Nanny's dirty laundry

Times Staff Writer

Suzanne Hansen was a very green, very timid, extremely judgmental 18-year-old graduate of a four-month nanny training program in Oregon when she moved to Los Angeles to find work. She ended up in the home of a man she'd never heard of -- Michael Ovitz -- head of Creative Artists Agency and then at the height of his Hollywood power.

The year she spent minding the great man's three children in Brentwood was not a happy one for Hansen. She says she was unprepared for the formality -- even coldness -- of the home and was frequently wounded by Judy Ovitz, the beautiful, joyless villainess of the book Hansen has written about her brief but memorable stint as a Hollywood nanny. Nanny horror stories about the upper classes are endlessly fascinating -- in 2002, "The Nanny Diaries," a novel about a Manhattan nanny (soon to be a major motion picture starring Scarlett Johansson) hit bestseller lists, and last year's "White House Nannies," by a nanny agency owner, was a nonfiction account of childcare among the nation's most powerful parents.

"You'll Never Nanny in This Town Again," a workmanlike account that tries hard to be amusing but too often seems strained, depicts a small-town girl from Cottage Grove, Ore., who was shocked at her rich employers' conflicted relationship with money, their rude treatment of household help and the small slights that accrued when an inexperienced kid from the sticks was always crossing "some invisible line," as she puts it, that only her employers could locate.

In nanny school, Hansen's teachers drilled her on the importance of securing a contract, but she never asked for one, so her long days and sleep-deprived nights tending the baby took their toll on her energy and attitude. (For their part, the Ovitzes, who did not respond to a message left with an assistant, didn't ask for a confidentiality agreement.)

Reviews have been unkind, rapping Hansen for dishing old dirt, for exploiting employers who were, she admits in print, often quite kind and generous, and, perhaps the worst sin of all -- for stirring in readers an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling -- sympathy for Michael Ovitz.

"It's not that they're bad and I'm good, because I did a lot of stupid stuff and made a lot of mistakes," said Hansen, who at 37 exuded an air of bubbly naivete during an interview at her airy home in the Portland suburb of West Linn. "But it's my story to tell and I think it's important. How else can we make a change in how nannies are treated? This is how we make a change, when people tell the honest truth. And I am not divulging everything, believe me."

The book, which takes place from 1987 to 1993, including time she worked for other families, is filled with juicy little tidbits that will be enjoyed by anyone who loves to read about the bad behavior, however minor, of the rich and famous: The Ovitzes often flew on private jets or in first class to their vacations, but Hansen was upbraided for forgetting to pack a snowsuit for the baby for an Aspen holiday -- requiring an unexpected $40 outlay. When the Ovitz's dear friends Michael and Jane Eisner sent over stuffed Minnie and Mickey Mouse dolls as an anniversary gift, Hansen wrote, Judy was disgusted by their cheapness. When the Ovitzes, who are major art collectors, called home from a Mediterranean vacation without their kids, Michael's first question was, "Is my art OK?" They hung up on Hansen before she could bring the children to the phone because, as Hansen quoted Judy, "This call is costing us a fortune!"

Hansen was continually stunned by a lack of respect toward the hired help, who also included a live-in cook, a live-in housekeeper, two weekday housekeepers, a gardener and car detailer, although she wrote about the highly valued cook's $10,000 Christmas bonus. (Judy, she said during the interview, did not like the cook and resented her generous $60,000 salary, set by Michael. Hansen received a bonus of $2,500, two months' salary.) On nights when Judy Ovitz and Hansen ate dinner with the children, the children would sometimes ring a buzzer for the kitchen staff "just to be mean ... And it was just uncomfortable because they were being treated like servants," Hansen said. "Well, they are servants. But you could still be respectful."

But there were many large and small acts of kindness, as well. Michael Ovitz used his muscle to get her a good price on a car and gave her courtside Lakers seats; Judy Ovitz paid for her acrylic nails (although she would pay for fills, not for broken tips in subsequent appointments).

Eventually, Hansen tired of the long days and what she felt was the unforgiving household vibe, and quiveringly announced to Michael Ovitz, as intimidating at home, apparently as he was at work, that she wanted to quit.

"And he said, 'Do you ever plan to work in this town again as a nanny?' And I said, 'Well, yeah, I think so.' And he said, 'We'll see about that.' " As she recounted the exchange, she tensed a little, and admitted she still cares what the Ovitzes think of her and has worried about what she would do if she ever bumped into them when she visits Los Angeles.

Though she claims Michael Ovitz tried to torpedo her next jobs, she did find work again -- with Debra Winger (who'd recently defected from CAA) and the Danny DeVito-Rhea Perlman household. Both families were warm and kid-centered, and Hansen thrived.

Eventually, she returned to Oregon, became a labor and delivery nurse, got married, had two kids and quit her job. She found herself home with a newborn and a 2-year-old struggling to keep the household together, occasionally seeing gorgeous, trim celebrity moms on TV talk shows proclaiming their excessive self-reliance in the parenting department. That ticked her off.

"I'd see these celebrity moms saying they do it all, drive carpool and make dinner every night," said Hansen, sitting at the granite breakfast bar in her spacious kitchen. "And Oprah always says, 'Do you have any help?' A lot of them will say they don't have live-in help. Well, what they don't tell you is that the nanny comes at 6 a.m. and leaves at 9 at night! I think it would be so great if those people would just say, 'We have the best nanny in the whole world

What's a former celebrity nanny to do?

Hansen knew about "The Nanny Diaries" success and thought that by telling her story she could strike a blow for nannies. She said she did not write the book thinking she would cash in, or at least not very much. "The statistical chances of making money on our book are about a million to one, as far as I can tell," she said.

But there was always hope ... and the possibility of a TV or movie deal. She and her sister, Cindy Tobiasson, who had worked in CAA's accounting department while her sister worked for the Ovitzes, would self-publish the book. About $100,000 and 4,500 sold books later, they reconsidered. Tobiasson was mortgaged so heavily that she sold her house. Hansen's credit lines were stretched to the breaking point. Their husbands, encouraging at first, urged them to give up their nanny book dream.

In a last-ditch effort, they paid $120 to a service that basically spammed every publishing house in the country trying to drum up interest. To their surprise, they were deluged with responses from publishing houses large and small. Using a directory of literary agents, they found Sharlene Martin, an Encino-based agent who had founded a nanny agency in Connecticut in the 1980s and who co-founded the International Nanny Assn. "I wasn't going to let this one get out of my hands, I so totally related," Martin said. "When people say, 'Who cares about Michael Ovitz, he's so passe, the truth is that he is emblematic of Hollywood. The players change, but the story doesn't."

Last week, in its second incarnation, "You'll Never Nanny" hit bookstore shelves again. The sisters will pay their agent and a personal publicist out of their $100,000 advance, but they are well on their way to recouping their investment. Today, Hansen kicks off a publicity tour with an appearance on "Today."

While she is on the road, Hansen has left a detailed plan for the care and feeding of her own children, 7-year-old Jadyn and 5-year-old Parker, who will be shuttled to school, play dates and home by relatives, friends and their father, an aspiring longshoreman who owns a BMW repair shop. The family -- need it be said -- does not have a nanny.

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