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Susan Playfair

July 2015

By Arnold Serapilio

Susan Playfair 2011

Overview

New York Stock Exchange. Groundfishing in New England waters. Sculpture. Contract interior design. Arbitrage. Cranberries. When I think of my conversation with Susan Playfair, what strikes me is just how eclectic is her curriculum vitae. Cranberries, she writes in her newest book, America’s Founding Fruit: The Cranberry in a New Environment, “can be boiled in sauces, baked in a pie, frozen in sorbet, dried in cereal or salads, pulverized in capsules, even served smoked.” I will have to fight the urge to metaphorize Susan’s professional versatility into a tart red berry. The facts are more compelling anyway.

Experience

New York Stock Exchange, Wall Street1965–1968
  • Worked for a semi-retired financier in an office on the 53rd floor of 40 Wall St, “with views of both rivers. It was quite palatial.” The boss specialized in arbitrage—the process of buying and selling stocks priced unequally in different markets for profit—and in working as his assistant, learning the ropes was inevitable.
  • Lived in New York City, decided it was not a good long-term fit: “I’d been in the city for five and a half years at that point. New York, when you’re in your early twenties, is very exciting, and I had this café society strange group of creative friends. But, five years, for me—suddenly I just realized I was ready for a different quality of life. It was summer, and my commute down to Wall Street was always in hot hot hot subways, and these men in their business suits would try to push me out of seats, and I thought, ‘This stinks. This is crazy, I could be by the water, or swimming. What am I doing here?’”
  • Unconsciously prepared for next foray into finance. Of unplanned study of arbitrage: “I suddenly had this niche understanding. When you’re younger you haven’t planned to move from this career to that career but suddenly it makes sense.”
Goodbody & Company, Boston1970–1971
  • Became the first female registered financial broker at the fifth largest stock brokerage in the country. “I began calling these brokerage firms and ask if they would consider me for a training program. Most of them, I never even got past the secretary. But this particular firm put me in touch with the manager. I said, ‘Would you consider hiring a woman for your training program?' He said, ‘Absolutely not.’ Which could never be said today, but he felt totally free saying that.” Tenacious, insisted on leaving contact information, and sure enough, days later received a phone call from Goodbody’s top producer (i.e., the employee most profitable to the company) who was based in Boston and needed an assistant. “Only if I can get in the training program,” was her response, and in that manner it was decided.
  • What was it like being the only woman broker in the office? Was she regarded as an interloper in this Boys’ Club? Constantly kept outside the entrance to the treehouse? Not quite. “It was sort of a game for him, I think. He was very supportive, and the younger brokers thought, ‘This is sort of a lark. We don’t have any women brokers in Boston, so why not?’”
  • The industry was, at this point, pre-computerization, so all records of trades had to be taken down by hand and physically kept track of. Without efficient infrastructure in place to manage the ever-increasing volume of trades, the work grew increasingly expensive. For some firms, conditions were untenable, and they collapsed. Goodbody was one of those firms.
  • Though the firm (and the family who started it) went out of business, the customers did not. “At that time, a clear understanding existed among brokerage firms that they had a duty to protect the public in order to maintain the integrity and existence of the stock market. Without a feeling of confidence in the market, the public wouldn't invest in it."
Gloucester Engineering, Gloucester MA1971–ca.1974
  • Designed and supervised construction for the interior of the new offices the company was building.
  • Served as Director of Public Relations after aforementioned project was completed.
  • Received gift membership to the Boston Athenæum from Boston architect and family friend Ed Bullerjahn. Instantly fell in love with the space and to this day misses the exotic plants that used to adorn the fifth floor, found them beautiful and inspiring.
Interaction, Cohasset1982–1999
  • Again putting to good use skills acquired from previous employment, co-founded a design collaborative. An architectural firm and a space planning firm were the other interested parties.
  • Took over as sole owner
Vanishing Species: Saving the Fish, Sacrificing the Fisherman1999–2003
  • While making plans to renovate a barn in Cohasset (the first floor of which was being used to run Interaction as a sole proprietorship), stumbled upon a man up on a ladder at a nearby house doing construction. Told him about her own project and what she was hoping to accomplish. “About two weeks later someone walked in my house out of the blue. I heard this big belly laugh and this person saying ‘I never thought I’d be in this building again.’” It turns out the man had pitched hay in that barn, growing up. He helped with the renovation. The whole thing’s pretty Flannery O’Connor.
  • He was also a retired fisherman, and on lunch breaks would fondly recall stories of his fishing heyday. When his son—who at the time was a co-owner of one of the last fishing boats to fish out of Boston—arrived to do some painting, “he [the son] began talking about this incredibly—as he saw it—over-regulated industry where he couldn’t do anything. So here were these diametrically opposed stories” from one generation and the next.
  • Intrigued by both the stories she’d been told and the reading she’d done about the disappearance of the fish, needed to know more. The men introduced her to fishermen in other ports and soon she was going out on boats and getting words on the page; the research had begun in earnest.
  • What were the great joys of writing this first book, the great struggles? “The most arduous part is trying to find a publisher. Trying to find a publisher is a nightmare. But I really enjoyed both the writing and the interviewing, and with both these books I’ve really liked the people that I’ve been interviewing. I gain a lot of respect for them. Meeting them, getting to know them better, getting to know the industry better.”
America’s Founding Fruit: The Cranberry in a New Environment2008–2014
  • Walked, as a child, the cranberry bogs that great-grandfather owned. “In the town where I grew up [Duxbury, though she was born in a hospital in Plymouth, MA – ed.] we had quite a few people who worked for Ocean Spray, who lived around us, so I got used to this world of cranberries.”
  • Started, as an adult with connections to scientists through husband’s work, thinking about the future of the cranberry as it related to global climate change, and as with her first book, wanted to learn more.
  • How do you summon the discipline from within yourself to complete a book? “Something that was very helpful to me was, Toni Morrison gave a talk, and [to this point] she said you start by looking at how your particular body works within a day. What’s your diurnal cycle? When are you at your best? Are you at your best at five in the morning? Are you at your best at midnight? I thought, ‘I’m really at my best at about three in the afternoon. So I’ve found that if I can just discipline myself to at three o’clock have done whatever I have to do that’s essential that day, from then on I give myself three hours, and I can work within that three hours without buying groceries, doing laundry. That’s the only way I find anything gets written.”

Education

Bard College, Red Hook NY1958–1962

Attended Bard expecting to study writing under Ralph Ellison. Due to scheduling conflicts, however, Ellison turned out not to be available, so she left the writing major and took up sculpture, graduating with a degree in fine arts.

She also spent two years studying at Parsons School of Design.

Skills

Insuppressible curiosity that stretches in many directions; moxie; design savvy; total commitment to a project; focus; enthusiastic conversationalist and professional communicator; writing that is descriptive and delectable, like this, from her latest: “The temperature is seventy-three degrees. Morning clouds have disappeared to allow the sun to highlight a wash of red berries on indigo blue water.”

The take-away

To live well is to learn everything you can. To stay mindful, curious, and focused on a task until the job is done. Susan Playfair lives well. I have my inspiration.

 
References
Playfair, Susan.Vanishing Species: Saving The Fish, Sacrificing The Fisherman. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2003.
Playfair, Susan. America's Founding Fruit: The Cranberry In A New Environment. Lebanon: University Press of New England, 2014.