This appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian
Whether you think of it as the urbane centre of American letters or a magazine designed to make suburban women feel superior to the Joneses, the New Yorker has always attracted more than its fair share of interest. For years, those associated with the publication have written books on their time there. Some have been vituperative, such as Renata Adler’s Gone: the Last Days of the New Yorker, which followed in the footsteps of Tom Wolfe’s infamous 1965 takedown in New York magazine. Others are affectionate and commemorative, especially about the magazine’s first few decades, such as Brendan Gill’s Here at the New Yorker, Ved Mehta’s Remembering Mr Shawn’s New Yorker or Ben Yagoda’s About Town: The New Yorker and the World it Made.
In these pages, affairs have been discussed or denied, dirt has been slung or vacuumed up, and personal quirks have been criticized or celebrated. Their lure is irresistible, as they promise to shine a light on the activities of editors Harold Ross and William Shawn, writers such as Thurber, Salinger and Updike, and all the other allegedly neurotic, talented, egoistic, sensitive souls who contributed to the magazine.
The latest addition, published last week, is Janet Groth’s memoir, The Receptionist: an Education at the New Yorker. From 1957, Groth worked for more than two decades at the magazine, answering phones, taking messages and lending a helping hand and sympathetic ear to the magazine’s writers, editors and cartoonists. Lest you jump to the conclusion that this was the sum of her ambitions, it ought to be pointed out that she earned a PhD while at the magazine, left to teach at the University of Cincinnati, and has since published four scholarly books on Edmund Wilson.
The tone of voice she adopts for much of The Receptionist, however, is that of an ingénue, a wide-eyed girl from the sticks arriving in glamorous New York City. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that it’s more a coming-of-age tale than an inside look at the workings of the New Yorker. In a sense, the cover, with the distinctive Irwin typeface of the magazine’s masthead, is deceptive.
It starts with Groth being interviewed by the notoriously shy E.B. White and then assigned to the reception desk on the “writers’ floor”. The chapters that follow aren’t strictly chronological, but deal with aspects of Groth’s tenure at the magazine – being proposed to by John Berryman, a suicide attempt following an affair with a caddish cartoonist, flirtatious lunches with Joseph Mitchell and assisting Muriel Spark. It’s also a record of her alliances with unsuitable men, and Groth is candid about her personal and sexual awakening, fuelled by lessons from the therapist’s couch.
Groth name-checks many others, but it’s clear that her interactions were limited: “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.”
Though she remained at her receptionist’s desk throughout – barring an ill-fated stint in the art department – without advancing to fact-checker or contributor, she never felt hard done by. Her several trips to Europe and “invitations to share the cultural, social, and literary life of the city” made her feel neither a victim nor beneficiary: “It seems to me a two-way street”. She also disingenuously glosses over casual sexism: “In those days, men who came up to meet New Yorker writers for lunch…often passed the time chatting with me at the reception desk. Sometimes they even convinced me to go out with them.” Or, speaking of a colleague: “These men had a good eye for beauty and they eyed Andy with evident pleasure”.
There is thus an awkward though endearing sincerity that pervades these pages. Groth’s memoir doesn’t quite belong on the same shelf as other books on the New Yorker, but acolytes of the magazine will probably give The Receptionist a warm reception.