She has rescued a psychotherapist swamped with unanswered bills stuffed into shopping bags, a photographer suffocating in an apartment crammed with possessions like 14 pairs of never-worn pants, and a research writer sinking in an enveloping quicksand of clippings and notes.
She has sorted out the private library of New York socialite and former city councilman Carter Burden. she has organized kitchens and children's schedules for harassed housewivs and impossible schedules for business executives.
Stephanie Winston is a professional organizer. And the neatest thing about her is that she allows that we can be messy and still be organized.
That is a reassuring (also potentially dangerous) thought for those of us who lead cluttered lives amid precarious piles of pipes, stuffed closets, jumbled desktops accumulated possessions, and the litter of unfulilled lists and scrambled schedules at homes and office.
Not that Winson, who pioneered a new service when she founded the Organizing principle five years ago, smiles beingly on evrey mess. But she does bristle at being described as a neatness expert ("it sounds prim and fussy") and she recognizes some people can be sloppy and well-organized at the same time. Not always, but sometimes.
"Being organized is not necessarily being neat," she says with an understanding smile, waiting for the interviewer to rummage for a pen in a purse with seven compartments designed for order.
"Being organized is being able to find what you want when you want it and being able to do what you want efficiently. Some people say: 'Look at my desk and see how I am organized.' But they don't get things done. I have had clients who were neat and lived in the midst of absolute chaos --everything was neatly filed and they couldn't find a thing."
If Winston is not obsessive about neatness, she can be about people getting organized so that their lives are more manageable amid the world's disarray and demands. She will be telling how in a book scheduled to be published this fall under the obvious title of "Getting Organized."
A tall, slim young woman with attractively (and efficiently) bobbed hair, well-ordered thoughts and a personal timetable, Winston turns a neat profit as a professional organizer with a $200-a-day consultant fee. When making a phone call, she allows exactly five rings before hanging up.
She finds it far more profitable to organize people than words. She got the idea for the Organizing Principle in 1973 while working as a free-lance editor after a six-year stint with Crown Publishers editing film studies by such writers as Fellini and Orson Welles.
One of the early Winston-organized clients was Mrs. Lynley Sanchez-Elia, widow of an Argentinian rancher from the family that owned La Prensa.
"I was paralyzed. I couldn't bear to face the morning's mail. I kept thinkof a friend who threw everything into the fireplace and went to Europe," recalls Mrs. Sanchez-Elia.
Instead of lighting one of the fireplaces in the "10 or 11 rooms" of the Park Avenue apartment where she lives six months of the year, Mrs. Sanchez-Elia called the Organizing Principle.
"Stephanie just loves a mess. I heard of her from a friend who needed help with her clothes. It wasn't my clothes but papers. We had a throwing-out party -- four trash cans. And those bungled bills. I was impotent when it came to Con Edison and Avis."
Now Mrs. Sanchez-Elia no longer fears the morning mail. She happily separates her correspondence and other papers into a few box files with simple labels like "To Be Looked At," "Receipts," "Bills To Be Paid" and "Letters To Be Answered," and "Things of Interest" (don't forget that one," she says).
Winston thinks organization -- like diet or exercise -- should be simple so that people will stick to it. She doesn't try to impose a "system" but rather tries to work out an approach that will fit comfortably into a person's lifestyle (sloppy or neat), personality, early or late metabolism, biorhythms or whatever.
She avoids elaborate filing systems that require a codebook to locate anything (a few fat files rather than a hefty stack of slim, over-compartmentalized folders); mass purchases of cabinets or shelves (often an empty drawer will do); volumes of separate lists (a running list works better and start at the top), or painful purging (only when the client is in danger of suffocation by acute accumulation).
To keep track of a family's busy, intertwined lives, she recommends a giant calendar, listing doctor's appointments and ballet lessons and baseball practices and recitals. A child, she points out, may be able to dress himself much sooner if his closet and dresser drawers are in order. And things that are used frequently -- a doctor's reference book or drinking glasses -- should not be on a hard-to-reach top shelf. And for kitchens, Winston thinks pegboards are a great invention to relieve clutter.
"Organization is really simple. We tend to make it more complex than it is," Winston counsels soothingly as the professional organizer.
If it's so simple why do people need help? And at $200 a day?
"Maybe it's easier to straighten out other people's messes than it is our own," Helene Fisher, another satisfied client of the Organizing Principle, ventures as an explanation.
In any case, Mrs. Fisher wanted to set up an office in her Cleveland Avenue home in Washington for her work as a consultant for children with learning disabilities. She looked around and sent out a distress call for Winston to come to Washington for a couple of days.
"I guess you would say I was inundated with my life's papers," Fisher says. "I didn't want to end up like the psychotherapist with shopping bags. It sounds silly, ridiculous. I told myself I should be able to get organized without help. I wanted to cancel after I made the appointment."
She had been through one of her piles of papers when she found a clipping from the Paris Herald-Tribune about the Organizing Principle (luckily not thrown away, she observes wryly).
"Stephanie's eyes lighted up at the sight of my mess. We threw out some things. But Stephanie realizes that psychologically there are some papers you just can't throw away," says Fisher, who speaks as one with great psychological needs to save papers.
Now she has a drawer where she tosses clippings and notes to be weeded out later. Perhaps threequarters eventually end up in the trash in what is obviously a painful process for her. Now she has a great excuse for paper-saving because she is gathering research material for the travel book that she is writing.
"You have to admire Stephanie for taking what sounds like a non-idea --using common sense to help organize people -- and turning it into a profitable business," Fisher says.
Winston has no special training as an efficiency expert or management consultant ("they deal with systems: I deal with human beings"). Her degree from Barnard was in political science.
"But I remembered that as a kid, I was sloppy but I knew where things were in my room," she says.
With that credential and common sense, she advertised her services, finding her first clients through friends and word-of-mouth. Since those early days, she has doubled her fee and spawned a flattering group of imitators, the new breed of professional organizers.
Organizer Winston realizes that there are some people who may not appreciate the service she offers. Some people, she points out, carefully cultivate a mess, nurturing growing stacks of papers and notes on their desk, forgetting to pay bills, scrambling schedules, and trailing disorder behind them like Pigpen's cloud of dirt. The idea, says Winston, is to show that they are creative people above the mundane concerns of the world.
She has found no direct or reverse correlation between intelligence and organization. Being a bright, rising business executive doesn't insure an organized office operation.
Disorganization can result in great losses to civilization. One local columnist, a superb gourmet chef, stopped having guests when his dining room table was buried under books, magazines, records and papers.
Usually Winston needs only a day or two to straighten out a private client at home. A business consultation may take a few days more.
Winston may be called back by a client to organize another compartment of life (Mrs. Sanchez-Elia wants to tackle her photographs next). But she doesn't know of any unregenerates who have fallen back into their old messy ways.
"I either will watch them at work and then draw up a list of suggestions or I will work side-by-side with them. The idea is to come up with a simple way that they can stick to."
The organizer makes a candid appraisal of herself and her studio apartment-office near Gramercy Park:
"I'm sloppy but well-organized. Sometimes I say to hell with it' and let the dirty dishes pile up in sink overnight. But about the third day a warning bell goes off."