Janet Groth spent 21 years at the New Yorker starting in 1957, all but six months of them at the reception desk on the 18th floor. She knew, and was known by, many writers who were the literary luminaries of the time. Young, beautiful and clever, Janet wanted to be published in the New Yorker herself, but never succeeded. Although, as she points out, she only submitted four times. The Receptionist is her memoir of those heady years.
Drawing on her diaries, Groth has many anecdotes to relate about the famous, near-famous, or infamous. I have to admit, I got a bit of a thrill whens she recounted how she camped out in Bud and Alice Trillin’s house when she was hard-up for housing… I am a giant Calvin (Bud) Trillin fan, and loved his wife as she was portrayed in his early, foodie books. So much so that I felt a giant pang when I finally realized that she had died several years previously. (His book, About Alice, is well worth reading. Keep a hanky handy.)
And perhaps that’s the problem: I’m just too young for the literary gossip of that era. If you are familiar with all the New Yorker authors, poets, critics and cartoonists of Mad Men times, The Receptionist will probably be super fun. Since I’m not – I was a toddler when she started working there – it wasn’t. Plus, the style of writing, while clear and engaging, keeps the reader at a distance. So much so that when Janet becomes a bit of a party girl (or you could even say a bit of a round-heels), I had to read it twice to make sure I understood her. I found her active love life to be surprisingly boring.
In an interview, Groth indicated that her impetus for writing The Receptionist was to share her life as an example of a young woman in the workplace during that transitional time. She explained, “I think I felt the urge many people my age experience – to set down (as honestly as I knew how) what it was like to live most of my adult life in the last half of the 20thC. in the USA. I meant it to be a kind of witness to my times.”
At that, she succeeds.