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.
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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.
Q: And yet there's no sense in the book of your blaming the institution.
A: No, although I do wind up most of my appearances with the fact that I can't not confront the question of my failure to rise at the magazine, and the reasons for it, and come to some conclusion about it. Do my 21 years in an entry-level position add up to my having been a victim or a beneficiary? I think it was a two-way street.
(Groth picks up a copy of the book and reads out loud from page 227.) "When the Newspaper Guild reps looked at my salary record ($80 a week to start and $163 a week to finish), they were incensed, and much was said about the way the magazine was exploiting me. However, as I look back on the eight trips to Europe the magazine underwrote (by way of lengthy vacations in the summers, two of which stretched to eight weeks or more, four of them with pay); my twelve years of graduate school; ten years of expensive psychoanalysis with a top Manhattan analyst (if the magazine chose to exploit my dependency, they paid handsomely to rid me of it); coverage of my desk to permit a Thursday-Friday trip up to Poughkeepsie to teach a course at Vassar; as well as the many intangibles that came to me in the way of invitations to share the cultural, social, and literary life of the city and, by extension, the wider world, it is not clear to me who was exploiting whom."
Q: Maybe a little of both.
A: You think? At my farewell party when I left, William Shawn gave me a single red rose, and someone I know was incensed by that on my behalf, and he seemed to blame Mr. Shawn. Well, I wouldn't, and I don't. The book is not intended, nor has it been received by The New Yorker, as an exposé of the magazine.
Q: The New Yorker in those years seems to have been populated by a great many eccentrics — the staff writer Joseph Mitchell, for example, who, as you note in the book, last published a piece in the magazine in 1964 but continued to work there for many years afterward. Still on salary, presumably.
A: Oh yes. Subsidizing writers who were suffering through writer's blocks was part of the concept. Every Christmas, when he was giving out the bonuses, Mr. Shawn would ask Mr. Mitchell (lowering her voice into a near-whisper), "When do you think we might see something from you, Mr. Mitchell?"
Q: And he would say?
A: "Soon, I hope."
Q: You have a wonderful passage about the New Yorker film critics Penelope Gilliatt and Pauline Kael, who had offices on the same floor but somehow never met.
A: How they arranged it, I don't know. I certainly never saw them in the same room.
Q: It strikes me that maybe Kael was more fun to be around.
A: Well, when she was conscious, Penelope could be fun, too. (Laughs.)
Q: In your chapter on Muriel Spark (author of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and other novels), with whom you had a long friendship, there's a sort of mystery about whether she and her longtime female companion were lovers or not. Spark denied it, and yet it seems they shared a bed. You were fairly satisfied in your own mind that they probably were lovers, but that either way —
A: Either way, what difference did it make? Yes. Some readers have reacted negatively to Muriel because of that chapter, and others had the opposite response — it's kind of a Rorschach test.
Q: Well, we're in an era now when if you're gay, and you choose not to be open about it, it's seen as a character flaw, and so some people may see Spark as having been cowardly. But that's a case of using a contemporary lens to view something from the past, when different conditions applied.
A: Yes, Muriel called it "an old-fashioned friendship," which is the same way Eleanor Roosevelt described a similar relationship. I think they should be left to describe it as they will.
Q: William Shawn appears rarely in your memoir, although you do describe the rumors that were precipitated by his often being seen coming and going arm-in-arm with Lillian Ross. Of course he was on a different floor.
A: Yes, he was a felt presence, but not a seen presence.
Q: I'm thinking that might have been true even if you'd been on his floor.
A: Oh yes, you'd get that impression from almost anybody there — with the exception of Miss Ross, of course.
Q: And as frank as you are about others in your memoir, you're equally frank about yourself, including your love life, which at one time was rather active, and your suicide attempt.
A: Yes, and I think the merit of that, if there is any merit, is that I was able to break through a lot of inhibitions to achieve that frankness, and there's been a kind of liberation for me in doing it. I suppose you could say I'm a potential visitor on the old Oprah couch — only ... she wouldn't have had to be ashamed of me later and say, "None of this was true."
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
"The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker"
By Janet Groth, Algonquin Books, 320 pages, $21.95