The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker Hardcover – Jun 26 2012
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The Atlantic Wire's “Best Revisitation of a Cultural Icon” in their list of the best books for 2012.
"Are you a New Yorker magazine groupie? Do you wait every week just to laugh at the cartoons and read Talk of the Town? If so, we have a book for you . . . The magazine's eccentricity was not lost on Groth. Lucky for us." ―USA Today
"An evocative memoir."―People
"[Groth's] collected the sort of gossipy anecdotes that would have you hanging on her every word at a literary cocktail party." ―Entertainment Weekly
“This is not a juicy tell-all – Groth remained an outsider as much as she was an insider at the magazine throughout her tenure, and legendary editor William Shawn stays a shadowy figure on the floor above throughout the book. Instead, she paints a picture of a naive Midwesterner with a mane of thick blond hair coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, experiencing the era's turbulent politics and sexual revolution, all from behind the receptionist desk.”―The Associated Press
“A literate, revelatory examination of self.”―The Boston Globe
“Groth can be charmingly offhanded: anecdotal, gently gossipy . . . The Berryman chapter, one of the first in the book, is also among the finest . . . ‘As a poet-teacher,’ she recalls, ‘he so invested his ego in his work that he was ego-free, a fleshless, selfless lover of enlightenment, pure spirit.’ That's a terrific description, evoking not just his classroom style but also the humor and erudition of his poems.”―Los Angeles Times
"[Groth] is witty, honest, and self-deprecating, without whining, and quite a good role model."―Booklist
"Revelatory . . . deeply reflective . . . Groth chronicles the many dazzling personalities whose lives touched, and moved, hers."―Publishers Weekly
"An honest and engaging memoir for fans of the magazine and histories of Mad Men-era New York."―Library Journal
"A nostalgic, wistful look at life inside one of America's most storied magazines, and the personal and professional limbo of the woman who answered the phone . . . This bookish girl from flyover country who became a Mad Men-era hottie, and who found she had to leave this cozy nest in order to save herself, is very much an interesting character in her own right. For readers who can't get enough New Yorker lore, an amiable view from the inside."―Kirkus Reviews
"One of the most buzzed-about books of the summer . . . The Receptionist is a don't-miss memoir of an era, a literary magazine and a fascinating woman."―SheKnows.com
"As for the book I'm looking forward to most? That would probably be Janet Groth's memoir, The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker. The title pretty much says it all, but Groth encountered some pretty fascinating people during her tenure at the mag, including E.B. White, Charles Addams and Joseph Mitchell. Juicy!"―Pop Candy
"Much of the story is envy-inducing..by the end of the book, [Groth] finds her own delightful voice, which is the book's real pleasure."―Oprah.com
“Groth’s memoir makes readers feel like she had ‘the best seat in the house’ as she talks about her role as a greeter to such literary luminaries as J.D. Salinger, Calvin Trillin and E.B. White. If you love The New Yorker―or want to look behind the pages―you will enjoy this book.” ―Bookreporter.com
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"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.
My problem with the book is that Ms Groth's story is made special only by the fact that she worked at a famous magazine among some legendary literateurs and cartoonists and got to know many of them in a fairly modest way She begins her book with a few chapters on people she got to know rather better, John Berryman, Joseph Mitchell and Muriel Spark. Unfortunately the story then quickly descends into a tale of her going from midwestern virgin to self-described "party girl" via a series of short- and long-term affairs with men she met at work. The names of these gentlemen have been changed to avoid embarrassment and/or lawsuits. One of these affairs, with a hapless cartoonist, ended with her attempting suicide, after which she regained her Lutheran faith and got some much-needed psychiatric help. The story of her lifelong inferiority complex and the childhood experiences at its root is very moving and well told. Along the way she does sprinkle her story with some fairly amusing tales of lunches, overseas trips and parties involving "name" New Yorker personalities, but her position in most of these stories is more that of fly-on- the-wall than true participant. Since much of the book takes place in the late 1950s and the 1960s there is a certain "Mad Men" quality to all of this, which may explain why Ms Groth thought it timely to put pen to paper.
Only in the final chapter does she attempt to explain why the hopeful writer went unpublished over two decades at the headquarters of a major national magazine, and the answer is somehow unsatisfying. Basically, she didn't try very hard, making only three submissions in all of that time. Considering the caliber of some of the writers she became friendly with at work it is hard to understand why she couldn't find someone to mentor her and help get a manuscript whipped into true New Yorker style. In this final chapter she also springs on the reader the fact that while at The New Yorker she studied for and received both a masters degree and a doctorate (she is currently Emeritus Professor of English at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh). Much of this was made possible by the magazine's very indulgent willingness to give her time off, which she is gracious enough to acknowledge.
Ms Groth isn't a bad writer overall but she feels the need to sprinkle her book with constant pretentious references to writers and books and operas, both the famous and the obscure, as if to constantly assure the reader that though she was a lowly receptionist she was academically and culturally right up there with anyone at the magazine. It gets to be a bit much. At the end of a grueling love affair, for instance, she feels like the fallen heroine in a B-movie, but then brightens when she remembers that such stories are also part-and-parcel of Shakespeare, grand opera and "Tess of the Durbervilles." Hooray for the Life of the Mind!
Finally I was a bit put off by her frequent need to let us know that she was a very attractive young woman and the lust-object of New Yorker men of every age and station. Her frontispiece photo confirms the first part of that claim and, having worked in offices myself I have no reason to doubt the second part. The problem for me is that she is guilty of the pretty girl's habit of looking down her nose at men she sees as lesser (not good-looking enough, that is) mortals who have the gall to think they are worthy of her. The hapless cartoonist who broke her heart - and who is now under the earth and unable to defend himself - is described several times as having an ugly chin and nose. This did not keep Ms Groth from falling for him (he took her virginity) and dreaming of marriage and a home in Connecticut with him, so why does she keep trashing his looks? If her description of his character flaws is accurate that would seem to be reason enough to censure him. He couldn't help his facial features. I'm left to think that she was more outraged that an unattractive man thought he had the right to date a beauty like her - and that she let him get away with it - than that he was a cad.
It's painful to write such a poor review, but how this was ever published is an absolute mystery.