If you have ever wanted a behind the scenes look at THE NEW YORKER magazine, or first-hand glimpses of New York City in the 1950's-1970's, or a perspective on a time through the lens of an individual life, you might enjoy this vivacious account by Janet Groth of her stint as a receptionist at THE NEW YORKER. Interviewed for a position by the magazine's most famous staff writer E.B. White who queried, "Can you type?", the author of this book responded, "Not at a professional level."
"I was afraid, you see," the author explained to White, "that if I became a skilled typist, I would wind up in an office typing pool." This kind of amusing and genuine candor pervades this memoir.
"And you don't want to wind up there?" White asked.
"No, I think anything would be more interesting to me than that," said Janet Groth, corn-fed college grad from Iowa. White hired her. We always knew that White, the author of CHARLOTTE'S WEB and THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, had imagination and a sense of humor.
More interesting indeed. A tenure as a receptionist from 1957-1978 on the Writers' floor--Floor 18--combined with a six month sojourn with the artists and cartoonists on the 20th Floor at the preeminent serious fiction and journalism magazine of New York.
THE NEW YORKER was described by its writers as a haven for the "congenitally unemployable". Groth knew she was different from the other staff at the magazine. She was employable--apparently for 21 years.
This book delves into her rich memories there: Friday lunches with Joseph Mitchell who was considered "the most admired writer of fact in the magazine's history", moonlighting as Muriel Spark's private secretary, house-sitting for Calvin and Alice Trillin, accepting manuscripts from Tom Wolfe, and attending soirees where Dorothy Parker and her "bon mots" reigned.
The book asks why stay 21 years?
Groth explains why she went to the magazine, what she did, who she met, what she learned, why she stayed (the parties, culture, eight-week summer vacations to Europe among other reasons), and what happened to her after leaving the magazine.
At times Groth sounds like a naive ingenue who could have breakfasted at Tiffany's with a contemporary Holly Golightly. There is a hilarious anecdote about Truman Capote's misdeeds at THE NEW YORKER before her arrival. Other times Groth writes like the woman who earned a PhD in American & British Literature at NYU part-time while at the magazine. She crafts wonderful sentences such as: "I had one of those moments of renunciation I thought happened only in Henry James."
It's as if this book, like the author, is trying to make up its mind what to be. Part memoir, part coming of age story, part spiritual journey, part confessional, and part self-analysis with the help of a brilliant psychoanalyst, it is a mix of memory and introspection. It might have been interesting to include a few chapters on her intellectual life and learning at NYU and Oxford, and perhaps fewer chapters on the unsuitable men she dated. You may agree with Groth's writing professor who said to her upon reading about some: "I wouldn't want to spend a moment with these people, and I don't see how you can expect any reader to waste time with them". He observed further: "Now you are not only smoking with a cigarette holder, you are writing with one."
After enough romances gone rancid, and a soul-searching trip to Greece, Groth decides to pursue a PhD in literature. "Isn't it about time you did something that was GOOD for you?" asks her analyst who encourages the PhD. She eventually finds a confidence and a life that fits: a doctorate in literature and a teaching career. She also connects with a worthy life-partner who is compatible. "But I never lost the sense that inwardly, in some essential way, I belonged in the writing game," she writes early on in the book. This candid and original book demonstrates why she belongs in that game.
When Groth asks, why did I stay a receptionist at THE NEW YORKER for 21 years, her readers know what her colleagues at THE NEW YORKER, who didn't want to lose her, probably recognized: sometimes a warm, sympathetic, and perceptive receptionist is as rare and valuable as clever and cool writing.