11 Administrative Professionals Who Became Famous
Secretaries, receptionists, and other administrative professionals perform tasks that are vital to many companies. But because their work is often supportive and behind-the-scenes, it may go unnoticed or under-appreciated. In honor of Administrative Professionals Day on April 26, take a look at some famous secretaries and administrative assistants.
1. JOAN RIVERS
After graduating from Barnard College in 1954, Joan Rivers worked as a tour guide at Rockefeller Center, a fashion publicist, and a secretary for Irvin Arthur, who was a successful talent agent and nightclub booker. During the day, she answered Arthur’s office phone—sometimes performing her monologue to callers before handing the phone over to her boss. At night, she did stand-up at clubs in New York City. Arthur discouraged Rivers from pursuing comedy, and he reportedly told her that she was already too old to make it. Rivers certainly proved him wrong, becoming one of the most successful female comedy stars.
2. JEREMY BERNARD
In 2011, Jeremy Bernard became the White House’s first male (and first openly gay) Social Secretary. The role involved planning all of the White House’s official social events, including state dinners, Medal of Honor ceremonies, and teas hosted by former FLOTUS Michelle Obama. Bernard also helped Obama compile guest lists, choose decorations, and select invitations for events. During his four years as Social Secretary, Bernard was profiled by Vogue and became a well-known figure in Washington, D.C.
3. HELEN GURLEY BROWN
By John Bottega, World Telegram staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Helen Gurley Brown—born in Arkansas in 1922—took a few college classes at a Texas college before going to secretarial school. In the 1940s, she worked 17 different secretarial jobs around Los Angeles, including at a radio station and an ad agency. She later recalled how her male bosses would regularly fondle the secretaries, trying to see their underwear.
After working as a secretary, Brown became an advertising copywriter and wrote Sex and the Single Girl, an advice book aimed at unmarried women. The book, published in 1962, became a bestseller and was turned into a film. From 1965 to 1997, Brown was Cosmopolitan’s editor in chief, turning the magazine from a more traditional, literary publication to one that candidly covered sex and women’s issues.
4. CARLY FIORINA
Before she ran for president (and later vice president) in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Cara "Carly" Fiorina worked as a secretary. To earn money to attend Stanford University, the Texas native worked as a receptionist at a hair salon and, during summers, took secretary jobs through a temp agency. She went on to enroll at the UCLA School of Law and dropped out after one semester.
Then, Fiorina worked as a secretary again, typing and filing for a nine-person real estate firm. Her bosses increased her responsibilities and eventually she found her way back to school, getting an MBA and going to work for AT&T and Lucent. She became the CEO of Hewlett-Packard in 1999, making her the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company.
5. URSULA BURNS
Ursula Burns was born in a New York City housing project in 1958 and grew up poor with a single mother and two siblings. After studying mechanical engineering at Brooklyn Polytechnic (now New York University Tandon School of Engineering), she worked toward a master’s degree in engineering at Columbia University. She also interned in upstate New York with Xerox’s engineering program for minorities, which paid for some of her education. Burns worked her way up through the Xerox corporate ladder throughout the 1980s and '90s, serving as an executive assistant to Xerox’s vice president of marketing and customer operations and, later, as a secretary to the company’s chairman and CEO.
In 2009, Burns became the chairwoman and CEO of Xerox—and the first female, African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She expanded the company from copying and printing to a tech company. Today, Burns is active in helping students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, succeed in STEM fields.
6. BETTE NESMITH GRAHAM
After secretarial school, Bette Nesmith Graham moved to Dallas, Texas and became an executive secretary for a Texas bank. The single mother went on to work on an IBM electric typewriter in the early 1950s. Unfortunately, the device's design made it difficult to neatly erase typos. Worried that she’d lose her job every time she made a typing error, Graham thought of a solution after she saw artists painting holiday decorations on the bank windows and remembered from her own art background that artists would often just paint over their mistakes.
Graham tried brushing a white, water-based paint onto the paper to cover her typos. Her idea worked. Calling her correcting fluid “Mistake Out,” Graham sold her invention to other secretaries and, in 1958, renamed it "Liquid Paper." She sold her company to Gillette Corporation for almost 50 million dollars in 1979.
7. EVELYN LINCOLN
The National Archives and Records Administration
Evelyn Lincoln, born in Polk County, Nebraska in 1909, was the daughter of a prominent Nebraskan politician. She studied law at George Washington University and went on to work as a Congressional aide until 1953, when she began working for a new Massachusetts senator, John F. Kennedy. When her boss became president, Lincoln worked in an office next to his in the White House. Lincoln was intimately involved in the president’s daily life, and she served as his secretary until his death. (She was riding in his motorcade when he was assassinated in 1963.) After Kennedy's death, Lincoln worked as a secretary for other politicians, wrote two memoirs, and donated the JFK papers she saved to the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
8. J.K. ROWLING
Although it’s widely known that J.K. Rowling struggled financially before finishing the first Harry Potter title, you might not know that she worked as a secretary at Amnesty International’s London headquarters. To pay her rent, she took notes and translated for the human rights organization’s research department. "There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them," she told Harvard Magazine. "I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.”
Rowling was reportedly fired from her secretarial job because she was distracted by her desire to write about a boy wizard…and the rest is magical history.
9. ROSE MARY WOODS
The National Archives and Records Administration
Rose Mary Woods began working as a secretary for Senator Richard Nixon in 1951. Woods, who had already been working as a secretary in Washington, D.C., became Nixon’s confidante, working for him for decades. In 1974, Woods gave grand jury testimony in which she tried to explain her role in the notorious 18.5 minutes of missing audio from a Watergate tape.
The Ohio native apologized for pressing the wrong button and recording over about five minutes of the tape and she became infamous for demonstrating how she allegedly made the mistake. Dubbed the Rose Mary stretch, she stretched back for the telephone while her foot simultaneously hit the transcription machine’s pedal. Nixon told Woods first when he decided to resign, and he asked her to tell his wife and daughters for him. He later wrote that he considered Woods as a member of his family. After Nixon resigned from the presidency, Woods continued to work as his secretary before working for other politicians.
10. BARBARA WALTERS
Barbara Walters has interviewed everyone from Mother Teresa and Maya Angelou to Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin. Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1931, the famous broadcast journalist graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a degree in English. Before starting her career at The Today Show, Walters worked as a secretary for the publicity director of WRCA-TV, an NBC affiliate in New York.
11. NAOMI JUDD
In the 1980s and early '90s, The Judds, Naomi and her daughter Wynonna, were one of the most successful country musical groups. The duo sold millions of albums, won Grammy Awards, and toured the world. But before she was a country superstar, Naomi supported herself and her two daughters with gigs as a waitress in Los Angeles. She applied for a job as a receptionist for the 5th Dimension, the pop group famous for songs "Up, Up and Away" and "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In."
Naomi didn’t get the receptionist job, but she worked in the same office as a secretary for a talent agent for a few months. Naomi later revealed the reason she took the secretary job: She couldn’t afford a car, and the office was just a couple of blocks from where she lived.