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I'm at the front desk at The New Yorker

by orlando hanafee 2 months ago in fact or fiction
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I'm at the front desk at The New Yorker

A large crowd packed into the National Arts Club in Manhattan one night to witness the publication of a novel that had taken 55 years to complete. The witty Janet Gross, a 75-year-old college professor, tells the story of her time at the New Yorker in the 1950s and '60s when the magazine was in its heyday.

Gross is not the New Yorker writer, editor, or fact-checker you might assume. What does she do? For 21 years, from 1957 to 1978, she was a receptionist on the 18th floor. "None of them promoted me to the 20th floor," Gross joked. The 20th floor was the New Yorker's old offices on West 43rd Street, where the fiction department worked with such famous veterans as Katherine White and William Maxwell.

A staff writer recalls Gross exuding Midwestern affability and competence. "You'll see what Jane can do -- when she wants to go on holiday in the summer, she gets the shift done without anyone noticing." Anthony Bailey, a British writer who also worked at the New Yorker at the time and later became a good friend of Mr. Gross, described him as "the embodiment of happiness" in "a group of mad or half-mad writers."

Gross came to New York after graduating from the University of Minnesota, determined to be a writer, and after passing E.B. She went to the Literary Publishing Center after White's interview, but she never got anything published in The New Yorker. She had a brief and unhappy stint in the art department, responding to comic book submissions, and spent most of her time sitting in the receptionist's chair by the elevator, "getting a bird's eye view of everything and staring at a hot plate I brought with me," she said.

Mr. Gross's memoir is called "The Receptionist: Growing Up at the & LT; New Yorker & GT;"

She offered several explanations for never being promoted. There were no professional role models for her. "Women weren't trained to affirm themselves -- Oprah hadn't come along yet," Ms. Gross said. "I didn't know where I was going or who I was."

The New Yorker had a particular culture in which staff titles and responsibilities were not clear enough, which also hampered her progress. As Trillin says, "It wasn't easy to move up. You couldn't see where the ladder was or who was holding it, let alone how to climb it."

But over the years, Gross also embraced the role of receptionist and the rewards that came with it, such as access to some of the most gifted writers of the 20th century. Perhaps more enviable than her ability to befriend writers and attend book signings were her summer vacations: She went to Europe eight times during her time at The New Yorker, each time for at least a month, often with pay. "The New Yorker thinks their receptionists can take long summer vacations," Gross said with mock seriousness.

At the time, Gross had 12-inch blond hair and wore custom-made dresses, so men often fell in love with her. But things didn't work out for her. She recalled a relationship with a New Yorker comic, whose real name she did not reveal, to whom she lost her virginity. After discovering he was engaged to another woman, a distraught Gross turned on the gas in her Greenwich Village apartment, went to bed, and attempted suicide. This is the most gut-wrenching part of the memoir.

In the years that followed, she tried out many roles, including flippant party girl. After years of therapy with "Manhattan's top psychoanalyst," she finally found a role she could stick with: academic research. She attended graduate school at New York University and, over 12 years, earned a doctorate in 20th-century literature in 1982, a few years after she left The New Yorker. After that, she began her academic career.

In passages from her memoir that she recited to readers, Ms. Gross talked about her years in the receptionist's seat and how she had figured out whether The New Yorker had wronged her. Thinking about vacations, flexible schedules, and the many intangible benefits, she concludes, "It's not always clear who's taking advantage of who."

fact or fiction

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orlando hanafee

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