Janet Groth in her early years at the New Yorker.

Janet Groth in her early years at the New Yorker. That's Minnesota hair, but definitely a New York hat.

 UPDATE: Garrison Keillor will be in conversation with Janet Groth at 7 p.m. Sept. 27 at Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.

 Like so many of you, I grew up with the New Yorker. I started out with the cartoons, graduated to the fiction of John Updike and Alice Munro, and eventually found my way to the long reportage of John McPhee and Jon Lee Anderson. I was charmed by the mythology of the place, and in high school I sought out memoirs about working there in the glory years (though who's to say they aren't still the glory years?) -- James Thurber's "The Years with Ross," and Brendan Gill's "Here at the New Yorker" and whatever else I could glean from collected letters and biographies.

I loved knowing insidery things--that Thurber and E.B. White shared an office, for instance, or that Maeve Brennan sometimes slept in the bathroom, or who St. Clair McKelway was.

"The Receptionist," by Janet Groth, just out from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, is a memoir of a slightly different stripe--Groth wasn't one of the glittering writers of the magazine's heyday; she just hung around with them. And ran their errands. And saved their bacon. And, rarely, but occasionally, slept with them. Well, some of them. You'll have to read the book to find out who.( And even then you might not know; the young cartoonist who done her wrong--so wrong she tried to kill herself--is identified as "Evan Simm," a psuedonym.)


Janet Groth and Joseph Mitchell

Janet Groth and Joseph Mitchell

Look at Groth's glorious hair and you can guess where she's from: Yep, born in Iowa, grew up in Austin, Minn., educated at the University of Minnesota before trekking off to New York City in 1957, expecting to break into the world of fiction. Instead, she ended up as a receptionist at the New Yorker, hired by E.B. White, who was so shy in the interview that she ached to put him at ease.

 During her 21 years at the magazine, Groth became good friends with Joseph Mitchell, John Berryman (who she knew from Minnesota) and Muriel Spark, attended glittering parties, house-sat for Calvin Trillin, kept her eyes open, witnessed change.

("Jamaica Kincaid wrote about her Caribbean childhood, and when Jamaica teamed up with George Trow, the hippest reporter of them all, Talk stories about Roller Derbies began to appear.")

Groth left in 1978 to teach at the University of Cincinnati--she had earned a doctorate during those 21 years--and has since written several books and returned to New York.

"The Receptionist" is oddly detached, almost stilted--you never feel like you're really getting to know Groth, but that might be because she knew that, fascinating though she was (that hair! that hat!) she was not the most interesting person in the room. Read it for the nuggets about those who were. 


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