‘The Receptionist’: A plum seat — or not — at the top of the literary world
By Heller McAlpin,
Do we really need another book about the New Yorker? At this point, we’ve read so many — including Brendan Gill’s “Here at the New Yorker,” Ben Yagoda’s “About Town,” Renata Adler’s “Gone” and Lillian Ross’s “Here But Not Here” — that we feel as though we were there but not there.
Janet Groth’s memoir, “The Receptionist,” views the institution from a decidedly different vantage point. In 1957, with a writing prize and a fresh bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota, Groth copped an interview with E.B. White. “What sort of work do you envision doing, Miss Groth?” he asked her. “Well, I want eventually to write, of course, but I would be glad to do anything in the publishing field,” the lovely blonde from Iowa answered. Anything, that is, except typing.
She was given a position on the 18th-floor reception desk and told that she was expected to wear “ladylike clothing” of the sort available at the now-defunct Peck & Peck. Her job was to preside over some 40 writers and half a dozen cartoonists, taking phone messages, watering plants, walking dogs, boarding cats and housesitting — what E.J. Kahn Jr. referred to in “About the New Yorker and Me” as “combination-receptionist-and-den-mother.” Groth writes, “When J.D. Salinger needed to find the office Coke machine (there wasn’t one), I was the girl he asked. When Woody Allen got off the elevator on the wrong floor — about every other time — I was the girl who steered him up two floors where he needed to be.”
Note Groth’s use of the word “girl” — not “woman” or “person,” but “girl.” This is really the crux of her memoir: For too long, this was how Groth was viewed, by both herself and others. Her book charts her delayed progress from “wide-eyed child in the body of a woman” to confident maturity.
Groth earns a place in what Kahn called the New Yorker’s gallery of “authentic oddities” because of this glaring situation: In her 21 years at the magazine, aside from a brief stint in the art department, she was never promoted. Yet, in that same period, she studied for her doctorate in English, taught composition at Vassar and wrote book reviews for Commonweal. When she finally left, in 1978, it was for a teaching job at the University of Cincinnati. She eventually published several books on Edmund Wilson and became a professor of English at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.
How to account for this grievous stasis? Why didn’t she join “the trail of countless trainees . . . moving either into the checking department or to a job as a Talk of the Town reporter,” as she had every reason to expect? Was it a case of oversight, gender discrimination or her choice? And why did she stay on so long without writing a word for the magazine? These are questions that Groth addresses in her graceful memoir.
Her answers have as much to do with her own personal issues as with the culture of the time. Although Groth takes a few jabs at editor William Shawn and the magazine’s “nepotism at the top,” mainly she holds her bitterness to levels nearly as low as her weekly salary — $80 in 1957; just $163 by the end. She’s quick to point out, however, that over the years, she benefited from several long trips to Europe, 12 years in graduate school and 10 years of expensive analysis — all underwritten by the New Yorker. Her parenthetical comment on the latter is typical of her wry sagacity: “If the magazine chose to exploit my passive dependency, they paid handsomely to rid me of it.”
Readers looking for juicy tales of the quirky denizens of West 43rd Street will find a few — including accounts of weekly lunches with blocked writer Joseph Mitchell, and courtship by poet John Berryman, who tried to convince Groth that she would make a good third wife for him. Much of the book, however, concerns her extracurricular rather than professional life, including her many self-destructive affairs seeking a replacement father figure and husband, and her subsequent struggles with the “dumb blond cliche.”
Discretion, which was no doubt a crucial aspect of her receptionist job, leads at times to frustrating circumspection, with more disguised identities than in a roman a clef. Even the long-dead, two-timing cad who persuaded her to yield her “hitherto carefully guarded virginity” with the line “Here’s to the beautiful children we’ll have together” is protected by a pseudonym. (A little Internet sleuthing suggests cartoonist Everett Opie, who died in 2004.)
Ultimately, it’s not her sexual saga but her evocation of the “Mad Men” working environment that makes Groth’s memoir interesting. “The Receptionist” vividly depicts a largely vanished Manhattan in which Ritz Crackers were the foundation of hors d’oeuvres, martinis were the mainstay of lunches, and pliable, overqualified women were stuck in lowly jobs forever.
McAlpin reviews books for NPR, The Post and other publications.