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The Receptionist

What it was like to work at the New Yorker.

June 28, 2012

The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker Algonquin Books 320 pp.

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By Daniel Asa Rose, for The Barnes and Noble Review

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Yippie! we think, cracking open the pages of The Receptionist  – here comes another tell-all about The New Yorker magazine, written most likely with well-calibrated degrees of upper-middle-class decorum by some luminary like Brendan Gill ( "Here at The New Yorker," 1997) or E. J. Kahn, Jr. ("About The New Yorker and Me," 1979) regaling us with uproarious indiscretions and backstage gossip of the highest order.

Well, not quite. For one thing, the author is not one of the magazine's swashbuckling superstars but a lowly worker bee, someone who began as a receptionist on the eighteenth floor in 1957 and never rose a notch higher by retirement time 21 years later. Also, she's a she – of the distinctly diffident kind they seem to have stamped out in the '40s and '50s. It's less a tell-all about the magazine than about her personal plight there, starting with a surprise phone call from a mutual acquaintance of E. B. White that glided her through the gilded gates. (As any reader of the aforementioned books can attest, cronyism and outright nepotism used to be near-sacred traditions at The New Yorker.)

It should have been a dream job. "There was every reason to suppose," writes Janet Groth in her hopeful opening pages, "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."

Doesn't turn out that way. Thwarted both by her own faint-heartedness and by the well-mannered disregard of her superiors, she settles, gratefully, for the reflected glory of being a dog walker to the stars – watering their plants, boarding their cats, minding their summer houses, and, of course, soothing their famously "artistic temperaments" in her official capacity as receptionist. She enjoys what perks she gets from being at least peripherally in their company: good opera seats with the magazine's music critic, good disco tables with the in-house nightclub reviewer. She accepts the occasional dis from a diva (such as the by then bleary-eyed but still acid-tongued Dorothy Parker) as the cost of doing business on such a stellar plane.

Bitter she is not. She considers herself "luckier than most" that she gets to partake of a "full cache of wondrous bagels" she finds in Calvin Trillin's freezer. She goes to soirées with a full heart despite suspecting that she might have been invited more out of obligation than anything else. "When J. D. Salinger needed to find the office Coke machine," she trills, still star-struck all these years later, "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." Always the "girl," never the grrl.  

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