[31 July 2012]
This isn’t necessarily Janet Groth’s fault, but The Receptionist—her memoir about her years working for the New Yorker—was promoted a bit misleadingly.
The book doesn’t say all that much about the interior workings of the magazine. It doesn’t divulge much about the famous writers who worked there (with the exception of John Berryman and Muriel Spark, whom Groth describes warmly and at length). In fact, whole chapters stray from New York altogether, bringing readers to the University of Minnesota, the cornfields of Iowa, and the sandy beaches of Greece.
The Receptionist is Janet Groth’s frank memoir of self-discovery, and it just happens to include some details about The New Yorker. Potential readers should adjust expectations accordingly.
Of course, the book does begin with her interview at The New Yorker, since this is the scene in which everything changes for the hopeful Midwestern writer. Groth interviewed with E. B. White, who asked her about her goals. She replied like any young job-seeker would: “Well, I want eventually to write, of course, but I would be glad to do anything in the publishing field,” she told him, looking to get her foot in the door.
The tactic worked. She accepted a receptionist job, expecting to advance to the positions of fact-checker or “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.”
Note, though, that the book isn’t called “The Reporter” or “The Contributor”. Ms. Groth stayed in the receptionist position for 21 years, and the bulk of The Receptionist hints at why such a bright, educated woman wouldn’t move beyond such a basic position.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, Groth’s beauty probably put her at a disadvantage. The blond “babe” got her share of drinks, lunch dates, and marriage proposals from artists (including poet John Berryman and writer Joe Mitchell), but the paramours saw her as a model or wife, not a peer. Groth describes these “literary lunches” with great detail, and it’s clear that, in her innocence, she was too distracted by the lamb croquettes to do the hard, risky work of actually writing.
As these “tweedy”, Ivy-educated, East Coast writers dropped names of their famous family and friends, young Janet was absorbed, mistaking their literary importance for her own. And they were always dropping names: Berryman would remind Janet “of his famous friends, Cal and Saul and Delmore, and… Dylan Thomas,” while one of Janet’s party-mates “got more of an ego boost than he should have from his famous dad [a Broadway lyricist],” and another was “the sister of a famous abstract expressionist.” Groth does it, too, fondly recalling an insult from Dorothy Parker and a chance encounter with Gloria Steinem.
The parties are also described in detail, right down to the chiffon skirts and Moet & Chandon champagne. At moments, The Receptionist reads like a story from the Gossip Girl series, high on style but a little thin on substance.
While Janet ate and drank with the literati, she also answered phones, took messages, walked dogs, house-sat, and soothed the artistic sensibilities of the The New Yorker staff. As receptionist, she was the doting mother, the fun, gossipy sister, and the hot date in equal parts. But was she a writer? She was living the New York fantasy life of the movies, sure, but was she doing what she came there to do?
Groth kept a novel-in-progress in her desk drawer, but as soon as it received criticism from a former professor, she abandoned the project. She submitted a few items to the magazine, but when they were rejected, she didn’t persist. It’s too bad, since she clearly had talent, winning a prize for short fiction in college. She’d chosen to become a writer even before that, entering a Glamour writing contest as a high school student but losing to “another blond with daddy problems…. Name of Sylvia Plath.”
If she wasn’t writing as much as Plath, though, she was at least experiencing the histrionic drama of the confessional poet. Groth had a fling with an artist she thought planned to marry her, but really, he was engaged to another woman and merely took her virginity to ease his own boredom. What followed strongly echoes The Bell Jar and Plath’s painful depression, complete with a gas oven and a trip to the hospital, lending credence to the lines from The Great Gatsby calling personal confessions “plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.” The cheating guy, for his part, was supposedly insecure about his Elgin, Illinois origins, so he learned the art of charm, manipulation, and womanizing to boost his ego.
If the confessions are of the Plath era, Groth’s treatment of diversity is also tinged with the residual prejudices of the time. When recalling a Christmas dinner at Muriel Spark’s, for example, she wonders about Spark’s relationship with her companion, Penelope Jardine, in a kind of prudish, pearl-clutching way, deciding that the two probably “shared a bed”. Stranger still, she describes her former, black roommate, Sara, as “always clean and neat"m with “hair and nails… fastidiously kept.” This is meant as a compliment, but good hygiene shouldn’t really be considered a noteworthy characteristic. But maybe Groth included that prejudice as a kind of self-deprecation, since the book is filled with that. In writing, Groth often seems embarrassed by those past, passive, naiïe years.
In fact, after years of partying, traveling, sexual escapades, and very little writing, Janet eventually entered therapy. She says she learned to live with “a new, more authentic self”, although she kept the role of receptionist at the magazine for years, and she married a man (her landlord) who “hung out with the action painters Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock.” I guess no one ever really changes all that much.
Janet Groth changed enough, though. She eventually finished her Ph.D. at New York University. She got a teaching job and, apparently, she parted her passivity. She faced her uncomfortable past—an alcoholic father and a discouraging mother—and she left The New Yorker with a celebration of cake, friends, and a single red rose. This seems fitting enough, as she ended a few chapters with a fond memory, a well-wish, or a mention of cake in homage to the good times with old friends.
The Receptionist hits a few false notes, and it occasionally drags, but it also conveys an interesting life in a fascinating setting. For that, it’s worth a look.