The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker

  • By Janet Groth
  • Algonquin Books
  • 240 pp.

Dreams of writing, and of a sparkling life in the big city, don’t quite pan out for a child of the Midwest who goes to work at the famed magazine.

For generations, innocent young things have turned their backs on homes in Middle America, lured by the glamour of New York City. A taste of the Big Apple quickly gave some of them the knowledge of good and evil; others experienced years of indigestion. The author of The Receptionist is one of the latter group.

As a child in Clarence, Iowa, Janet Groth operated the popcorn concession in her parents’ movie theater. Seeing many movies set in Manhattan convinced her that “life begins in New York City.” Shortly after graduating from the University of Minnesota, she managed to get an interview with E. B. White and was hired as a receptionist at The New Yorker. She hoped to write for the magazine, but spent over two decades there as a receptionist, never getting a word published in its pages.

As one might expect from a book subtitled An Education at The New Yorker, there are stories about the magazine. Indeed, the names of over 100 people either at the magazine or associated with its contributors are mentioned in the book. There is a chapter about her years of weekly lunches with one writer, and another about her time spent moonlighting as private secretary for Muriel Spark and that author’s kindness to her. Janet Groth also writes about visiting the families of New Yorker writers, and tasting the atmosphere of their lives when she house-sits for them.

Most of the book is devoted to the author’s own life and loves. She tells quite a lot about two affairs that ended unhappily for her, and tidbits about other relationships. Realizing her life was not what she had hoped for, she sought help from a psychoanalyst. After 10 years of analysis, she seems to have gotten a grip on her life, found a man she was happy with and left The New Yorker for a career in academia.

The New Yorker, while not giving Janet Groth the writing career at the magazine that she had hoped for, apparently gave her considerable leeway and financial support to travel to Europe, enjoy long lunch breaks, undergo analysis, take graduate courses, get her Ph.D. and teach a class at Vassar, all while keeping her job as a receptionist. It also gave her the opportunity to dip into the glamorous life that she longed for as a child, but found disastrous for herself as a young woman.

The Receptionist is not the book to go to if you want to learn about The New Yorker, a magazine that has carefully cultivated its image as a magazine that its founder, Harold Ross, famously declared was not for “the old lady in Dubuque.” If you are looking for an insider’s story, there are several choices, starting with James Thurber’s My Years With Ross. Brendan Gill, who described Thurber as a malicious troublemaker but appreciated him as a writer, wrote Here at The New Yorker. E. J. Kahn, Jr. wrote About The New Yorker and Me, in which he claims Gill’s book is inaccurate. Any one of those will give you a sample of the atmosphere in the magazine’s offices and of the writing published in The New Yorker. You can also find over a dozen doctoral dissertations as well as a university Website dealing with the magazine, and many, many more books: by its writers, about its writers and about its readers, its style and its appeal — if you can name it, you can probably find it.

The Receptionist, although it may have been published because of the promise of its subtitle, An Education at The New Yorker, is really the story of a young woman lost in the big city. A reader finishes the book happy that the author succeeded in finding a life for herself away from that reception desk — it was the focus of a difficult education.

Alice Padwe has reviewed memoirs, fiction and history and edited everything from college textbooks to spy thrillers. A New York City native, she began reading The New Yorker around the time Janet Groth started working there as a receptionist.

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