Bad Bosses — Proud, Pretentious, & Entitled

Bad bosses — most of us have had a boss we didn’t like. But did you ever have a boss so bad, so outrageous, that it got funny? Janice did — two actually — a man and wife team.

They considered no task too large, too dirty, or too much to ask of her. In the twenty-plus years, Janice had been working for rich and powerful people, she had never encountered any as pretentious and entitled as the Smyths. He was a former undersecretary of something in the State Department — and darn proud of it. The first thing he said to her was, “Please address me as Mr. Under Secretary or Under Secretary Smyth.”

Janice’s Story: Bad Bosses

Why didn’t I quit, you might ask. I’ll tell you why — money! I bought a house in Florida on what they paid me. There was also the entertainment value. Working for them was like being in a dark sitcom. I never knew what the next episode would bring.

The show began on my first day. I was setting up the office when Mrs. Smyth came in with their two teenage children. She looked me up and down — one of those looks.

Bad Bosses — Proud, Pretentious, & Entitled

Then, without a hello or introduction, she said:

“This week you will finish setting up this office. Starting Monday, you will be working for me at our home most of the time. So I won’t need an office here. But Judith and Alexander will be working here during breaks. Set up desks for them.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Judith, Alexander. What supplies will you need?”

Mrs. Smyth turned to face me. “You mean Miss and Mr. Smyth.”

“Of course. Miss Smyth. Mr. Smyth,” I said, nodding at them, but thinking, Give me a break!

The Upper Crust Circle: Bad Bosses — Proud, Pretentious, & Entitled

“Your most important job will be making our social and travel arrangements. Of course, first-class everything is de rigueur — five-star hotels and restaurants. You must understand that the people in our circle are quite wealthy and prominent — the upper crust. Arrangements must be impeccable.”

Bad Bosses

“I understand.”

“You’ve had exposure to people of wealth?”

“Yes. I was assistant to Pharrell Dankworth for seven years.”

“I’m not sure I know that name.”

“Mr. Dankworth was retired but he was active in his foundation. You may have heard of the Dankworth Charitable Foundation and the Dankworth Scholarship.”

“Yes. Well, let’s move on. Your first assignment is to plan our trip six-week trip to Asia in mid-October. We will be stopping in several cities. You’ve planned complex international travel?”

“Mr. Dankworth had homes in New York, London, and Morocco and traveled several times a year.”

“Then you know how involved this will be. Be at my home Monday at nine.”

The House Was Dark and Dismal — Almost Addams Family

Monday morning I drove to their wealthy Northern Virginia neighborhood. The houses were beautiful — except for one. The Smyth’s house was not beautiful. It was spooky. I never knew red brick could look so gloomy.

Then, I saw the inside and my first thought was, these people have all the money in the world, so why do they live here? It was a dark and dismal place — almost Addams Family. And that was just the foyer.

Impressive, Irreplaceable, & Priceless

“Fine. You’re here,” said Mrs. Smyth opening the door. She made a point of looking at her watch.

“Before we start, I’m sure you’ll want to see our art collection. Everyone does. It’s quite impressive — the largest private collection of Asian and African art in this country. The pieces are irreplaceable and priceless.”

The living room looked like an overcrowded museum. It was crowded with dark cabinets crammed full of dusty objects — weapons, bowls, boxes, statues of tall and skinny figures, short and squat figures, and one woman without a head. I backed up and almost bumped into a huge smiling monkey.

“Ah. You found our most unique piece. This is a guardian monkey from Cambodia’s Angkorian period. Very few are to be found outside of Angkor Wat.”

Proud, Pretentious, & Entitled

“Cambodian authorities are clamoring for its return. But this is irreplaceable and I don’t believe they can be trusted with it. You know how the Taliban has destroyed so much of ancient art.”

Aren’t the Taliban thousands of miles from Cambodia? I thought but didn’t ask.

“Now let’s go to your office.”

My office was off the kitchen and so small it barely held a chair and desk. But it had the basics — phone, file drawer, computer, and printer. And it was a relief after the living room.

A Puzzle of Exotic Places

Planning the trip was fun — like putting together a puzzle with dozens of moving pieces — the embassies of Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, hotels in seven cities, business offices to set meetings for Mr. Smyth, and a dozen different airlines.

I learned about fantastic cities — like Siem Reap in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar. I’d never heard of them but when I started trying to get reservations I learned somebody had.

Available suites in Smyth-approved hotels were scarce and booking them took dogging hotel managers and begging — and miracles. I failed in Siem Reap. I couldn’t get the Amansara, so I reserved suites at Raffles, also with five-stars. But when I told Mrs. Smyth, she turned white with rage.

“Raffles! It’s middle class! I told you to get the Amansara.”

“The Amansara is full for the entire time you’ll be in Cambodia.”

“Hotels always hold a room for VIPs.”

“I know. That’s how I got the last suite at the Kempinski in Naypyitaw.”

“Did you speak with the manager and tell him who my husband is?”

“Yes. The manager actually helped me get Raffles — the king suite.”

“No! I will not stay at Raffles in any suite. Do you not understand? We will be entertaining important business associates and government officials. I’d be humiliated. Rearrange the schedule. I don’t care what it takes. Fix it!”

I started over, rearranged appointments, dates of flights, and hotel stays, building the entire trip around when the Amansara had available suites. Finally, the itinerary was drafted. Then, Mrs. Smyth moved on to who should be given the honor of entertaining them.

“We must write to Ambassador Albrecht right away. He would be miffed if we were in the country and he wasn’t allowed to put on a dinner for us. Coordinate dates with his secretary. And here is a list of people who will want to know when we will be in their city — they’re all in the Rolodex.”

Once the correspondence was handled and the social calendar was done, I expected that my work for Mrs. Smyth was finished, but no. She insisted she couldn’t possibly get ready to travel without my help.

It Was a Dirty Job But… It Paid Well

Getting her ready meant doing the jobs she didn’t want to do. One morning she called me to come upstairs, opened her closet door, and pointed out shelves stacked with underwear.

“I need you to organize my underthings by color and sort them into plastic bags to be easier to pack.”

Then she indicated a box full of old stockings.

“And go through these to find those without runs and bag them as well.”

I looked at the stockings and the old undergarments, yellowed with age. But I thought, what the heck! I’ll have a great story. I’m sure it never occurred to her that this was overreaching. She was oblivious.

But I was yet to have the dirtiest assignment. This was a time before business casual. Women wore business suits to work. I was sorting through emails when Mrs. Smyth came to my office carrying a wrench.

“Janice, the man is coming today to fix the pool. I need you to turn off the water. The shut-off valve is under the porch.”

Can you believe I did it? I crawled under the porch, through spider webs and dust, and turned the valve.


Six Weeks Without the Smyths

I was looking forward to filing and other mundane jobs while they were gone for six weeks. But, no such luck. They called every day with changes for me to make.

At eleven they called to move their lunch reservations. At three, they called to say I needed to call the Kempinski because they needed three more days in Naypyitaw. That meant a chain of changes to be made. But the calls that were made on Southeast Asia time came to me on DC time. The eleven o’clock call came at midnight. And the three o’clock call came at four in the morning. So I was on the night shift.

The Christmas Missive

The Smyths came back from their travels just before Thanksgiving. Mrs. Smyth gave me her Christmas missive to type — a three-page account of the year in their lives to be sent to their hundred closest friends.

But when I read what she wrote in her account of their travels in Asia, I cringed. She actually wanted to say this in a letter to be sent to a hundred people? I asked. She told me to type it as written. I can imagine the reaction of some of those people when they read this. “Traveling in Southeast Asia would have been wonderful if there weren’t so many Orientals.”

It was just another episode in the dark comedy, Life with the Impressive, Irreplaceable, and Priceless Smyths.

Do you have a bad boss story?

Are there any bad bosses to top the Smyths — bosses so outrageous that it got funny? If you have, I’d love to hear your stories. By the way, Janice did save enough money (and collect enough episodes of the dramedy) to leave the Smyths and move to Florida with stories to tell and enough money to live happily ever after.

By Ruthi Birch

October 1, 2021