The Receptionist by Janet Groth. Publisher: Algonquin (2012). Memoir. Hardcover. 240 pages. ISBN: 978-1616201319.
“I entered the workforce before the feminist era, and as I ponder the way women in general failed to thrive in that world, how often they were used and over-looked, I recognize that I was part of a larger historical narrative. As for my personal struggles, during much of the time in question, I was undergoing a prolonged identity crisis, and the real struggle, for me, was the one that arose from my proximity to all the creative people I served.”
In 1957, new college graduate and Midwesterner Janet Groth arrived at The New Yorker like many others with dreams of becoming a writer. E.B. White offered her a receptionist position [“What sort of work do you envision doing Miss Groth?”]. She amazingly kept that post for two decades. Groth left in 1978, a PhD graduate, with extensive travel and plenty of stories to tell about those who came and went at the prestigious magazine. She earned her masters and PhD by taking one class at a time. Would colleges today allow students to meander through advanced degrees in such a fashion? Quite impressive. What persistence she possessed to do this. I wish she’d discussed her studies more in the memoir. I guess it wasn’t juicy enough.
Depending on how you like to look at it, the first part of The Receptionist serves as a who’s who or a name-dropping succession of literary, theater and New York celebrities including one of my favorite writers Muriel Spark. She devotes an entire chapter to this enigmatic and splendid writer. Being a GenXer, many names I just don’t recognize. Some, I do– Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Dorothy Parker, Edmund Wilson, Pauline Kael, Mike Nichols and others. Also not being a reader of The New Yorker [shocking I know], I also am not completely in the loop. I still thoroughly enjoyed her stories.
It’s all very 60s and very New York. An excellent writer who kept meticulous journals during her time at The New Yorker, Kennedy, abortion, race relations [Groth has an African-American roommate for a while] and suicide attempts all get spun into Groth’s engrossing memoir. She earned an excellent education and became an English professor and literary critic. Her years at The New Yorker afforded her the advanced degrees, weeks of overseas travel and years of therapy.
There’s a distinctly personal aspect to The Receptionist. She learned about herself by living alone or with various roommates and later boyfriends in Manhattan. If you’re looking for a celebrity, Mad Men-style tell-all, The Receptionist won’t assuage you. It’ll give you numerous remarkable anecdotes but it’s truly the complicated passage to self-awareness of one naïve Midwesterner who took a job thinking it would be a stepping stone to a writing career but achieved a fulfilling academic career instead.