- - Friday, October 5, 2012

THE RECEPTIONIST: AN EDUCATION AT THE NEW YORKER
By Janet Groth
Algonquin Books, $21.95, 332 pages

One day in 1957, 19-year-old Janet Groth applied for a job at the New Yorker. On the other side of the desk was the legendary E.B. White. He asked if she could type. Not on a professional level, she replied. She was afraid if she became a skilled typist, she would end up in an office typing pool.

So she was given the job of receptionist. This was before the feminist movement, when women were assigned traditional slots in the workforce. For the next two decades, the pretty Midwesterner observed the comings and goings, marriages, affairs, divorces, suicides and deaths of some of the most celebrated and idiosyncratic writers and cartoonists in the country. She also watered their plants, walked their dogs, boarded their cats, babysat their children and their houses. The result is a highly readable, albeit uneven, memoir about a talented woman at a particular time and place.

Ms. Groth’s dream was to become a writer. She was one of the thousands of young things coming from the provinces into the big city, one of the many transplants whom White said gave the city its buzz. Mingling with the eccentric tribe of the New Yorker rubbed off on the impressionable and intelligent Ms. Groth. She went on to become a professor of English, Fulbright lecturer and visiting fellow at Yale, and the author of various books, among them “Edmund Wilson: A Critic for Our Time.”

By the time she left the magazine’s employ, Ms. Groth was “no longer dependent upon the New Yorker mantle of borrowed fame to find a sense of my own self worth.” Although management at the New Yorker never promoted Ms. Groth beyond her slot as receptionist, it provided a safety net and haven, gave her time to complete her studies, teach at Vassar and share the cultural, social and literary life of the city.

As such, this 230-page memoir is beautifully written, with the first four chapters being the strongest. They combine the keen sensitivity and sharp observations of youth with those of an insightful literary critic and self-effacing, wiser grown woman. She describes the art department, where cartoonists suffered under the sadomasochistic whims of editor William Shawn and Ms. Groth’s quasi-family members — “the brothers, fathers, husbands of my dreams” — who never dared hurt her feelings upon receipt of her thoughtful (if ghastly) Christmas gifts. The poet John Berryman proposed marriage regularly. By then, he was between second and third marriages, “proposing to every halfway decent-looking woman he met.”

Another longtime lunch companion was the legendary writer Joseph Mitchell. Ms. Groth’s essay captures his “graveyard cast of mind” and breathless manner of speaking. Their literary lunches continued over six years, as Ms. Groth morphed from “blond babe” to “horn-rimmed academic.” As the years went on, she witnessed his heroic and painful struggle with writer’s block that ultimately defeated him.

British author Muriel Spark was another friend, from 1961 to 2004. Ms. Groth moonlighted for her as private secretary. “Our connection was a remarkable if slender thing,” she writes, “something more than employer and employee but something less than intimate friends.” During those New York years, Spark was lonely and isolated. This chapter, like Ms. Groth’s sympathetic and poignant portrait of Mitchell, are individually remarkable for their insight and style of writing.

Against the backdrop of the free-wheeling and promiscuous 1960s and 1970s, Ms. Groth moved “methodically, if slowly” toward a doctorate by taking one course at a time at NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. (“I had long ago perfected the art of serious reading while performing my duties.”)

At night, she became a party girl, living out the stereotype of the dumb blonde. “In my own way,” she writes, “I was trying to sort through the new scene” of the pill and sexual revolution. Her shame over her inadequacies and sexual insecurities is heart-wrenching, as is her trust in countless cads who promised the world before discarding her the morning after: “My brief period of sexual acting out brought me closer than I’d ever been to the hopelessness that verges on despair.” She does meet Mr. Right at last, a September-May marriage that brings love and an anchor to her life.

I wish there had been more of a balance between her vivid and perceptive observations of the luminaries at the New Yorker and less repetitious details regarding the bounders and cads. Nonetheless, this is an engrossing memoir, written with clarity, honesty, humor and humility, by a talented woman who emerges “with a better, more generous acceptance” of her childhood and a “clear acknowledgment” of her own humanity. That, in itself, is a triumph, and a continuing lesson for all.

• Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the biographer of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast.”