News

'Hero' Or 'Harasser'?

One early morning at Del Labs, a manager named Kathleen picked up the phone and heard a familiar voice, ranting, raving and cursing. It was chief executive officer Dan Wassong, looking for his secretary -- who wasn't due in yet. Kathleen hung up. Wassong called back, and Kathleen hung up again. "He kept saying, "Do you know who I am? I'm the president of this company!"' she recalls. ""I make $600,000 a year. You have no right to hang up on me'." Later that day, she says, Wassong showed up in her office and barked out an order: "Get down on your knees and beg forgiveness." Kathleen refused; she was already packing her things. Within weeks she had quit. But not before Wassong handed her one final insult. As she walked down the hall, she claims, he came from behind and yanked up her skirt. "I'm just checking to see if you have your kneepads on," she says he told her.

When Kathleen left Del in 1988, she became one of a long list of wounded but silent Wassong alumnae. This summer the silence ended. In a lawsuit filed in July, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission details what it calls one of the biggest cases in memory, not because of the offenses -- they're as typical as they are grotesque -- but because of the number of victims, the years the abuse continued and Wassong's position. Del is a $166 million Long Island, N.Y., company whose products are in thousands of women's medicine cabinets: Sally Hansen's Hard as Nails polish, Lip Quencher gloss. When local papers reported the suit, at least a dozen women called to corroborate the story and lend their support. One says she didn't even have to read his name to know who was being sued. She worked for Wassong in 1965; she still remembers the gray outfit she was wearing the day he smacked her on the rear.

Dan Wassong wouldn't talk to Newsweek. But many of his friends and colleagues were eager to defend him, from Del founder Martin Revson to Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan, and Linda Cohen, Wassong's companion and the publisher of Sassy, a magazine for teenage girls. The charges make no sense, says Sol Levine, a former boss. "That's not Dan Wassong. That's totally out of character with everything I know about him." In a statement, Del denied the EEOC charges. During Wassong's tenure as CEO, it notes, Del has had an "unblemished" record on equal opportunity, and no claims until now.

That's not so surprising. When Dan Wassong started his alleged abuse at Del back in the 1960s, the image of a boss chasing his secretary around the desk was grist for a cartoon or laugh line. The phrase "sexual harassment" didn't surface in the vernacular, says a researcher at Merriam Webster, until 1975. Even in 1991, when Anita Hill testified against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, only 29 percent of Americans believed her.

But since the Thomas hearings, Congress and the courts have set new laws and precedents, and the number of women filing charges has doubled (page 50). Last week, in a case involving a former partner at the nation's biggest law firm, Baker & McKenzie, a California jury awarded a former secretary $7.1 million. The message to powerful men was clear: you can't get away with it.

It's precisely those men (and sometimes women) with power and talent who are in a position to harass subordinates. Born in Warsaw in 1930, Wassong fled to Palestine during World War II. He came to the United States as a young man and graduated from Case Western Reserve University in 1956. At the H. Leff Electric Co. in Cleveland, he climbed rapidly from salesman to vice president, and left behind, apparently, only admiration. "I looked up to him as a kind of a hero," says company president Bruce Leff, then a teenager, who tried to emulate Wassong's drive. In 1965, another admirer, Del president Sol Levine, recruited Wassong to a small cosmetics company founded by Martin Revson when he'd split with his brother and Revlon cofounder, Charles Revson. Four years later Wassong was named president. Over the next two decades, he took the Sally Hansen brand to the top of the drugstore charts, introduced new lines and boosted sales from $20 million to $166 million. Wassong, divorced, with one son, was a relentless boss, pushing himself and employees hard. "Hours meant nothing to him," says Revson admiringly. Still, he found time to charm his friends and the women he dated, serve on charity boards and be godfather to Levine's kids. Rewarded with a big salary and stock options -- Wassong now controls 35 percent of Del -- he moved into New York's elegant Carlyle Hotel, where his neighbor was Diane von Furstenberg, and hosts the Sally Hansen Grand Prix at a horse show in the Hamptons.

But in other corners of Long Island, a generation of working women were getting to know a different man. "I probably have the dubious distinction of being one of the first women he abused," says Susan, who is willing to testify for the EEOC but doesn't want her last name made public yet. "He never stopped scratching himself and his fly was half-zipped half the time. There wasn't any recourse at all," adds Susan, who was then 19. "You either shut your mouth or left your job."

Thus began a parade of women who came and left. "The turnover was incredible," says a Long Island employment agent who has placed women at Del. Their stories, as told to Newsweek and the EEOC, add up to a pattern of alleged harassment. Wassong would slap them and pinch them. He'd summon them to his hotel suite to work, or urinate in the office bathroom with the door open. He'd order them to search for papers in his pockets. He'd boast to them about the women he slept with ("the richer, the better" was his refrain, says one) or those who'd performed oral sex on him. If she would do the same, Jonneigh Adrion says he told her repeatedly, her career might prosper.

Adrion, who joined Del in 1989, had taken the job with Wassong two years later because she was eager to move up. She'd heard he was "difficult," but Del personnel chief Charlie Schneck, she recalls, held out hope of a job she wanted in marketing. Adrion says that the abuse started immediately. "He thought nothing of calling me a stupid c--- or a f---ing bitch," says Adrion. It wasn't only the blatant sexual talk that hurt her, but Wassong's penchant for public humiliation. Once, in an office full of people, he told her she was so heavy she "should be holding another elephant's tail in a circus ring." He would interrupt her lunch, telling her she was too fat. After one of Wassong's slaps, Adrion retaliated, hitting him in the back. Wassong only smirked, she says. In July 1992 she quit, and in August she heard about the Long Island chapter of 9to5, a working women's advocacy group. With their help, she went to the EEOC and filed a complaint.

Even this didn't seem to alarm Del officers. The company did institute a new harassment policy, and says it began to investigate. But according to the EEOC, it wasn't exactly playing by the rules. In August 1993, with an EEOC investigator due on the premises, Del attorney Robert Ziskin called in Wassong's assistant, Mary Dixon, and told her to sign an affidavit swearing she'd never been harassed nor witnessed any harassment. She told Ziskin that wasn't true, but, she says, he insisted she sign it anyway. Three months later Dixon got a new job and filed her own EEOC charge. Del denies that Dixon was coerced, and says that Adrion quit because she wanted more money. The EEOC is seeking back pay for most of the 15 claimants who've joined the suit, and $300,000 in damages for the women who fall under the limits of the 1991 Civil Rights Act. Fifteen other women have agreed to testify, say EEOC lawyers, but can't join the suit because of the statute of limitations.

The agency's suit may not come to trial for at least a year. For now, close friends of Wassong's just can't believe their ears. Linda Cohen, 41, the publisher of Sassy who started dating him about a year ago, says her boyfriend isn't capable of sexual harassment. "I've known him for seven years and I'm a feminist at heart," she says. "And I work for a magazine that tries to empower young women." If Wassong was such a man, she says, "I wouldn't be friends with him. He's a very smart, intuitive man who's always been very gentle and concerned."

It's hard to know if that's how Wassong is seen by fellow officers at Del. Vice president Sylvia McKee says that in 13 years she never saw Wassong harass women. But most executives, including personnel chief Schneck and attorney Ziskin, aren't talking. Like the partners at Baker & McKenzie in California, who may have to pay most of that $7.1 million, they could feel the ripple effects if a jury finds against Del.

Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown suggests that the women are overreacting. "To me," says Brown, "real sexual harassment is where you can't get ahead in a company or they pay you 50 percent less than they pay a man doing the same job or you can't get the job or promotion because you won't go to bed with the boss." Brown hasn't read the complaint, but after 15 years of lunching with Wassong at the "21" Club, she says she doesn't believe the charges. "I don't want to sound unsympathetic, hard, cold or tough, but in my working-girl days you always had passes by men. What's the big whoop-de-do? It's part of being an attractive woman."

At 72, Helen Gurley Brown may be speaking for another generation. If Dan Wassong's case goes to a jury, they may judge him by a newer standard.

PHOTO: Abuse of power? Wassong at a Long Island factory

PHOTO: Taking on the boss: Six women who have brought charges against Wassong