Tidewater Review - September 2013

The Receptionist - An Education at The New Yorker

as reviewed by

Anne Stinson

The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker by Janet Groth. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. $14.95 paperback. 229 pp.

Young people who were lucky enough to migrate to Manhattan from the boonies shortly after WWII arrived at a fantastic time in the Big Apple. It was a period of exciting theater, daring artists who rejected traditional painting, glamorous night clubs and restaurants. It was also a great time for the weekly magazine that chronicled the whole merry-go-round, as well as features by talented writers and sophisticated editors who recognized hilarious cartoons when they saw them.
One of these naive college grads, Janet Groth, was a tall beautiful blond who grew up in Iowa. She had aspirations of becoming a famous writer. The job she found was at The New Yorker magazine, the Mecca of fantasyland in every young hopeful who read and envied its contents.
Janet was a 19-year-old college graduate who could scarecly wait to get out of a peripatetic life ~ all downhill with an alcoholic father and a mother whose denial of reality confused, angered and shamed Janet. When she was hired to fill the role of receptionist, she began a 21-year span as the gatekeeper to the inner sanctum, a warren of two more stories above her desk on the 18th floor at a swank address.
The staff of writers were as swank as the magazine’s reputation. Most of them came from Ivy League colleges and parents with illustrious family names, as well as awesome bags of money. Janet felt the difference between their backgrounds and her own, an accurate observation that emphasized her shyness. On the other hand, her smile and good manners made the men-about-town who filled the magazine’s pages feel protective toward the new hire.
Janet had started an adventure that may not have had any personal glamour attached, but she was delighted by the perks. Her salary was $80 a week. At the time of her retirement it had only risen to $165, but she was delighted with the month-long August vacation paid for by the magazine. If she wanted another month, her bosses were agreeable, provided she could pay for it herself. In all, eight vacations took her to Europe for art appraisals and/or summer courses in various intellectual subjects.
It was inevitable in her first year as receptionist that some of the young single men working for the magazine would ask for dates. She frequently accepted a young man’s offer to have a drink after work or to walk through neighborhoods with reputations for eccentricity, sample national cuisine in small cafes and bars featuring the new music rage, rock ‘n’ roll, or simply take a stroll through Central Park. If her dates wanted more than just her company, Janet refused to cooperate and black-listed their names.
She did meet and enjoy the company of many well-known writers of the day and gives her assessment of their work ad infinitum in this tell-all memoir. Frankly, the number and celebrity of these connections smacks of name-dropping. Added to that cheeky intrusion, it smells more than a bit like bragging about one’s superiority. This critic was almost ready to close the book and choose another for a review. Fortunately, it ended a chapter and her own story got back on track.
Not really fortunate for Janet. She met Evan, another New Yorker employee. After a series of platonic dates, there occurred what seems to have been consensual sex. Janet assumed that it was leading to the classic wedding bells, a new life and children. It was her first real thwarted love affair. It sent her crashing into grief so profound she tried to commit suicide. Her recovery regained, she defied fate by entering a year of casual short attachments with many men, only resulting in self hate. She was ashamed and thought of herself as a slut.
More disappointment was a regular in her life. “I tried to be nice to everyone,” she whimpers as she writes a long list ~ “sitting here, minding employees’ children who are visiting Dad who’s stuck in a meeting” ~ of just about any chore except picking up the laundry, it seems.
In a fairly long time of grief and self-hatred, along comes Fritz, the disinherited son of a wealthy German who worked for Hitler’s Third Reich. Fritz is now in New York and Janet and he are living together. Three years pass ~ they send out joint Christmas cards and Janet’s friends agree with her patient wait for a marriage proposal, wedding, etc.
Fritz gets antsy and will not commit to any marriage hints. As he cools down in the affair, Janet hears that his fiancee will soon arrive from Austria. It’s no rumor. It’s a fact. The woman arrives, and she and Fritz are married within the month. The newlyweds have the gall to appear unannounced at Janet’s apartment to collect things he left behind when he ditched her.
This being New York, Janet signs up with a psychiatrist for a 10-year analysis (three days a week of 55 minutes each plus one group meeting weekly) to help her find out “who am I.” He’s just wonderful, she claims. Maybe 10 years is a reasonable time to face the truth.
He also encourages Janet to continue her even slower progress at continuing her pursuit of earning a doctorate degree. She’s been signing up for one course at a time and worries about her capability to write a dissertation as a final test. The requirement has taken close to 20 years to accomplish. Her self-assessment and guidance in changing her habits is apparently a success.
As the years pass, the staff at The New Yorker changes and her attempts to have her writing in the magazine are rejected. The sting lingers, but she has met Mr. Right at last. He’s 20 years her senior and is everything she has dreamed of as a perfect mate. Luckily, they both love each other very much.
The only smudge on happy days comes when the Newspaper Guild tries to persuade the magazine to join the union. Janet resents that her long tenure in the job at a modest wage has made her the poster child for the union’s rallying cry. Janet is being exploited.
She doesn’t feel exploited. When she wanted an addition to her vacation time, it was always granted. The magazine cheerfully found someone to cover her desk when she was absent ~ for her decade of analysis appointments, her 12 years of daytime classes at graduate school, the Thursday and Friday trips to teach at Vassar; all of those perks were proof that she had not been mistreated, she thought.
With her new Ph.D. in hand, she was being courted by universities, and with her engagement to Mr. Right, a happy, satisfying future was in store.
The receptionist at The New Yorker magazine is history. A new lifestyle is sweetened by meeting and living with a professor 20 years her senior, leading to marriage and bringing her the happiness she always craved.
She closes the book with the sentence “I suppose you could say it was the end of an era.” Both for her and the brilliance of The New Yorker magazine and a special time and place in history.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.