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The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker Hardcover – June 26, 2012
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"Are you a New Yorker magazine groupie? Do you wait every week just to laugh at the cartoons and read Talk of the Town? If so, we have a book for you . . . The magazine's eccentricity was not lost on Groth. Lucky for us." ―USA Today
"An evocative memoir."―People
"[Groth's] collected the sort of gossipy anecdotes that would have you hanging on her every word at a literary cocktail party." ―Entertainment Weekly
“This is not a juicy tell-all – Groth remained an outsider as much as she was an insider at the magazine throughout her tenure, and legendary editor William Shawn stays a shadowy figure on the floor above throughout the book. Instead, she paints a picture of a naive Midwesterner with a mane of thick blond hair coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, experiencing the era's turbulent politics and sexual revolution, all from behind the receptionist desk.”―The Associated Press
“A literate, revelatory examination of self.”―The Boston Globe
“Groth can be charmingly offhanded: anecdotal, gently gossipy . . . The Berryman chapter, one of the first in the book, is also among the finest . . . ‘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.”―Los Angeles Times
"[Groth] is witty, honest, and self-deprecating, without whining, and quite a good role model."―Booklist
"Revelatory . . . deeply reflective . . . Groth chronicles the many dazzling personalities whose lives touched, and moved, hers."―Publishers Weekly
"An honest and engaging memoir for fans of the magazine and histories of Mad Men-era New York."―Library Journal
"A nostalgic, wistful look at life inside one of America's most storied magazines, and the personal and professional limbo of the woman who answered the phone . . . This bookish girl from flyover country who became a Mad Men-era hottie, and who found she had to leave this cozy nest in order to save herself, is very much an interesting character in her own right. For readers who can't get enough New Yorker lore, an amiable view from the inside."―Kirkus Reviews
"One of the most buzzed-about books of the summer . . . The Receptionist is a don't-miss memoir of an era, a literary magazine and a fascinating woman."―SheKnows.com
"As for the book I'm looking forward to most? That would probably be Janet Groth's memoir, The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker. The title pretty much says it all, but Groth encountered some pretty fascinating people during her tenure at the mag, including E.B. White, Charles Addams and Joseph Mitchell. Juicy!"―Pop Candy
"Much of the story is envy-inducing..by the end of the book, [Groth] finds her own delightful voice, which is the book's real pleasure."―Oprah.com
“Groth’s memoir makes readers feel like she had ‘the best seat in the house’ as she talks about her role as a greeter to such literary luminaries as J.D. Salinger, Calvin Trillin and E.B. White. If you love The New Yorker―or want to look behind the pages―you will enjoy this book.” ―Bookreporter.com
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Top Customer Reviews
As a receptionist, Groth was underemployed, but so were the majority of educated women at that time. Why did she remain a receptionist when the women's movement was in full swing and other intelligent women were moving into more exciting (and better paid) jobs? She blames the "dumb blonde" syndrome. She was young, blonde, and attractive and therefore not to be taken seriously. A more rational explanation is that her lack of confidence stemmed from her emotionally precarious childhood with an alcoholic father. Her self-destructive behavior (no other term for it, really) indicates that she had some deep-seated issues.
Or maybe she was basically satisfied with a job that allowed her to live in New York, gave her some perks (lengthy vacations, exposure to famous people,etc) and still left her time for her strenuous social life. I doubt if she received that much encouragement from her writer friends to break out of the mold. Brendan Gill pointed out that there was a huge gap between the progressive philosophies of NEW YORKER writers and their behavior. Some may have theoretically believed in women's rights, but all expected their wives to have supper on the table and the kids in bed when the breadwinner returned from a day of slaving over a (hopefully) hot typewriter. They certainly would have assumed that a lovely, personable young woman would marry and THAT would be her main career. It's interesting to note that the powerful Katherine White (a major force during the early years of the magazine) reluctantly followed her husband E.B. White when he decided to leave NYC even though it meant giving up her editorship.
To me Groth's story is valuable because it reflects what many of us experienced coming of age in the 1950's and 1960's. She was a late-bloomer, but she landed on her feet, had a happy marriage and a distinguished career in academics. By telling her story, she fills in the blanks for young women and helps them understand the social forces that determined the paths of women in the not-too-distant past. Plus, it's a good read!
"I was afraid, you see," the author explained to White, "that if I became a skilled typist, I would wind up in an office typing pool." This kind of amusing and genuine candor pervades this memoir.
"And you don't want to wind up there?" White asked.
"No, I think anything would be more interesting to me than that," said Janet Groth, corn-fed college grad from Iowa. White hired her. We always knew that White, the author of CHARLOTTE'S WEB and THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, had imagination and a sense of humor.
More interesting indeed. A tenure as a receptionist from 1957-1978 on the Writers' floor--Floor 18--combined with a six month sojourn with the artists and cartoonists on the 20th Floor at the preeminent serious fiction and journalism magazine of New York.
THE NEW YORKER was described by its writers as a haven for the "congenitally unemployable". Groth knew she was different from the other staff at the magazine. She was employable--apparently for 21 years.
This book delves into her rich memories there: Friday lunches with Joseph Mitchell who was considered "the most admired writer of fact in the magazine's history", moonlighting as Muriel Spark's private secretary, house-sitting for Calvin and Alice Trillin, accepting manuscripts from Tom Wolfe, and attending soirees where Dorothy Parker and her "bon mots" reigned.
The book asks why stay 21 years?
Groth explains why she went to the magazine, what she did, who she met, what she learned, why she stayed (the parties, culture, eight-week summer vacations to Europe among other reasons), and what happened to her after leaving the magazine.
At times Groth sounds like a naive ingenue who could have breakfasted at Tiffany's with a contemporary Holly Golightly. There is a hilarious anecdote about Truman Capote's misdeeds at THE NEW YORKER before her arrival. Other times Groth writes like the woman who earned a PhD in American & British Literature at NYU part-time while at the magazine. She crafts wonderful sentences such as: "I had one of those moments of renunciation I thought happened only in Henry James."
It's as if this book, like the author, is trying to make up its mind what to be. Part memoir, part coming of age story, part spiritual journey, part confessional, and part self-analysis with the help of a brilliant psychoanalyst, it is a mix of memory and introspection. It might have been interesting to include a few chapters on her intellectual life and learning at NYU and Oxford, and perhaps fewer chapters on the unsuitable men she dated. You may agree with Groth's writing professor who said to her upon reading about some: "I wouldn't want to spend a moment with these people, and I don't see how you can expect any reader to waste time with them". He observed further: "Now you are not only smoking with a cigarette holder, you are writing with one."
After enough romances gone rancid, and a soul-searching trip to Greece, Groth decides to pursue a PhD in literature. "Isn't it about time you did something that was GOOD for you?" asks her analyst who encourages the PhD. She eventually finds a confidence and a life that fits: a doctorate in literature and a teaching career. She also connects with a worthy life-partner who is compatible. "But I never lost the sense that inwardly, in some essential way, I belonged in the writing game," she writes early on in the book. This candid and original book demonstrates why she belongs in that game.
When Groth asks, why did I stay a receptionist at THE NEW YORKER for 21 years, her readers know what her colleagues at THE NEW YORKER, who didn't want to lose her, probably recognized: sometimes a warm, sympathetic, and perceptive receptionist is as rare and valuable as clever and cool writing.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
The other New Yorker books I have read about life there have been much more fascinating