The office of the Belles Receptionists & Answering Service hums with ringing phones and the polite greetings of operators in a small building on the East Side of Midtown Manhattan.
“Belles,” answered a receptionist the other day. “Yes, I’ll get that message to him. Have a lovely afternoon.” She scribbled the message onto a card and filed it with others.
An industrial-looking timepiece called a Remind-O-Timer sat on her desk. Metal pegs around its face can be flipped to set an alarm; the device hasn’t been used much since the service was founded in 1956, but Belles receptionists keep it around for sentimental reasons.
A bygone era looms over the office. A mass of telephone wires had been stripped from the walls; a dark rectangular outline remains. A battered box filled with hundreds of creased note cards illuminates personalities of the past and their quirks: “Do not test her line after 8 a.m.,” stresses the card of a Park Avenue client; “Ask for correct name spellings,” reads the card of a New York aristocrat. A dismantled telephone switchboard collects dust in a back room; the company retired it this year after one client, a holdout, finally agreed to upgrade an antiquated landline.
Six of these wood-paneled consoles once dominated the office, shaping the company’s culture for five decades.
A picture from an old newspaper article on the wall at the Belles office in Manhattan shows the actress Judy Holliday, center, training with Mary Printz, left. Credit Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times
The office’s most visible relics, however, reflect its golden history. Dozens of framed, fading photos of former clients line the walls: Robert Redford. Al Pacino. Dolly Parton. Bianca Jagger. Art Carney. Dustin Hoffman. Kathleen Turner. Isabella Rossellini. Richard Dreyfuss. Liz Smith. Angela Lansbury. Swifty Lazar. Howard Cosell. Shirley MacLaine. Liza Minnelli.
The photos offer passage to an era when the Belles was the glamorous answering service to the stars, its number unlisted and passed on by referral only, its operators privy to secrets salacious or mundane. A 1977 issue of Cosmopolitan proclaimed it “the most famous answering service in the United States”; its celebrity had been established in 1956, with the opening of the Broadway musical “Bells Are Ringing,” which it inspired, starring Judy Holliday.
Recent interviews with those who witnessed the company’s celebrity period, when it was, for that matter, called Belles Celebrity, echoed the sentiment: If you weren’t on the Belles, you weren’t anybody.
You wouldn’t know it now, but once, six operators were seated here, elbow to elbow, night and day, inhaling packs of Winstons, taking calls and jotting notes, arms dancing across the machines as they plugged in and unplugged the cables.
Known as the girls, they handled their calls coolly amid the smoky pandemonium. Remarkably, this scene played out within the Belles offices until the early millennium. About 20 Belles receptionists were employed in its prime; only six work there now, four of them for long enough to remember the switchboard days. They are still called the girls. Nowadays there’s just one operator in the fluorescent-lit room for each shift.
Dozens of framed, fading photos of former clients line the walls at Belles Receptionists & Answering Service. Credit Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times
The office may be a nostalgist’s dream, but operations have been modernized. Antiquated technology has been replaced, and the clientele is now of the conventional sort requiring a 24/7 answering service: law firms, doctors’ offices, elevator repair companies. Clients receive texts now, and the calling cards, replete with private (though outdated) celebrity information, may be shredded. An office redesign is planned. “Bring the place back up to code,” said the current owner, Roger Snyder, who bought the company in 2009.
But the Belles maintains one last stubborn and vital link to its past.
Ten or so star clients, skeptical of the merits of modern communications technology, loyally continue to use the service. They are referred to internally as “legacy clients,” and they include the Broadway giants Stephen Sondheim and John Kander, the fashion photographer Bruce Weber and the writer Nicholas Pileggi, whose wife, Nora Ephron, shared a line with him until her death in 2012.
“I couldn’t imagine not having Belles,” said Mr. Weber, adding that he doesn’t even trust hotels with wake-up calls, only the Belles.
“They do things Siri can’t do,” Mr. Pileggi said. “I don’t think of it as a horse-and-wagon thing.
“I think the Belles would prosper into this period, rather than fade away into a historic sunset, if only more people knew about what they can provide.”
The company is guarded about its legacy clients. I was left to deduce their identities through guesswork and the cooperation of skeptical publicists. (“You want to know if my client is still using a what?”) But names occasionally slipped during afternoons at the office.
“When we get a call from Sondheim, I instantly know it’s him,” said Mr. Snyder.
“He’s very direct,” a receptionist said.
Do they ever hear anything juicy?
“Oh, I’ve heard some good stuff,” another receptionist said. “We get the scoop first.”
“We once had a big thing before the media broke it,” she said, offering only a tight smile when asked what it was.
Woody Allen was among the holdouts for years until he finally cut his line early in the new millennium. Still, he offered his recollections on the Belles in an email.
Melissa Garcia, a Belles receptionist, in April. Credit Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times
“I stayed with the Belles long after I needed an answering service because they were just a part of my NY life,” he wrote. “I would still be with them but our operation was streamlined and I could not really make an argument for them other than a sentimental one.”
Candice Bergen also offered some insight, in a call from her home in East Hampton. Ms. Bergen, who shared a line with her husband, the director Louis Malle, was elated to discover that the company still existed, and she had nearly as many questions as answers.
“Are the girls still there?” she asked.
“He’s still using them? Really?
“They’re everything that’s disappeared in life,” she said. “They do a romantic thing in a time that is virtually devoid of romance.”
Mr. Allen seemed to agree, calling the Belles “a colorful part of NY’s social life.”
“And while all the other answering services were all functional more or less but anonymous and bland,” he said, “the Belles like a movie star had a kind of intangible charisma.”
Before the dawn of voice mail, telephone answering services were a practical necessity. All walks of busy people used them, and they were fairly affordable. Average fees ran perhaps $20 a month. Mary Printz, the charismatic founder of the Belles, who died in her mid-80s in 2009, saw a niche in the allure of exclusivity. “I don’t want lawyers, plumbers, or electricians,” she would say. “I only want celebrities and millionaires.” As it happens, the Belles clients now include a plumber.
A wooden timepiece called a Remind-O-Timer. Metal pegs around its face can be flipped to set an alarm. Credit Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times
The Belles began as a small operation in a Manhattan apartment jammed with rotary telephones, and it evolved into a sensation, acquiring 600 clients and at its peak making an estimated $2 million annually.
It was partly luck: One of Mrs. Printz’s earliest clients was the Broadway lyricist Adolph Green, who based Judy Holliday’s character in the “Bells Are Ringing,” a lovestruck telephone receptionist, on Mrs. Printz. Miss Holliday shadowed Mrs. Printz at the Belles offices to prepare; Mrs. Printz rebranded the company with a focus on celebrities after the show’s opening, and the word-of-mouth was instant. A poster for the hit musical’s 1960 movie adaptation, starring Dean Martin and Miss Holliday, still hangs in the Belles office. (“They all look like Judy Hollidays in my head,” Bruce Weber said of the receptionists.)
By the mid-1960s, the company’s glamorous association with Broadway and its alluring exclusivity had made it the premier service of its kind, and its receptionists had become the comforting voices, occasional psychiatrists and keepers of secrets to the stars.
“We were just star-struck girls,” said Florence Provinzano, 68, a former Belles receptionist who remembered taking calls for Robert Redford, Woody Allen and Candice Bergen. “We fell in love with the magic of the switchboards.” She recalled her heart jumping when, at 17, she was assigned the line Yul Brynner called on, and how hands were slapped away in the daily frenzy to pick up Rock Hudson’s calls.
Belles receptionists could become intimately engaged in their clients’ lives: dog walking, plant sitting, fish feeding, reading stock market quotes, reserving theater tickets, storing apartment keys, reminding clients of dinner appointments at Le Cirque or Maxwell’s Plum and maintaining discretion about marital strife and infidelities. “Divorce was good for business,” Ms. Provinzano said.
Index cards were used to record personal notes on individual clients. Credit Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times
“We knew when stuff was going down,” she continued. “We heard about Nixon resigning before it was on the TV. The phones were crazy when the Woody and Mia Farrow thing was happening.”
Days were rarely dull, and were typified by incidents that might seem impossible in today’s relentlessly managed culture of celebrity.
Noël Coward once called in despair in the middle of the night: He needed more Scotch to keep Marlene Dietrich entertained. But it was Sunday, and the liquor stores were closed. Mrs. Printz dispatched her husband to buy a bottle from a bartender and deliver it personally.
Swifty Lazar, the celebrated agent, offered Mrs. Printz a large sum to write a book about gossip she had gleaned. “What would I write about you?” she asked. Mr. Lazar, a Belles client, hung up.
The F.B.I. stormed the Belles to collect the messages of Daniel Ellsberg, the whistle-blower who leaked the Pentagon Papers. Mrs. Printz refused to hand them over. Or at least that’s the way Ms. Provinzano remembers it.
A box of creased old index cards once used for clients. Credit Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times
The masterful bedside manner of Belles receptionists wasn’t accidental; it sprang directly from Mrs. Printz’s sassy and gregarious personality. She didn’t suffer fools gladly and had no qualms, for instance, about eliminating Burt Reynolds’s service after he accused the Belles of giving out his private number, or brusquely dismissing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “Thank you for inquiring about our answering service,” Mrs. Printz wrote in a 1982 letter to Mrs. Onassis. “Handling volumes of prank calls is not possible for this organization. Calls of this nature could confine an operator to one line exclusively. We must give equal attention and consideration to all of our subscribers. Sorry we couldn’t be of help to you.”
Mrs. Printz (known to adoring clients as Ma Belle), was born in Grosse Pointe, Mich., in 1923, and moved to New York, where she married her second husband, a cocktail pianist named Bob Printz, when she was 26. (Mr. Printz died this summer.) She sought a job matching his nocturnal hours and before long found herself talking to strangers through a switchboard in a cramped room alongside other women wearing headsets. Realizing she was gifted at ingratiating herself with strangers, she later started what would become the Belles.
Her son, Joe Printz, remembered the pall cast over the family’s house when his parents bought their first answering machine in the early 1990s. “She knew it was a game changer,” he said. “She could see herself getting displaced.” The company lost hundreds of clients as the millennium progressed. “I remember the day she told me Woody was leaving,” Mr. Printz said. “She was so sad.”
Mrs. Printz’s thoughts on the decline were recorded in an unreleased documentary. It boiled down to the fact that people didn’t trust others to be “in charge of their secrets” anymore, she says.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the people I had for years and years and years died, and most of the young people don’t want what we have to offer,” she says in the film. “This is still what’s left of a personalized business.”
Small sticks of worn plastic, once used to jam a client’s switchboard service if their bill went unpaid. Credit Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times
“I have a feeling that this is going to come back some day, this kind of service,” she adds, “because people are fed up of getting a machine.”
Mrs. Printz eventually sold the Belles to Mr. Snyder, a former Marine who was helping to manage the company’s office building at the time.
“You’d think the history of the Belles would make people come out,” he said, “but it didn’t work that way.”
Mrs. Printz was picky about prospective buyers, Mr. Snyder said, and had requested his assurance on two things: “Keep the legacy intact, and take care of my girls.” Mr. Snyder had studied business at Columbia and saw the opportunity to revitalize a historic brand, but the transition ended up being far more agonizing than he’d expected.
The switchboards confounded him, the girls had not been girls for a long while, and the office walls were stained brown from decades of cigarette smoke. “They didn’t know how to use computers,” Mr. Snyder said. “No modern technology. There was no website. There were still typewriters.”
Thus began the Belles’ tardy transition to modernity. An early website Mr. Snyder designed stressing the company’s past was scrapped; receptionists were taught how to use computers; and the company dropped “Celebrity” from its name. He retired the switchboards: Three were thrown out, two were sold and the last was kept out of respect, he said.
Mr. Snyder can still slip into fascination with the time warp surrounding him. He retrieved a plastic jar filled with small sticks of worn plastic. “This is a plug,” he said, holding up a red one. “We used to use them to jam someone’s service if they hadn’t paid the bill.” He pushed it into an imaginary switchboard with a grin on his face.
He recently stood in front of the dismantled switchboard in his office’s back room. A box containing its gutted parts sat on a shelf.
“If you were to put a soul into this thing and it could talk, we would have some very interesting conversations. It could tell us some stories,” Mr. Snyder said. “But the times change and things change. That’s the cycle of life: We move on.”
Some bulbs on the switchboard, which once lit up when calls came in, were colored red. In later years, he explained, receptionists started marking the last few active personal lines with a red marker. “Eventually it came down to one,” he said. I asked who the holdout was.
“I can’t tell you,” he said.
I pressed him. He upheld the code of the Belles.
“I’m not saying,” he said with finality. “They’ve been with us a long time.”