The first time Jeanette Agaronoff lost her job as personal assistant to a major Hollywood figure she was in her twenties and still easily alarmed.
Producer Jon Peters ("Batman," "Rain Man") punched a hole in the wall over her latest perceived misdeed, according to one witness. He swore at her. Then he fired her.
That was in the '80s. When she left Peters for the second time in 1996, Agaronoff had been around the block. This time when he called her at home on a Sunday afternoon cursing, Agaronoff just hung up. And when he called back she hung up again.
He fired her, of course. Then he offered her the job back.
So go the twisted lives of Hollywood's personal assistants, Sherpas to the climbers of the entertainment peaks, handmaidens to the movie star gods, granters of wishes to the too-rich and too-famous. It might be sushi at 4 a.m. It might be a private plane to Tibet, by tomorrow. It might be exotic animals for a party, or prostitutes for an afternoon. It might just be laundry. But it's always something.
"I like to take care of things. I know how to get things done," says Agaronoff, now 40. "You take care of their personal life. You work ungodly hours, you don't have any personal life."
But that's okay. "If you can handle the personality, the job is easy," she says. Then she pauses. "Unfortunately I always seem to pick the most difficult people there are."
The perils of working for Hollywood's outsize egos and pathological personalities have been documented in satiric films such as "Swimming With Sharks" (where a vengeful assistant kidnaps and tortures his producer-boss, a venal Kevin Spacey), and Hollywood fiction like "I'm Losing You" and "The Viper's Club," in which the protagonist refers to himself as his boss's "personal castrato."
But these parodies are hardly accurate. The reality can be much worse. Consider the tale of Suzanne Clark, who is suing producer Peter Guber (Jon Peters's former partner) for sexual harassment that was "intended to oppress, humiliate and denigrate" her, according to the complaint.
"He's hysterical. He's a maniac. He'd scream and yell like a 4-year-old. He'd rant and rave and make everybody crazed," says Clark, recalling the two years she worked for Guber. "For 12 hours a day he'd basically scream, You know that thing between your ears? Why don't you use it?' I don't pay you to think!' And in the mornings, when we were alone, he'd come on to me." Clark, 32, has since retreated to her home state of Utah and is working for her family's business.
A lawyer for Guber says Clark's claim is baseless, but declined to comment further since the case is in litigation.
Agaronoff, too, can vouch for the tyrants of the industry. She has worked not only for Peters, who together with Guber ran Sony Pictures before returning to producing big-budget films, but for the manic, drug-fueled producer Don Simpson ("Top Gun," "Con Air"); for one of the industry's few female executives, the legendarily tough lady Dawn Steel; and for the pony-tailed, Buddhist action star Steven Seagal. She and others -- few of whom are willing to be interviewed on the record -- say that personal assistants bear the brunt of the celebrity's fears, frustrations and phobias. They act as surrogate mothers, secretaries, psychotherapists and, sometimes, friends and lovers. They absorb the deflected stress of executives precariously perched at the top.
When asked whether he fired Agaronoff during a tantrum, Peters has trouble remembering exactly. "I may have smacked the wall," he says. His memory of firing another assistant is clearer: "I grabbed the guy and his shirt came off." Peters says he caught that assistant driving his new Bentley convertible. "He was sitting in my car. I lifted him right out of the car. He was sitting there with no shirt on, just a tie."
Demanding bosses come with the territory, says Peters, who is now producing "Wild, Wild West," which stars Will Smith. "Hollywood is definitely a wild town. The stakes are high. Relationships are high. All that stuff. . . . Can I be intense and get mad? You bet your butt I can. You need people that listen and are on it. Things have to get done."
But Peters says he is more mellow now. "It's a different time now. I'm much more in a place of loving. Many years ago I was much crazier. I don't hardly raise my voice at people now." THE GRIND
So let us not exaggerate. Not all celebrities are callow children. Not all executives are thundering nightmares. Just a lot of them. Actor Tom Arnold's former assistant was revolted enough to talk to a reporter, albeit anonymously (she now has another job in Hollywood that she'd like to keep), about his real nature. "He was obnoxious, rude and short with people," she says, still seething. "He would say, We want to have sushi today at 4. We want it to be Taka Sushi' " -- referring to a popular Los Angeles restaurant. "I would say, Well, they don't open until 5.' And he'd just say, Well, get them to open.' "
Asked to respond, Arnold said through his publicist: "I'm not familiar with Taka Sushi, but I'm sending my new, highly paid assistant down there immediately."
In a 1995 letter to the Los Angeles Times, Charlton Heston praised the dedication of his own personal assistant, Carol Lanning, but bemoaned "those affluent public faces who lack the character and decency to understand how to treat those who work for them." He added, "I've observed their disgusting antics throughout my career. They no longer amaze, but only appall me."
Of course, plenty of people would give up more than a full night's rest to live inside Hollywood's power circles, be on a first-name basis with Tom and Demi and Arnold, travel first class and pick up the celebrity's castoffs. The average job pays about $40,000 a year, although more difficult stars have to pay more. Insiders say Val Kilmer was recently offering $1,300 a week. Some movie stars are generous because they are genuinely appreciative: George Clooney bought his assistant, Amy Cohen, a fully loaded four-wheel-drive car. Madonna's personal assistant, Caresse Norman, eventually became the star's manager. One former Peters assistant, Laura Ziskin, now heads the art-house studio Fox 2000. Woody Harrelson married his assistant, Laura Louie.
And the explosion of the celebrity industry has led to the inevitable: the professionalization of their caretakers. Personal assistants have banded together to form a support and advice group, called the Association for Celebrity Personal Assistants, whose members gather at monthly meetings to compare notes, swap stories and hear speakers on such pertinent topics as "Gift Buying," "Time Management" and "Stalking and Threat Assessments." The group has a job bank and a newsletter with helpful hints on how to handle the stress of the job.
In a recent newsletter, Bonnie Kramen, personal assistant to actress Olympia Dukakis and head of the then-New York chapter of the personal assistants' group (the chapter recently broke off to form its own group), described the daily grind: "When the scope of your day really sinks in as you hit your desk, you get this tightening in your chest -- a combo of panic and determination at the same time. . . . And then you take a deep breath and plow into your work -- methodically and efficiently -- you get interrupted and distracted many times but keep focused on the work. And before you know it, the day is over. You haven't eaten, you are exhausted. The list got done, you survived and you are relieved." Then she added, "My point is -- what do you do now?" She urged her colleagues to "do something nice" for themselves. A SECOND SELF
Amy Cohen has been George Clooney's personal assistant for four years. And she says you'd want a personal assistant, too, if you could afford one.
"Why not have a me? Before you even think of it, it's done. I've thought of everything. You have someone to think with you -- not for you, but with you," she explains, rapid-fire. "If George can go to work and just be an actor, and just act, and go home to have a private life -- what a genius career. It makes you feel good to do that."
Cohen, 31, pauses over iced tea and salad at a Beverly Hills department store eatery. Cell phone within grasp. Overstuffed Filofax with hundreds of phone numbers at the ready. Clooney's out of town, but he could call at any moment. She flicks back a stray, reddish hair, perfectly tousle-trimmed by Clooney's hair stylist, who is with the star at all times (there's a perk). "Listen, if you can have someone to do all your busy work for you, everything you don't have time to do -- why wouldn't you have that? It's a pretty good gig to have someone do all your stuff for you."
Good point. Let us pause here to remember that celebrities are not like regular people. They don't live like we do. They don't shop for food, go to the bank, pump their own gas, buy their own clothes or pay their own bills. They don't walk their own dogs. They have people who do all that for them.
Rachel Rosinkoff was a personal assistant to Woody Harrelson. "I did his whole life. I stocked his refrigerator. I bought his clothes. I hung them in his closet," she says. Rosinkoff is now looking for a position in child care, a position that her previous experience amply suggests.
When you work in this sort of universe, nothing is as simple as it might appear. If your boss is going to a concert, for example, first, you make sure he has a ticket. Then you make sure he has a contact person backstage. Backstage passes. An A-list parking spot. You make sure there's security at the event. "They don't want to be bothered with anything," one assistant explains.
And of course, there is little room for error, particularly if you are working for the more demanding sort. Once, Agaronoff failed to get a white stretch limo to pick up Steven Seagal at the airport. She got a limo, a stretch. She could not, however, find the required color. She remained calm. She did not collapse in a pool of panic and dread. But she knew there'd be hell to pay.
"Everyone was freaking out, Omigod, he's going to freak,' " she recalls. But not Agaronoff. "I got black. And you know what? He made do. In the end what are they going to do? Fire you?" 'A MOTHER HEN THING'
Dinah Lary is perfectly cast as the celebrity personal assistant. She's soft-spoken, nurturing and utterly discreet. She shuns the limelight, asks for little and does things without being asked. She recently left her job working for director Joseph Sargent ("Miss Evers' Boys," "The Long Island Incident") after mudslides in Malibu made her commute three hours each way, but she misses the work.
"It's a different kind of job," says the understated 48-year-old with chin-length blond hair and glasses. Lary also heads the celebrity assistant association in Los Angeles. "I like variety, and they need some evenness in their lives, which are so up and down. They need someone who can keep it all together."
Says Sargent, "We sure miss her. We had to call her in to rescue us at one point because all the question marks were not answered." Like what? "Like, Where is our money? What is our bank?' "
Lary got her start as an assistant by managing the career of her son, Greg Browning, a professional surfer. She managed a yacht club for seven years, taking charge of bookkeeping, payroll and hiring before taking a job with the Sargents at their Malibu estate, organizing the director's professional life as well as overseeing the household and its seven horses, two pygmy goats, three dogs and a llama.
"I can make things calm very quickly," Lary says. "I've had lots of years of practice. I'm very good at crisis -- I become almost sedate. . . . It's a mother hen thing."
If the job is not a typical one, she says, Sargent is not a typical Hollywood boss. "At the end of the day he walks over, puts his hand on my cheek and says, Thank you so much for taking care of us today.' " Lary blushes and grins. "I'm like, Hellooo. Twilight zone.' "
Similarly Cohen is a one-woman fan club for her boss, Clooney. "I have to be a nice guy, a magnanimous person. Because everything you do, every word you say is being interpreted as his words," she says. "I get picture requests, favors are asked for children sick in the hospital." If she has to turn someone down, "it has to translate sweetly, because George would want it handled sweetly."
And there are those assistants who turn on their bosses. Tori Spelling's former assistant, Karen Tublitz, tried to extort money out of the television star, threatening to tell secrets. She ended up with three years probation. Kim Tannahill, a former nanny to (now separated) Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, sued the stars, claiming she was "shamelessly exploited and abused" through "fraud, deceit, oppression, intimidation, threats and force," according to the complaint. Possibly. But her suit came a month after Moore and Willis sued Tannahill for allegedly violating an agreement not to divulge information about their lives. That mess is still in the courts. For the moment we'll call it even.
Here's the key: Hollywood's personal assistants hold a secret power. They are the silent lifeblood of the entertainment industry, an anonymous network that knows everything and divulges nothing (or almost nothing). They place the calls, they hear the conversations. They know every dirty detail, every personal foible. They see the stars without makeup, for goodness' sake. For many that's enough to compensate for a raft of thankless boors.
It's not enough, however, for Suzanne Clark, the woman suing producer Guber. "I decided nobody deserves to be treated this way," she says. "No one does anything about those people in the high, high positions because they're petrified, like I was. So nothing ever gets better." SEEKING A CHALLENGE
Jeanette Agaronoff is standing in a debris-strewn office owned by director Oliver Stone. Within 48 hours she will turn this filthy shell into gleaming production facilities for her latest boss, producer David Chase. Chase is shooting a 12-episode comedy for HBO called "The Sopranos" and has rented space from Stone in Santa Monica. A bust of Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison sits on the floor -- an old prop from "The Doors" -- as Agaronoff haggles with the carpet cleaner, confirms the painters and looks up a number for an office furniture company. "I'll get some throw rugs," she mutters, staring at a carpet stain that looks permanent. "Let's see," she says, strolling through the space, "we'll put a conference table here. Every office needs, what -- a desk, a couch, a really good chair. The writers have to be comfortable. . . . I need to go to Circuit City to buy a fridge, a fax, the whole thing." She ends up staying until 3 a.m. the following day to make sure the painters get it right. Several months later, Agaronoff has moved the production into another set of offices. But she's restless. Chase, it seems, is far too amiable a boss. "He's a darling. He's a lovely man," she says. Is she bored? "I like to be running around," she says. She has some feelers out for jobs already; she might even go back to Jon Peters, if he asks.
Wouldn't that be looking for trouble?
"I don't think he's a bad guy. He's just a little unstable," she laughs. "You take as much as you can. And if you can't, you leave." She takes a beat. "This job -- to me it's like fighting your demons." CAPTION: George Clooney, left, gave his personal assistant a car, but Tori Spelling had a PA who was convicted of an extortion attempt against her. CAPTION: Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, left, are suing their nanny for breaking a confidentiality agreement. The nanny is countersuing. Madonna, right, had enough confidence in her personal assistant to promote her to manager.