"Big Bosses." Althea McDowell Altemus, University of Chicago Press, 192 pages, $15.
In the early days of a certain revolutionary piece of office machinery, as well as the history-making move into the workforce of women who made their living with it, both the device and its operator were referred to as typewriters. Fittingly, struggling divorcee and single mother Althea McDowell Altemus wrote her lively and enchanting memoir about being the secretary for renowned employers throughout the late teens and 1920s. Her grandson, Donald, dug the 80-year-old manuscript out of the closet after meeting Joel Hoffman, executive director of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Florida, housed in the one-time winter home of one of Altemus’ employers, James Deering of International Harvester. We are lucky. This is a remarkable — and remarkably written — document of everyday life and work in 20th-century America from a perspective that is all too rarely seen. Altemus’ tales are of immense social, historical and feminist significance. Of the flagrantly discriminatory hiring practices faced by female job seekers, she writes: “Whatever crime it is for a woman … to wish to earn her own living and keep her child with her, I do not know — but crime it seems to be.” Besides Deering, an old and wealthy playboy, her famous employers included Samuel Insull, president of Chicago Edison; New York banker S.W. Straus; and real estate developer Fred F. French. In doing her job, she rubbed shoulders with such luminaries as John Singer Sargent, Thomas Edison and William Jennings Bryan.