” I loved my little outpost down on the writers’ floor and the sense it gave her in the center of things. When J.D. Salinger needed to find the office Coke machine (there wasn’t one), I was the girl he asked. When Woody Allen got off the elevator on the wrong floor—about every other time—I was the girl who steered him up two floors where he needed to be. ” (Back on Reception, p.111)
The Receptionist is the memoir of Janet Groth’s 21-year career as a receptionist at the New Yorker magazine. Ambitious to become a writer, she had big plans coming to New York City. In 1957, the 19-year-old, fresh out of the University of Minnesota, began as a receptionist at the magazine after telling E.B. White that she had deliberately avoided learning how to type because she did not want to become a secretary.
If I thought at all about who I was and who I wanted to be, I became resentful over the fact that the world didn’t give a damn: it was going to define me superficially in any case. Yep, a dumb blond. That conviction got all mised up with the idea of seeing makes who were my contemporaries as predators on lovely young blonds like me. (Greece: The Journey Out, p.198)
But Groth does seem to live up to this stereotype. She is obviously over-qualified for the job; but male-dominant industry thwarts her from taking an writing post. Her master degree in literature does not help with promotion—she has never risen at the magazine. Instead she becomes the singular effort to shield writers on her floor from any distraction that might interfere with their works.
The book starts off fine, detailing Groth’s friendships with luminaries like John Barryman, Joseph Mitchell, and Muriel Spark. The John Barryman chapter is the finest in which the poet was Goth’s teacher and mentor in college. She finds herself captivated by his passion for writing and erudition. Mitchell was also a mentor, but it is through Mitchell she realizes the obstacle to her writing: an unacknowledged tension between reticence and identity, stemmed from low self-image.
From there the book drifts—ill-fated affair with a cartoonist, trips to Europe, elegy to her beauty, shagging and a pregnancy by a doctor who refused to practice contraception. To my disappointment, Groth barely touches on the in and out of work politics and behind-the-scene of the magazine. When she does put aside her narcissism and talks office culture, it reads like an out-of-body experience. So sadly, I don’t get the inner workings of the New Yorker but instead her frequent need to let us know that she was a very attractive young woman and the lust-object of New Yorker men of every age and station. This book totally lacks insight. I’m upset at media that have hyped up this book in collusion.
240 pp. Algonquin Books. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]