Janet Groth went to work at The New Yorker in 1957, when she was 19, and stayed until 1978. As it happens—Groth makes it clear in her memoir, The Receptionist: An Education At The New Yorker, that practically nothing she did in those two decades was planned—this placed her at the magazine throughout the heart of William Shawn’s long, legendary tenure as editor; she arrived five years after he did, and departed nine years before his forced ouster set off shock waves in the publishing world and divided the staff into hardcore loyalists and those prepared to serve the new regime.
Calling Groth a loyalist might be underselling it. For years, people have pointed to E.J. Kahn’s three-part series on grain as the ultimate example of how boring the magazine could get under Shawn. Groth mentions that Kahn went so far back with Shawn that he was “one of the few people in the office who called Mr. Shawn ‘Bill,’” suggesting he had an easy in with the editor, then sniffs that the people who made fun of his articles were taking “rather cruel and easy hits” based on resentment. One big difference between The Receptionist and James Wolcott’s recent memoir Lucking Out is that nobody in this book would be likely to react to a mention of Shawn using his heart condition to guilt-trip his writers by doing an imitation of Fred Sanford staggering around the room with his hand on his chest.
Although Groth can be catty, as when she sums up the relationship between rotating film critics Pauline Kael and Penelope Gilliatt by writing that she “couldn’t figure out how they worked it out so as to never be in the ladies’ room at the same time,” her style is gracious and suggestive even when she’s writing about her messy love life. (For a while, she was involved with a cartoonist who sounds like Pete Campbell with a screw loose.) Her writing often seems like the very essence of the Shawn-era New Yorker, but it’s joined to the sensibility of a woman who gave her youth to the magazine and has some treasurable memories to show for it, but also mixed feelings. Groth spent more than 20 years being shuttled about, tending to the needs of one high-strung or troubled literary eminence or another, but even though she had literary ambitions of her own, she wasn’t able to break into print herself, partly because she had self-worth issues that made her feel shy and reticent about pushing too hard. In the end, she leaves the place just as she’s finally landed the consolation prize of, at long last, a happy romantic relationship.
For all its polite, genteel façade, The New Yorker in its prime was full of people—such as Shawn and Kael, and Muriel Spark, who took Groth under her wing, and John Berryman, who flirted with her—who might not have looked like much, but who could turn into human battering rams when needed. (And those who stopped battering became the walking dead, like the famously blocked Joe Mitchell, who kept coming into the office years after everyone knew he’d never write another piece.) It’s almost as if Groth has internalized the voice of her tormentor, though she’d probably reject the word “tormentor.” “Frustrator,” maybe. The Receptionist is sure to be touted as a book full of hot gossip about the Shawn years, though it really isn’t, and anyway, those doors were blown open a long time ago. Instead, it’s a slim, haunting reminiscence by someone who spent too long holding onto a prime spot on the sidewalk, watching the parade go by.