The Receptionist

An Education at The New Yorker


By Janet Groth

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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.


Introduction; or, Jack Spills the Beans

IT ALL HAPPENED BY the merest chance. Or perhaps the heavens were aligned. In August 1957 I finished my BA degree at the University of Minnesota. At the same time I received a phone call telling me of some upcoming excitement in the area—a manned balloon flight into the stratosphere was being filmed for a CBS science show. Thinking that it would advance my dream of seeking fame and fortune as a writer, I managed to secure a temporary job as assistant to Arthur Zegart, the show's writer-director. It went well, and Mr. Zegart invited me to send him a copy of my résumé should I decide to come to New York. He received it three weeks later while fishing in Maine with his friend E. B. White and promptly arranged an interview for me when Mr. White returned to his office at The New Yorker.

E. B. White was then one of the best-known writers on the magazine, but his shyness, I found out later, was of mythic proportions, and this interview quite unprecedented. He seemed pained to be in the presence of anyone at all, much less a corn-fed girl from Iowa who was looking for a job.

"What sort of work do you envision doing, Miss Groth?" His handsome, fine-featured gray head was lowered, his eyes cast down, his voice little above a whisper. I was overwhelmed with a desire to put the poor man at ease.

"Well, I want eventually to write, of course, but I would be glad to do anything in the publishing field."

Mr. White took a moment to absorb this information. When he could bring himself to speak again, he asked, "Can you type?"

"Not at a professional level," I said.

He coughed and looked at the résumé that Arthur Zegart had given him and that had led to my being there in his office. "What about this short story prize you won? This Anna Augusta Von Helmholtz Phelan prize," he said. "Was that story typed?"

I told him that yes, of course it had been, but that I deliberately maintained a slow, self-devised system that involved looking at the keyboard.

"I was afraid, you see, that if I became a skilled typist, I would wind up in an office typing pool."

For the first time Mr. White looked directly at me. "And you don't want to wind up there?" he asked.

I suspected that he had some sympathy for the course I had taken.

"No, I think anything would be more interesting to me than that," I said. How rash and how fateful that course turned out to be!

After a few more questions, Mr. White concluded the interview by calling into his office Miss Daise Terry. I later found out she was a formidable figure around the magazine, its manager in charge of secretarial personnel. A petite woman of four feet nine or ten, no more than five feet, even in inch-and-a-half heels, she had a cap of tightly curled white hair and a slash of geranium-pink lipstick in a face dominated by piercing blue eyes. At perhaps sixty or so, she needed no glasses.

Handing her my résumé, White said, "Miss Groth is looking for a job here at the magazine but would rather not be in the typing pool. Will you see if there is anything you can do for her?"

"I will," she said, asking me to come with her.

I learned that she, too, was from the middle of the country, having left her native Kansas in 1918 to join the International Red Cross, and had wound up in New York after some years serving in Vienna.

She said, "Now, as a midwesterner, you have better sense than the Westchester County and Connecticut girls who come through this office. I always have to take them in hand and give them a stern talking-to about their behavior and conduct. We want ladylike clothing and ladylike behavior at all times."

She cast her eyes over my black linen dress and black pumps. "I see I needn't tell you that. I always think the best place to shop for the kind of thing we like to see is at Peck and Peck."

I said I would keep that in mind.

"At the moment," she said, "we have an opening at the reception desk down on eighteen—that's the writers' floor. There is not much traffic there, but the editor or two and the half-dozen writers whose offices are down there need someone to look after their mail and messages. Do you think that would appeal to you?"

I said that sounded fine.

"Good," she said. "You may report in to me for work on Monday morning at ten."

We shook hands, and I was officially a member of the editorial staff.

So that is how I got my "in" at The New Yorker—as they always say, it's not who you are but who you know. And so far, my story was typical, if a good deal luckier than most. There was every reason to suppose that if I didn't leave to marry, in the course of a year or two I would be joining the trail of countless trainees before me, moving either into the checking department or to a job as a Talk of the Town reporter, and perhaps from one of those positions to the most coveted of spots, that of a regular contributor with a drawing account.

Yet with the exception of one six-month stint in the art department, I did not rise from my initial post. The William Shawn years at The New Yorker, 1952–87, completely encompass my twenty-one years' employment there, from 1957 to 1978. I entered the workforce before the feminist era, and as I ponder the way women in general failed to thrive in that world, how often they were used and overlooked, I recognize that I was part of a larger historical narrative. As for my personal struggles, during much of the time in question, I was undergoing a prolonged identity crisis, and the real struggle, for me, was the one that arose from my proximity to all the creative people I served. Was I or was I not "one of them"? And since I didn't know, it is scarcely surprising that The New Yorker didn't know, either, what in the world to do with me.

I THOUGHT OF THE forty or so idiosyncratic inhabitants of the eighteenth floor as "my writers" and the six or so cartoonists billeted there as "my artists." I watered their plants, walked their dogs, boarded their cats, sat their children—and sometimes their houses—when they went away. Of course, I also took their messages. Not required in the skill set, but over the years I received messages, too, along with impressions, confidences, and an education in a variety of subjects. I was there, among the men and women who wrote and edited the magazine, for longer than many of them were. I watched their comings and goings, their marriages and divorces, their scandalous affairs, their failures and triumphs and tragedies and suicides and illnesses and deaths.

After leaving the magazine, I used various tactics to mask the lateral trajectory of my stay there. It was Jack Kahn (E. J. Kahn Jr., as he signed his New Yorker pieces) who blew my cover, all unintentionally. I'm sure he never guessed that I had been trying to keep a lid on my failure to advance at the magazine, imagining that I could hide it from the world at large as my own guilty secret.

In 1976 I taught a course at Vassar called The Contemporary Press. Jack was one of the writers from "my floor" who came up to Poughkeepsie as a guest speaker. He mentioned the event in his 1979 memoir About the New Yorker and Me and introduced me this way:

In many respects, The New Yorker belies its reputation for institutional eccentricity. We have some writers and editors around who could pass for bankers and who, as they walk toward the New York Yacht Club on West Forty-fourth Street, could not unreasonably be expected by passersby to continue on inside. And yet we do have our authentic oddities. Jan Groth is surely one. She is finishing her Ph.D. dissertation in English. She has taught that subject at a high academic level. (She also writes an elegant Italian script.) But in twenty years or so she has never risen at the magazine—possibly of her own volition, though I doubt it—beyond being the eighteenth-floor receptionist, which is where she started off. We who spend many daylight hours there, mind you, are delighted with her permanence. She takes our messages when we are away from our desks, as we often are; she has learned to recognize the voices of our wives and children. As in our absences she comforts our friends, so when the occasion demands does she protect us against our enemies.

I am not sure what Jack meant by his reference to protecting him and the other writers from their enemies, but I can guess. He was endorsing my efforts to shield them from all distractions that would interfere with their work. I have more trouble with Jack's reference to me as one of The New Yorker's "authentic oddities." It's one thing to joke to my fellow Lutherans about being an oddity as a churchgoer in a club full of secular humanists. It is quite another to find myself among New Yorker staffers who have been so characterized in New Yorker lore. There was, for example, the brilliant fact checker Dorothy Dean, who gave off manic vibes so electric they created a people-free zone of a ten-foot radius wherever she went. There was the magazine's Odd Couple (one of several such), this one consisting of shambling, grumpy Frederick "Freddie" Packard, also a fact checker, and his spouse, the publication's crackerjack grammarian Eleanor Gould. Miss Gould, a walking version of Fowler's Modern English Usage, would rank high in any listing of authentic oddities, and among our numerous hypochondriacs, Freddie outcomplained a roster of champs in that department. His best moment may have come when he famously began his reply to a colleague's routine inquiry into his health with "Well, I've got these two colds . . ." Freddie would have felt vindicated by a recent piece in Science Times declaring it perfectly possible to have two colds—a head cold and a sinus cold—simultaneously.

Others with colorful, weird propensities included the editor Rogers "Popsy" Whitaker—who, despite a perpetual frown, a thrust-forward lower lip, sagging suspenders, and a portly form, was inclined to pitch rose-laden woo at spoken-for damsels on the editorial staff—and the writers Maeve Brennan and St. Clair McKelway. Miss Brennan and Mr. McKelway were once young marrieds down in the Village but in their later years, split from each other, shared histories of colorful breakdowns. Miss Brennan, hoping to add height to her tiny frame, teased her red hair into a five-inch beehive, which, in her bouts of lost perspective, turned into a terrifying tangle as she forgot to give it the occasional brush. Mr. McKelway went in for crayoning the office walls periodically with shocking signs and logos that necessitated early morning scrubbings-down. The list could go on and on and include the overcoat-clad, claustrophobic editor in chief, Mr. Shawn himself. I have always loved the idea that The New Yorker was a place with broad limits of tolerance for unusual looks and behavior, a haven for the "congenitally unemployable," as Rogers Whitaker and A. J. Liebling are both reported to have said, but I had never thought of myself as belonging among them.

Certainly in the beginning I fit the normal profile, being one of the thousands who come to the city from the provinces and, according to E. B. White, give New York its dynamism and buzz. In Here Is New York he divides residents into three types. The first are the native born, the second the commuters, and the third—the source of the city's vitality, élan, and magical "deportment"—are those who come to it from the hinterland, the ones for whom the city is their destination, "the goal." I came as one of the third type.

What happened after I got there is a more complicated story.

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.

He was, as I said, usually a few minutes late—a deliberate design on his part. There were no chummy huddles with the prof up front broken up by the bell, no fidgeting at the blackboard while stragglers got to their seats. He got straight to the business at hand. There was a sense of ceremony in his greeting—"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen"—and in the way he set his bulging briefcase down on a chair beside the front desk, opened it, and extracted the text of the day. He'd lay it on the desktop and walk to the windows that ran along the right side of the room (his right, our left), twisting the cord of the window shade into spirals as he began the discussion.

It never became clear why he brought the books that caused the bulge, since he referred only to the text at hand, and to his notes, if he brought any, not at all. Still, it was functional in a way, an outward and visible sign of all the background material he had gone through that now stood bulwark-like behind the easy command he displayed of his subject.

There was no talking down. If, in the course of opening a book, he paused to give us a disquisition on the correct way to open books, it was never with an air of condescension. Rather, he managed to convey the idea that there was always a best way to do even the simplest things, and to credit us with wanting to know that best way.

He began by pressing a few pages in from the back, opening flat, smoothing; pressing a few pages in from the front, opening flat, smoothing; then from the back a few, then the front, and so on, a few pages at a time, until he could lay the book open flat from the middle without breaking its spine.

In the same spirit of making us his confreres in technical inquiry, he took us into his confidence regarding his choice of which translation of a given classic we would be using. He went far beyond the point where any of us could hope to follow him in his comparison of the merits of the Rieu versus the Lattimore version of the Iliad, for example, or the Cohen versus the Putnam translation of Don Quixote. What did come through to us was the sense of what a tricky, delicate, and complicated thing it was to transfer poetic expression from one language to another. He showed a regard for our pocketbooks, too, assigning works in paperback, or, if he assigned hardcover books, seeing to it that the campus bookstores were stocked with inexpensive used copies.

He'd give us sample passages from rival translations whenever another version seemed to have an edge over the one we were using. But however good he thought the translation he had settled on, he never let us forget that we were getting only a fraction of the power inhering to the original. He read aloud to us in the original so that we might not altogether miss the aural contours of a work. This method made a vivid impression on me in two instances in particular. One, in a term dominated by Dante's Inferno, came in the Paolo and Francesca episode.


  • The Atlantic Wire's  “Best Revisitation of a Cultural Icon” in their list of the best books for 2012.

    "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."—

    "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 the end of the book, [Groth] finds her own delightful voice, which is  the book's real pleasure."—

    “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.” —

On Sale
Jun 11, 2013
Page Count
320 pages
Algonquin Books

Janet Groth

About the Author

Janet Groth, Emeritus Professor of English at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, has also taught at Vassar, Brooklyn College, the University of Cincinnati, and Columbia. She was a Fulbright lecturer in Norway and a visiting fellow at Yale and is the author of Edmund Wilson: A Critic for Our Time (for which she won the NEMLA Book Award) and coauthor of Critic in Love: A Romantic Biography of Edmund Wilson. She lives in New York City.

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