“Twenty-one year flat-line” was the way that Janet Groth, receptionist at the New Yorker from 1957-1978 described her aforementioned career last night at the reading of her memoir The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker at Greenlight Bookstore.
Ms. Groth recounted a time of William Shawn, E.B. White and Joseph Mitchell with a slightly nostalgic but none too romanticized air. She recalled telling the man who first interviewed her for the position that she wanted to write. “Can you type?” was his response. Not professionally, she told him. He reviewed her resume and inquired about a short story prize she had won while in college. “Did you type that?”
During her 21 years at the magazine, Ms. Groth submitted three short stories for consideration—none of which made it into print, and one of which she believes got lost on Mr. Shawn’s desk. “Apparently that happened all the time but I took it very, very personally,” explained Ms. Groth, who is now a professor emeritus of English at Plattsburg State University and the author of multiple books on the writer and critic Edmund Wilson, whose time at the New Yorker overlapped hers.
The reading was followed by a conversation with Rebecca Mead, a current staff writer at the New Yorker who has been there since 1997. “Why write this book now?” Ms. Mead inquired.
“I think the idea was that people had died, who would have been hurt by it,” Ms. Groth responded, garnering a number of laughs from the audience.
Ms. Mead pointed out that others have written about being receptionists at the New Yorker, including Alison Rose, Ms. Groth’s successor.
“That was a very spicy book,” Ms. Groth exclaimed excitedly. “She seems to have gotten around to all those married men I was eschewing.”
Ms. Mead laughed, and went on to call Ms. Groth’s book “beautifully written…it’s really delicious but it’s so sad. I found it ineffably melancholic.”
“It also made me extremely glad that I joined the New Yorker in the 1990s and not in the 1950s,” Ms. Mead remarked, referring to the blatant sexism recounted in Ms. Groth’s memoir.
Yet, there was at least one benefit to working at the New Yorker in the 60s and 70s. “Am I really to understand that the New Yorker paid for your psychoanalysis?” Ms. Mead asked incredulously.
“Yes! You see, they had to have that, or, they thought they did. There were so many of their staff going to shrinks that they had a policy where 80 percent of it was covered,” Ms. Groth explained. “Everybody did! Well, this is perhaps an exaggeration…but it seemed to me fairly widespread.
The back cover of The Receptionist reads: “If Mad Men were set at the offices of the New Yorker Magazine, and told from the point of view of the receptionist, it would mirror Janet Groth’s seductive and entertaining look back at her twenty-one years at that legendary institution.” Yet, Ms. Mead, jumping on the bandwagon of reviewers likening largely unrelated books to Lena Dunham’s HBO series, remarked, “The TV show I kept thinking about while I was reading this was Girls.”
“I’ve only seen the one brief portion that you can watch without signing up for Hulu,” admitted Ms. Groth. “But it looked good.”
“If you had to give your young self advice now, what would it be?” Ms. Mead inquired.
After joking that she should’ve taught herself how to type, Ms. Groth said that “any assertiveness training” would have benefited her immensely. “Young women are so much better equipped today,” she remarked.
“There might be less lunchtime drinking leading to afternoon weeping now,” remarked Ms. Mead with a wry laugh.
“Oh, I meant to ask: is there anything on offer in the Condé Nast Cafeteria?” Ms. Groth inquired of Ms. Mead, referring to an invitation earlier in the conversation to join her for lunch at the new New Yorker offices.
“You can’t even get garlic, let alone alcohol,” Ms. Mead explained with mock indignation.
“Well, I’ll have to bring a little flask.” Ms. Groth said with a wink.
Ms. Mead noted that there are no longer any receptionists at the New Yorker, as Condé Nast eliminated the positions during a round of budget cuts in 2009. “Does the demise of the receptionist position make you sad, or do you think, well, good, nobody else has to go through it?”
“It does make me sad,” Ms. Groth remarked. “There was a certain humanity about it that lobby security doesn’t quite match.”
When asked whether she still subscribes to the magazine, Ms. Groth told The Observer that she does. “I’m so sorry I lost my gratis subscription, but at some point they economized and all the recent retirees stopped getting their comps. I do get an educational subscription, though. I do love it, and you gotta have it. It’s just vital to the culture.”
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