'The Receptionist:' an extra-literary education at The New Yorker
Jane Groth's "The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker" chronicles her 21 years behind a receptionist's desk at America's most prestigious literary magazine.
Special to The Seattle Times
An Education at
The New Yorker'
by Janet Groth
Algonquin Books, 320 pp., $19.95
Janet Groth acknowledges up front the main question her new memoir raises: Why did such a bright, intellectually sophisticated, aspiring writer spend 21 years behind a receptionist's desk?
True, the desk was at The New Yorker, that long-enduring shrine of American literary magazines — where she was hired in 1957, at age 19 and fresh out of college, by the acutely shy author and editor E.B. White.
Yet surely rubbing elbows with the likes of White, Muriel Spark and Charles Addams, and making the scene at A-list literary cocktail parties wasn't worth two decades of lower-rung clerical work. Or was it essential to Groth's maturation, as a woman and a writer?
"The Receptionist" is an articulate, inviting book, but with something of an identity crisis. It is the frank, searching memoir of a deeply insecure woman whose painful past, and the mores of a prefeminist society, retarded her ability to find intimacy and career fulfillment.
It is also a chatty listing of flirtations, lunches, dinners and elbow-rubbing with famed poets, novelists, cartoonists, editors. But in that vein, it's more scattered and unsatisfying than previous New Yorker memoirs by such insiders as Brendan Gill and James Thurber. (It's not exactly juicy stuff that Groth led J.D. Salinger to the Coke machine.)
Gossipy tidbits, nostalgic lists of pub crawls and eateries in the colorful midtown Manhattan of the "Mad Men" era are sprinkled in out-of-time sequence, and impede the flow of Groth's personal narrative.
But that narrative, of an aspiring woman in a heady and male-dominated milieu, is compelling. It's about a woman whose self-worth too often derived from her head-turning looks and the attentions of men — mostly fickle, unfaithful or cripplingly neurotic men.
"I was five feet seven, had a 36-26-36 figure, and wore my hair in a twelve-inch blond ponytail," Groth notes wryly. "What more did a man need to know?"
Descriptions of Groth's more genuine friendships enhance her self-portrait. She becomes close to the brilliant, tragically alcoholic poet John Berryman; the great reporter Joseph Mitchell; and the generous, worldly Spark.
And there are telling alliances with an African-American woman roommate, who opened Groth's eyes to the realities of Northern racism, and with a free-spirited and unreliable European man Groth hoped to marry.
But pertinent details of her turbulent, often uprooted childhood are withheld until nearly the book's climactic account of a life-altering catharsis and spiritual awakening. And Groth leaves big gaps in her evolution from office worker to Yale University professor and scholar — perhaps for another book?
I for one would like to know more about that dramatic transition from a receptionist's desk, to a writer's desk of her own.
Misha Berson is the theater critic
for The Seattle Times.