Janet Groth had big plans when she came to the New Yorker. A graduate of the University of Minnesota, she began as a receptionist at the magazine in 1957, after telling E.B. White (yes, that E.B. White) that she had deliberately avoided learning how to type well because she didn’t want to end up in the secretarial pool.
“I want eventually to write, of course,” she announced. But when White asked about a short-story prize she had won in college, he seemed most interested in whether the story had been typed. Such were the challenges for women entering the workforce in the pre-feminist era, Groth suggests in “The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker.” “As I ponder the way women in general failed to thrive in that world, how often they were used and overlooked,” she writes, “I recognize that I was part of a larger historical narrative.”
That’s true, of course. And yet, the story Groth tells in “The Receptionist” is less cultural than personal, a recollection, at times vivid and at times a little breathless, of her 21 years as a receptionist to the writers and editors of the magazine’s 18th floor. “There was every reason,” Groth tells us, “to suppose that if I didn’t leave to marry, in the course of a year or two I would be joining the trail of countless trainees before me, moving either into the checking department or to a job as a Talk of the Town reporter, and perhaps from one of those positions to the most coveted of spots, that of a regular contributor with a drawing account.” That this didn’t happen — except for six months in the art department, Groth never changed jobs — becomes the central conflict around which her memoir revolves.
Groth can be charmingly offhanded: anecdotal, gently gossipy, although she goes out of her way not to reveal anything too intimate. This reticence, she suggests, may be what held her back as a writer, a point given unintended resonance by the tone of her reflections here.
The book begins as a series of character studies, in which Groth recalls her friendships with midcentury luminaries such as John Berryman, Joseph Mitchell and Muriel Spark. The Berryman chapter, one of the first in the book, is also among the finest. Groth met the poet as his student at Minnesota and found herself captivated by his passion, the range of his intellect. “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.
As the chapter progresses, however, it falls into a pattern that recurs throughout the memoir, with Groth portraying herself as something of an ingénue. “On one of his visits to the office of Louise Bogan, the poetry editor of the New Yorker,” she writes of Berryman, “he discovered me behind a desk on the editorial floor. Invitations to lunches and dinners ensued.” This “courting” (Groth’s word for it), never anything but platonic, is echoed in her portrait of Mitchell, the magazine’s legendary master of long-form journalism, with whom she shared a standing Friday lunch date for many years.
Mitchell, like Berryman, was a mentor. Their relationship began to change when she dared to disagree with him about E.L. Doctorow’s novel “Ragtime.” (She admired it; he did not.) Yet equally telling is her observation that "[a]s the years went on and I became more the horn-rimmed academic than the Scandinavian princess (or the blond babe) of his dreams, my meetings with Joe became ever fewer until they were reduced to the occasional espresso.” Here again, we see that essential tension between reticence and identity, between Groth as a satellite (of Berryman, Mitchell, the New Yorker) and as a woman trying desperately to come into her own.
As it turns out, Groth did make such a transition. While at the New Yorker, she got a master’s and a doctorate, and when she left, it was to teach at the University of Cincinnati. Even so, she glosses over these details, choosing to focus on the drama of her love life, and the ins and outs of office politics. It may sound strange, given the intimacy of some of this material — including an ill-fated affair with a New Yorker cartoonist that ended with Groth attempting suicide — but the impression with which we’re left is of a writer avoiding the depths, the difficulties, of character.
Groth makes that explicit in a chapter about a trip to Greece, where she finds herself “in a quiet spot” on an island. The moment is ripe for self-reflection, but Groth’s epiphany (“This is me — a wide-eyed child in the body of a woman”) feels too glib. We need more: more insight, more self-reflection, more of a recognition that things don’t turn out as we expect. It’s not enough for Groth to say she has decided to be more authentic; we need to see that authenticity in action, for Groth to slow down and let us see her changes, to reveal her motivations and her fears.
Interestingly, such issues do emerge at the end of “The Receptionist,” when Groth discusses her departure from the magazine. Perhaps because she is writing about leaving, she feels comfortable returning to the question of why she never advanced. “What of my manuscripts? What of my submissions? Few. Few, and far between. I believe the sum total of my submissions in those twenty-one years was three.” It’s a fascinating conundrum, three submissions from someone who eschewed the typing pool because she wanted to write.
Yet even here, Groth doesn’t go deep enough, focusing not on her inability to produce but the culture of the office, where “mothering, nurturing, providing a discreet and loyal personification of continuity on the writer’s floor, was exactly the position in which the editors wanted me or indeed felt they had any use for me.” That may be the case — I don’t have any reason to doubt it — but it leaves out the extent to which we are complicit in our fates. Either way, there is still the matter of her reticence, which marks “The Receptionist” like a fingerprint, the true story that, even now, Groth cannot quite bring herself to tell.