By  on December 3, 2004

NEW YORK — The best way to reach the top of a masthead: start at the bottom.

Skim way down to the name that appears next to “assistant to the editor in chief.” Not only is he or she the gatekeeper to a certain Anna Wintour or Linda Wells, but today’s lowly assistant can be tomorrow’s editor in chief. Just ask Ariel Foxman, who in less than a decade went from assisting Joe Dolce at Details to running Cargo.

“The thing that is curious about the position is that you’re the lowest man on the totem pole but you know everything,” said Foxman, who in his first year as editor has had trouble hanging on to assistants — his third just started this week. “The people who have trouble [as assistants] are privy to that information and gossip. But if you can keep your mouth shut, you learn so much about the business.”

In an effort to better understand that often impenetrable world of magazine office culture — and, let’s face it, make a few helpful new friends — WWD gave questionnaires to six assistants. They were Patricia Alfonso, assistant to Allure editor in chief Linda Wells; Caroline Callahan, assistant to GQ editor in chief Jim Nelson; Kate Taylor, editorial assistant to David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker; Carol McColgin, assistant to Us Weekly editor in chief Janice Min; Sylvana Soto-Ward, assistant to editor in chief Anna Wintour at Vogue, and Dory Kornfeld, assistant editor at Departures (assists editor in chief Richard Story).

And while their answers may leave some pondering Min’s fate after Jann Wenner’s next desk inspection — not to mention wondering what sort of “fashion shows” GQ’s Nelson is attending in Barcelona — one definite bit of career advice emerged from the survey: The best way to reach the bottom of a masthead? Go to Georgetown. Take Spanish.

WWD: Where did you go to college?

McColgin: Baylor University, major in fashion merchandising.

Alfonso: Georgetown.

Callahan: Georgetown, faculty of languages and linguistics.Taylor: Harvard.

Soto-Ward: Princeton University, class of 2003. English major with a concentration in Spanish literature.

Kornfeld: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, journalism school.

WWD: Why do you think your boss hired you?

McColgin: Janice I don’t think would mind me saying this, but Janice is a messy one. It’s my job to come in and straighten the piles; also to be very forward thinking and handle communication for her.

Alfonso: I think we had somewhat compatible personalities which came across pretty clearly from the beginning.

WWD: Had you worked in publishing prior to taking this job?

Callahan: Sort of. I worked at a series of business newsletters called the Latin America Advisor, first as a reporter and then as the managing editor.

Soto-Ward: I worked as a fashion intern at Bazaar and then at The New York Times Magazine style department.

Taylor: I worked at Slate and interned at Harper’s.

Alfonso: I did an internship at Oprah.

WWD: What other life experience or training prepared you for this position?

Callahan: Speaking French and Spanish helps at a fashion magazine because you’re constantly in contact with Europe during the collections.

WWD: Does your boss ever send you to events in his place?

Taylor: Very rarely.

Kornfeld: Yes, all the time. Art and gallery openings, fund-raisers, book release parties. He’s sent me on press trips. I went to Monaco for five days to check out the Hotel Metropole.

WWD: What did you give to or get from your boss during the holidays last year?

McColgin: Janice couldn’t find Uggs last winter because they were all sold out. So I tracked down Ugg slippers for her for a relaxing holiday. She gave me a gift card to one of my favorite stores (Prada).Taylor: My colleague and I pooled together to give David and his family a basket of lox, smoked sturgeon, and crackers and dips.

Alfonso: I gave [Linda] a hand-blown bud vase from a gallery in NoLIta. She gave me a red Hermès journal.

Kornfeld: I gave [Richard] a gentleman’s desk magnifying glass with a leather handle — he looks at proofs with it. He gave me a journal from Italy and these pink grapefruit soaps you can only find at the airport in Nice.

WWD: How do you answer your boss’ phone?

Soto-Ward: “Anna Wintour’s office.”

WWD: Who calls your boss most frequently?

McColgin: Jann [Wenner]; Kent Brownridge [Wenner Media’s general manager]; publicists; sometimes celebrities; her husband, Peter, who calls to check on her and tell her about the baby.

WWD: Do you have an expense account?

Kornfeld: I do.

Callahan: Yes, but never time to do the expenses!

McColgin: Janice gives me petty cash to run errands.

WWD: Have you done any editorial work for the magazine?

Soto-Ward: I have written some display/captions and contributors notes.

Kornfeld: I edit culture, books, some travel. I also do the TOC, contributors and letters.

WWD: If you could drop one thing from your job description, what would it be?

Callahan: Answering questions like this.

McColgin: The most difficult aspect is the hours at a weekly. But the days go by quickly.

Taylor: Talking to the crazy people who call to complain about the language standards [swear words] in fiction — there aren’t very many of these calls.Kornfeld: Office duties. Ordering supplies, organizing, handing out paychecks, doing Richard’s expenses. Fortunately, we recently hired an editorial assistant, and she’s taken on some of the work.

WWD: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from your boss?

Callahan: I hope that some modicum of Jim’s ability to inspire editors and writers has trickled down to me. I also admire his talent for recognizing ideas and trends in culture at large, his tirelessness, and his sensibility for what makes a great party!

Alfonso: Definitely that it’s important to have a sense of humor.

McColgin: That you can be a nice person and get ahead in an industry that’s very cutthroat.

Taylor: How to keep your cool in stressful situations.

WWD: What is the best part of your job?

Alfonso: Getting to observe how Linda works.

Soto-Ward: Observing Anna run the magazine — she has got it down to a science.

WWD: If you became editor in chief of the magazine, what would you do differently?

Taylor: Publish more cartoons.

McColgin: I am glad we’re doing more fashion coverage. And they all know, I’m up for anything Reese Witherspoon related.

WWD: Where would you like to be in five years?

Alfonso: Five minutes I can tell you, but five years…I don’t know if I’m ready to announce those plans yet.

(Like WWD, Cargo, The New Yorker, Vogue, GQ and Allure are owned by Advance Publications Inc.)

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