'Warm their hearts, warm their wallets'

"She could have been an actress." Irma Kurtz was a recent graduate, and a waitress at Schrafft's on the corner of 34th and Lexington in New York, when she heard those whispered words from a customer – who happened to be the director of a Columbia University production in which she had appeared. In fact, the future agony aunt of Cosmopolitan was throwing away more than a thespian career by waiting tables.

"My parents wanted me to go to graduate school, study sociology and then marry a shrink," she recalls. But, as she chronicles in Then Again, her memoir of an early trip to Europe, she had only one ambition: "I wanted to be a European." That meant earning enough to get back there.

"Schrafft's was way up from McDonald's, which didn't exist then," she says. "'Ladies who lunch' went there. The woman who interviewed me said, 'Surely you want to come into management!' But the waitresses got good tips. I was good at making people like me; they tipped if you smiled. If you warmed their hearts, you warmed their wallets. I had one customer who was writing a novel and insisted on reading me brief installments as I served his food. It was an awful book but he gave me a dollar tip, which was like a fiver."

Waitresses worked in teams of two. Irma's co-worker, Helen was, like the others, initially very suspicious of "the smart-alec college girl" half her age. But the two of them pooled their tips and she gradually warmed to Irma. When the college girl finally sailed off to Europe after more than a year, her co-workers bought her a dressing gown with rhinestone buttons.

"My co-workers were great girls, incredibly energetic, all doing it to support someone: children, parents or odd relatives. So warm and wise." They had her respect, unlike some of her fellow graduates. "It was the furniture-buying district of Manhattan and many of my former classmates at the (posh) Barnard College of Columbia University turned up with future mums-in-law buying stuff for their new homes. An alarming number pretended not to know me. I remember deciding I would never trust as a friend a woman who had not at least once in her life waited table."

The waitresses wore demure black dresses and little white aprons tied at the back with a bow. The day would begin with the girls standing in a row, like a stationary conga line, while they tied each other's apron-strings.

They needed energy, since they served more hot dinners than, well, you've had hot dinners. The hottest place was the kitchen, which lacked air-conditioning. The summer temperature could hit 49 degrees. "The chefs were very angry people." Dealing with them could be agony: good training for an agony aunt.