In her delicious memoir "The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker," Janet Groth recalls her more than two decades (1957-1978) as a receptionist on the 18th floor of America’s most storied magazine. During her early years at the publication under the legendary William Shawn, Groth — a recent University of Minnesota graduate with beautiful blonde hair, a shapely figure and literary ambition hampered by her painfully shy temperament — found herself the object of considerable attention from men (including a cartoonist who charmed her for three years but turned out to be engaged to another woman) but never managed to rise into the writing position she always craved.
After mounting emotional problems led to a suicide attempt and several years of psychoanalysis, Groth earned a doctorate in English and later taught at Vassar College, Brooklyn College, the University of Cincinnati and the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. After a distinguished career in academia (during which she wrote or co-wrote a series of books about the critic Edmund Wilson), Groth began writing "The Receptionist," which was published this spring and received a warm critical reception. Printers Row Journal caught up with Groth during a recent tour stop in Chicago to promote the book, now in its fourth printing.
Over lobster Cobb salad and a vodka on the rocks, Groth told anecdotes of her years at The New Yorker and its often eccentric cast of characters, including Shawn, Joseph Mitchell, Muriel Spark, the film critics Pauline Kael and Penelope Gilliatt (who lost her position in 1979 after a plagiarism scandal and who later died of alcoholism) and many others. Here's an edited transcript.
Q: There are a lot of memoirs of life at The New Yorker — it's almost a genre unto itself.
A: Yes, it's like being in the army, or the government — everybody who's been through it has a slightly different angle on it, and everybody's ready to divulge it. We've got a big shelf full of them now.
Q: I've read Brendan Gill and James Thurber's memoirs, for example.
A: I have to tell you that Garrison Keillor recently invited me to talk with him about the book at his bookstore in St. Paul, and he told the audience, "There've been many books about The New Yorker, but this one is different, and I like it best. It's better than Thurber."
A: So now you see I haven't a shred of shame! I'm thrilled by the reaction to the book, and I can't keep it to myself.
Q: You came to the magazine thinking that you'd eventually move up and out of your position as a receptionist and become a writer for the magazine, but that didn't happen. Why?
A: I think a big part of it was that I didn't ever conceive of myself as a journalist, as a person who would write fact pieces or "Talk of the Town" pieces. I saw myself as writing short stories — fiction. I did let it be known that I was at work on a novel.
It was very late in the game — and really at a point where my emotional and personal troubles had risen to a critical level, and I was out of Bellevue and in analysis — that I was made aware that there was something interfering with my self-image, my ability to believe in myself as someone who had a right to be assertive. It wasn't until much later that I began to mature into the honest person delivering the book that you are reading.
I did submit a Talk of the Town story about an MLA (Modern Language Association) conference in New York, but I didn't hear about the fate of that story for the first week, or the second week, or the third week, and I was too shy to inquire. When I finally asked, Mr. Shawn's secretary said she'd look for it, and found it at the bottom of a stack of papers on his desk. And she said, "In any case, it's no longer timely. Sorry." Of course, that shouldn't have been the end for me, if I wanted to write for the magazine. It was symptomatic of a bad case of passive dependency.
Q: You were an attractive young woman at the magazine prior to the feminist era and you got hit on quite a bit. Do you think you'd have been taken more seriously if you hadn't been so pretty?
A: Well, it's true that I did inquire about joining the fact-checking department, and Lou Forster told me, "Oh, you don't want to be a fact-checker — you're much too pretty. You ought to be a model." Of course, there were other attractive women around who were encouraged to do things. They were also sometimes encouraged into bed by married men.
Q: It was a "Mad Men" environment, in a way.
A: I can't argue with that. It's also true that I had a pretty good resume coming in. The University of Minnesota's English Department had not only John Berryman but Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and others. If that resume had come from a young man who came to work at The New Yorker, there certainly would have been a suggestion to turn in a Talk piece, or begin in the fact-checking department.
So, yes, from the beginning there were distinctions made. I guess people have to weigh the merits of my book as a testimony to whether I did have some writing ability — and that had I been nurtured in the way that a young man would have been nurtured, I might have been writing for the magazine — or not.