This Page-Turning Memoir Is ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ Meets the White House
Beck Dorey-Stein, President Obama’s White House stenographer, answered an ad on Craigslist for her position… only to ditch the interview before finding out what the gig actually was. In the end, she rallied and got the job, plus the experience of a lifetime and a total page-turner of a memoir, From the Corner of the Oval ($28). The book is already being called the new The Devil Wears Prada (complete with makeover montages, brushes with celebrity, and infidelities that take place in the kind of expensive hotel rooms Anna Wintour would approve of). Instead of name-checking Calvin Klein and Patrick Demarchelier, From the Corner of the Oval drops references to New Yorker editor David Remnick, White House giants like David Plouffe and Joe Biden and, naturally, the 44th President of the United States of America.
Dorey-Stein wanted to be a stenographer like The Devil Wears Prada’s Andyc wanted to fetch Hermès scarves and hot Starbucks for Miranda Priestly. She knew she was a writer — so between early-morning runs and late-night rounds of Cape Codders (that’s a vodka/cranberry with a slice of lime, FYI), she documented her long days inside the Obama “bubble.” In From the Corner of the Oval she shares her insider observations, experiences, and stories about the kind of inevitable screw-ups that we all make in our 20s. It’s all very relatable — except for the fact that Dorey-Stein was going through all that tumultuous early career and relationship stuff while circling the globe on Air Force One with the President of the United States.
From the Corner of the Oval is a book for anyone who has dreaded the question “So, what do you do?” because “I’m still figuring it out” isn’t the most impressive answer. The point is, it doesn’t have to be. This memoir is proof that if you’re passionate about something, then sometimes your path finds you.
We spoke with Beck Dorey-Stein about what it was like to witness history in the making from an extremely close vantage point — and how to handle the heartbreak that comes with an ending none of us were expecting: the election of Donald Trump.
Brit + Co: At the beginning of the book you provide a list of guidelines for aspiring stenographers like “Be discreet and neat — like a librarian or a well-paid prostitute” and “Breathe quietly or not at all,” but the one that stands out is “Above all else, keep the secrets to yourself.” Did you stick to that one in writing this book?
Beck Dorey-Stein: I made up those rules. It was like, “These are the rules for being a good stenographer” and I was never going to be a good stenographer. It’s not who I planned on being, it’s not who I necessarily wanted to be. Working at the White House was an honor, but being a stenographer, transcribing other people’s thoughts when I really wanted to write down my own opinions, that’s what was going to happen.
B+C: The book is set in the Obama White House, but so much of it is about being in your 20s and out of school and navigating the beginning of relationships and careers — which makes this seemingly unimaginable world really relatable.
BDS: I was thinking about how when you work at the White House, it’s so cool and unique, but in a lot of ways it’s like any other office. You’re thinking things like, “Okay, when’s the best time to get coffee?” In any workplace, there are going to be these politics you have to navigate, especially as a young woman. Thinking about other young women who were going to read this, having been a high school English teacher, I wanted them to read it and know that even at the White House, even in this really magical place, you’re going to deal with all of these unappealing things. That’s just part of your job.
B+C: Your book got us thinking about that sometimes awful question (especially if you don’t have an answer yet): “So, what do you do?” Do you think that question should be abolished for anyone under 30?
BDS: No! I think if it’s asked with a generosity of spirit it’s fine. It’s just in DC, the culture is all about “So what do you do?” There’s all this measurement. But I love finding out what people do because I only ask people who I think are really interesting — the answer can be whatever [but] my follow-up is, “Do you love it? Do you want to do it? Do you want to keep doing it? What do you want to do?” That’s really different than in DC where they were calculating: “Can this help me?”
B+C: It’s funny how every industry, no matter how niche, has its own lingo. Yours had the “bubble,” “pool spray,'” “gaggle” and, a personal favorite, “secondary hold” (which meant that POTUS was in the bathroom). Did anyone give you a crash course in that kind of thing?
BDS: Noooooo. Certainly not. Especially with secondary hold. People would be like, “Oh, he’s in secondary hold” and I’d be like, “Should I be in there?! Do we need a transcript of that?” I had no idea. I was just fumbling in the dark for a while. I think stenographers are sort of lone wolves on the road, so no, there’s no orientation, you feel your way through it… and make some mistakes along the way.
B+C: Okay, relatability aside, you’re going through all these things, making all the mistakes everyone makes in their 20s while wearing the red metal pin that tells the Secret Service you’re a part of POTUS’s inner bubble. Do you think being so young made that manageable, like had you been older and wiser would you have been more stressed out by the job?
BDS: Probably. I think part of it was being open to everything. At the White House everyone was seasoned, [but] I kind of landed there through this Cinderella Craigslist story. Being young was helpful but more than being young, it was being open and not being so self-serious that I was too embarrassed to ask questions.
B+C: Obviously there were so many incredible things about the job, but you also witnessed some really terrible tragedies, specifically the Newtown, CT shooting. That must have had a profound effect on you, being so close to the President and the official response.
BDS: It’s hard to talk about even now. It was heartbreaking. It was devastating. And it was shocking to go up there and see these families. We actually had a bunch of the families come back on Air Force One to appeal to Congress about gun reform. To have them on the plane, all carrying pictures of their children who had been massacred, they were telling us their names and what they liked to do with their siblings… It was like, we let this happen and Congress is going to continue to let this happen. You can never unsee that, you can’t forget it.
What still devastates me is that nothing has changed. The silver lining is supposed to be that we take action so that this doesn’t happen again. Every time [President Obama] would try to do that, Congress wouldn’t even bring it to a vote. It’s frustrating as a citizen and it’s more frustrating because we’re the ones going and seeing these heartbroken families and we can’t even say, “We can do something about this.”
B+C: Near the end of the book, this sense of dread builds because we all know what’s coming: Trump. Knowing how much he’s undone, was it difficult to write about all the great work Obama had been doing at the time?
BDS: It’s like watching the Titanic where you’re like, “Oh, this ship is going to sink!” [But] I was keeping notes the whole time, so it was actually more like patching a quilt together, reaching back into the annals of what I had written in real time, which was great because I wouldn’t have been able to write the book if I had saved [the writing] until the end. I have a terrible memory.
But that was the hardest part, having to write about the work we did and then having this guy come in who has no respect for progress or the Constitution. To have him fumble his way in. To see him not respect anything that our country stands for. That was the hardest part.
B+C: You kind of gloss over the way you ended up leaving the White House. You stayed on briefly post-Obama.
BDS: I really lucked out. I was typing a Sean Spicer briefing and my literary agent called and said, “You have a book deal. You’ve typed your last press briefing.” So that was the silver lining personally — when Trump won, I thought, “I’ve got to get the hell out of here.” Before that, I was interested in seeing Hillary. I wanted to see what it would be like to work for the first female president. But because Trump won, it was the ultimate incentive to take my writing seriously because if I don’t take it seriously now, when will I? So I got a book deal, which is great, but I’d much prefer not having Trump as president. We’re going to have a lot of explaining and apologizing to do.
B+C: Is there one especially strange moment that stands out for you working in the early days of Trump? We can’t even imagine what that atmosphere would be like, although in the book you describe it as both a divorce and a funeral…
BDS: From his inaugural speech on. The language he used was so different than anything I’d been typing for the last five years. President Obama was all about “We’re the United States of America, we’re better together.” To go from that to this us-versus-them was like, “Uh, who’s them? Who’s us?” I thought we were all together in this. Going back to the White House the first day and walking by what had been my friends’ offices, where they had done really cool, important stuff, and all of the sudden they’re either empty or it’s some 22-year-old who had been working for Ted Cruz and had been shipped over. It was chaotic.
B+C: Setting aside the fancy hotels and regularly traveling on Air Force One, what was the best part of the job?
BDS: Getting to see President Obama up close. I was so nervous when I started the job that he wasn’t going to be as great as I hoped he’d be. Like, what if when the cameras are off, he’s just another slick politician? He’s so authentic. What you see is what you get with him, except when the cameras are off, he’s actually a little funnier and he takes more time with each person. He’s so respectful of everyone in the room. He’s so generous with his time. He’s like your friend’s really cool dad — when he walks into the room, you hope you don’t say anything really dumb, because he’s that cool. And then you always end up saying something dumb because his intellect is so intimidating! And he loves those gotcha moments.
B+C: The book has already been optioned for a movie. Let’s talk about dream casting. Casting Obama would be really difficult, but what about some other characters? Who’d play you? Who’d play Jason, your White House bad romance? Who’d play the mean girl, The Rattler?
BDS: I think it would be really fun if we got POTUS to play POTUS, because no one can do him. He’s just too good. As for me, it would be really fun to put it on Craigslist as a one-day thing for an extra. And then they come in and we’re like, “Just kidding! You’re going to star!” To keep the generosity and the magic going.
[Jason] is this Jim Carrey-type doppelganger so we could do that. Also Woody Harrelson. He’s just this charming, funny guy, and he’s a great actor so I think he’d do a good job at being unassuming. The Rattler just becomes [a question of] which actresses I love, but Cate Blanchett would be so fun. She can nail any role.
B+C: Do you miss going to work every day at the White House?
BDS: If it was still the Obama White House, I would be crying all the time and have incessant FOMO. But because I stayed for Trump, it was like staying a little too long. Like when you stay too long at the dance and the lights come on. So it was easy to leave. I’m so happy I’m not there. Even though things are slower now, I love my new life. I love getting to be proud of what I’m doing.
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(Photos via Lawrence Jackson and Evan Gaffney and Penguin Random House)