Confronting Miss Fox

by Ivy Berchuck

I was told up front that my name would be Miss Fox. I was never to discuss my identity with clients or other counselors. First names were never to be used. It all seemed theatrical, like an undercover operation. I was sitting opposite Mrs. Birch of the Birch Employment Agency. I had gone there to answer a job listing for a research assistant at the University of Chicago. There I was, a recent bride, a recent college graduate, and we were in the middle of the recession of 1955. I had been pacing the icy Chicago streets convinced I’d find the job of my dreams. I had already captured the man of my dreams and had an inflated sense of what I could do.

After a few disappointing interviews on my own I approached what sounded like a high class agency. It turned out to be a bare room with two rows of desks where young women talked to jobseekers and chatted on the phones with prospective employers. The key to the work were small index cards that held descriptions of available job openings. It reminded me of bookies in old movies, except for the gender difference. After a short interview with a Miss Washburn, who informed me that the research assistant opening at the university was no longer available, I was turned over to the matronly, tightly curled head of Mrs. Birch.

She was all flattery, and thought what I should do was work for her placing other girls in jobs while collecting commissions for myself. The base salary was so minuscule I’ve conveniently forgotten what it was. The commissions were to make it worthwhile. Although the job description that brought me there was for a college graduate, the openings the agency usually filled were for file clerks or girls for the steno pool. Those waiting to be interviewed looked like a forlorn lot.

I don’t know why I took a chance on it. It had an aura of sleaze, but I was tired of the search and was beginning to sour, even about my new husband. No way did I want my marriage to start like this. “What about training?” I asked Mrs. Curlylocks. “Don’t worry,” our Miss Haskins will give you all the information you need. She brought me over to an empty desk and the next thing I knew I was introduced to Miss Haskins. She had a long, sallow face and spoke as if she had graduated magna cum laude in elocution. She explained that the success of the operation was cold calling Chicago companies to get job listings which were then shared by all of us. We were to interview a girl and send her out after calling the company to remind them that the outstanding applicant was a Birch Agency girl. Miss Haskins let me know she always placed the most applicants and if I worked hard, I too could earn lots of money.

Always the good girl, I plunged in. The personnel men liked my gentle banter and I copied Miss Haskins and flattered them wildly. “Oh, you sound so smart, Mr Jones. I just love working with you. And you know that a job applicant from Birch Agency will always be competent and attractive.” It was enough to turn your stomach, but I thought of it as an acting job and the role of Miss Fox was the only way to break into this theater.

Two things happened during the first week on the job. When I got a listing, I quickly delivered it to Mrs. Birch so it could be disseminated to all the counselors. By the time I wanted to send a girl over there, the personnel man would tell me that the job was already filled and by someone from Birch. It did not take a genius to figure out that Mrs. Birch had passed my listings on to her favorites. In order to place someone in a job I’d have to send my candidate out before I turned over the job description to be shared with others. It was an ugly, cutthroat and deceptive operation. I swallowed, and started to play the game. By the end of week two, I had a few commissions.

Although I thought that act had compromised my ethical standards, it was nothing compared to the next thing. It appeared by day three, when after the job description for a clean cut, modest file clerk, a Mr Smithers said to me, “ And remember, dear Miss Fox, only send a Nordic. Be sure that you mark that down on your description. I don’t want some kike walking into my office.” I could not believe what I was hearing. There was no legislation here to prevent blatant anti-Semitism. Mr. Smithers was not the only one, although the language was mostly more genteel. I was appalled, and my husband remarked that Chicago was like that. “Be glad that you’re not a negro,” he said. ”Can you imagine then what the prospects for a job would be? If you can’t take it, quit.”

I held on. I dreaded going to that office and could feel something developing akin to self- loathing. I thought of collaborators during the war, of French girls who had their hair cut off by their countrymen. Here I was, a Jewish girl helping to perpetrate this outrage by collaborating with an odious practice. But an exit strategy was going to appear. During the second month a cold call got me an unusual listing for an assistant at a service agency that lobbied for public education. “We would require a college graduate,” said the woman. “We’re a small group and we work closely together. I thought that the Birch Agency only supplied clerical help. With an adrenalin rush I assured her that I had a recent college grad who would really fit her needs and I could set up an interview for the next day. Then I gave the job listing to Mrs. Birch.

I called in sick and went for the interview. As soon as I entered that office I loved the atmosphere and they offered me the job at the end of our conversation. I reminded the woman to contact Miss Fox the following day at the agency to give her the news, and arranged to start in two weeks. That would be enough time for my commission to come through.

Before I left I had one last conversation with Mr. Smithers. He had started to like me so much that he called me directly when he needed a new file clerk. As usual, he reminded me to send only a Nordic and I responded, “Oh, Mr. Smithers, I would never send you a Jew like myself.” I hung up, emptied my desk, and told Mrs. Birch that I needed to quit immediately, because I was pregnant and not feeling well. Deception for me had become easy, but I felt this lie would be the truth before too long.

Ivy Berchuck writes memoirs to remember, reflect and learn more about herself. It is a joy to share the writing with colleagues and is an addiction that I highly recommend.