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Assistants Who Made History

Check out some influential secretaries or assistants throughout history, some of whom went on to become famous in their own right.
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1. Marcus Tullius Tiro

Bust of Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero, master of Tiro.

Born a slave in ancient Rome, Tiro was educated in Latin and Greek, and went on to serve as secretary for his master, the statesman, lawyer, scholar and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero. In order to take down Cicero’s speeches quickly, Tiro invented his own shorthand system, which would last more than 1,000 years, and became the basis of later systems. Some of Tiro’s abbreviations—including the character “&,” known as an ampersand, for the Latin word et (and)—are still used today. Cicero freed Tiro in 53 B.C., but they continued working together, and after the statesman’s death Tiro helped edit and publish volumes of his letters.

2. Alexander Hamilton

Anyone lucky enough to score a Hamilton ticket on Broadway (and pretty much everyone else by now) knows the story: A recent immigrant from the British West Indies, Hamilton had risen to become a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army by 1777, when he caught the eye of Gen. George Washington. As Washington’s aide-de-camp for the next five years, Hamilton wrote much of his boss’ key correspondence, until he convinced the general to let him lead a charge against the British at the Battle of Yorktown. Later, after Pres. Washington tapped him to become the first U.S. treasury secretary, Hamilton laid the foundations for the new nation’s economy and national banking system. Though his reputation later suffered after a sex scandal, and his death at age 49 in a duel with Aaron Burr cut short his prodigious career, Hamilton now stands among the foremost of America’s founding fathers.

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3. Meriwether Lewis

Today, Meriwether Lewis is most famous (along with William Clark) for his western exploratory expedition that reached the Pacific Ocean in 1805. But just four years earlier, the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson had handpicked Lewis, then a young lieutenant in the U.S. Army, to serve as his private secretary. According to the Monticello Research Foundation, Jefferson sought out Lewis in part for his “knowledge of the Western country, of the army & its situation.” (It certainly didn’t hurt that Lewis was the scion of two prominent Virginia families, and his uncle had managed Jefferson’s affairs during his diplomatic tenure in Paris.) Lewis spent the next two years as Jefferson’s trusted secretary, after which the president asked him to lead an expedition into the lands west of the Mississippi River. Lewis enlisted his old army buddy Clark, and the rest is history.

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4. John Nicolay and John Hay

A studio portrait of Abraham Lincoln with his two personal secretaries, John Nicolay (left) and John Hay (right). (

A studio portrait of Abraham Lincoln with his two personal secretaries, John Nicolay (left) and John Hay (right). (Credit: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

After Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination for president in 1860, he asked John Nicolay, a former reporter who had clerked for the Illinois secretary of state, to become his private secretary. Nicolay and his old schoolmate John Hay, whom he brought on as assistant secretary, were indispensable in the Lincoln White House, and enjoyed close personal relationships with Lincoln. Nicolay and Hay both later went on to their own political careers: Nicolay was U.S. consul in Paris and marshal of the Supreme Court, while Hay would eventually serve as U.S. secretary of state under both William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. For some 30 years after Lincoln’s death, his two former secretaries labored over a 10-volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: A History, which they published in 1890.

5. Irving Thalberg

Irving Thalberg

Irving Thalberg (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

As the head of production for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in the 1930s, Irving Thalberg had full creative control over Hollywood’s top studio—and he was only in his 30s at the time. Thalberg got his big break at 19, when Carl Laemmle, the president of Universal Pictures, plucked him from the company’s New York offices to work as his secretary. At 21, the “Boy Wonder” became Universal’s studio manager.

Later, at MGM, Thalberg discovered and developed some of the studio’s biggest stars, including Norma Shearer, whom he married. Brilliant, intense and demanding, Thalberg had famous rows with many in Hollywood—including his bosses, Laemmle and Louis B. Mayer—and is believed to be the basis for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Last Tycoon. After his sudden death of heart failure at the age of 37, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created an honorary Oscar for producing, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, in his memory.

6. Missy LeHand

Missy LeHand with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Missy LeHand with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Credit: FDR Library)

Marguerite “Missy” LeHand served as the personal secretary of Franklin D. Roosevelt for more than 20 years, and was one of his most trusted confidantes throughout that time. Their close relationship blossomed after polio struck FDR in 1921, and during his years as New York’s governor reporters dubbed LeHand “FDR’s Right Hand Woman.”

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From 1933-41, the Roosevelt White House ran like a well-oiled machine, thanks to LeHand’s formidable skills. When LeHand suffered a severe stroke and had to leave her post in 1941, her own assistant, Grace Tully, succeeded her. According to Paul M. Sparrow, director of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, Roosevelt paid all of LeHand’s medical bills during her long illness. Though he was on a military tour in the Pacific and didn’t attend her funeral in 1944, some 1,200 others did, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Joe Kennedy and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter

7. Elizabeth Nel

Elizabeth Layton, as she was known at the time, began working for Prime Minister Winston Churchill in May 1941, and remained by his side as he guided Britain through the formidable challenges of World War II. After the war, she stayed with Churchill during a brief effort at coalition government, and shared his grief when he lost the general election in 1945. She then married Frans Nel, a South African soldier, and settled in South Africa, where she had three children.

During her time working for Churchill, Nel wrote down vivid observations of the prime minister and his wartime administration in a diary and in letters to her mother, which she later incorporated into a book, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary (1958). As quoted in Nel’s 2007 obituary in the Telegraph, she harbored “furious feelings of devotion” for her famously gruff and demanding boss, even when he kept her up until 4:30 am working and insisted on dictating letters from his bed, in his car, walking in his garden or wherever he happened to be at the time.

READ MORE: Meet the Woman Behind Winston Churchill

8. Helen Gandy

Helen Gandy and J. Edgar Hoover.

Helen Gandy and J. Edgar Hoover.

As the devoted personal secretary to longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for 54 years, Helen Gandy was tasked with keeping an eye on the ever-growing file in Hoover’s office marked “Official and Confidential.” After Hoover died suddenly in 1972, Gandy turned over many of the files in his office but retained his “Personal” file, thought to include the most sensitive and incriminating information Hoover had used to manipulate some of Washington’s most powerful people. Later, the loyal Gandy admitted to destroying the file. According to her testimony before a House subcommittee investigating alleged FBI harassment of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandy said Hoover had ordered her to destroy his personal papers in the event of his death; she claimed the file she got rid of had contained no official documents.

9. Rose Mary Woods

Rose Mary Woods stands in front of a poster for her boss during the 1960 presidential election.

Rose Mary Woods stands in front of a poster for her boss during the 1960 presidential election. (Credit: Genevieve Naylor/Corbis via Getty Images)

Despite years of loyal service to Richard M. Nixon beginning in 1947, Rose Mary Woods’ most well known contribution to history remains her testimony in the Watergate trial, when she explained how she might have accidentally erased a key portion of a taped White House conversation between President Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, on June 20, 1972, three days after the break-in at Democratic headquarters in Washington. In a famous photo taken at the time, Woods sat in her office chair and extended her arm to demonstrate exactly how she could have erased the tape; the photo became known as the “Rose Mary Stretch.” As reported in Woods’ 2005 obituary in the New York Times, in August 1974 Nixon gave his secretary one last unenviable task: telling his wife and daughters of his decision to resign the presidency.

10. Lord Martin Charteris

Queen Elizabeth II and Sir Martin Charteris reviewing papers on board Britannia, 1972.

Queen Elizabeth II and Martin Charteris reviewing papers on board Britannia, 1972. (Credit: Lichfield/Getty Images).

Though he only held the post of private secretary to Queen Elizabeth II from 1972-77, Martin Charteris was one of the queen’s closest confidants from the beginning of her reign. His family had a long tradition of royal service, but Charteris himself had at first embarked on a military career before he got the opportunity to succeed his friend Jock Colville as private secretary to then-Princess Elizabeth in 1949. He moved with her to Buckingham Palace as an assistant private secretary, serving under Sir Michael Adeane from 1953 to 1972.

When Adeane retired, Charteris finally got the top job. Far from the stuffy, discreet courtier stereotype, he was known for inserting funny remarks into the queen’s speeches. He also helped modernize the image of the British monarchy, encouraging Queen Elizabeth to celebrate her Silver Jubilee in 1977. Soon after that event, Charteris stepped down as private secretary, and would serve for years as provost of Eton College.

11. Helen Gurley Brown

Helen Gurley Brown in New York, 1968.

Helen Gurley Brown in New York, 1968. (Credit: Santi Visalli/Getty Images)

Long before she wrote the groundbreaking book Sex and the Single Girl and won credit for singlehandedly reviving Cosmopolitan magazine, Helen Gurley held a number of secretarial jobs before landing the post of personal secretary to Don Belding, chairman of the Los Angeles advertising agency Foote, Cone and Belding, in 1948. Noticing her talent for writing, Belding made her the agency’s first female copywriter, and she went on to become one of the most highly paid women in West Coast advertising by the 1960s.

In 1962, after her marriage to Hollywood producer David Brown, she published the scandalous bestseller about her single life that convinced the Hearst Corporation to make her editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan. With no prior experience with magazines or publishing, Gurley Brown injected her unique blend of sex and controversy into the failing magazine, turning its fortunes around. By the ‘80s, Cosmopolitan's circulation had reached 3 million, and it had become one of the most successful women’s magazines in history.

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