Time was, if you wanted to learn how to type and take shorthand, you were preparing to become a secretary. Not me. No sirree. I had no interest whatsoever in that kind of work.
"Never mind, dear," my mother counseled me one summer. "You may want to become an actress," (the previous summer I'd studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan) "but typing is a good skill to have under your belt. You never know when it'll come in handy."
Personally, I couldn't imagine anything more useless for someone who was Broadway-bound. But I could see that there was no way out.
While I dreaded the prospect of spending my last summer before junior college hacking away at a Smith-Corona manual, I acceded to my mother's wishes. I searched the telephone book for a secretarial school. When the brochure arrived from a "secretarial college for young ladies," the black-and-white photos showed women in hats and white gloves smiling beatifically as they sat at their desks penning Pitman shorthand.
"These photos must date back to World War I." I groaned. What was I getting myself into?
But I pressed on - and survived.
It turned out that most students didn't wear hats and gloves, but flip-flops and sundresses with bathing suits underneath so they could bolt to the beach after class.
At the end of the course I received a diploma for my efforts. I could repeat the home keys on the keyboard (a, s, d, f, j, k, l, semicolon) backward, forward, and in my sleep. I could type block-style business letters with four carbons and no erasures, and take Pitman at 100 words per minute. My instructors couldn't decipher my unorthodox scrawl ("that should be a curl and a dot, not a curl and a straight line"), but that didn't worry me.
My acting career never did take off. But I sure got my money's worth from six weeks at secretarial college. I typed columns for a travel editor at a popular women's magazine, sent out long-winded documents for an executive vice president at Madison Square Garden, did a short stint on Wall Street, and sometimes tapped out invoices and correspondence for my mother's gift shop.
But frankly, secretarial work wasn't for me. I could hardly wait to get into something else.
Several years later, I moved to Los Angeles and approached a major film studio for some secretarial work (just to "get my foot in the door," as my mother would say). The head of personnel who interviewed me in a trailer on Dolly Street (as in the movie "Hello, Dolly") was impressed. "Oooo-eee!" she exclaimed. "You certainly can type!"
My fingers flew across the keyboard at 95 words per minute. I began work the following week and stayed on for nearly six years. Using one of those new-fangled IBM Selectrics with the interchangeable type balls, I started out in the legal department where contracts for the stars were drawn up. My next boss, a hot-shot film director, taught me to use a computer to type screenplays. He was revising one as it was being shot on the lot.
Eventually, I graduated to feature-film publicist and had my own secretary and letterhead. But I still preferred to type my own press releases, and used shorthand to jot down observations as I taped interviews with film stars and directors.
And when the tape on my mini-recorder tangled up like a ball of twine as I chatted with the imposing Michael Crichton (he's close to seven feet tall) about "Congo," I was saved by my Pitman.
I never thought I'd be grateful to my mother for sending me to the "salt mines" that beastly hot summer in the 1960s, but there you go. So Mom, if you're reading this, thanks.