10 August 2012

The "girl" at the front desk

Janet Groth's memoir THE RECEPTIONIST is getting a lot of attention for the potential of gossip from and about her longtime employer, the "New Yorker," and in that respect it’s something of a disappointment. Through her years of manning one of the magazine’s front desks, Groth knew and squirreled away everyone’s secrets, but most of those she relates here are her own.

For its portrait of a working environment in which the social bled into the day-to-day, THE RECEPTIONIST is a time capsule of a different age. Luck got Groth her initial interview (she was working for a friend of E.B. White’s) but the job she and everyone else would be a short sojourn before marriage became an enduring fixture in her life.

A major reason for that: the changing workplace climate, even to our modern eyes it may not seem changed enough, allowing her to stay single . It wasn’t always that fun; Groth was routinely pestered for dates by whoever came in to see one of the writers, even the married men, and found herself dreading the job for a while after her cartoonist boyfriend was fired. Her account of her time at the “New Yorker” suggests that the major difference between that workplace and others was that the men who asked her on dates, at least those worthy of mention here, were not intimidated by her intellectual pursuits. That in itself is a victory, as well as the fact that most of the time Groth was behind the desk she was chipping away at graduate school at NYU. Like many of the never-marrieds I know, her romantic history is a patchwork of a few serious relationships and some “good story” dates.

The question of why Groth never progressed beyond the receptionist's desk in her time at the “New Yorker” is one even she finds herself unable to answer. She pointedly told E.B. White in her interview that she didn't want to be placed in the typing pool, with the implication that doing so meant choosing a dead-end career as one in a large body of largely replaceable women (who, one assumes, would quit as soon as they got married), landing her at the reception desk. Yet she never wrote for the magazine, and finds herself unable to articulate why. As the magazine went through some growing pains in the ‘80s with the suggestion that it systematically discriminated against its women, Groth asks of these policies, "Was I a victim? Or a beneficiary?" reasoning that the same job security that kept her safely ensconced prevented her from moving up.

THE RECEPTIONIST wasn't a standout memoir to me – at one point she has a revelation on vacation that doesn’t go anywhere, and the chapter about the things Groth learned from her African-American roommate is particularly winceworthy -- but it would have been nice to get her perspective into such an august body that at the time leaned heavily on old white dudes to set its tone. Maybe that makes this book necessary after all.

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