A: No, although I do wind up most of my appearances with the fact that I can't not confront the question of my failure to rise at the magazine, and the reasons for it, and come to some conclusion about it. Do my 21 years in an entry-level position add up to my having been a victim or a beneficiary? I think it was a two-way street.
(Groth picks up a copy of the book and reads out loud from page 227.) "When the Newspaper Guild reps looked at my salary record ($80 a week to start and $163 a week to finish), they were incensed, and much was said about the way the magazine was exploiting me. However, as I look back on the eight trips to Europe the magazine underwrote (by way of lengthy vacations in the summers, two of which stretched to eight weeks or more, four of them with pay); my twelve years of graduate school; ten years of expensive psychoanalysis with a top Manhattan analyst (if the magazine chose to exploit my dependency, they paid handsomely to rid me of it); coverage of my desk to permit a Thursday-Friday trip up to Poughkeepsie to teach a course at Vassar; as well as the many intangibles that came to me in the way of invitations to share the cultural, social, and literary life of the city and, by extension, the wider world, it is not clear to me who was exploiting whom."
Q: Maybe a little of both.
A: You think? At my farewell party when I left, William Shawn gave me a single red rose, and someone I know was incensed by that on my behalf, and he seemed to blame Mr. Shawn. Well, I wouldn't, and I don't. The book is not intended, nor has it been received by The New Yorker, as an exposé of the magazine.
Q: The New Yorker in those years seems to have been populated by a great many eccentrics — the staff writer Joseph Mitchell, for example, who, as you note in the book, last published a piece in the magazine in 1964 but continued to work there for many years afterward. Still on salary, presumably.
A: Oh yes. Subsidizing writers who were suffering through writer's blocks was part of the concept. Every Christmas, when he was giving out the bonuses, Mr. Shawn would ask Mr. Mitchell (lowering her voice into a near-whisper), "When do you think we might see something from you, Mr. Mitchell?"
Q: And he would say?
A: "Soon, I hope."
Q: You have a wonderful passage about the New Yorker film critics Penelope Gilliatt and Pauline Kael, who had offices on the same floor but somehow never met.
A: How they arranged it, I don't know. I certainly never saw them in the same room.
Q: It strikes me that maybe Kael was more fun to be around.
A: Well, when she was conscious, Penelope could be fun, too. (Laughs.)
Q: In your chapter on Muriel Spark (author of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and other novels), with whom you had a long friendship, there's a sort of mystery about whether she and her longtime female companion were lovers or not. Spark denied it, and yet it seems they shared a bed. You were fairly satisfied in your own mind that they probably were lovers, but that either way —
A: Either way, what difference did it make? Yes. Some readers have reacted negatively to Muriel because of that chapter, and others had the opposite response — it's kind of a Rorschach test.
Q: Well, we're in an era now when if you're gay, and you choose not to be open about it, it's seen as a character flaw, and so some people may see Spark as having been cowardly. But that's a case of using a contemporary lens to view something from the past, when different conditions applied.
A: Yes, Muriel called it "an old-fashioned friendship," which is the same way Eleanor Roosevelt described a similar relationship. I think they should be left to describe it as they will.
Q: William Shawn appears rarely in your memoir, although you do describe the rumors that were precipitated by his often being seen coming and going arm-in-arm with Lillian Ross. Of course he was on a different floor.
A: Yes, he was a felt presence, but not a seen presence.
Q: I'm thinking that might have been true even if you'd been on his floor.
A: Oh yes, you'd get that impression from almost anybody there — with the exception of Miss Ross, of course.
Q: And as frank as you are about others in your memoir, you're equally frank about yourself, including your love life, which at one time was rather active, and your suicide attempt.
A: Yes, and I think the merit of that, if there is any merit, is that I was able to break through a lot of inhibitions to achieve that frankness, and there's been a kind of liberation for me in doing it. I suppose you could say I'm a potential visitor on the old Oprah couch — only ... she wouldn't have had to be ashamed of me later and say, "None of this was true."
"The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker"
By Janet Groth, Algonquin Books, 320 pages, $21.95