Genius in disguise : Harold Ross of the New Yorker

by Thomas Kunkel

Paper Book, 1995




New York : Random House, c1995.


"Magazines are about eighty-five percent luck," Harold Ross told George Jean Nathan. "I was about the luckiest son of a bitch alive when I started The New Yorker." Ross was certainly lucky back in 1925, but he was smart, too. When such unknown young talents as E.B. White, James Thurber, Janet Flanner, Helen Hokinson, Wolcott Gibbs, and Peter Arno turned up on his doorstep, he knew exactly what to do with them. So was born what many people consider the most urbane and groundbreaking magazine in history. Thomas Kunkel has written the first comprehensive biography of Harold W. Ross, the high school dropout and Colorado miner's son who somehow blew out of the West to become a seminal figure in American journalism and letters, and a man whose story is as improbable as it is entertaining. The author follows Ross from his trainhopping start as an itinerant newspaperman to his editorship of The Stars and Stripes, to his role in the formation of the Algonquin Round Table, to his audacious and near-disastrous launch of The New Yorker. For nearly twenty-seven years Ross ran the magazine with a firm hand and a sensitivity that his gruff exterior belied. Whether sharpshooting a short story, lecturing Henry Luce, dining with the Duke of Windsor, or playing stud poker with one-armed railroad men in Reno, Nevada, he revealed an irrepressible spirit, an insatiable curiosity, and a bristling intellect - qualities that, not coincidentally, characterized The New Yorker. Ross demanded excellence, venerated talent, and shepherded his contributors with a curmudgeonly pose and an infectious sense of humor. "l am not God," he once informed E.B. White. "The realization of this came slowly and hard some years ago, but l have swallowed it by now. l am merely an angel in the Lord's vineyard." Through the years many have wondered how this unlikely character could ever have conceived such a sophisticated enterprise as The New Yorker. But after reading this rich, enchanting, impeccably researched biography, readers will understand why no one but Ross could have done it.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member labwriter
How could you not love this book? If anything about The New Yorker or Manhattan in the 1920s-1950s or so interests you, then grab this thing. The research is solid, the writing is readable. Ross was a crazyman, but he brought out the best in the people who worked for him--either that or he fired them. I didn't find myself particularly liking Harold Ross, especially in his later years, but he was surrounded by fascinating people. I thoroughly enjoyed this gossipy biography.… (more)
LibraryThing member bhagerty
Lively and well written, but ultimately (for me) forgettable.
LibraryThing member ecw0647
Harold Ross, the famous founder and editor of The New Yorker, was born in Aspen, Colorado. His parents moved as the silver industry failed, eventually winding up in Salt Lake City. Ross was a precocious youngster who read voraciously, and his mother taught him that structure in grammar was important to clarity of communication. The writing addiction hit him first on his school paper and soon his life was constant peregrination, not uncommon for newspapermen in the early twentieth century. Rarely did he stay more than a few weeks in one place. He loved the romance and adventure of the police beat. In California, he became editor of the Marysville Appeal after the sudden death of the editor, but before long he was off to Panama, then New Orleans. The western character never left Ross. His personal taste in reading ran to dictionaries and true-detective magazines. Despite his coarseness and profaneness, "he had a near perfect ear for language" and did not suffer fools lightly. "We don't run our magazine for dumbbells," he was heard to holler on several occasions.

He enlisted during WW I and was assigned to an engineering battalion. The work was cold, wet, and miserable, and when Pershing approved the idea for what was to become Stars and Stripes, Ross applied for transfer. When the orders were not forthcoming, he went AWOL, traveled to Paris and showed up at the newspaper's door. They were so short-handed that his transfer was immediately approved. He became part of an editorial staff that made the paper a rousing success. Immune to the silliness of rank, they always had the enlisted man's welfare at heart, and that was one reason for the paper's immense success.

Harold Ross was a man of contradictions. His personal reading ran to dictionaries of modern usage and detective stories. He was raised in the west and enjoyed profanity but his magazine came to symbolize urbanity and sophistication. He had a gifted ear for language and was a great editor. The New Yorker became a mission for Ross that reflected his keen curiosity and droll humor (although the magazine's first art editor, Rea Irvin , was substantially responsible for developing the humorous art that was to become almost a trademark of the magazine). The story forms that would later find a place in The New Yorker all could be found in the Rossedited Stars and Stripes. It, too, was a weekly and so had to find some way to distinguish itself from the rest of the hard-news-oriented papers. The premium was placed on storytelling, i.e., behindthe scenes, personality, and feature pieces. The twenties were a good time to begin a national magazine (despite Ross's mission to make it metropolitan). Magazines were the true national medium.

Radio was still in its infancy and television was still a gleam in the engineers' eyes. Ross's vision was to realize that New York merchants might pay more to reach a New York audience. Why advertise to the "old lady in Dubuque." His experience at various magazines in the United States had also revealed how the business side could influence the editorial side. He wanted his magazine to be completely independent, with a complete wall between the business and editorial sides. Ross could be such a bizarre combination of debonair, ladies' man and hick. He was immensely appealing to women, liked them  the magazine never would have been a success without the likes of Dorothy Parker and Janet Flanner, but had curiously Victorian attitudes toward them. He had three wives, all of whom married again successfully after they divorced him.

Once, when St. Clair McKelway stopped by his office to discuss an upcoming story, he noticed that Ross was fidgeting in his chair and asked what was the matter. "They ought to have covers, wooden or metal covers of some kind around the goddamn radiators." McKelway was confused as there were no radiators in their building, so he asked what Ross meant. Here? "Good God, no, said Ross. "At the Ritz. I had this dame in bed and it got cold so I got up and walked over to the window to shut it. I had to lean over to shut the window and my you-knowwhat dangled down on this red-hot radiator. Feels like a second degree burn, for Christ's sake." During the Depression, The New Yorker suffered little. Ross had always seen it as a humor magazine, and since all his money was tied up in the magazine, he lost no money during the crash. They were severely criticized years later for their distinctly apolitical stance, but that had always been the policy. They had no position on anything.

Raoul Fleischmann, the publisher, of yeast fame, had fronted a huge amount of money to get the magazine going. He ran the business side while Ross handled the editorial. The two entities remained completely distinct, even having separate floors or buildings. There was great antipathy between the two personalities that anecdotally stemmed from a business decision of Fleischmann's during the Depression. He was loath to authorize dividends, wanting to build up a cash reserve. This meant that Ross had to cough up increasingly large sums under the terms of his divorce settlement with Jane Grant that stipulated she would get the income from her share of stock and that Ross would make up the difference between her stock income and $10,000. He never forgave Fleischmann for what was essentially a sound business decision. Separating the two sides of the business meant that editorial was never influenced by business interests, and people still marvel at the freedom Fleischmann gave Ross. Kunkel has a wonderful definition of what makes a good editor  or good leader for that matter. "In the narrowest sense, editors lay twitchy hands on someone else's work, fixing it, patching it, polishing it, and generally trying to keep it -upright. In the broadest sense, however, they set the agenda, standards, and tone for a publication. They hire and fire; they pick stories, and the writers to go with them. They must have enough ego to confidently steer talented people, but the will to subordinate it. They must assuage prima donnas, compel laggards, and sober up drunks. Equal parts shaman and showman, they must have an unwavering vision for their publication, convey it to a staff, and then sell it to the great yawning public. For these reasons and many others, editing a magazine is not a job suited to the faint or uncertain, and it is enormously difficult to do well. . . .[Ross:] also believed that talent attracts talent. You get talent if you publish a good magazine, you get tripe if you publish tripe. . . . And talent, the editor understood, was the key. He never stopped searching for it or, once he had found it, nurturing it. Ross had a respect for creative people that bordered on veneration; everyone else, himself included, was meant to be in their service." "Ross's New Yorker changed the face of contemporary fiction, perfected a new form of literary journalism, established the standards for humor and comic art, swayed the cultural and social agendas, and became synonymous with sophistication. It replaced convention with innovation." Nothing symbolized this more than his publication of John Hersey's "Hiroshima" as one complete article. Originally intended to be serialized, Ross and the editors realized that the obligatory short recapitulations required at the beginning of each part of the serial would detract from the content, so, breaking with all tradition, it was published complete in one issue to the exclusion of everything else. All the regular features and cartoons were dropped. The issue became an instant sensation and was said many years later to have been the most famous and important magazine piece ever published.

By the fifties, The New Yorker had become mandatory reading, a status symbol, a cultural beacon. Much of its reputation was due, in part, to critics like Wolcott Gibbs, whose acerbic reviews often made him anathema to theatres, critics, and actors. His considerable influence resulted from his high standing among fellow critics who, even though few liked him personally, knew he was "usually right, and that he didn't settle for dreck. He helped to keep them honest." It was a metaphor for the entire magazine. This is a wonderful biography, filled with delightful anecdotes about a fascinating man and time.
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