In an exclusive excerpt from her memoir Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story of Surviving the Music Industry, the author recalls her harrowing experience working for Atlantic Records in a pre-#MeToo record industry.
I started work on Monday, April 6, 1987, nine days before my twenty-fifth birthday. I got an office in the executive wing, near Atlantic president Doug Morris, vice chairman and CFO Sheldon Vogel, and of course, Atlantic founder/chairman Ahmet Ertegun. My official title was secretary to the chairman, or as Ahmet said it in his frog-croak voice, “sec-a-tary.”
My office was in the middle of the hallway leading to the executive wing, making me an easy target. One executive walked past my office every day and said, “Blow me.” I hadn’t even met him. I was also across the hall from the head of A&R, Tunc Erim, the most vulgar, disgusting man of the bunch. He called everyone a cocksucker or a cunt, and he grabbed my ass constantly. I hated it.
These men were sending me a message: Don’t get comfortable here; you aren’t important. I got that message every day from nearly every man who worked at Atlantic. In large and small ways, they tried to chip away at my confidence and strip away my power.
Most of the men were too stupid to deliver that message with anything approaching finesse. Their attempts to degrade me were cartoonish — pinching my ass, bragging about their dicks, telling me to blow them.
Still, I loved the job. My sense of morality had been shaped by the nuns who had taught me at school. I knew the nuns wouldn’t have approved of anything that went on at Atlantic, and yet, I didn’t care. Nothing about life up to that point had been fun. The nuns weren’t fun. Catholic guilt wasn’t fun.
Atlantic was fun.
That week, I got my first big task: find Ahmet and get his signature on some financial papers. It was after hours, and he had already left the office, but I tracked him down at the Atlantic recording studio on Sixtieth Street and Broadway. He was producing an album for a commercial jingle singer turned Atlantic recording artist named Rachele Cappelli, who wasn’t in the studio that night. When I arrived, I found Ahmet in the control room, pants and underwear down to the floor, getting a blow job.
He saw the papers in my hand and gave me a look I would come to know well. It said, “Are you in?” I held his gaze, feeling the pressure. How badly do I want to roll with Ahmet? What would I do to enter his world? I knew if I went along with this, there was no turning back. I walked to him calmly and handed him the papers. He signed them, mid-blow job, without a word.
The battle for my soul had begun. There was no honeymoon. I was plunged headfirst into what I can only describe as a circus mixed with an orgy. If personnel had actually enforced the rules, everyone in the building would have been fired by lunch.
Everything was about sex at Atlantic. Discussing sex and having sex took up a large part of the day, and there was always time for pleasure on Ahmet’s watch. There was a term for sex that we all used — “slapping it,” or “slappage” for short. These words were hilarious coming from Ahmet’s Turkish mouth. Few people saw this side of him.
I learned to be careful entering any office, because some executives watched pornography behind closed doors. They also walked around with pornographic magazines hidden in manila envelopes, and they’d read them during meetings. Is it any wonder these guys were sexual animals in the workplace? Watching porn all day got them hyped up and ready to go. This behavior created a culture of toxic masculinity.
The promotion department was the worst. Once I walked in on two promotion executives watching a Japanese porn movie while one of Atlantic’s biggest stars sat with them eating Chinese food. Let’s just say I felt it in the air. Another promotion executive decorated his office with dildos, S&M harnesses and ball gags, masks, lube, and a cat o’ nine tails whip. It looked like the Pink Pussycat Boutique, a sex shop in New York’s Greenwich Village. (One Atlantic vice president had a house account there, and after sales meetings executives would order sex toys, pornography, and lube, which the Boutique delivered.)
By the time I arrived at Atlantic, Ahmet didn’t want to be bogged down with the dull details of running the company anymore. He’d been the greatest talent finder in the business, but he had burned out. Now he just wanted to play. He needed an entire entourage to help him function — enablers, drug dealers, hookers, groupies, hangers-on, bodyguards, and yes, his secretary. I became his unofficial cleaner. By the end of the night, his clothes were usually encrusted with cocaine or vomit or both, and he needed a good wiping down.
For a normal twenty-five-year-old girl, cleaning puke off an old, drug-addled lecher might have been a deal breaker. I guess I wasn’t normal, because I loved it. Ahmet was free. His life was the exact opposite of mine, and I got paid to live some of the wildest parts with him. It knocked me out. How could it not? My mother could barely afford to buy me Christmas presents, and here was a man whose chauffeur drove him in his Mercedes to the company jet. Here was a man who gave Eric Clapton advice and wrote Henry Kissinger letters. He had everything I wanted, but unlike my childhood, I wasn’t on the outside looking in. I was in.
Then again, every day gave me compelling reasons to get out. Ahmet ran Atlantic like a dysfunctional family. He created a world of extreme contradiction that could go from fun and exciting one moment to upsetting and abusive the next. When you’re new at a job, especially as a woman, you don’t know if you can speak up. If you let the first offense go, it becomes much harder to stop the second one from happening. I didn’t know where to draw the line, and I didn’t even know that a line should or could be drawn. It just seemed normal.
For instance: I’d been on the job a few weeks when I stepped into the elevator with two executives. Somehow, between floors two and one, they pulled my skirt down to the floor. When the elevator doors opened, I faced the crowded lobby in my panties. This was normal.
For instance: every day, senior vice presidents under Doug Morris came into my office and bragged about how big their dicks were, and how great it was going to be for me if I fucked them. They’d brag about each other’s dicks too. This was normal.
For instance: many mornings I would open Ahmet’s mail to find Polaroid pictures of him naked, performing various sex acts with various women, along with a letter threatening blackmail. This was a rough way to start my day — Ahmet’s body looked like a shriveled egg — but for Ahmet, blackmail was as normal as breakfast. It was part of his everyday life. He had protocol for these packages — I’d turn them over to a senior executive. He would call the girl and get her to sign a nondisclosure agreement, then he’d pay her off from a safe full of cash he kept in his office for just that purpose. This was normal.
I didn’t question it. I wasn’t even shocked — that’s the scary part. Right from the start, I enabled this behavior. The men called me “cunt,” “cunty-poo,” “blow job.” It was against the rules, but again, no one enforced the rules. That was just how the world worked. I once went to a lawyer, who advised me that if I sued for harassment, I’d lose my job. Worse than that, I knew I’d be blackballed from the entire business. Ahmet and his fellow industry heads often disliked or even hated each other, but they’d close ranks to protect their dominion when necessary. I saw male executives get erased that way; who knows what they would have done to a female secretary.
Ahmet made it all seem so natural. He was like the snake in the Garden of Eden charming me with that red, delicious apple. He told me that men couldn’t biologically control their sexual urges. He told me that I couldn’t expect a man to remain faithful. He told me that my greatest bargaining chip as a woman was my pussy. I believed it because I revered him. I bit the apple.
In the summer of 1987, Ahmet called me into his office.
“Take a letter,” he said. “Dear Jew motherfucker…”
“That’s what you want to say?” I looked at him.
He thought for a moment.
“Okay, delete ‘Jew.’”
“Jew motherfucker” was Ahmet’s nickname for his archrival, David Geffen. His hatred for Geffen went back many years, and it grew stronger with time, like petrified wood. Geffen was once Ahmet’s protégé, but they had a huge falling-out after Ahmet loaned Geffen $10,000 to start his own label. Geffen founded the hugely successful Geffen Records, and he also diversified into film, eventually selling out to MCA Records for triple-digit millions. (Later, a Japanese conglomerate bought the label and made Geffen a billionaire.) Ahmet, on the other hand, had been pressured into selling Atlantic to Warner Bros. Seven Arts in 1967 for $17.5 million. Even today, the deal is infamous — he practically gave Atlantic away for a song. Ahmet never got over it, and to see Geffen beat him in such spectacular fashion nearly choked him with rage.
During their good years, Ahmet had introduced Geffen to the world of art collecting. Now, as rivals, the two men often battled each other for paintings. On this particular day, Geffen had outbid Ahmet. This was the occasion for the letter. Ahmet continued dictating:
“Go fuck yourself. You fucked with the wrong person. Fuck you. Sincerely, Ahmet M. Ertegun.”
My relationship with Ahmet grew more fucked up by the day. He was up my ass from nine o’clock in the morning until nine at night, and sometimes later. I got only a half hour for lunch and spent my days chained to a phone in a windowless office. I soon learned never to put Ahmet on hold when he called. Invariably, he’d spend several minutes stuttering and stammering on the phone before he could actually say what he wanted, all while Doug’s phone would be ringing off the hook, but I had to stay on the line with Ahmet until he spit it out. He’d give his order and hang up. No “good-bye,” no “thank you.” I was expected to do his bidding immediately. It was dehumanizing, as if I were his servant.
At the same time, Ahmet became a source of stability. Never mind that the guy could hardly control himself, that he’d fuck in his office or piss in the elevators at Rockefeller Center whenever he got the urge. He became a father figure, giving me the advice and guidance I’d always craved but never got from my own father. I’d come to learn that his advice was, as a rule, terrible, but at least he cared enough to offer it. Ours was a relationship built on extremes.
As I got to know Ahmet better, I became adept at reading his moods. If I saw him getting bored or overwhelmed I’d suggest a trip to the bathroom. That was our code for cocaine. It helped him relax and gave him the energy to function for the long night he was inevitably about to have. Eventually, I felt comfortable enough to put in a few suggestions here and there, and to my surprise, Ahmet occasionally listened to them. Ahmet-fucking-Ertegun, friend of presidents and heads of state, immortal icon in the music business, was listening to me. Who could leave a gig like that?
Here it bears repeating that every silver lining at Atlantic came with a massive cloud. My proximity to Ahmet had serious drawbacks. He was an abusive man with a quick fuse. He’d call me stupid when I made a typo, or he’d hurl his favorite insult: peasant. In Ahmet’s mind, everyone who worked for him — maybe everyone in the world — was a peasant, except for Doug and Sheldon. Every time he’d berate me, I’d think, Am I stupid? That’s how he got in your head. Where Doug would charm his way in, Ahmet busted through like a battering ram.
I hated the groupie scene at Atlantic too. The minute one of Ahmet’s artists came into town the first order of business was to get them laid. Ahmet would say, “Get the girls,” and I’d call through his Rolodex until I found someone ready, willing, and able. These guys would fuck girls young enough to be their daughters without thinking twice. Ahmet took great pride in it, like he was the Turkish sultan offering his concubines.
No woman was safe, not even upper-level executives. One day, Ahmet saw everyone going into the conference room and followed them — he didn’t usually attend meetings — and he started the meeting by saying, “I have to tell you the most remarkable thing. Last night I went out to a concert. Afterward I went backstage with the lead singer and he had five girls lined up naked and we took turns fucking them, one after the other. Pussies are amazing. You’re fucking them, and they’re a mess, but after we finished, the girls showered and they looked great.”
Not one man in the room said a word — they didn’t stick up for the women, who shouldn’t have had to listen to that story, and the women didn’t or couldn’t stick up for themselves.
It’s hard to explain why I put up with so much blatant misogyny. I had no female role models to look to for guidance. No woman had bucked the system and blazed the trail. In all the years I worked there, I saw only one woman stand up for herself. Atlantic distributed Atco Records, and a top executive there was cheating with his subordinate. His pregnant wife came to the office with a gun and said, “I’m going to blow your dick off.” Talk about blazing a trail. The woman also wrote a letter to corporate, but nothing happened. Her husband and his girlfriend both kept their jobs.
As for me, I needed the job too much to risk it. There’s an old joke Woody Allen tells at the end of Annie Hall: “This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.’ And the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ And the guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’”
Why didn’t I turn Ahmet in? I needed the eggs.