Wednesday, December 11, 2013
By DAVID L. ULIN Los Angeles Times
Janet Groth had big plans when she came to the New Yorker. A graduate of the University of Minnesota, she began as a receptionist at the magazine in 1957, after telling E.B. White (yes, that E.B. White) that she had deliberately avoided learning how to type well because she didn't want to end up in the secretarial pool.
"THE RECEPTIONIST: AN EDUCATION AT THE NEW YORKER." By Janet Groth. Algonquin. 230 pages. $21.95.
"I want eventually to write, of course," she announced. But when White asked about a short-story prize she had won in college, he seemed most interested in whether the story had been typed.
Such were the challenges for women entering the work force in the pre-feminist era, Groth suggests in "The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker."
"As I ponder the way women in general failed to thrive in that world, how often they were used and overlooked," she writes, "I recognize that I was part of a larger historical narrative."
That's true, of course. And yet, the story that Groth tells in "The Receptionist" is less cultural than personal, a recollection, at times vivid and at times a little breathless, of her 21 years as a receptionist to the writers and editors of the magazine's 18th floor.
"There was every reason," Groth tells us, "to suppose 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."
That this didn't happen -- except for six months in the art department, Groth never changed jobs -- becomes the central conflict around which her memoir revolves.
Groth can be charmingly offhanded: anecdotal, gently gossipy, although she goes out of her way not to reveal anything too intimate. This reticence, she suggests, may be what held her back as a writer, a point given unintended resonance by the tone of her reflections here.
The book begins as a series of character studies, in which Groth recalls her friendships with midcentury luminaries such as John Berryman, Joseph Mitchell and Muriel Spark. The Berryman chapter, one of the first in the book, is also among the finest. Groth met the poet as his student at Minnesota and found herself captivated by his passion, the range of his intellect.
"As a poet-teacher," she recalls, "he so invested his ego in his work that he was ego-free, a fleshless, selfless lover of enlightenment, pure spirit." That's a terrific description, evoking not just his classroom style but also the humor and erudition of his poems.
As the chapter progresses, however, it falls into a pattern that recurs throughout the memoir, with Groth portraying herself as something of an ingenue. "On one of his visits to the office of Louise Bogan, the poetry editor of the New Yorker," she writes of Berryman, "he discovered me behind a desk on the editorial floor. Invitations to lunches and dinners ensued." This "courting" (Groth's word for it), never anything but platonic, is echoed in her portrait of Mitchell, the magazine's legendary master of long-form journalism, with whom she shared a standing Friday lunch date for many years.
Mitchell, like Berryman, was a mentor. Their relationship began to change when she dared to disagree with him about E.L. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime." (She admired it; he did not.) Yet equally telling is her observation that "as the years went on and I became more the horn-rimmed academic than the Scandinavian princess (or the blonde babe) of his dreams, my meetings with Joe became ever fewer until they were reduced to the occasional espresso." Here again, we see that essential tension between reticence and identity, between Groth as a satellite (of Berryman, Mitchell, the New Yorker) and as a woman trying desperately to come into her own.
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