The Receptionist

What it was like to work at the New Yorker.

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

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.  

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.

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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