Everyone has messed up at work before, done stupid things that make us wince, sometimes even remembering them years later. Still, it’s hard to top the tale of good intentions gone sorely awry told by writer and former talent agent Quinn Cummings.
“Gather round, Gentle Readers. It is time I tell the story of the worst decision I ever made in an office,” Cummings begins in a Twitter thread posted yesterday (Nov. 7).
Once upon a time, in the nineties, Cummings worked for a temperamental talent agent named Susan Smith. She was known for her good taste in clients, her excellent negotiating skills, and her terrible temper. “She was insane,” explains Cummings.
Smith was a difficult boss, who drove employees away. “She went through assistants with comical speed. One young man—who had endured the rigors of law school—went to ‘move his car’ after 90 minutes on her desk and never came back,” writes Cummings.
But Smith was also exceedingly good at her job. “She could negotiate a deal like few who have ever trod the earth,” according to Cummings. “Casting would give her all the money they had budgeted for that part, plus a little more, plus promising to get her dog Barnaby groomed. She was magnificent to watch.”
So, Cummings hung on to her job despite the difficult boss, who was “Volatile, capable off toggling between rage-screaming and whispered tears in 90 seconds.” Smith was a terror, even striking fear in the hearts of her clients. The actor Brian Dennehy, for example, failed to thank her when he won a Tony award for his performance in Death of Salesman on Broadway in 1999. This, after she’d fought long and hard to get him the role he had coveted.
He regretted his error and wanted to appease Smith. So, Dennehy contacted Smith’s office with a plan. He would issue full-page ads in trade papers thanking his agent. But he needed help—the actor asked Smith’s employees to get him a picture to go in the ads.
They were happy to oblige, more terrified of Smith’s angry silence following Dennehy’s omission than even her wildest outbursts. Cummings, recalling a photo kept framed on Smith’s desk, figured the boss must like that image as it was the only one she displayed, and it was sent to Dennehy for his purposes.
“The next day, we all waited breathlessly for her to walk in the back door from the parking lot, down the long hallways, past each of our offices. For once, she wouldn’t be screaming. I wondered if she would hug me. I decided it was a small price to pay,” Cummings writes.
But she could not have been more wrong. The next morning, Smith was furious. ”Who the fuck,” she screamed, “Gave Brian a picture OF MY MOTHER.”
It turned out that Smith loathed her mother. The picture on her desk was an inexplicable presence.
In her defense, Cummings still insists Smith—who died in 2013—resembled her mother and that the mistake was reasonable under the circumstances. She offered the admission to soothe any distraught souls bemoaning a recent error. And her story has resonated. By midday on Nov. 8, the thread had more than 45,000 likes and nearly 13,000 retweets. “Whatever you do in your office today, this week, the rest of this year, you can console yourself by recalling this tale,” Cummings writes.
Now, don’t you feel better about your relatively negligible errors?