THE BIG story this month has not been the presidential campaign or the war in Iran, but the saga of Mary Cunningham, the brilliant 29-year-old Harvard Business School graduate who climbed her way up the corporate ladder of the Bendix Corp. in 15 months to become an executive vice president, only to be forced to resign because she was too beautiful, too young and too close to the chairman of the board.
It has divided the country, turned families against each other and raised so many questions that even the "Moral Majority" can't deal with it.
On each side are those who say Ms. Cunningham would never have reached her position had she not been young and beautiful. On the other are people who say no one would care if she succeeded in the executive suite, if she hadn't been a beautiful woman.
The most interesting part of the story is that this is the first time people have been more interested in what went on in the private plane of a large corporation than what happened when Farrah Fawcett split up with Lee Majors, and Jackie Onassis had dinner alone at the Stage Delicatessen.
The country was riveted by Gail Sheehy's syndicated newspaper feature of the step-by-step rise and fall of this poor young lady and, based on readership interest, we may soon be reading countless other Mary Cunningham sagas from "Fortune magazine's 500 leading corporations list."
My worry is that most people will get a distorted view of the executive suite and how we operate.
As most people know, this column is a conglomerate. We're into books, lecturing, recycling of old columns, and TV and theatrical enterprises too numerous to mention.
As chairman of the board, I was on the lookout some time ago for a smart, young, beautiful person who could be my secretary and handle my mail and crackpot calls. I found one at Georgetown University who fit all the requirements and hired her.
There are only two of us. Jeannie Aiyer became my confidant and closest adviser. Since she also corrected my grammar, I realized she had great potential. But as soon as she started showing some talent, people in other offices on my floor started whispering that the only reason Jeannie had gotten where she was in my organization was that there was something going on between us.
Then she came in one day and asked for a raise. I told her I couldn't give her a raise but I would make her my executive assistant. All the other secretaries on the floor were outraged, and said to each other that if it hadn't been for her looks she would never had been made an executive assistant in such a short time. But I ignored the whispering because Jeannie was too valuable to me to replace.
Six months later, she came to me again and said she was desperate for more money. I said she had hit me at a bad time, and instead of a raise I would make her vice president of the column.
Once again there was shock and outrage on the floor. Jeannie had been with me less than a year, and yet she was in on all my important business decisions. Evans and Novak said that if Jeannie were a man she would never have been made vice president of the column in so short a time.
The final blow came a month ago when Jeannie again asked for a raise. This time I had no choice but to make her executive vice president of mergers and acquisitions, which meant ordering my lunch for me in the office when I didn't go out.
This was too much for everyone on the floor to swallow, and the pressure is on now for me to ask for her resignation.
But I'm hanging tough. If she couldn't do the job she wouldn't be here, and her beauty has nothing to do with her new title.
The lesson in all this is that some companies such as Bendix give women titles because they are better than men at what they're doing. Others such as mine hand them out in lieu of giving a person a raise.