September 19, 2013

Former professor's memoir a 'Mad Men' fix

By ROBIN CAUDELL Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — Dr. Janet Groth exudes a magnetic mystique.

Former SUNY Plattsburgh colleagues and students alike were attracted to it and her elegance, wit and formidable intellect.

Above her easy, Midwestern smile, her hazel eyes danced with secrets of her critically received memoir, “The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker,” published by Algonquin Books. Released this summer, the book is in its fourth printing.

“Who knew there would be that many people interested in my failure to progress at The New Yorker?” said Groth, who will discuss and read from the book Wednesday evening in Krinovitz Recital Hall at the college.

About Groth’s 55-years-in-the-making literary debut, Steven Kurutz wrote in The New York Times:

“Written in lean, graceful prose that offers ample evidence of her talent, the book is as much a window into the mythologized publication as it is a chronicle of one woman’s self-discovery.”

Straddling William Shawn’s New Yorker tenure (1952-1987), Groth was immersed for 20 years in the magazine’s epicenter, dazzling with literati such as poet John Berryman and essayist Joseph Mitchell, to name two.

When she arrived in New York City in September 1957, Groth, a 19-year-old blonde hottie, was a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, where she had won the Anna Augusta Von Helmholtz Phelan award for her short fiction.

About the catalyst to the Big Apple from fly-over country, she writes in the memoir’s “Introduction; Or, Jack Spills the Beans”:

“It happened by the merest chance. Or perhaps the heavens were aligned.”

“I found myself working as a gal Friday at a CBS science show,” Groth said. “I worked for Arthur Zegart, who wrote the script about the manned-balloon flight. My brother (Joseph) worked for the man who made the balloon.”

Zegart invited her to send a resume if she ever relocated to New York City. She did straight away, and he received it three weeks later while fishing with his friend E.B. White in Maine. Her one New York contact led her to cross the threshold of White’s office at The New Yorker. To the interview, she wore a black-sheath dress and black pumps.

“Mr. White never saw anybody about a job. He was very, very shy. He could barely look at me. Instead of me being nervous, I was trying to put him at ease. At one point, he called in the woman (Daise Terry) who handled secretarial jobs at the magazine and asked if she had anything for me.”

Groth eschewed the typing pool, a bold move that landed her on the 18th floor, the writer’s floor, where she looked after their mail and messages from 1957 to 1978.

“I worked 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., very civilized with an hour lunch break. I often took more than that,” she said.

There was the standing Friday literary-luncheon rite with Mitchell, with the exception of when she taught at Vassar. Their haunts included the Red Devil, Blue Ribbon and Brauhaus.

A writer’s writer, Mitchell was famous for his writer’s block that shut him down from publishing anything beyond 1964.

“I believed it was his reluctance to insert himself in a personal way into his pieces,” Groth said. “He felt more comfortable talking about things and other people and not himself.”

Groth had her own demons. During her two decades at the magazine, she never advanced, never submitted one word, never published in the magazine. An Irish-radio broadcaster, mad at her, called her on it.

“This is the story of the book,” she said. “From the very early pages, I say this. I entered the workforce in the pre-feminist era. I was part of a larger, historical narrative. I had a prolonged identity crisis. Was I or was I not one of them (writers)?” 

Groth receives many letters and emails from readers, women of a certain age, with similar stories.

“My mother, she gets nailed by me. She failed to inspire any sense of competition that being out in the world would require. She actively discouraged me from doing anything athletic. She said, ‘That’s not quite ladylike.’ My mother wrote letters to excuse me from gym. If I had played sports, I would have learned competitiveness much earlier,” Groth said.

Looking from outside the fishbowl in, Groth had a fabulous, New Yorker life, complemented with eight monthlong European vacations. But she realized she had to do something other than answer phones.

It took 15 years, one course at a time, but she earned a doctorate in 20th century literature at New York University. With degree in hand, she left the Big Apple and took a position at the University of Cincinnati, her way station before SUNY Plattsburgh, where she taught English and journalism courses.

Groth took an early retirement in December 2000. Her beloved husband, Al Lazar, had died six months earlier.

“I couldn’t bear to stay on much longer,” she said.

She flew to England and stayed in her friends’ unused flat in Islington, a borough of London.

“That was fabulous,” Groth said. “All my years from The New Yorker, I had been meaning to go back to London and see old friends there ...  Muriel Spark, I was a private secretary for her at The New Yorker. Muriel and I became buddies, and I visited her in her palazzo in Rome and her converted convent in Tuscany.”

After the Islington sojourn, Groth roamed until settling in to her Upper East Side apartment in July 2001.

At the time, she and co-author David Castronovo were at work on “Critic in Love: A Romantic Biography of Edmund Wilson,” published in 2005.

Afterward, Castronovo penned “Blokes: The Bad Boys of British Literature.” Groth thought it was time to strike out on her own.

“I looked at some of the journals I had been dragging around all these years. That was the genesis of the memoir. I finished that in five years.”

Her journals, blue composition books, were augmented with calendrical notations.

“When I was looking through them, I had quite a good beginning for the book. I found lots of material,” Groth said.

Groth’s publishing tale is as charmed as her New Yorker entrée. Both her agent and editor had New Yorker ties. Once again, the heavens aligned.

Many have queried her about life post-New Yorker.

“Maybe, there’s a sequel coming out,” Groth said.

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IF YOU GO WHAT: Discussion and reading by Dr. Janet Groth, author of "The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker." WHEN: 4:30 to 6 p.m. Wednesday. WHERE: Krinovitz Recital Hall, Hawkins Hall, SUNY Plattsburgh. ADMISSION: Free.