Big Bosses: A Working Girl’s Memoir of Jazz Age America By Althea McDowell Altemus, edited and annotated by Robin F. Bachin, 192 pgs.

Mar 23, 2017

Althea McDowell Altemus was an executive secretary for several employers across the eastern half of the U.S. during the late 1910s and the 1920s. She wrote of her professional experiences in an unpublished memoir discovered by her grandsons and donated in 2012 to a museum. Decades before the establishment became a museum, it was an estate that employed Altemus.

Her main goal was to write of various behind-the-scenes intrigues (usually with pseudonyms), but along the way she offers fascinating glimpses of what life was like for women in early twentieth century America. Employers, for example, generally only wanted to hire single, childless women—Altemus was a divorced mother and lied a lot to stay employed.

The writing is usually pretty good. If I came across it in an online article published this year, I’d keep reading. Here’s the opening paragraph: “Neither beautiful nor dumb I had received my first assignment as private secretary to the world’s oldest and wealthiest bachelor playboy.” But here’s the opening sentence of the next paragraph—which I’m not critiquing, mind you—it actually makes this rich historical document even more entertaining: “With the mature judgment of twenty lovely summers and fewer winters, fortune had come my way following three years of the now elapsed matrimony which bequeathed unto me a tiny liability of the stronger sex.”

Recommended for readers of American and women’s history, as well as for those who loved the narrator’s voice in Charles Portis’s novel True Grit. –Jim Woster (The University of Chicago Press,