The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker

( 8 )


In 1957, when a young Midwestern woman landed a job at The New Yorker, she didn’t expect to stay long at the reception desk. But stay she did, and for twenty-one years she had the best seat in the house. In addition to taking messages, she ran interference for jealous wives checking on adulterous husbands, drank with famous writers at famous watering holes throughout bohemian Greenwich Village, and was seduced, two-timed, and proposed to by a few of the magazine’s eccentric luminaries. This memoir of a particular...

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In 1957, when a young Midwestern woman landed a job at The New Yorker, she didn’t expect to stay long at the reception desk. But stay she did, and for twenty-one years she had the best seat in the house. In addition to taking messages, she ran interference for jealous wives checking on adulterous husbands, drank with famous writers at famous watering holes throughout bohemian Greenwich Village, and was seduced, two-timed, and proposed to by a few of the magazine’s eccentric luminaries. This memoir of a particular time and place is an enchanting tale of a woman in search of herself.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
…[Groth's] graceful memoir…vividly depicts a largely vanished Manhattan in which Ritz Crackers were the foundation of hors d'oeuvres, martinis were the mainstay of lunches, and pliable, overqualified women were stuck in lowly jobs forever.
—Heller McAlpin
Publishers Weekly
Revelatory dispatches from 21 years as a receptionist at the New Yorker—1957 to 1978—expose more about Groth’s (Edmund Wilson) own sense of writerly inadequacy in that pre-feminist era than about the famous writers she worked for. Fresh out of the University of Minnesota, armed with a writing prize and an entrée to interview with the New Yorker’s legendary E.B. White, Groth secured a receptionist job on the 18th floor of the midtown Manhattan building—the “writers’ floor”—with every expectation of moving on to fact-checking or reporting within a year or two. While answering their phones and messages, watering their plants, babysitting their kids, and housesitting, Groth secured mentoring relationships (and regular lunches) with numerous writers like John Berryman, Joseph Mitchell, and Muriel Spark, whom she delineates in touching tributes, yet the simmering subtext to this deeply reflective, rueful memoir is the question why she did not advance in two decades at the magazine. After losing her virginity to a young dissolute contract artist she calls Evan Simm, who ended up affianced to someone else, Groth plunged into a period of acting out as the promiscuous party girl (“Yep, a dumb blond,” she calls herself) before travel, psychotherapy, and graduate school directed her to a path of her own making. As the magazine weathered tumultuous events of the 1960s and ’70, Groth chronicles the many dazzling personalities whose lives touched, and moved, hers. (June)

“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.”
Kirkus Reviews
People Magazine

The New Yorker’s many fans will enjoy Judith West’s warm narration of this behind-the-scenes look at the iconic magazine.”
Library Journal

“[Groth] is witty, honest, and self-deprecating, without whining, and quite a good role model.”
The Washington Post

“An evocative memoir.”
People Magazine
From the Publisher

“[Groth’s] history is a fascinating one that’s well told, and the lessons learned are transferable to anyone ever doubting their purpose in life.”

“Vividly depicts a largely vanished Manhattan in which Ritz Crackers were the foundation of hors d&#8217oeuvres, martinis were the mainstay of lunches, and pliable, overqualified women were stuck in lowly jobs forever.”
The Washington Post

Library Journal
Like 1960s sitcom career girls Mary Tyler Moore and Ann Marie (of That Girl), Groth (English, emerita, SUNY at Plattsburgh; Edmund Wilson: A Critic for Our Time) moved from a small town to live out her dreams of becoming a writer in the big city. After graduating from the University of Minnesota in the 1950s, an employer at a temporary position shared her résumé with The New Yorker contributor E.B. White, who then interviewed her for a job at the storied magazine. With neither the experience nor the interest to work in the secretarial typing pool, she was given a position as a receptionist on the floor that housed the writers. She remained in that job for 21 years, spending the time earning a Ph.D. in English, traveling the world, and meeting many of the denizens of the pages of The New Yorker, such as John Berryman, Muriel Spark, and Calvin Trillin. VERDICT An honest and engaging memoir for fans of the magazine and histories of Mad Men-era New York.—Donna Marie Smith, Palm Beach Cty. Lib. Syst., FL
Kirkus Reviews
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. Well before she became a teacher and biographer, Groth (English Emeritus/SUNY-Plattsburgh; Edmund Wilson: A Critic for Our Time, 1989, etc.) spent 21 years (1957–1978) behind the front desk at the New Yorker, taking messages, calming suspicious wives, babysitting and refusing John Berryman's marriage proposals. The starry-eyed daughter of an alcoholic Iowa grocer, she arrived in Manhattan both educated and adorable, hoping for the byline that would buy her freedom. Instead, she had a series of disastrous romances and mostly became friends with the famous. Her steady lunch date was Joseph Mitchell, soon to become crippled by writer's block; her thoughts on why he failed to deliver a great novel are intelligent and fascinating. Another friend was Muriel Spark, whom she recalls as both elegant and generous, if a questionable mother. Legendary editor William Shawn leaves her cold; she describes him as humorless and "sadomasochistic" toward writers. Despite her tendency toward clichés ("fame and fortune"; "it's not who you are but who you know"), 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616203061
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 6/11/2013
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 444,178
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

JUDITH WEST has amused, informed, thrilled, and otherwise entertained via stage and studio for more than 20 years. A narrator, director, and writer for audiobooks since 1999, she also coaches narrators and has taught performance and directed at leading Chicago universities, and has extensive experience in print publishing as a writer, editor, and researcher. Judith lives with her rescued cats in a vintage Chicago bungalow off Devon Avenue, the nation’s most ethnically diverse street. Fittingly, she counts ethnic cooking, travel, and antiques among her pleasures.
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Read an Excerpt

The Receptionist

An Education at The New Yorker


Copyright © 2012 Janet Groth
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61620-131-9

Chapter One

Homage to Mr. Berryman

For a brief period in 1960 when he was in New York on academic vacation, the poet John Berryman was of the opinion that I would make him a good wife. He proposed this to me regularly. It seems he was, in the years between his second and third marriages, proposing to every halfway decent-looking woman he met. It was perhaps his way of acknowledging guilt at the failure of his previous marriages and an indication of his good intention to do better next time. Late in the sixties, at a women's group, he came up when the issue of male commitment arose—as an example of overcorrection. Among the seven women in the room, it turned out that he had proposed to three of us. And that was only in New York, in his spare time. The campuses where he taught in those bachelor years, 1959–61, were checkered with other potential Mrs. Berrymans. So it was perhaps not the mark of distinction it seemed in the moment.

John Berryman came into my life in 1956 as my teacher at the University of Minnesota. He was then a clean-shaven professor of humanities, teaching the classics from the Greeks to Shakespeare. Once exposed to his electrifying classroom technique, I took every class he offered. Then, once he'd begun to recognize me, after two or three semesters, I tagged along when he invited the best and the brightest of his students out for coffee and further discussion after class. Brilliant Jerry Downs was trained by the Jesuits, and troubled. I was bright enough to sit next to him, share notes—and Berryman. Jerry adored him, too, and when lucky enough to be asked, we would sit with him in some campus greasy spoon for an hour after class, or as long as Berryman's cigarettes held out. There, in a haze of smoke, Mr. Berryman, as we called him, held forth with ideas about everything from the text we were reading to his days at Clare College, Cambridge. He harbored nostalgic yearnings for those ivied halls, snowbound as he was in the wild terrain of northern Middle America.

A couple of years after my graduation, he reentered my life in his capacity as poet. On one of his visits to the office of Louise Bogan, the poetry editor of The New Yorker, he discovered me behind a desk on the editorial floor. Invitations to lunches and dinners ensued.

He had a personal triangle of stopping places when he was in Manhattan, from the Chelsea Hotel, to Chumley's on Bedford Street, to the White Horse on Hudson. My apartment was on Jane Street and so formed an insert in the baseline of his larger configuration. He would stop by, shouting his newest Henry poem, more pleased by it, more acute about its merits, chagrined about its weak lines, and acute about those, too, than any outside commentator could be.

His courting was full of high-flown compliments about the magnificence of my face, the golden flamingness of my hair, the metamorphosis of my body from its former student shape into what he perceived as its present womanly glories. But these remarks had a professorial, ex cathedra air about them. The real text of his conversation was more likely to be concerned with what he was writing, where he was reading his poems, how he was faring on one of his projects or another, or, with lapses into intimacy, something that his son—on a postdivorce visit—might have said to him as he watched his father shave. Berryman's talk was fast and compounded of so many diverse elements that ran into each other at such dizzying speed that I found it impossible to react. I felt vaguely stunned in his presence.

He never touched me except to draw his stretched-out second finger down the side of my face. I saw little of him, far too little to have justified his conviction that I would make him a good wife. There was only the occasional visit with a new poem and heavy compliments, or a telephoned summons to meet him at one of the points on his triangle, where there were sure to be others present. Youngsters, out on a date, hugged themselves and their beer mugs with delight at having stumbled on an evening with an authentic genius—eccentric, a poet, and in his cups.

So we made the rounds, or rather the angles, John dropping the great names of his famous friends, Cal and Saul and Delmore, and, when he was at the White Horse Tavern, of Dylan Thomas, another poet who drank more than was good for him. I sensed that he was both hurt and angry that he was not included in the ranks of those great and famous friends, had not achieved more, been recognized more. I knew, too, that he was hoping for the offer of a chair at Columbia—with what encouragement I am not sure, but he spoke of it as the hinge on which to swing our marriage. It did not seem to be forthcoming. I could not have married him anyway, for I was in love with somebody else. But it was clear that John was going through a bad time, and the time never seemed right for me to tell him that.

When I managed a diplomatic refusal, he went back to Minnesota. In the following year he married a young woman from Saint Paul called Kate. I became a person he looked up when he came into town from his many travels, to India and Dublin and elsewhere. Kate waited at home in Minnesota with a new baby and hopes of his recovery from alcoholism. He would call asking me to meet him somewhere, and I would arrive, only to discover that in the interim he had moved on. I might or might not go after him. If I did not, I would be treated to an early-hour rousting out of bed to find a weary cab driver supporting him on my doorstep. He had remembered, with sorrow, our broken date. I might get him to take a little coffee or tea as he sagged on my living room couch, smoking French cigarettes. He would not hear of sleep, not even when he was unfit for conversation. What helped was music. Certain Mozart quartets or any of the Brandenburgs commanded his reverent attention even when he could not speak.

The last time I saw John he was bearded and very famous indeed, having won a Pulitzer for 77 Dream Songs. He, drunk and shirtsleeved and rambling; his publisher, Robert Giroux, sober and correct and embarrassed; and I, also sober, also correct, also embarrassed, met, supposedly to lunch, at Giroux's apartment on the Upper East Side. John came to the door bearing a water tumbler of bourbon in his trembling hand. Beads of cold sweat stood out on his forehead. Bob Giroux and I bounced worried suggestions off him about food and doctors, rest and warm baths. He would not hear a word from either of us. His talk was difficult to follow but brilliant. Among other, more personal comments about how fine I was looking and what sort of terms he hoped to get for his next book, he delivered a tercentenary tribute to Jonathan Swift and told us about a visit he had paid when he was a student at Clare College to the aged and oh-so-awe-inspiring Yeats, at which, as John recalled it, he tried to one-up Yeats. Then he shouted a few poems at us. Then, out nearly cold on the sofa, he made heartrending reference to what he knew he was doing, couldn't seem to stop himself from doing, to his wife—whose temporary retreat to New England with their child he applauded as "awfully wise." This outburst was followed by the emotionless invocation, "Please, God, let me be dead soon." It seemed as if he might at least sleep.

But his stick-thin frame was shaken upright again by the ringing of the doorbell. Lunch arrived. He began again on the bourbon and cigarettes. Would not take hold of a morsel of bread, much less a bite of a sandwich. I could not conceive that he could give a public reading that night. Yet at 8:00 p.m., I sat in the third row at the Guggenheim, next to Jane Howard, who was to write about him for Life, amid several hundred New York literati, and saw him do it. He was shaky, but he was eloquent, and his weaving and slurred speech only seemed to add to the drama and interest of the occasion.

Then one day I opened the newspaper to discover a photo of the bearded Berryman. Like everyone else in the literary world, I was shocked to read that on January 7, 1972, John had left his home, walked to the bridge that crossed the Mississippi on the left side of the Minneapolis campus, and jumped. I imagined him briefly looking down at the river as a block of ice floated by, waving to a young couple kissing on the campus-side bank. Whether he performed either of those actions, he did jump a hundred feet to his death, a pocket of his overcoat yielding only one document, a blank check.

We who used to fill to capacity the auditoriums of the universities and museums in which he read met once more at the Donnell Library for a memorial service. Poet friends read, but John stole the show. His familiar voice—on tape—made what had been a solemn and bleak occasion rocket toward hysteria with its power to evoke in us a mixture of laughter and grief.

In the years after his death, as I heard a sardonic Frenchman put it, "the dissertation bells went off all over the country." I hated it when I heard the way he was being talked of by junior professors at Modern Language Association conventions and reedy-voiced sophomores in poetry coffeehouses—expounding on his death wish, lumping him together with three or four others who happened, like him, to be dead by their own hand.

I found that those who had known him wrote or told about it as if the frazzled, badly behaved neuroses were him. How unjust! To me his value lay neither in the titillating gossip of his riotous life nor in the private gratification of having been admired by him. It is not the poems he left behind, though the poems loom large. It is the poet sage.

Since I could not watch John make his poems, the next best thing was to watch him teach. As a poet-teacher he so invested his ego in his work that he was ego-free, a fleshless, selfless lover and sharer of enlightenment, pure spirit. This part of him is neither personal nor notorious nor recorded anywhere at all except in his poems and in the memories of his students, where he exists as the chief item in the little library of hours we've brought away from our lives in the university.

For those of us who took his humanities course, this meant fifty minutes a day, five days a week, for five trimester terms. The course, called something like Western Civ, covered everything from the Greeks and Romans to Flaubert. As he taught it, it became a remarkable monument to the life of the mind—or whatever real education had better be called, now that to call it education is to give it a bad name.

He came in a little late, but faithfully. They say now that he was often hung over, or on ambulatory leave from some local drying-out clinic or halfway house or mental ward. Perhaps the latter were only facets of the later years of his tenure. I recall his missing only one class in the one and a half years I attended the course. The occasion must have been more serious and predictable than a spate of illness; when he was merely ill, he came. On that one day, he had arranged for a substitute chosen to make up to us for his absence—and perhaps in the case of anybody else's absence, it would have done.

He sent us his friend Saul Bellow, a visiting professor from Chicago, a figure who should have delighted our glamour-loving selves. Yet the one who came in John's stead struck us as dull stuff, a burned-out case to the likes of us, who had been fed on real flames of a real spirit. The day passed. Back came our man, passing the light and culture of the past through the shining honeycomb of his passionate personality, informing it with life and intelligence. With him we entered once more into the world of sacrifice and ritual, of meaning and conflict and beauty. Existential truth emerged and took on life and breath before us.

The more I hear this man reduced to the wasteful contours of a faintly ridiculous fame as one of the "confessional poets," the more necessary it seems to proclaim his real worth as manifested in his classroom.


Excerpted from The Receptionist by JANET GROTH Copyright © 2012 by Janet Groth. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction; or, Jack Spills the Beans....................1
Homage to Mr. Berryman....................9
On Writing, Not Writing, and Lunching with Joe....................20
Remembering Muriel....................45
Rough Passage through the New Yorker Art Department....................69
Party Girl....................96
Back on Reception....................106
Fritz: The Denouement....................143
A World Awry....................155
A New Roommate....................161
Greece: The Journey Out....................171
Greece: The Journey In....................187
A Renaissance Man....................207
Mr. Right at Last....................212
What the Receptionist Received....................224
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 28, 2012

    not worth the money

    I've always loved the New Yorker, so thought I would love an insider's viewpoint. Not really. I have no sympathy for the author who manages to stay in a job that she knows will never go anywhere for many years, while having affairs with various writers. By the end of the book I was exhausted by her unhappiness. I wouldn't recommend this book

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2012

    Not worth the money

    I was all caught up in the book's backdrop of the New Yorker in the 50s and 60s but gave up half way through because her story wasn't interesting. There were sections that went on and on, a paragraph might have sufficed instead of a chapter. I guess I was duped. I gave the book away.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2012


    I only heard an npr interview, but based on that and educated reviews, it sounds good.

    3 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2012

    A bit overrated

    For all the interesting material Groth talks about in the book, at times she managed to put me to sleep in the way she discussed it. At times the book was also overwritten (taking 50 words to describe something that could've taken 10). The content itself--particularly the politics of working at New York's most famous magazine--was compelling, though.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2013

    I had very high hopes for this book. Imagine, a book written by

    I had very high hopes for this book. Imagine, a book written by a receptionist at the New Yorker magazine in the 50's and 60's. Receptionists are often known as the gatekeepers of any company and I expected the book to tell juicy stories about the writers, the cartoonists, the interview subjects, and of the tumultuous time itself. Instead, I found a book detailing an unhappy woman's attempts to field somewhat of a career and obtain some type of love life. Janet Groth's story is not remarkable in the least. It's the pathetic tale of promiscuity and lack of ambition, with a couple of names dropped here and there to try to make her sound, if only to herself, like someone of importance. I struggled to finish the book only because I have a strange quirk about leaving books unfinished and I gave the book only one star because my review wouldn't be accepted with no stars.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2012

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    Posted January 1, 2013

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