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The New Yorker, From a Seat on the 18th Floor

ONE night a few weeks ago, a large crowd packed into the National Arts Club in Manhattan to witness a literary debut 55 years in the making. The author, a witty, 75-year-old college professor named Janet Groth, told stories of working at The New Yorker during the magazine’s heyday in the 1950s and ’60s: her weekly lunches with the revered reporter Joseph Mitchell; her affair with a cartoonist she nicknamed “the great deceiver”; her fleeting interactions with the longtime editor William Shawn, who, despite his shyness, was “gallant enough to present me with a rose when I left the magazine.”

几周前的一个晚上,一大群人挤进曼哈顿国家艺术俱乐部,去见证一部用55年的时间完成的处女作的出版。作者是75岁的大学教授、风趣的珍妮特·格罗斯(Janet Groth),她在书中讲述了自己上世纪五、六十年代就职于《纽约客》杂志的故事,那时该杂志正如日中天。这些故事包括:她每周都跟令人尊敬的记者约瑟夫·米切尔(Joseph Mitchell)一起用餐;她跟一位漫画家的恋情,她给那个人取了一个外号叫“大骗子”;她跟老编辑威廉·肖恩(William Shawn)之间短暂的交流,肖恩虽然很害羞,但“在我离开杂志社时,也潇洒地送了我一支玫瑰花”。

Though one might assume otherwise, Ms. Groth was not a writer, editor or fact-checker at The New Yorker. What was her role? For 21 years, from 1957 to 1978, she was the 18th-floor receptionist.



“They didn’t even promote me to the 20th floor,” Ms. Groth joked to the crowd, referring to the old offices on West 43rd Street that housed the fiction department and big-name fixtures like Katharine White and William Maxwell, as opposed to the 18th floor, which housed a motley assortment of contributing writers.

格罗斯跟听众开玩笑说:“他们都没有把我提拔到20楼去。”20楼是指《纽约客》位于纽约西43街的老办公室。在18楼办公的是一帮特约撰稿人,在20楼办公的则是小说部门和凯瑟琳·怀特(Katharine White)、威廉·马克思韦尔(William Maxwell)等大名鼎鼎的老员工。

One of those writers, Calvin Trillin, recalled Ms. Groth’s exuding a Midwestern pleasantness and capability. “You would see how effective Jan was without calling any attention to herself when she would leave for the summer and someone else would do that job,” Mr. Trillin said.

其中一位特约撰稿人加尔文·特里林(Calvin Trillin)回忆说,格罗斯散发着中西部人的和蔼可亲和干练。“你会看到,简多有本事——她夏天要去度假的话,神不知鬼不觉地就把顶班的人就安排好了。”

Anthony Bailey, a British writer who also worked at the magazine in those days and later became friends with Ms. Groth, described her as “cheerfulness itself” in an environment of “neurotic or semi-neurotic writers.”

英国作家安东尼·贝利(Anthony Bailey)那时也在《纽约客》工作,后来他跟格罗斯成为好朋友,他说,在“一群疯疯癫癫或者半疯癫的作家”当中,格罗斯就是“快乐的化身”。

But despite coming to New York fresh from the University of Minnesota to be a writer herself, and landing at the center of literary publishing after a job interview with E. B. White, Ms. Groth never published a word in The New Yorker. And aside from a brief, unhappy period in the art department fielding cartoon submissions, she remained glued to the receptionist’s chair near the elevator, where she had “a bird’s-eye view of everything and a hot plate, which I brought,” she said.

格罗斯从明尼苏达大学毕业后就来到纽约,立志要做一名作家,在通过E.B. 怀特的面试后她便进入了文学出版中心,但她从来没在《纽约客》上发表过东西。她曾在美编部门呆过很短同时也很不开心的一段时间,职责是回复漫画投稿,其他大部分时间里她坐在电梯旁前台接待员的椅子上,“鸟瞰一切,并顺便盯着一个我带过去的电炉,”她说。

Ms. Groth’s curious, stillborn career at the magazine, and the reasons behind it, are the subject of her new memoir, “The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker” (Algonquin). 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.

格罗斯的回忆录名叫《前台接待员:在<纽约客>的成长》(The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker,Algonquin出版)。该书讲述了她在《纽约客》奇特而失败的职业生涯,以及背后的原因。她简练、优雅的文笔充分证明了她的天赋,这部书就像一个窗口,让人得以一窥神秘的出版业,同时它也是一位女性自我发现历程的记录。

Given the pre-feminist times and high-powered office setting, it would be easy to draw comparisons to “Mad Men.” But for the analogy to work, it would be as if the fictional Peggy Olson had never been promoted out of the secretarial pool and her talents as a copywriter never recognized. So why didn’t Ms. Groth advance beyond receptionist?

书中所写的是一个支持女权主义者的时代,写的又是一个创造力很强的办公室,由不得大家会把它跟《广告狂人》比较一番。但要让这一比较成立,就得让《广告狂人》中虚构的佩吉·奥尔森(Peggy Olson)从未从秘书职位获得提拔,她写文案的天才从未被发现。那么,格罗斯女士为何一直都是前台接待员、没升过职呢?

Sitting in her tidy studio apartment on the Upper East Side, Ms. Groth, an attractive woman with warm eyes and straw-colored hair that rests in a pile atop her head, offered several explanations. She was passive and deeply insecure in those years, she said, because she grew up far from the publishing world in the flyover states of Iowa and Minnesota, the daughter of an alcoholic father.


And she had few work-force role models. “Women had had no assertiveness training — Oprah had yet to appear,” Ms. Groth said. “I didn’t have a good grip on where I was going or who I was.” While some women, including Lillian Ross and Pauline Kael, did thrive as writers at The New Yorker during Ms. Groth’s tenure, “I was less able to envision myself storming the citadel than people who were more confident,” she said.

那会儿也没有职业人士做她的榜样。“女性没有接受过肯定自己的培训——奥普拉还没出现,”格罗斯女士说:“我不清楚我要去哪里、我是谁。”确实有些女性,如莉莲·罗斯(Lillian Ross)、保利娜·凯尔(Pauline Kael),在格罗斯女士在《纽约客》工作的那段时间里,通过这本杂志成长为作家。她说:“我不像那些更加自信的人那样,能够攻城拔寨。”

The New Yorker’s peculiar culture, where staffers held vague titles and job responsibilities, did not help matters. As Mr. Trillin explained: “It wasn’t that easy to work your way up. You couldn’t see where the ladder was or who was holding it, let alone how to climb up it.”


So for years, Ms. Groth embraced her role as receptionist and the perks that came with it, like the opportunity to interact with some of the most gifted writers of the 20th century. She fielded inquiries from J. D Salinger; helped James Thurber secure office space; house-sat for Mr. Trillin and his wife, Alice; gave a lost Woody Allen directions; and formed close friendships with many New Yorker contributors, including the novelist Muriel Spark and Mr. Mitchell, with whom she shared a standing Friday lunch date and what she characterized as an “innocent but not quite innocent” flirtation.

因此,多年来,格罗斯欣然接受了前台接待员的角色以及随之而来的回报,如接触20世纪一些最有天赋的作家。她回复 J. D ·塞林格(J. D Salinger)的问询;帮助詹姆斯·瑟伯(James Thurber)保住他在办公室的地盘;帮特里林和他的妻子爱丽丝(Alice)看家;给迷路的伍迪·艾伦(Woody Allen)指路;跟《纽约客》的许多作者成了好朋友,包括小说家缪里尔·斯帕克(Muriel Spark)以及一位名叫米切尔的先生,她曾跟米切尔固定在周五午餐时约会,她称之为“单纯但又不是十分单纯”的调情。

Perhaps more envy-inducing than the literary friendships and book parties were the summer vacations she writes about: eight trips to Europe during her years at the magazine, each one lasting a month or more, often with pay (a princely $80 a week). “The New Yorker believed in long summer vacations for their receptionists,” Ms. Groth deadpanned.


In those days, with a 12-inch blond ponytail and a wardrobe of tailored dresses, Ms. Groth was a frequent recipient of male advances, though she navigated the resulting relationships with difficulty. In one of the most wrenching parts of her memoir, she recalls an affair with a New Yorker cartoonist she identifies with a pseudonym to whom she lost her virginity. After discovering he was engaged to another woman, a distraught Ms. Groth attempted suicide by turning on the gas oven in her Greenwich Village apartment and going to bed. Another failed relationship, with a German playwright, was “shattering.”


In the years that followed, Ms. Groth said, she tried out many personas, including reckless party girl (complete with cigarette holder as a prop). After years of therapy “with a top Manhattan analyst,” she eventually found one that stuck: academic and scholar. She enrolled in graduate school at New York University, and over a 12-year period earned a Ph.D. in 20th-century literature, which she received in 1982, a few years after she left The New Yorker. She has since forged an academic career, most recently at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh, and written four books (three with David Castronovo) on the critic Edmund Wilson.

在随后的岁月里,她试过很多角色,包括轻率的派对女孩(夹着香烟当道具)。在接受“曼哈顿顶级心理分析师”多年的治疗后,她最终找到了一个自己能够坚持下去的角色:学术研究。她入读纽约大学研究生院,用了12年的时间,在1982年获得20世纪文学博士学位,那是在她离开《纽约客》几年之后。从那之后,她开始了自己学者生涯,最近的经历是在纽约州立大学普拉茨堡分校,还写了四部关于评论家埃德蒙·威尔逊(Edmund Wilson)的书(其中三部是跟戴维·卡斯特诺夫[David Castronovo]合著)。

“I was carving my own path,” Ms. Groth said, “but it was a very slow trip. I was doing it one course at a time, and of course there was a lot of head work that needed shrinking.”


THE woman who spoke at the National Arts Club hardly resembled the shy, self-doubting one portrayed in “The Receptionist.” Ms. Groth was poised and confident before an audience that included former New Yorker colleagues like Mr. Trillin, whose phone messages she once delivered. Her insecurity has mellowed into a sly, self-deprecating wit. When microphone feedback pierced the room, she quipped, “I’m very eager to take on any guilt that might be free-floating,” to big laughs.


From the stage, she greeted her ex-boyfriend from Germany, who had flown over from Berlin. If she seemed at peace with the heartbreak, it may be because Ms. Groth found lasting love in the mid-’70s with an older Greenwich Village entrepreneur named Al Lazar. They spent 25 years together and married before he died in 2000.

她在台上问候她从柏林乘飞机赶来的前男友。她之所以能坦然地面对那段感情,可能是因为,在70年代中期,格罗斯从格林威治村一位比她大的企业家阿尔·拉扎尔(Al Lazar)那里找到了天长地久。他们一起生活了25年,在他2000年去世前二人结了婚。

More significant, the writer who did not get published in The New Yorker capped off the evening by reading a passage from her memoir, which has been garnering strong early reviews.


In the passage, Ms. Groth addresses her years at the receptionist desk and grapples with whether The New Yorker somehow mistreated her. But after considering the vacations, flexible work schedule and the many “intangibles” like party invites and a front-row seat to New York literary life, she concluded, “It is not clear to me who was exploiting whom.”

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