20 Years at the Front Door of The New Yorker: Janet Groth’s The Receptionist
Janet Groth had luck on her side. As a budding young writer, the University of Minnesota graduate landed an interview with the elusive E. B. White. During an awkward interview with White, who suffered from near-painful shyness, Groth admitted that she was not a typist. (In fact, she had deliberately avoided improving her typing skills.) So, instead of landing in the typing pool, Groth was placed in the receptionist’s chair on the editorial floor of the offices of The New Yorker – and there she remained for the rest of her time at the publication. The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker is Groth’s remembrance of not only her twenty years at the respected magazine – but also the life she lived as a young professional woman in New York City from the 1950s onward.
One might wonder: Did Groth aspire to something more than receptionist at the famed magazine? As she welcomed icons including Woody Allen, John Berryman (who was of the opinion for a time that Groth would be his ideal wife), and Calvin Trillin through the reception door of the eighteenth floor, did she ever move past the realm of pure awe and into the grips of desire for advancement? While surrounded by the cream of the crop, the almighty and most exalted writers, was Groth satisfied with her station within the company? Amid the dish and the drama, the humor and the highs, this question reverberates just below the surface of an otherwise boozy, brilliant romp of a New York City story.
Here was a young woman with the seed of a writing career in her mind, a woman who rubbed elbows with the glittering literati of the late ‘50s and beyond, schmoozing whenever possible, wondering when her lucky break might arrive – the break that would advance her out of the receptionist chair. Parallel to this persona was a young woman living out her twenties in the fantastical era of Greenwich Village’s early rise into that desirable sort of bohemia. She was a woman caught up in the social whirl and twirl of her time and circumstances, and Groth gleefully takes us along for the ride, dropping names of old New York society and holding our hand as she danced from club to club, from party to parlor, and from suitor to suitor during her self-professed promiscuous times.
Seeing Groth at work and Groth at play, you may find yourself losing track of whether her days at The New Yorker bookend her social life -- or vice versa. Considering the richness of Groth's story, each is as entertaining as the other.
Postscript: Though Groth never advanced from receptionist at The New Yorker, she did go on in life to become an English professor, a Fulbright lecturer, and -- yes -- an author.