middle-class girl who goes to work for a seriously rich, seriously wretched family from whom she takes a lot of abuse until a liberating showdown -- has worked like a charm in everything from Jane Eyre to The Sound of Music. Here, our heroine (inevitably named Nanny) is an NYU child-psych major who takes what she thinks is a part-time job looking after 4-year-old Grayer X (yes, that's the surname) of 721 Park Avenue, only to find herself reduced to serfdom by her trophy-wife employer, who's too busy with pedicures and "committee work" to make contact with her own child. Or, for that matter, with anyone else: She communicates with Nanny by means of exquisitely calligraphed -- and exquisitely passive aggressive -- notes. ("I was wondering if you could throw something together for Grayer's dinner, since I won't be home till eight. He loves Coquilles St. Jacques . . . ")
But Nanny's story isn't the point here. Yes, there's the escalating conflict with Mrs. X, and yes, there's an ongoing flirtation with a nice boy in the Xes' building, and Nanny's lurching progress toward graduation, to give the novel forward momentum. (That there's momentum at all is a nice bonus: There is more writerly flair here than either the double authorship or the predictable set-up would lead you to expect.)
But the wicked fascination of this novel lies in all the wacky tidbits about life in the social stratosphere -- people for whom a summer in Nantucket rather than the Hamptons is a bold step in the direction of "diversity." The "impromptu" barbecues featuring watermelons sculpted into busts of former presidents; the highly paid "problem consultants" whom attenuated matrons must hire in order to fire their underpaid help; the Park Avenue ladies who buy studios in the same buildings as their fifteen-room duplexes so they can have "someplace for a little private time" away from little Darwin or Iolanthe -- this kind of folly is irresistible to read about.
It's worth wondering why. If "backstairs" literature -- the butler's or cook's or governess's eyes-to-the-keyhole account of how their rich or famous employers live -- has always been popular, it's because it serves a crucial cultural purpose: not to sell us on the haute life but, if anything, to reassure the middle classes that the best possible thing is to be middle-class. Forget about "Let them eat cake": Books like The Nanny Diaries allow us to eat our cake and have it, too -- to ogle the designer-decorated Christmas trees, the private planes, the lazy days of cappuccinos and seaweed wraps, even as we sneer at the (clichéd) inability to have warm, loving family lives. Mrs. X may have a dressing room the size of your apartment, but philandering Papa X rarely makes it home from the office. Both parents make Medea look like Mary Poppins: The attention-starved Grayer pathetically carries around his dad's tattered business card like a totem.
I couldn't help thinking that Grayer's been neglected by his creators too. It's strange, given the amount of time the authors have spent around kids, that they haven't managed to conjure a memorable child character. This boy is sort of generically endearing -- he cries and snuggles and sleeps on cue -- but although you're constantly told that Nanny's love for the boy is what keeps her from quitting, you never really feel it. Of course, children aren't really the point here. They are, if anything, just as much an "accessory" to the authors as they are to the emotionally frozen parents, whose overdecorated, undernourished lives are the real object of a satire whose barbs are sharp but don't go all that deep. "I'm distracted from my thoughts of the Xes by the trappings of the Xes," Nanny hopelessly realizes in the final pages of this very funny book. So, it would seem, are the authors; so -- deliciously -- are you.
The Nanny Diaries
By Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus.
St. Martin's Press; 320 pages; $24.95.
This life: A spoonful of sugar ...
As a new book lifts the lid on the New York nanny scene, James Langton speaks to a real-life Mary Poppins
WHILE Manhattan's mothers-who-lunch spend their days with low-fat lattes and spinning classes, somebody else is looking after the children.
That somebody is the nanny. She dresses and feeds them. She folds clothes, finds teddy and cleans. The only difference between the nanny and a real mother is she doesn't share a bed with a $750,000-a-year banker.
But nannies are taking revenge. Published last week, The Nanny Diaries may claim to be 'fiction' but don't believe it. Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin have written what has been described as an 'acidly funny' novel based on eight years caring for the offspring of wealthy families. The book was recently bought by Miramax films for £300,000 and threatens to do for childcare what Bridget Jones did for big knickers.
The Diaries charts the bizarre relationship between Nan and her mega-rich employers, Mr and Mrs X. Hired as part-time help, Nan quickly finds her own life as a college student comes very much second to the demands of Mrs X, who is too busy to shop for goodies for party gift bags and certainly too busy to accompany her four year old to his playtime appointments. As the family's dramas mount, divorce looms. While Mrs X copes with the crises by shopping, it's Nan who realises she's the only one concerned for the child.
Manhattan isn't short of nannies -- but listen to the accents on the swings at Central Park playground and you'll soon realise it's the daughters of Albion (and a fair few from Erin) who are the real surrogate mothers of New York.
'They called me the Mary Poppins of the Upper East Side,' says Laura, a 32-year-old nanny from Lancashire who has 15 years' of stories. With several piercings and a tattoo, she doesn't look much like Poppins, and sounds more Julie Walters than Julie Andrews, but to the mothers of Park Avenue she could have dropped from the skies with an umbrella and a spoonful of sugar.
She arrived in New York aged 17 and was placed with a family by an agency. She lasted three months. 'It was horrific. They expected me to clean a five-storey brownstone and look after a three year old. They had no regard for me, even though I was looking after their child.'
She found ice cream was considered a nutritious breakfast for an infant and the two hours between coming back from the shops and dinner was enough for parental bonding. 'They don't know what love is. They only know what can be bought.'
She soon found her true worth. A good nanny can earn $1000 a week in Manhattan, with private health care. Then there's the Christmas bonus. 'I know of one girl who got $10,000,' she says.
It's hard-earned, though. Fathers are barely seen after a day grappling with the financial markets. And while wives may pause from the social whirl to give birth, it's only for a moment -- Laura was looking after a baby at three days old. 'And the mother had a wet nurse so she didn't have to get up at night. She said her first word to me. It was 'Momma'.'
There are possibly thousands of British nannies in New York, very few with the proper papers. They do it for a fistful of dollars and the chance to live in the most exciting city in the world.
Laura took a job in a shop after her last post as she was becoming too attached to the child in her care. Now she's thinking about starting a family of her own. But she says: 'If I do have a baby, it's not going to have a nanny.'
Mummy can't buy you love
In the past nanny might have known best, but now mummy doesn't know at all and couldn't care less
Friday March 1, 2002
The list of things we would rather not talk about is a fair indicator of the state of the nation's psyche, especially since ours will differ so dramatically from that of, say, the Americans. Take up-the-bum sex: you can see it on the telly most nights of the week, but try canvassing opinion on the subject (after the film of Bridget Jones's Diary was the obvious opportunity ) and you quickly realise that it is not the taboo-free topic that the makers of Club Reps would have us believe.
Money spent on clothes is another good one: show me the woman who doesn't, when asked where she got her designer coat, start bleating about how she found it in the bargain bucket, and I'll show you someone who doesn't own a red passport. And then there's the whole bizarre cover-up regarding the contract between the affluent middle classes and their childcarers - the relationship that dare not speak its name. We like to call them nannies, but they would more accurately be described as the People Without Whom These Families Would Disintegrate.
Nannies now differ from those of previous generations in one significant detail: they are running the show single-handed. This is something we've all known for some time (there's a tenner for anyone who has ever spotted a mother-and-child combo on the streets of Chelsea, as opposed to children plus wan-looking antipodean) but, none the less, the rule is to act like they're just helping out a bit (and don't they cost a fortune? I mean it's not brain surgery).
At least in New York all such pretence has been shelved with the publication this week of The Nanny Diaries, a novel based on the co-authors' experiences of looking after the offspring of wealthy Upper East Side families. Yes, you've guessed who's going to the toddler's play appointments and who's putting in an hour's bonding time between shopping and going out to dinner. Miramax has bought the film rights and we can look forward to watching the selfish parenting habits of Manhattanites on the big screen soon. As to whether it will bring us any closer to acknowledging that the same teenage aliens are running the homes and raising the children of most high-income couples in Britain, who knows?
No one's suggesting that paying for childminding so that women can work isn't the best idea since the pill, but this new relationship goes way beyond that. This is keeping your children at livery, occasionally giving them a turn around the paddock so the guests can admire their glossy coats and perfect schooling. What has changed is the overwhelming desire of the well off to control their lives right down to the last button. They want children; they've just got a lot of demands on their time, so they prefer to focus on that particular project in those moments when they would have been mountain-biking or listening to classical music.
Loss of control is a big fear for the modern parent (see the success of the maternity nurse Gina Ford's baby book, which advocates a rigorous routine) along with the fears of looking foolish, being less interesting, being too tired and (for the women) descending into first-wife material. Similarly, there are plenty of well-off mothers who are not only too posh to push but far too pushy to hang around watching junior finger-paint.
In the past, nanny might have known best, but now mummy doesn't know at all and couldn't care less - she has far more important things to do than potty training. So nanny is the only one who can cope with three children, the dog and the shopping, the only one who doesn't mind sitting through Jack and the Beanstalk, again. And if nanny leaves and there's a week's gap before the arrival of her replacement, you would think that Mrs Holland Park had been dropped in the jungle with a wet box of matches (she pays "through the nose" for an emergency stopgap, which is, per day, what her yoga teacher costs per hour).
Not everyone with the money to pay for full-time childcare is as child-friendly as Herod. It's just that the well off are in the habit of getting things done their way and "mother" does not register on their statusometer, unless it's as a bonus interest, as in "I run a boutique and I'm a mother." Lest we should tut-tut too much, can you honestly say that you rate a 19-year-old Aussie who takes 24-hour responsibility for someone else's baby higher than a shop owner who gets her picture in the paper? Well that's what Mrs Holland Park thinks, too.
Week of March 13 - 19, 2002
Women Raise the City
by Chisun Lee
The Help Set Out to Help Themselves
They picketed a midtown bank and an East Side embassy where their bosses worked, demanding unpaid wages through bullhorns. They brandished signs on a West Village sidewalk and before a picket fence in Queens, denouncing families for abusing and shafting their household workers. They organized in playgrounds, talked reform over dinners they cooked each other, and together mapped a road to a more dignified life.
But they were supposed to stay home.
They were supposed to be too tired from working 50, 60, or 80 hours a week. Too discouraged by earnings of a few hundred dollars a week or sometimes a month. Too frightened, because many of them are not supposed to be in this country, and none can afford to lose a job. The Nanny Diaries, a comic new novel by two NYU graduates who once worked on Park Avenue, has caused a sensation with its titillating trade secrets, but these ordinary workers are still struggling to expose the grimmer truths.
Indeed, a package of measures set to be introduced in the City Council this month is proof of a growing labor movement among New York's nannies and housekeepers. Too dispersed for a traditional union, these women have typically fended for themselves in the insulated, highly personal setting of private homes. The proposals, however, mark a peak in momentum that has been building for years, as the workers, who call themselves Domestic Workers United, have gained supporters and lobbied legislators. It will be the first time in history that the city acknowledges the special burdens of domestic workers and considers reforms to relieve them.
"This is a community whose rights, I feel very strongly, are not being protected," says Gale Brewer, the Upper West Side councilmember who has taken the lead in pushing proposals for a local law and a resolution, which requires a vote but lacks legal power. The community she speaks of could number in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Absent an official tally, industry observers look at estimates of Caribbean, Asian, Latino, and Eastern European immigrants, who make up the vast majority of workers, and numbers of potential employers.
The proposed law applies to placement agencies, which are estimated to transact about 50 percent of the city's domestic work for a commission of 10 to 15 percent of a worker's annual salary paid by those hiring. According to a recent draft, it seeks to establish a "code of conduct" reflecting basic labor rights such as a minimum wage, overtime, and Social Security payment—an indication of the profession's arrested state. Agency heads who failed to obtain employers' signatures acknowledging the code would face license suspension or revocation, a fine, or imprisonment up to one year.
Enforceable through the Department of Consumer Affairs, the law would "impose an official standard on agencies to impose standards on employers," says Brewer's chief of staff, Brian Kavanagh. "This gets rid of the ignorance defense" both plead, sometimes sincerely, when accused of flouting labor laws, he says. Agencies are not legally required to monitor how workers fare after placement, nor is there a mandatory grievance process. The head of one reputable Manhattan agency says a "very good rapport" with workers is her process.
The accompanying resolution would express a more radical vision of rights for all domestics, whether employed through agencies or on their own. A draft refers to "the rights of all workers to regularize their immigration status, [and] to organize." It calls for reforms to federal and state labor laws that currently exclude household workers and advances a set of "standard guidelines, "not only for wages and hours but also for benefits like vacation and sick days.
"If you've got councilmembers across the city agreeing that this is the standard, that should help to bring this issue to the attention of state and federal legislators, and . . . provide the basis to bring other people into the movement," says Kavanagh. Mistreated domestics, he says, could consider their local legislator to be an official advocate where none had existed before.
The actual penalties involved are fairly mild, leading council proponents to hope for a smooth passage. The measures would require little or no additional funding and demand no more than employment norms widely accepted in other industries. But the desired effect, say supporters, is no less than a sea change in the public's understanding of domestic workers' rights.
These workers include housekeepers, cooks, nannies, and the many who serve in between, yet the fair-pay question often raises the issue of child care affordability. Certainly the pending proposals will not resolve those daunting economics. The minimum legal cost of employing a household worker in New York City for 50 hours a week is about $14,000 a year plus taxes. Day care, while more affordable, is scarce and lacks the convenience of in-home care.
Many employers strive to pay more than the minimum, recognizing the near impossibility of surviving on such a sum. Jill and Bob Strickman-Ripps, who live and work out of two loft apartments in Tribeca, can do so more generously than others. She owns a casting company; he is a commercial photographer. They hired Eunice Easly at $350 a week in 1997, steadily raised her to $540—about $28,000 annually—and plan an increase for the additional care of their newborn son. The parents "are very fair," says Easly. They provide her with health insurance and paid her through the six weeks she needed to recover from a recent operation. "How else was she going to pay her rent?" says Jill Strickman-Ripps. "What's most important to us is that the person who cares for our children feel good about us."
Yet in Eddie and Randi Rosenstein's case, good intentions only stretch so far. With two young children, they had to move from Brooklyn's fashionable Boerum Hill to a first-floor rental in Ditmas Park. He is an independent filmmaker, she a pediatric physical therapist. Their income precluded even the cost of a nanny agency.
Through word of mouth, they hired a Caribbean woman who, Eddie Rosenstein says, "had this huge fear that we were these wealthy employers who were taking advantage of her." The nanny declined to be interviewed. Rosenstein gives an estimate of her salary, over $20,000 a year plus taxes. "This is all we can afford, period," he says. Their child care expense, including part-time day care for their older son, "is awesome," he says. "It's more than we used to make collectively." However, says Rosenstein, who is filming a documentary about low-wage workers, "As much as we're doing for her, I can imagine how hard it is to get by on what we're able to give her." He says the parents who pay less and expect more breed resentment that projects onto concerned employers like him.
Carolyn H. de Leon, an organizer who started her 10-year nannying career at $2 an hour, says she can sympathize with parents' financial crunch. "Many of us have children, too. We have even fewer options for child care." Yet in the families they work for, she says, "there is saving going on for college tuitions, for summer trips. Many of us cannot save one penny, even working all the time." She commends the parents who pay a living wage, but says, "we can't just count on getting good employers, because there are plenty of bad and ignorant ones."
Indeed, the proposed council measures challenge some long-standing industry conditions—low wages and long hours, worker isolation, and lack of official concern—that keep employers in control. Despite fair and generous agreements, these circumstances nevertheless allow for thousands of working women to be overworked, underpaid, and sometimes abused. There is a moral imperative that, reformers hope, will deflate any opposition.
In fact, moral authority was all that a half-dozen members of Domestic Workers United brought to their first meeting with Brewer, on February 12. They could deliver few votes or donors. Most had never met an elected official.
Nahar Alam, an activist with six years in domestic work, gestures toward a friend seated next to her. She explains on behalf of the Bengali speaker, "She lost one job because she was sick. She was sick because she was working 18 hours per day. [Employers] are taking so much advantage. They hire, they fire. You cannot do anything. We get two, three dollars an hour. Immigrants in particular. Even if you have a green card, it doesn't matter."
Jacqueline Maxwell, an African American, adds that she has had similar problems. Moreover, paid vacations, sick leave, and health care are rare. Says Faye Roberts, who raised three daughters while working here, pregnancy or missing work to attend to one's own children can warrant a dismissal.
Verbal and physical abuse are more common than workers like to admit, say the women, and job security is a joke. Plenty earn less than the legal minimum, especially considering uncompensated overtime. And because no one is telling the employers to stop, the abuses go on.
The heartfelt pile-on gets to Brewer fairly quick. "You need backup," she says. "We will definitely move on this."
The women have won over a growing list of councilmembers, including Christine Quinn, John Liu, and Charles Barron, simply by recounting their own experiences. Bill Perkins, the council's deputy majority leader, says, "I'm on board by legacy." His grandmother, an African American, was a household worker.
"These people have historically been exploited, treated like peons," he says. Set to introduce his own bill proposing a living wage for certain service workers, he says of the pending domestic work package, "It helps to define us as an institution in a progressive way, in a way that's responsive not just to landlords or business interests or wealth, but also to those who are exploited, and whose exploitation is silent."
The officials did not even meet Estella Ngambi, who left her young son in Zambia and came to New York to support him. She keeps house for a tennis instructor for $350 a month, an amount she says she hasn't seen since December. She says she sleeps in his kitchen on a blanket, instead of on an air mattress reserved for guests. She has no friends to take her in, and no funds with which to escape.
Worse cases have appeared in recent years under headlines screaming "Modern-Day Slavery" and "Beatings and Isolation." Many of these involved third-world migrants brought into the U.S. on special visas by diplomats and financiers. These are extreme examples of how lack of legal status, especially combined with the restrictions of being a live-in worker, can leave domestics at serious risk.
Says Carol Pier, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has reported on special-visa domestics, "Migrant domestic workers with or without visas are often isolated, devalued by their employers, and invisible to government scrutiny." In immigration hubs like New York, they are believed to constitute a possible majority of the workforce.
Fear of deportation, language barriers, and ignorance of U.S. laws keep undocumented workers earning less and working longer hours, often at more physically demanding jobs. The government offers them little relief, banning them even from collecting food stamps, although they are covered under minimum wage and overtime rules.
As a result, they can end up earning "pennies," says Maurice Wingate, president of Best Domestic, one of Manhattan's largest agencies, which does not place the undocumented. "I've heard of situations where they just work for room and board. They end up taking what they can get. They are subject to harsher violence and unfair treatment."
Says Carla Vincent, a nanny who works here to support an eight-year-old daughter in Trinidad, "parents really take advantage" of women like her. Her first job in New York paid $225 per week in 1998 for live-in child care, housekeeping, and cooking. "I would have to wait until they were finished eating and then eat. Then she wanted me to meet her in the Hamptons, and I would be responsible for my own traveling expenses."
There are many women in her situation, she says, "every second nanny that you meet. We give up a lot, and it's only because you can better support your children from here than if you were home. There are no jobs down there."
Even for those without immigration worries, the fluid boundaries of domestic work can allow for exploitation. Job titles and stated duties are often mere formalities. "Quite frankly, some parents will place a job order saying they want a nanny, and they'll kind of leave out the housekeeping aspect. They start with making the beds, then it goes to sweeping the floors, then to mopping, then before you know it, you've got a person doing nannying and housekeeping," says Wingate.
He says the best-paid domestics can earn upwards of $800 a week. But the U.S. Department of Labor, without data on undocumented workers, puts the median weekly wage for family child care workers at $265, for a 35-hour week. In New York, that sum would fall below the $5.15 hourly minimum, if a more typical 50-hour week and overtime rules were factored in.
Even the worker who enjoys above-minimal conditions should not rest easy, says Ann Campbell, a nanny from Grenada with a job situation she calls "very rare." She nets $500 after taxes for an approximately 40-hour week, strictly for live-out child care. Finding a decent job, she says, "is based on luck, finding the right person to work for. It's not based on how well you do your job. Even though I'm in a good situation now, you never know."
The law does not necessarily guarantee a decent job. Domestics are excluded from many basic labor rights, including the right not to be fired for collective organizing. Laws prohibiting discrimination based on race and sex usually apply only to workplaces with multiple employees. While their history is complex, these exclusions are essentially based in traditional notions of women's work and servitude.
State and federal labor agencies do not actively monitor household workers' conditions, although all are entitled to their help in recovering minimum wage and overtime pay. However, spokesman Robert Lillpopp says the state Department of Labor has no record of how many domestics have actually sought such aid. A U.S. labor official, speaking on background, says the department's New York City office receives six to 12 domestic worker wage and hour complaints a year, most from third-party advocates.
"We do not get as many complaints as we think we should," says the official. And when inspectors follow up, he says, they find that "these are employers who are very difficult to deal with. Trying to get it done without jeopardizing the individual's work environment—making sure the employer doesn't take any kind of retaliatory action—makes it difficult."
In New York City, the Department of Consumer Affairs monitors the businesses that place an estimated 50 percent of domestics. But spokesman John Radziejewski says labor conditions are the Department of Labor's responsibility. If DOL were to notify DCA of problems, he says, "we would take them under consideration." Lawyers supporting the domestic workers group say, however, that DCA cannot absolve itself of worker responsibility. The group hopes the pending reforms and a newly vigilant City Council will spur more rigorous oversight.
Domestics can file private lawsuits. But according to Ranjana Natarajan, who handles such suits as a staff attorney at NYU's Immigrant Rights Law Clinic, no more than a dozen such complaints were brought in the city over the past several years. Lawsuits require that workers know their rights to begin with, she says, and they can be intimidating, costly, and drawn out.
"So many employers count on the fact that it's such a privatized industry," says Natarajan. Collective action, she says, is key. "The biggest factor is that workers feel secure and have some sense of support."
Among the few dozen women gathered over potluck one late December night in Brooklyn, support is all any of them can afford to give generously. Here, in a Fort Greene space donated by a community organization, Domestic Workers United hosts parties, nanny trainings, and reform planning sessions that have drawn several hundred over the past few years.
Tonight, the women are especially fired up. Someone brought a plastic pitcher of sex-on-the-beach. And Campbell, the nanny from Grenada, shares a harrowing tale. Her 5-foot-10 frame sways dramatically as she describes escaping from within blocks of the collapsing World Trade Center with two toddlers and a stroller in tow. Her audience gasps appropriately. "We have a real hero here tonight," says one woman. Adds another, "See, her main concern was the kids. You can't put a price on that."
For talk tonight is of the low price most of them do get, especially now that times are tighter. "To fire you, everybody's blaming the World Trade Center," says a woman who was recently laid off. "Jobs are harder to come by," another chimes in. "If you can find work, it might be for fewer hours."
One woman was fired when her employers found out she was pregnant. It's a familiar story, one that prompts sympathy and promises of a baby shower.
Another worker was fired, even after working on Thanksgiving to serve a dinner for 17. When she objected to working that day, she says her boss told her, "You are Jamaican, and it is not your holiday." The group erupts. "We're in America, why isn't this holiday being respected?" demands one woman. "Then give us all the Jamaican holidays off!"
As in many conversations among these nannies and housekeepers, reform becomes the central topic. The women's stories make clear how isolation and lack of regulation leave individuals with little recourse. The group wants a standard for the fair employment of domestic workers, one recognized by both employers and officials, so that it can function almost as an industry-wide contract. And in a several-years-long campaign, they have attracted the numbers, advocates, and official support they hope will help them achieve it.
"There are probably not tons of domestic workers who can afford to live on the Upper West Side," says Councilmember Brewer of her district. "I don't care. I'm very committed." She frames the measures she is about to propose in the broader context of women's and labor rights and plans to form a coalition to reflect that scope. In fact, the workers already have the support of the AFL-CIO's Central Labor Council and influential locals of the hotel and restaurant workers' and service employees' unions. A slew of women's and minority groups are also on board, as are prominent figures like Gloria Steinem.
A few of the workers were fired when their bosses learned of the rights campaign. But several showed their employers Domestic Workers United's suggested standards and received support and, in a couple of cases, a raise. Parent Eddie Rosenstein welcomes the idea of universal standards, saying, "I want things to be clear, so they don't mistrust me, and I don't get scared I'll get gouged." Moreover, he says, "As a decent employer, I'm getting the residual effect of bad employers, who've abused overtime, who've cheaped out."
Indeed, council proponents point out that the standards they are hoping to legislate essentially reinforce bare minimums. Opposition, they say, would be difficult to defend.
Even if they pass, the measures will still hardly revolutionize household employment. But the stamp of official support is a great deal more than the workers have had to this point. "I'm thrilled to be getting the City Council's backing," says organizer de Leon. "To me, it's a weapon already" in the battle to define domestics as workers with rights.
Special research: Sophia Chang; research: Joshua LeSieur
"The Nanny Diaries" by Emma
McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
Two real-life nannies paint a wickedly funny portrait of their pampered charges -- and the kids' even more spoiled and demanding parents.
By Stephanie Zacharek
March 21, 2002 | P.L. Travers, the author of the wonderful Mary Poppins books, remains the finest practitioner of nanny lit. But with their tart, lively and genuinely openhearted debut novel "The Nanny Diaries," Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, both former nannies themselves, carry on Travers' esteemed tradition -- except you might say that a Kate Spade tote replaces the old carpetbag.
And unlike the Travers books, "The Nanny Diaries" is a sharply barbed comedy of manners; the denizens of New York's Upper East Side (and, by extension, their brethren in all other tony, overpriced, deadly dull neighborhoods in cities around the world) are its target.
The heroine is a 20-ish New York University student named (what else?) Nanny, who has worked her way through college by taking care of rich people's kids. She always enjoys the kids; the parents are another story. She meets her biggest challenge when she takes on the job of looking after Grayer X, the 4-year-old son of Mrs. X (a vacant, Prada-wearing socialite whose most meaningful activity in life is that of turning condescension into an art form), and Mr. X (a powerful investment banker who spends so little time with his son that he probably couldn't pick him out of a crowded sandbox).
Grayer is a spoiled pest when we first meet him, but Nanny -- who comes from a well-educated, politically liberal, unsnobbish family, and who is working toward a degree in child development -- has ways of winning him over, which mostly involve listening to him, talking to him and simply treating him like a human being, skills his parents can't be bothered to learn. In fact, it almost seems as if Mrs. X considers it her chief responsibility to single-handedly make Nanny miserable: She rings Nanny at home at ungodly hours; demands that she assemble gift bags for her dinner parties and run personal errands she's too lazy to do herself; and, worst of all, watches Nanny like a security guard at Harry Winston, rebuking her for any number of imaginary missteps in her approach to child care. (Mrs. X's favorite mode of communication consists of notes written on expensive stationery that convey stern messages like "As a rule I don't like Grayer to have too many carbohydrates" and "It has come to our attention that after you left in such a hurry last night there was a puddle of urine found beneath the small garbage can in Grayer's bathroom.")
The irony, of course, is that Mrs. X isn't a bit interested in her child as anything but an accessory. But in between shuttling Grayer from French lessons to piano lessons and ice-skating lessons, not to mention to preschool and scheduled play dates, Nanny grows fond of him and repeatedly makes an effort to "sell" Mrs. X on him in a desperate attempt to improve his overscheduled-yet-empty little life.
McLaughlin and Kraus keep "The Nanny Diaries" funny and light, but they're also good liberals at heart: Nanny befriends a fellow nanny in her early 40s who used to be an engineer in her native San Salvador but who can find only low-paying child-care jobs in the United States. Nanny is also keenly aware of the fact that many of her fellow nannies have young families of their own, families that are often left to the care of grandparents while the nannies tend to the little pashas of the Upper East Side. (McLaughlin and Kraus perfectly capture the flavor of those pampered lives, as perceived by the nannies, in one very short passage: "We push our charges over to Fifth Avenue. Like little old men in wheelchairs, they relax back in their seats, look about and occasionally converse. 'My Power Ranger has a subatomic machine gun and can cut your Power Ranger's head off.'")
McLaughlin and Kraus are largely sympathetic to the children (who can't, after all, be blamed for the sins of their clueless parents), but they spare little mercy for monster moms and dads like Mr. and Mrs. X. They describe a special paddling "spatula" move that Mrs. X uses to deflect Grayer whenever he rushes up to attempt a hug (she wouldn't want the Gucci mussed). And while Mrs. X is capable of occasional vulnerability and even kindness (she does give Nanny a pair of cast-off Prada pumps), her generosity is really about as deep as a Tiffany's thimble. At Christmas, she bestows expensive handbags and large checks on her other servants, while reserving a special insult of a gift for Nanny: a pair of earmuffs.
"The Nanny Diaries" has caused something of a stir on Manhattan's Upper East Side, some of whose citizens have taken great pains to point out that the book is most certainly not about them. Some people are incredibly angry: According to an article in the New York Times, the inhabitant of one building wants its board to pass a rule preventing anyone from writing about its tenants. (That'll learn 'em!)
But despite the fact that McLaughlin and Kraus have both worked as nannies, it's clear that "The Nanny Diaries" is a work of fiction. The characters are too broad and exaggerated and wincingly funny to be 100 percent true to life. But then again, some people don't know the meaning of "satire." It's so hard to find a good-looking dictionary that doesn't clash with the color scheme of the library.
Mary Poppins with
The uniform may have gone, but nanny still reigns supreme in this novel, finds Jane Shilling
Say the word "nanny" to an Englishman of a certain age and class and his lower lip will begin to tremble. His daddy may have been rich, and his mama good looking, but nanny was the one who came to hush him when he cried.
Unsurprisingly, English literature is full of nannies - cherished, if slightly alarming figures with a trenchant turn of phrase and a comforting smell of ironing. Such figures seem to belong to a vanished past - a time of footmen and under-house parlour-maids. But while even the grandest establishments these days are pretty light on footmen, the nanny lives on. Her uniform may be Gap chinos and a fleece, but her domestic dominance is equal to that of Mary Poppins herself.
The Nanny Diaries is a novel by two former nannies, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Kraus and McLaughlin are American; Central Park, rather than Kensington Gardens, is the territory of their nanny heroine who is clumsily (or "aptly", as their publicity has it) named Nan.
There are other points of divergence between this latter-day Poppins and the original. Gone, for a start, is the wary choreography of mutual respect that traditionally defined relations between the nursery and the rest of the household. In The Nanny Diaries, the predominant emotion is dislike. Nanny loathes her employers, Mrs and Mrs X, who treat her like a slave (Mrs X), or haven't the faintest idea who she is (Mr X).
Mr X is also a touch vague about the identity of his son, whom he barely sees, thanks to his pressing work commitments. Particularly pressing is the luscious manager of his Chicago office, with whom he is obliged to hold a great many essential meetings.
Nanny, meanwhile, is supposed to mitigate the effects of his parents' marital froideur on four-year-old Grayer, between whisking the child from French class to piano lessons, to playdates, all the while making sure that he eats strictly organic and doesn't touch his mother when she is dressed up ready to go out. This, incidentally, is supposed to be a part-time job, to pay Nanny's way though a degree in Child Development at NYU.
The novel is very funny, but there is an ominous ring of authenticity to the comedy, which may perhaps be even more revealing than the authors intended. The Xes are undoubtedly figures of inspired monstrosity. But then Nan herself is, like so many fictional nannies, a highly ambiguous character with an insistent need to bewitch the child and a strong streak of the victim in her makeup.
For a frothy little satire, The Nanny Diaries has an unexpectedly bitter aftertaste.
The Star Online
Friday, March 8, 2002
Poor little rich kids
The Nanny Diaries promises to embarrass New York’s moneyed classes with a below-stairs expose of their failings as mummies and daddies, writes ZOE HELLER.
THE Nanny Diaries, published next month, is a novel about workaholic fathers obsessed with work and totty, and self-indulgent mothers who fill their children’s schedules with kung fu and feng shui, but who miss the school plays. The authors, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, are two young women who nannied for several years to pay their expenses while studying at New York University.
The idea for the book came to McLaughlin in 1999. She met a publisher at a party, explained the concept and shortly afterwards she and Kraus landed an advance of US$25,000 (RM95,000).
They have since sold the film rights to their novel for US$500,000 (RM1.9mil) and both women are now actively pursuing careers as full-time writers. The principal characters of their story, an Upper East Side power couple called Mr and Mrs X, are said to be a composite of some of their various, former, real-life employers. Mr X is rich, attractive but cold. Ditto Mrs X. The Xs’ child is rich, attractive, but woefully neglected, hence, angry, lonely and confused.
The promotion for The Nanny Diaries would seem to place it in the time-honoured tradition of servant’s revenge stories, whereby the put-upon help get their own back by revealing embarrassing details of the employer’s domestic life. There is a devastating tell-all to be written about the exploitative employment practices that are rife in the world of nannying.
But that would have to be written by a Jamaican woman with three kids in Queens and no green card. McLaughlin and Kraus, both of whom are white, educated and quite posh (one of them is a graduate of the exclusive New York private school Chapin), do not seem to have experienced the genuine servitude that many non-white, non-American nannies endure, and their bad memories have less to do with economic injustice and snobbery than with the poor parenting of some of their former employers. They’re a bit miffed about the time the lady of the house tried to palm one of them off with her old designer shoes. But mostly, they’re sad, in a rather pious way, for the kiddies.
In a recent interview in the New York Times, they explained how traumatised they were when they first started caring for over-privileged, under-loved children. “It was existentially stunning,’’ McLaughlin said, “beginning our lives as young women and saying, ‘Okay, so this is what a lot of money and doing everything right has left you?’ The absence of warmth, the absence of real intimacy. It was such a cold state.’’
It’s always cheering to discover that the rich are cold and snotty and deeply unhappy. But I have to say, as a nanny-employer and an averagely flawed mother, the thought of this book does rather strike dread in my heart. In the United States, where to be “non-judgmental’’ is regarded as a noble aspiration, the one area in which everyone seems to feel absolutely free to judge is parent behaviour. I realise I am not meant to identify with nasty old Mr and Mrs X. On the contrary, their awfulness as parents, is meant to make me feel better about myself. But something about these women providing their beady-eyed take on the selfishness of some of their former employers makes me defensive.
The world is always looking to find a new way to beat up on imperfect parents – particularly the female ones and Kraus and McLaughlin, I fear, have, quite unintentionally, provided another stick.
It’s not the socialite ice queens presiding over loveless Upper East Side households who will recognise themselves in this book. No, it’s the already-harried working mothers who will clench their buttocks, as they wonder guiltily whether they have been spending enough time pretending to enjoy Lego with their children and whether the Christmas present they gave the babysitter last year was sufficiently generous.
Reading McLaughlin and Kraus bang on about the parlous state of Manhattan parenthood, I can’t help wondering what my babysitter would write about me, if she were offered US$25,000 (RM95,000) to do so.
No doubt she would want to point out how poor my time-management skills are; that I am always neglecting to purchase loo paper; and that there is an almost-constant ring around my bath. She would point out that in moments of weakness, I have been known to blackmail my daughter into giving me a kiss by pretending to cry and saying, “Mummy is sad’’.
She might also want to include the fact that, because my boyfriend and I were heavy smokers when my daughter was first learning to speak, her default word (and the name of her imaginary friend) is “Ciggy’’. (I always tell people that she’s saying “Sigi’’, but the babysitter knows the dark truth.)
She’d almost certainly want to divulge the fact that my daughter survives on a diet of fish fingers and bright green corn puffs called Veggy Booty. (I used to feel pretty good about the Booty because the packets say it has 200mg of spinach and kale in every piece, but just the other week a local news show did an expose in which it was revealed that the Booty manufacturers are the Enron of children’s snacks and that they have been misleading the public about the nutritional content of their product; there’s so much fat in Booty, it turns out, that if you set a match to the stuff, it doubles very nicely as a candle.)
My babysitter could round things off nicely by mentioning the time I was late picking my daughter up from school because I had been getting a bikini wax.
When I stack it all up, she’d have a pretty good case against me. But there, I’ve told all my secrets now. She’ll have to think of something else.