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June 26, 2012

Book Notes - Janet Groth "The Receptionist"

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

In The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker, Janet Groth recounts her years as a receptionist for the New Yorker, and offers a glimpse of the literary magazine as well as the New York City of the 60s and 70s.

Kirkus Reviews called the book, "A nostalgic, wistful look at life inside one of America’s most storied magazines, and the personal and professional limbo of the woman who answered the phone."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Janet Groth's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker:

My book is a memoir of my years as the receptionist at The New Yorker magazine, back in the Mad Men-era of the late 1950s through 1978.

Mozart's Quartets
Bach's Brandenburg Concertos

In an early chapter, I tell of a brief romance with the Pulitzer-prize winning poet John Berryman. He often forgot our dates and would appear, drunk and remorseful, hours later on the doorstep of my Greenwich Village apartment. My ministrations to him would take the form of pressing him to sip a little coffee or tea as he sagged on my living room couch, smoking French cigarettes. What helped was music. Certain Mozart Quartets or any of the Brandenburgs commanded his reverent attention, even when he was unfit for conversation.

Vaughn Monroe, "Blue Moon"

I moonlighted as private secretary to the British novelist Muriel Spark -- now Dame Muriel -- and I recount in the book a story of how she played fairy godmother to my Cinderella. She arranged for me to attend a county ball in England, where I was to meet Princess Marina, patroness of the Sussex Lifeboat Ball. Unwilling to attend alone this grand affair, which I was afraid might be stuffy in the extreme, I wrangled tickets for some friends I had met earlier on the boat train from Paris to Calais. We had bonded by making up rude lyrics to "Blue Moon" while staving off seasickness in the saloon of the Channel steamer. By knocking back brandies, too, I might add.

Fats Waller, "Handful of Keys"

Partly inspired by a desire to return the favor and invite Mrs. Spark, as I called her then, to a large dance in return, I got my office buddy Andrena (Andy) Bear, a leggy, sensational-looking blonde, to join me in getting up a summer bash in the Village loft of one of the New Yorker cartoonists, Lee Lorenz. Our band consisted of an impromptu jazz combo I helped to create by putting trumpeter Lorenz together with the magazine's jazz critic Whitney Balliett on drums; a Talk reporter, Wally White, on piano; staff writer Paul Brodeur on clarinet; and, also on trumpet, cartoonist Warren Miller who sang a vocal or two in tribute to his idol Fats Waller.

"Puttin' on the Ritz"

Among the guests at that party was cartoonist Charles Addams, whose dinner companions ran to the likes of Joan Fontaine, Drue Heinz, and Jacqueline Kennedy. He came in black tie and, perhaps in homage to Andy, alone. Muriel Spark arrived in yellow chiffon with a rhinestone brooch at the bosom, deputizing her date to leave a jeroboam of Dom Perignon at the bar. Even though the food and drink on offer was of the pretzel-and-keg variety, the band, seeing the evening dress and the champagne, launched into "Puttin' on the Ritz" and the party took a decided upward turn.

Count Basie, "Li'l Darlin'"
Billie Holliday, "Living for You Is Easy Living"
Fred Astaire, "They Can't Take That Away from Me"

In the book, I describe the scene of my seduction by a New Yorker cartoonist I call Evan Simm. Having done his mandatory two years in the service in Japan, Evan filled his Village apartment with Japanese prints and furnishings, such as an open box platform bed and a hibachi on the back porch. In addition to his fondness for all things Japanese, Evan was a jazz buff. On his Bang and Olufsen record player he accompanied the mid-June evening and our Tanqueray martinis with Count Basie's "Li'l Darlin'" and Billy Holiday's "Living for You Is Easy Living", among other jazz classics. As we dined, he played Fred Astaire's "They Can't Take That Away from Me". The apartment, the dinner, the cocktails, the love songs, the references to the beautiful children I could give him, all signified to me, in my misreading of the code we were following, that it was a serious relationship we were about to enter, one that justified the surrender of my hitherto carefully guarded virginity. How wrong I was.

"As Time Goes By" from the sound track of Casablanca

When Evan betrayed me, I ended up in Bellevue. Less than a week after my suicide attempt, I was released and, on the slender excuse that I knew no one else with a car, I called Evan and asked him to pick me up. Over tuna sandwiches at a coffee shop, he let me choose the jukebox selection and I chose the song with the lyric "You must remember this." Evan said, "Yes, there is such comfort in cheap music, isn't there?" That, finally, did it. How could I ever again go to bed with someone who not only misquoted Noel Coward, but could dis the song Ingrid was humming just before she said, "Play it, Sam?"

Maria Callas, "Visi d'Art" from Tosca
Bobby Short and Mabel Mercer - the second Town Hall concert

Frank Cucci, a brilliant young man, a more finely featured version of Frankie Avalon, became my office friend. After Harvard and before he was due in the Army, he whiled away his time in the New Yorker mail room. I refer to him as my "sophisticator-in-chief." I was a girl from Iowa and Frank was determined to "wise me up" to the delights of New York. Our blowout the night before he left for Germany was a doozy. After a dinner at the Charles French Cafe it was up to the old Met and a pair of aisle seats to Maria Callas' second-ever Tosca from Row B of the orchestra. We wound up the evening -- the early morning really -- with Bobby Short and Mabel Mercer at the Blue Angel.

"If I Loved You" from Carousel
"People Will Say We're in Love" from Oklahoma
"I'm Not a Bit in Love" (I'm Not at All in Love) from Pajama Game

The summer after my German playwright lover and I had split, I paid a quixotic visit on my own to his father's house in Niendorf. I stood in the upstairs bedroom holding one of the absent Fritz's sweaters in my hand and wondered: Where had I gotten the idea that we were going to be married? Perhaps by thinking of the two or more years when we had been inseparable. It had been a running joke between us that, whenever he had been particularly delighted by something I'd done, or if we had been apart for a time and he was lifting me up to greet me with a hug, he would look down at me and say, "Nevertheless, you are not to think I am going to marry you," and plant a husbandly kiss on my forehead. I took all these things as certainties of their opposite. It was a fatal holdover of believing in popular songs. "If I loved you," "Don't throw bouquets at me," "I'm not a bit in love," the lovers would sing.

Bob Dylan, "The Times They Are a-Changin'"

A late chapter in the book reflects the social unrest of the seventies. The pulse of rock and roll was being felt, even by the likes of me. I was given a comp ticket to Bob Dylan's first concert at Carnegie Hall. I thought that he was a nasal-voiced screecher with a harmonica in his mouth, that he looked as if he was in need of a bath, and that the fuss over him was a joke being made at the expense of the over-thirty crowd. But I had to admit that when he sang "The Times They Are a-Changin'" he was onto something. And when he screamed, "But you don't know what it is/ Do you, Mister Jones" I could relate.

Janet Groth and The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Barnes and Noble Review review
Boston Globe review
Kirkus Reviews review
Los Angeles Times review
Mother Jones review
New York Post review
Publishers Weekly review
SheKnows review
USA Today review

Algonquin Books Blog interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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