Liz Smith, Joan Juliet Buck, Sheila Nevins, Judith Martin, and Joan Ganz Cooney sat down to analyze the nitty-gritty of getting canned
LIZ: Maybe it’s because I’ve been alive longer than all of you combined, but I have been fired repeatedly. It was not always my own fault. I once had a boss who was indicted, so I lost my job.
JOAN BUCK: Who was that?
LIZ: That was Igor Cassini, and he was the society columnist that I ghost-wrote for. He was fired for being an unregistered agent of a foreign country. I was also fired from NBC during the Eisenhower recession. And every time I was fired from some job, I always found it catapulted me into a better one — it was like being released from prison. So my experiences of being fired have been terrific.
SHEILA: I don’t know about being fired. I’ve worked on shows where when the show ends, nobody could ever find a home for me. But I live every day thinking I could be fired. I don’t know if that’s a self-esteem issue or just something that, as Liz said, drives me to work more. I always feel a little bit like maybe I don’t deserve it. And so I always feel as if I’m under some sort of threat or in some sort of danger. And maybe it’s just been growing up in a man’s world where I was always either the only woman in the room, or one of the few women, that I always felt odd man out – odd woman out. So … the word “fire” makes me scared. And I hear it all the time in my head, even though it’s not being said, I’m thinking maybe … maybe someone could do this better than I could do it. And no matter how many times you try to say to yourself, “Well, everybody makes mistakes,” I sort of have to re-evaluate a lot of times, and tell myself: “I’m the best at what I do.” Although people always tell me I am.
LIZ: Sheila, you’ve got to be kidding. You’re the greatest.
SHEILA: No, I’m telling the truth. I always tell the truth. I think maybe I need deep psychoanalysis. But I actually feel as Liz does, that the threat of not being too sure makes you do better.
JOAN BUCK: But tell us, have you ever been fired?
SHEILA: I’ve been “let go.” I’ve worked at networks where a show would end and then the next show would not find a home for me. So I don’t know that I was actually ever fired, but I was not placed. I was never in the middle of a show where someone walked in and said, “You’re fired.” I don’t think I ever heard that word. But I have not found other jobs in other places. I mean, I worked for Joan. Didn’t I work for you once?
JOAN COONEY: Yes. Yes.
SHEILA: … and our show ended.
JOAN COONEY: And I think you saved the show.
SHEILA: Yeah, but when the show was over I was out on the street. And there was no other place until the Television Workshop for me. So I was out of work. I’ve collected many unemployment checks. So I guess I’ve been fired.
JOAN BUCK: Joan, do you have any experience of this?
JOAN COONEY: No. I’ve never been fired from a job. But many jobs that I tried to get I wasn’t hired for. And it feels the same. But I was a bit like Sheila. I was always running as if I could be fired at any minute – all the way through my career. Someone once asked what drove me, and I said: “Sheer terror.”
SHEILA: Terror’s a good word. I think I’ve always been a little afraid that if I’m really happy at what I’m doing, maybe I won’t be doing it the next day. Joan, maybe we could share a shrink.
LIZ: Joan, isn’t it true that you were an absolute raving success at NBC, the greatest PR person behind the scenes that ever happened?
JOAN COONEY: No. No.
LIZ: I always thought you were the pet of General Sarnoff. He loved you.
JOAN COONEY: Well, that was at RCA, and I only stayed there a few months before I went to NBC, where I was a tiny peanut assigned to publicizing soap operas. I had to read all the scripts, and I couldn’t wait for the next batch to get in, because I got so absorbed in the stories. This was in the heyday of Pat Weaver, Sigourney’s father. You know the movie My Favorite Year, with Peter O’Toole… I was there. Sid Ceaser’s Show of Shows — that was my era.
LIZ: When I went to see My Favorite Year, which starred Peter O’Toole as a television guy, I said to the person with me at the screening, “This must relate back to the 50s.” And he said, “Why?” I said, “Look, there aren’t any guards on the elevators at NBC.” And in those days there were no guards at any building in New York. You could walk in anywhere. You could go to the New York Times cafeteria and eat. It was fantastic.
SHEILA: Did you ever have to fire someone? In addition to the fear of being fired is the job of firing.
JOAN COONEY: I fired someone once in my entire time as head of what’s now called Sesame Workshop; it was then the Children’s Television Workshop. I had hit men do it. I always had a No. 2 who handled it. But when I knew I finally had to do it myself, I couldn’t sleep the entire weekend before. And when I did, I felt like I was shooting a deer right between the eyes. And then I cried for three days afterwards.
SHEILA: I had to fire a friend — a woman whom I had hired. I really liked her so much. But she really wasn’t experienced enough for the job. I asked her if we could hire someone ahead of her who had more technical skill. She hemmed and hawed and then she said: “No.” I said: “Well then you’ll have to go because I really need somebody who can do this job technically.” It was intolerable. To this day, this person doesn’t talk to me. And one of her friends, who’s extremely influential in the business, sort of blamed me for this, and still hasn’t talked to me. So if I run into these people at screenings or whatever, they don’t see me. That firing experience has resonated for maybe 10 years so far. It’s horrifying.
LIZ: I want to hear from Judith Martin, an angel, a person who’s never done a wrong thing.
JUDITH: Right. Yes. You noticed. I was always told in the newspaper business, before I got into it, that there was none of this delicacy. First of all, Christmas Eve was considered the right time to go around firing people. And they used to say that Cissy Patterson, who owned the Washington Times-Herald, would walk into the newsroom and say: “Everybody on this side of the room is fired.” But my personal experience with being fired was extremely pleasant. I’d love to repeat it. It was not my main source of income, which makes a huge difference. But in the early ‘80s, 1984, Leo Lerman, who was the editor in chief of Vanity Fair at the time, hired me as the “Critic at Large.” And six months later he was out, and Tina Brown did not know what to do with me. I almost felt sorry for her. We had a very different idea about how you do satire. And so she fired me and I had a wonderful contract for two years — and I have a wonderful agent. So for 18 months they paid me for doing nothing. And at the end of the 18 months I asked my agent if he could get it renewed.
LIZ: That is great!
JUDI TH: They didn’t renew it, I’m sorry to say. But to this day, I have warm feelings toward that magazine. But it was not my main job. I have a newspaper column. So, as I say, one can laugh about it if it’s not one’s main living.
JOAN BUCK: Did you spend that money on nice, extraneous things?
JUDITH: Well, I paid for the children’s college. Very nice thing to spend it on.
LIZ: I had the same experience once with Rupert Murdoch. Barry Diller was running FOX News. And Barry Diller decided that he would make me a star and I’d become like Edward R. Murrow or something. Roger Ailes and I did a couple shows for him, tests, that I thought were awful. And then all of the sudden Barry Diller left the FOX Network and FOX kept paying me. And he had paid me $600,000 in advance and I kept calling FOX saying, “What do I have to do to earn this money?” And they said, “Oh, forget about it.”
JUDITH: You were earning it by staying away.
LIZ: I earned it by failing.
SHEILA: I was thinking back to something very serious that happened many, many years ago with a young man who was fired. At HBO there used to be interstitial programming. In other words, in between programs, instead of promoting the upcoming show, there used to be these little cartoons and pieces of animation or little short stories. And this young man traveled all over the world to gather things from festivals to put in there. Then a decision was made to replace these in-between things with promotional material – selling the next show, selling what’s coming up on HBO. He came to visit me on a Friday and he brought me a bunch of Charles Dickens’ books. I said, “This is so unusual. Why are you giving me a collection of books? It’s so sweet of you.” He said, “Well, I know you love Charles Dickens and I wanted you to have it.” And I said, “You know, I’m really sorry about what happened about the interstitial stuff. I’m sure you’re going to find something great to do and you’re so talented and you love animation, and it will be great for you.” On Monday morning we were told he had committed suicide. That he’d gone to a hotel somewhere in New Jersey and put one of those plastic cleaning bags on his head. The way we identify ourselves with our work, and the way this man identified himself with his work … and I was so insensitive, in a way, in understanding that he was giving me something so unusual because he had lost something so extraordinary; that he had identified himself so strongly with his job. You know, the first thing you say when you are introduced to someone, if they aren’t well-known to you, is to say, “What do you do?” And when you take away what someone does it can be terribly serious. And for this young man, it was obviously … he wasn’t such a young man, but it was horrifying.
LIZ: My, God, Sheila. You really know how to put the point on it.
SHEILA: I really can ruin any conversation, can’t I?