Posted November 13, 2012 by D. K. Holm
The inner workings of the New Yorker magazine have fascinated readers nearly since the publication’s inception, and chronicles by various insiders have ranged from a bucolic catalog of eccentrics in books by E. J. Kahn and Brendan Gill to the excruciatingly long winded memoirs of Ved Mehta to lately the excoriating and fascinating if somewhat internally conflicted account of the New Yorker’s “final days” by Renata Adler. But anyone who has worked in an office knows that the source of real information comes from the receptionist, and now the New Yorker‘s own famous receptionist has stepped forward to tell her story briefly but evocatively. In the end The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker (Algonquin Books, 320 pages, $21.95, ISBN 978-1.616.20131.9) is half about the experience of being on the “writer’s” 18th floor at the magazine’s former residence, and half about Janet Groth’s journey or evolution into the person she has become today, a respected university professor, scholar, and author, editor, or co-writer of five books on her speciality, Edmund Wilson, himself long associated with the magazine.
Janet Groth was, in the cliché of the age, and one she uses on herself, a corn-fed mid-westerner of Scandinavian background who left Iowa for the big city to become a writer, a dream instilled in her during a troubled childhood. The daughter of a charismatic alcoholic and a competitive mother, the young Ms. Groth suffered from a sense of outsidership and social self-consciousness that many bookish types should find familiar. Her parents ran a prominent grocery store, then a movie theater, then a diner on the west coast, a phase that almost evokes James M. Cain, and then finally back to the midwest to run a general store. Enamored of the Manhattan she would see in the establishing shots of thefilms noir and musicals in her family’s small town movie theater, Ms. Groth dreamed of escaping and leading the life of a sophisticated Manhattanite. But dreams of becoming the new Mary McCarthy or Jeanne Green would soon supplanted by instead becoming Eve Arden, the wise and wise-cracking aide-de-camp to various pampered scribes. Through a loose connection forged at college, in 1957 Ms. Groth obtained an interview with E. B. White for a clerical job at the New Yorker and ended up as the receptionist on the 18th floor, where she remained until 1978, with long Friday lunches, and time off to attend grad school or travel in Europe. But mostly her job was to answer the telephone and care to the special needs of the staff, both behind the desk and away from it.
This was Mad Men time and the comparisons seem inevitable. Still, there is an ineffable quality to New York City in the late 1950s and early ’60s, that transitional climate from the surface placidity of Eisenhower to the surface progressivism of Kennedy, a period in which the city had a variety of denizenship from the philosophical freeloader Mr. Gould of Joseph Mitchell’s famous chronicle to the rebellious artists of the Village to the ad men and Warhol factorites, and the usual catalog of changes from Playboy to James Bond to birth control to Coffee Tea or Me and Helen Gurley Brown. There was also a flourishing of art, theater, dance, and the novel, with breakdowns in censoriousness expanding the confines of subject matter and what race or gender could write it. The time might have felt just as vivid to those who lived though it as the 1920s felt to her scholarly subject, Wilson. It’s a place where you always imagine Robert Redford chasing Jane Fonda through a park or Audrey Hepburn hunting Cat in a rainy alley, or Marian ‘Gil’ Gilbert and Valarie ‘Val’ Campbell Boyd flying over fire plugs.
Ms. Groth was one of the many young women just out of college working among support staffs, sharing apartments, drinking and smoking late in pubs such as the White Horse tavern and following singers and jazz musicians from club to club. Her story in the early ’60s could be one out of a short story by Dorothy Parker (whom she met briefly and disastrously at a party) or aCosmopolitan cautionary tale. An affair with a minor New Yorkercartoonist who was secretly engaged, and presented in the book pseudonymously, ended badly in a way that reënforced her classical low self-esteem, and resulted in a suicide attempt than a phase as a “loose girl” that ended only when she had occasion to reaffirm her Lutheran faith. She consorted with a German translator, a one-legged D. C. doctor, and various other men and thanks to an extensive diary is able to evoke times, places, moods, sentences, and places dined in and digs slept at. At the same time she had platonic relationships with Joseph Mitchell and E. J. Kahn. Mitchell suffered a famous long term writer’s block and she gives a plausible explanation for its basis, and Kahn enjoyed an intimacy with the famous New Yorker editor William Shawn that raised the ire of other staff writers, especially when he was given to writing multi-part histories of food staples. She also worked as an assistant or aid to novelist Muriel Spark, and for a short time helped supervise the magazine’s artists. Arthur Getz commemorated her with a New Yorker cover in which she posed as a movie theater ticket booth girl reading a book during a lull.
The Receptionist is a blend of confession and discreet history. The flavor of the New Yorker culture is fascinating, the Manhattan of the times is envy-inducing, and Ms. Groth’s attention to detail is lively, as in the attire she and others wore and the exotic items served in now long-gone eateries. But more than a history of a time or a peek beneath the covers of a popular magazine, The Receptionist is a crucial entry in a series of books that serve to speak frankly about female sexual behavior, books such as Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity by Kerry Cohen, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trailby Cheryl Strayed, and Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath by Mimi Alford. Ms. Alford’s book, for example, goes into a great deal of detail about what went through her mind as the married President of the United States turned her into a go-to girl for sex. She tracks the stages of surprise, then acceptance, of what it is like to be ushered into a secret life with a dynamic person who, in a sense, assumes you are there in the first place to have sex. Ms. Groth is good at baring the hidden insecurities and self-doubt, at one point writing, ” A degrading pattern emerged: a round of partying, always ending in the same way, a drink too far, a one-night stand. Then, dismaying me further, a growing list of my one-time sex partners came back for more, going so far as to precede mattress acrobatics with dinner and a show. In other words, they liked me better than I thought they should.” She also discloses that Jewish men “were noticeably more aggressive lovers than their gentile counterparts, and good at it, too.” In Mary McCarthy’s posthumously published memoir, Intellectual Memoirs, McCarthy describes a moment in which she is in bed with one lover while talking on the telephone to set up an assignation with another for later that day. Like Wilson in his sex memoirs, McCarthy cooly relays this information with none of the self-laceration that Ms. Groth evinces. Intimacy is hard for self-conscious people, who constantly question what is happening, doubt its reality, and in a sense step out of the moment to observe it, in contrast to the happy hedonists who want to spread the joy of sex and avail themselves of as much of it as they can get (Gore Vidal might be an example of that mentality). Perhaps one of the most revealing passages in The Receptionist occurs when her German lover and another friend slip into a Hemingwayesque boxing match, in which she mentally implores them not to be weak and childlike. It’s a passage that may answer the Freudian question, What do women want? This phase ends during a trip to Greece, where while isolated briefly on an island, Ms. Groth comes to certain realizations and affirmations, a moment of existential self-confrontation that in its secualr way could be linked to Jesus fighting the temptation of Satan. Ten years of psychoanalysis and a good marriage later, the author is now the writer she always wanted to be.
This memoir benefits from the author’s diaries, apparently kept with the dedication of those also by Edmund Wilson and later published in several volumes. Ms. Groth reveals no secrets about Wilson himself, however. In fact, there is little real insider gossip about the magazine except for in the middle about Pauline Kael and Penelope Gilliatt and then until almost the end of the book when Ms. Groth befriends a new receptionist, an heir to the Mankiewicz movie clan. Ms. Groth quickly fills in her and the reader with a few names and several blind items. The volume is of a petite size and presented in the New Yorker font, but the paper is coarse and thin and the sole photo of Ms. Groth at the time of her employ is poorly reproduced in black and white. On the other hand, the front cover design evokes both the setting, the time, the fashions, and the persona of the author in a manner that puts the reader just in the right mood.