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'I still have the brown envelopes my pay came in.'

February 05, 1989|Caroline Lemke | Times staff writer

How many secretaries can boast that they've sold antiques to Lana Turner, and seen Salvador Dali throw a temper tantrum--and a bathtub--through a display window at one of New York's most chic clothing stores? Dorothy Hay of San Marcos can. For almost 50 of her 70 years, Hay has been a secretary, never tiring of filing, typing and taking dictation. But excitement seems to gravitate toward her like lint to blue serge. In 1939 she worked for Bonwit Teller, New York City's elegant dress and accessories shop and arch rival to Bergdoff Goodman. It was at Bonwit's that Hay saw such celebrities as Dorothy Lamour, the Bennett sisters and Gloria Vanderbilt. An independent woman before it was fashionable, Hay moved to California alone during World War II to find work. She fell in love with "paradise" and has been here ever since. Times staff writer Caroline Lemke interviewed Hay at the Antique Mart in Leucadia, and Bob Grieser photographed her.

I was born in Bristol, Conn. I just couldn't wait to get out of high school and go to New York City. That was where all the action and excitement was. When I was a sophomore in high school, I met an artist who took a liking to me. When Easter vacation came, she invited me to come to New York. My parents let me go. My father always said she ruined my life. I don't think she did; she opened this great big door.

I answered an ad in the paper for a messenger position at Bonwit Teller. Within three weeks I became a secretary to the buyer of handbags. Bonwit's was the elegant shop on 5th Avenue in New York City.

I worked six days a week for $15 a week. And I had to pay $10 a week to live at the Ferguson House. If you were late five minutes, or if you were sick a day, they docked your salary. I still have the brown envelopes my pay came in. We were paid in $2 bills and change. It was hard, but it was fun and exciting.

At the time, the president of the store decided to give all the illustrious artists a window to decorate. One of the artists he chose was Salvador Dali.

Each artist was told they could do their window any way they wanted. What Dali did was take one of those old-fashioned standing bathtubs, line it with real black Persian lamb fur--sporadically, not completely, so there was some white of the tub showing--and in the bottom of the tub, where the water should be, he had blazing red hot coals. They looked like they were really on fire. And on top of the coals he had placed this nude mannequin.

The windows were finished Saturday night, and on Sunday morning the president of the store was walking down 5th Avenue to preview the windows, sees Dali's window, and he calls up the display manager and says: "Sunday or not, you've got to come down here and change this window. It's disgraceful. It's shocking."

You should not fool around with an artist's work. On Monday, Dali came down to admire his wonderful creation and saw it changed. It incensed him so much that he just sneaked in behind the cosmetic department, slid the doors back and went into the front window, picked up his creation and threw it out the window. I never forgot that.

When I came to California, I didn't know a single, solitary soul. It was still wartime and you couldn't find a place to stay or a hotel or anything. I ended up in Laguna Beach and got a job as a secretary for an antique shop, the Treasure Chest.

One day when the owner was very busy with a customer, I saw Lana Turner get out of her gorgeous pale-blue Cadillac convertible and run up our stairs. She said, "Do you have something for a man who smokes a pipe?" Well, I did so much dusting and polishing between typing letters that I said: "Yes, I have something wonderful. I have a match safe." I went into the display case and got out this sterling silver match box. It's a narrow box to put Blue Diamond matches in, and on the bottom there's a little scratcher made of riveted lines. She thought that was wonderful. We went through this whole thing, and, before she got through, I had gotten about $750 written up on the sales slip and the owner never even got to see her.

When I showed her the sales slip, she said: "Dorothy, you are no longer a secretary. You are a salesperson."

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