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The Receptionist

What it was like to work at the New Yorker.

(Page 2 of 2)

No, it's we the readers who may be bitter for her. Bitter that she put up with repeated marriage proposals from the likes of the "drunk and rambling" poet John Berryman, only to discover at lunch with six of her office mates that he had proposed to three of them. Bitter that she gets discarded carelessly by men, notably a cartoonist who's not only ugly but caddish, too. (Pity there are no photos in the book; we'd love to see the face attached to that "jug chin" and "knobby nose.") We're not bitter so much as sad on her behalf that she still feels obliged to protect "her" writers more than they sometimes deserve, as for instance when referencing Muriel Spark's abysmal neglect of her son, Robin, whom Groth says "never evoked a maternal response in Muriel," as though it was his fault his mother deserted him again and again.
Of course, bitter and sad are not the worst feelings for readers to have, implying as they do that we care for the central character. And we do. Groth remains likably herself throughout: a vulnerable, essentially passive Iowa girl overawed by big names and big thoughts, a bit of a rube despite outward trappings of sophistication, a bit of a square whose first impression of Bob Dylan is that he "looked as if he was in need of a bath." A loyal and graceful woman who shies from conflict, who enjoys being "kindly kissed," and who will not countenance, at least in these pages, backstage gossip of the kind, alas, many readers will hope to encounter herein. "I was not about to tell … anyone…" she declares, "about the day I found a hooker coming out of one of the writers' offices." And she doesn't.

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The book is well named. Despite earning a Ph.D. and writing a dissertation on New Yorker writer Edmund Wilson, Groth is at heart what her job title says she is: a receptionist, someone who receives, accepting what comes and endeavoring to please whoever is next to show up at her desk or, more often than she likes, in her bed. And who is all too easily taken for granted. After 21 years of receiving criminally low wages (unsuccessful union organizers were "incensed" to learn that her weekly salary amounted to just $163 upon her retirement in 1978), 21 years of being given the royal runaround whenever she mustered the courage to ask if she could contribute in some more meaningful way, she had published not one word in her beloved magazine.
In the closing scene at a farewell gathering that was "too informal to be called a party," the ever-elusive editor-in-chief William Shawn makes a token appearance and presents his faithful employee with a single red rose. It is a measure of this slender book's power that this reader, for one, wishes Groth had the moxie to toss it, grrlishly, back in his face.


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