The New Yorker
A Guided Tour Through The New Yorker | Ross's Little Magazine (1925 - 1951) | Mr Shawn's New Yorker (1951 - 1987) | A Condé Nast Publication (1987 - present) | Harold Ross - The History | Harold Ross - The Man | Katherine S White - Rewriter of Noon | EB White - Most Companionable of Writers | James Thurber - Raconteur Extraordinaire | Wolcott Gibbs - Surgeon with Words | William Shawn - Invisible Editor
On 17 February, 1925, the first issue of The New Yorker magazine hit the stands. It was intended to be a sophisticated, urbane and witty weekly magazine for the cosmopolitan New Yorker, featuring cartoons, essays, short stories and humorous reporting. Its first cover featured a 19th-Century dandy wearing a monocle; its first editor was a 20th-Century hick featuring an anti-gravitational hairdo.
Life after Death
The New Yorker began as a joint venture between two members of Alexander Woollcott's Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club1: Raoul Fleischmann, financial backer; and Harold Ross, editor. They formed the F-R Publishing Company and The New Yorker magazine was the only thing they published.
It failed miserably. From an initial run of 15,000 copies, circulation kept shrinking. Fleischmann was forced to pour more and more of his personal fortune into the venture. One day in May 1925, the two partners met for lunch and agreed to lay the magazine officially to rest. As Fleischmann walked away from the meeting, he heard a friend and financial consultant lamenting the killing of 'a living thing'. Only a few hours later, Ross bumped into Fleischmann at a friend's wedding, 'and in that atmosphere of hope, beginning and champagne, they decided to have another go at it'2. It was difficult for them to accept that their efforts had failed.
They coasted through the summer, intending to concentrate on the lucrative fall season. The magazine was a day-to-day enterprise, with Ross selling personal possessions to keep the office open the next morning. Advertising fell so low that the magazine often begged to run ads free, for appearance's sake. To fill the blank inside front cover, Ross asked Corey Ford to draw promotional ads for The New Yorker. A 20-part series called 'The Making of a Magazine' resulted. It takes the reader on a tour of 'the vast organisation of The New Yorker', from the squid-tickling factory, where ink is collected, to the Punctuation Farm, where the little marks are grown. All these operations are overlooked by Mr Eustace Tilly, a dandy based on the one who graced The New Yorker's first cover. Tilly became such a ubiquitous part of New Yorker culture that Ross eventually listed him in the telephone directory.
It was three years before The New Yorker ever turned a profit. Its lowest run was in August, 1925, when it circulated only 2,700 copies. Part of its lack of success may be attributed to the sweeping success of other literary endeavours; the famous writers Ross met daily for lunch at the Algonquin Round Table3 received whopping paychecks for their work that the beleaguered New Yorker editor could not come close to duplicating. Nor did these writers often find the time or interest to help Ross out of the goodness of their hearts; they found the magazine more amusing than anything else. Early office memos from The New Yorker include wry acknowledgement of the staff situation with such lines as 'at a mass meeting of the two contributors to the magazine...'
Another problem was Ross himself, a high school dropout from a small town in the American Midwest. Though his magazine announced in its prospectus that it 'is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque', most of the early jokes were far from sophisticated and worldly. Neither Ross nor Rea Irvin, his first head artist, seemed in touch with the 'Roaring Twenties' lifestyle. Eustace Tilly was far removed from the cabarets and night clubs that characterised society in that era.
Finally, lack of organisation turned the magazine into something of a joke. A single poem was once reprinted in two separate issues, George Eliot's name was spelled with two 'l's and a building located at Sixth Avenue and 54th Street was reported by The New Yorker to stand at Sixth and 55th. A profile of Edna St Vincent Millay was so riddled with errors that Millay's mother stormed down to the office, threatening to sue.
Shiftless Reporter and Two Country Bumpkins
Everybody talks of the New Yorker's art, that is, its illustrations, and it has been described as the best magazine in the world for a person who cannot read.
— Harold Ross, October 1925
Things began looking up in 1926. The magazine acquired Katherine Angell, a Bryn Mawr graduate, as assistant literary editor, and Ross quickly learned that he could rely on her for a broad base of knowledge and 'taste'. Angell hired (and later married) Elwyn Brooks 'Andy' White (EB White), and James Thurber joined the staff later that year. Ross is quoted as saying that just the two of them and Wolcott Gibbs could have put out a magazine every week. (For quite a while they nearly did, too. Just before Gibbs joined the staff, Alexander Woollcott dismissed The New Yorker as a magazine 'got out by a shiftless reporter with the help of two country bumpkins'4.) Gibbs joined the New Yorker staff in 1928 and worked on almost every aspect of the magazine before his death. EB White gave the Talk of the Town5 section its inimitable flavour, and he once found a note from Ross in his typewriter reading 'I am encouraged to go on.'
Dorothy Parker began contributing more frequently and started an unusually serious book review column entitled 'Constant Reader'. Ross lured reporter Morris Markey over to start a column called 'Reporter at Large', with only one injunction: 'Be honest at any cost'6. Ross's wife Jane Grant persuaded Jannet Flanner, a reporter in Paris, to write a 'Letters from Paris' section. Ross also flattered Lewis Mumsford into taking on an architectural criticism column called 'Skyline'. Lois Long wrote possibly the first-ever analytical and honest column about shopping, 'On and Off the Avenue'. With White and Thurber's Comment7 and Talk sections, these columns gave The New Yorker a serious edge of sophistication.
Ross also found out about the Saturday Evening Post's fact-checking department and started experimenting with such a system. The New Yorker fact-checking department later became famous for 'a precision that sometimes leaned over backward'. Thurber quotes a fact-checker as saying, 'If you mention the Empire State Building in a Talk piece, Ross isn't satisfied it's still there until we call up and verify it.' Ross's actual directive ran:
I urge that every time it is said or implied in a story that a man is dead, that this statement or implication be checked. I would extend this to such people as Napoleon, but would especially be interested in lesser people, or more recent people.Once, the checking department informed a writer that he could not have eaten at a restaurant he mentioned in an article because they couldn't find a restaurant at the address he'd given. The writer had to bring back a menu to prove he was right before the article would run.
Waiting for the Messiah
When Ross and Thurber met for the first time, the editor greeted the humorist with, 'Maybe you can run this magazine.' The statement startled Thurber, but Ross was apt to greet almost anyone with that line. Ross's greatest and most futile quest was for the Genius — or Jesus, as this superhuman savior was called for a while — who would sit in a central desk and tame the disorganisation that characterised the office in its early years. 'Make this place operate like a business office,' was the way Ross liked to describe his dream. What he most wanted, though, was someone to stand between him and the writers and artists who powered his magazine. He believed them all to be slightly crazy and out to get him. 'You've got to hold the artists' hands,' Ross told Thurber before hiring him as Genius. 'Artists never go anywhere, they don't know anybody, they're antisocial... God, how I pity me!'
So terrified of dealing with writers and artists was Ross that his secretary needed an intuitive sense of when the coast was clear so that Ross could get down the elevator and out of the building without meeting anyone. Another massive issue many Geniuses struggled with was how Ross could get to the bathroom without meeting any of his staff members in the hall. (This was solved by installing a bathroom next to his office.)
The Rise and Fall of a Genius
Ross always hired a Genius with implicit faith in his superhuman abilities. The Genius's 'infallibility' waxed and then waned as Ross was forced to realise that the Genius was only human, after all. Thurber tried to expedite the process during his own tenure by deliberately fouling up simple tasks and letting Ross know about it. Ross, however, was difficult to disillusion. When Thurber sent Ross an imitation leather-bound volume entitled Mistakes Made by J Thurber as Managing Editor, Ross stared at it silently and angrily for a while before ordering his secretary, 'Get that thing out of here. Get rid of it. I don't want to know what you do with it.' Usually the fallen Genius was fired; some stayed on in another capacity. Over 30 such 'miracle men' were hired and fired in the 26 years Ross edited the magazine.
When Bernard Bergman was promoted to position as Genius, Thurber eavesdropped at the door:
Bergman got the works, the whole rigmarole, from 'You got to hold the artists' hands'... to 'I want to run this place like any other business office.' I got up in disgust, went to the men's room, and put up the window because it was a hot day. I heard the door open and close behind me, but I didn't see who it was. Then I went out and met Bergman coming down the hall. 'Ross's secretary just came in and said you were going to kill yourself in the men's room,' he told me. Ross turned to me and said, 'That's my life! Do something about it!'
— from The Years With Ross by James Thurber8
The longest-lasting Genius was William Shawn, a quiet and efficient man who became editor when Ross died.
Ross's horror of the artistic temperament was not ill-founded. Thurber, who drew long-eared, short-legged dogs on every writable surface including the walls, was normal compared to some of the other New Yorker writers and artists. James Cain did all his writing on the floor of his office9. Edmund Wilson didn't pay his taxes for almost a decade because he 'didn't realise the severity of the omission'. Rogers EM Whitaker could spout the departure and arrival time of any train anywhere in the world in the 20th Century. He rode trains for a hobby and once calculated that he'd ridden a total of 2,748,636.81 miles across six continents in six decades. Arthur Samuels furnished his office with rugs, ostentatious lamps and expensive décor, while Kip Orr carefully tended to the potted plants and live fish that inhabited his own office and occasionally played with children's toys10. Thorne Smith did all his writing on foolscap with a quill. Christopher Rand was a homeless writer who wandered from continent to continent writing articles, became a Buddhist and died after jumping out the window of his hotel room in Mexico City. Richard Harris also jumped out the window to his death, but in his case, he was under the impression he could fly. Maeve Brennan moved into her New Yorker office; she did her cooking in her cubicle and slept on a couch in the ladies' room11.
Possibly the strangest of the lot was St Claire McKelway, a manic-depressive prone to nervous breakdowns. During a breakdown, McKelway was apt to do anything from hiring an incompetent writer for The New Yorker to cabling the details of a 'secret plot' he'd 'uncovered' to the Pentagon. He once proposed to a female New Yorker writer a third his age who assumed he was joking and demurred. McKelway showed up at her apartment at midnight that night with the police. He'd convinced them she'd been murdered just so he could get to see her again. McKelway learned to recognise when he had an episode coming on, and would check himself into a hospital. Once he didn't catch the signs and took a taxi from Chicago to New York; the entire magazine staff had to pool their pocket cash to satisfy the enraged cabbie. Interestingly, McKelway was one of the few writers around whom Ross felt at ease, and he even served as Genius once, from 1936 to 1939. His most notable achievement as Genius was dividing the editorial department into 'fiction' and 'fact', allowing editors to specialise instead of switching back and forth.
Ross put a brave face on his lot in life and tried to avoid knowing about the odd habits of his employees. 'One notes Ross's determination to pretend that he is presiding over a business like any other, and not over a madhouse,' Brendan Gill wrote of him.
There is usually something on my mind, and there is usually something on the minds of the other members of the staff too, if they are functioning.
— Ross, explaining why he didn't talk in the halls
Possibly as a result of Ross's antisocial behaviour, fraternising between contributors was infrequent, and introductions were non-existent. Every New Yorker writer could reel off a list of mistaken identities — people they thought were other people for years, before discovering otherwise. Sometimes they discovered through introduction, such as when one writer was introduced to Ross, whose identity he'd attributed to an elderly messenger boy. More frequently, it was after an obituary saluted a staff member who seemed to be still stalking the corridors post-mortem.
Some time between when Raoul Fleischmann financed the magazine's beginnings and when he raked in its profits, Ross decided that Fleischmann was the enemy. 'I don't know whether Harold resented my having the money, or my putting it in the magazine,' Fleischmann said, but he returned Ross's animosity with vehemence. There were many years when the two never spoke, and Hawley Truax carried all communication between the head of the business department and the head of the editorial department. The members of these departments never mingled, and rarely said more to each other than a mumbled 'hello' in the elevator. So rigid was the 'Ross Barrier' between the two departments that office legend had it that when Fleischmann stepped off the elevator on the editorial floor one highly unusual day he said, 'It's all right — I have permission to be here!' John McNulty would often exit the elevator with his hands high and shout in mock terror, 'Editorial department! Don't shoot!'
Despite Fleischmann's stated innocence, Ross had reason to resent him. Excited by the success of The New Yorker, Fleischmann actually funded a rival magazine called Stage. Stage targeted the same audience and its editor lured New Yorker writers away with higher pay. Ross was furious and threatened to quit unless Fleischmann withdrew his support. This was nothing new; Ross threatened to quit over anything he felt strongly about; he once threatened to quit over a raise for McKelway. Fleischmann, who had a cold and was fed up with Ross's rudeness, was going to accept his resignation. He even chose a successor. Only the intervention of Ike Shuman prevented history from taking a drastically different course.
Another of Ross's grievances concerned Fleischmann's trying to wrangle theatre tickets out of the magazine's drama critics, which Ross believed would interfere with editorial integrity. And when Fleischmann told Geoffrey Hellman, an agitator for higher pay rates (who Ross always dealt with respectfully) that 'There are times when we think of you as a horse's ass,' Ross forbade Fleischmann from speaking to any New Yorker writer ever again. Finally, Fleischmann briefly contemplated firing Ross, but couldn't cull the necessary support from the magazine's staff members.
To be fair, Ross didn't make life easy for Fleischmann either. He insisted that writers 'tell the truth', no matter which advertisers they alienated. When Fleischmann would call a meeting to explain the subtleties of business to his thick-skulled editor, Ross would listen quietly and then explain why things should be done his way so convincingly that they would wonder how they ever thought otherwise. Then he'd walk out without another word. Ross was convinced that the magazine sold itself and considered the business-side 'chores' a barely necessary nuisance. 'We were beneath contempt,' Fleischmann explained.
Building and Rebuilding
The New Yorker office had a long tradition of reconstruction. Ross disliked 90-degree turns in hallways because he never knew what crazy artist might be coming along, unseen, in the opposite direction. For years a mirror hung at a key intersection so Ross could see around the bend and presumably hide if he didn't like who he saw. Hawley Truax, who feared nearly everything, also feared — not unjustly — collisions at such intersections. Furthermore, Ross professed distaste for separation between everyone and everything, and frequently discussed tearing down all the walls. At the same time, all his nutty artists and writers demanded their own offices, and once installed were impossible to remove. This necessitated the creation of new offices for new staff members as they arrived. These offices were cut out of other offices, hidden inside offices and placed in any widening of the halls, making the New Yorker office floor plan into a veritable maze.
Many practices began in the magazine's tumultuous early days and persisted well beyond any recollection of their original purpose. New Yorker rejection letters all had the Roman numeral 'I' stamped on the bottom left-hand corner. Many young writers were encouraged by the belief that their rejected works were grade-'I' work, but in fact, there was no grade-'II' or grade-'III' rejection letter. Nobody knew why the number was put there in the first place, but it remained for years.
Another New Yorker tradition places two black dots beneath any cartoons that appear above article-text. Nobody is quite sure what purpose the dots serve, but they have always been there, and are still there today. That has not stopped the public from speculating on their purpose. Brendan Gill recalls being pulled over at parties by intelligent and successful professionals who thought the dots symbolised something deep and mystical.
In the early days, The New Yorker could not afford beautiful offices, and therefore took pride in its offices being as ugly as possible. The rickety desks and chairs that sparsely furnished the office looked as if they had been picked up at a flea market — in fact, they had. Paint peeled from walls, plaster fell from ceilings, doors lost their knobs and these were never replaced. Cartoons Thurber drew on the walls remained for years, testament to how rarely the office was painted. The only decorative item in the office was an ugly brazier donated in the early days by Raoul Fleischmann's wife while housecleaning. The New Yorker office was rarely housecleaned, so the brazier remained.
Century of the Comma Man
Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.
— EB White
As editor, Ross demanded perfect clarity and accuracy in every article and cartoon. A piece sent past his desk would return with dozens of appended queries (the record was 140). A cartoon of two elephants looking at their offspring with the caption 'It's about time to tell Junior the facts of life' elicited the question, 'Which elephant is talking?' To a reference in a casual12 to 'the woman taken in adultery', Ross queried, 'Which woman? Hasn't been previously mentioned.' Thurber recalls Ross getting tangled in a line by William Ernest Henley: 'One or two women (God bless them) have loved me.' Ross unhappily felt compelled to rewrite it: 'One or two women (God bless her or them) has or have loved me.' Some writers found Ross's editing entertaining, some found it maddening and some were reduced to near tears at his full-frontal attacks on what had seemed a fine piece of writing.
Ross's quest for clarity led to an overuse of commas famously celebrated in Lynne Truss's grammar book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Thurber recalls a letter from a British professor of punctuation arguing the necessity of approximately 15 commas in as many New Yorker articles. One of his queries concerned a sentence that ran, 'After dinner, the men moved into the living room.' Thurber explained that the comma 'was Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up. There must, as we know, be a comma after every move, made by men, on this earth.'
Ross frequently accosted Hobart Weekes to ask what 'the rule' was, but just as frequently determined that there was none and inserted a comma to be safe. John Duncan Miller, a London Times reporter, suggested that Thurber's biography of Ross be entitled The Century of the Comma Man, but Ross didn't actually love commas; when Brendan Gill told him that Parliamentary laws need to be written up without punctuation lest a misplaced comma change the meaning of a law, Ross delightedly experimented with such writing for several weeks. He eventually gave it up because, even more than clarity, Ross liked subordinate clauses.
Moving the Goddam Rest Home
In 1935,The New Yorker offices moved from 25 West 45th Street to 25 West 43rd. In the new building the editorial department had two floors, the 19th and 20th, which were connected only by a fire escape and the elevator. (This stood until someone kicked out the wall of the fire escape in front of the phobia-laden Shawn, who had staircases put in immediately.) The writers were given offices on the 18th floor, and the business department — 'the guys upstairs' in the old office — became the 'guys downstairs' as they took up their positions on the 17th and 16th floors.
On West 45th, nearly every office had a couch upon the urging of Fleischmann, who strongly believed that mid-afternoon naps were an enlightened business practice. The situation displeased Ross, who would frequently bellow 'It's like a goddam rest home or sun porch or something!' Ross had hoped the couches would be left behind, but some managed to sneak through; EB White insisted on his and frequently used it for its intended purpose.
One thing the new building did not have, on Ross's insistence, was a reception room. Ross had once interviewed a prospective secretary in the reception room and after the interview she'd added, 'Of course I realise what would be expected of a girl in a place like this — I mean in addition to her regular work.' The incident had traumatised Ross, who was squeamish about the explicit ('I am, by God, going to keep sex out of the office!' he frequently snarled) and he outlawed any lounge or gathering place in the new building. Instead, staff members gathered at a widening of the halls near the elevators on the 19th floor, or by the bulletin board and water cooler on the 18th. (A soda machine was later snuck in while Ross was away. He was not happy. 'If we have a candy counter I don't want to know where it is,' was his disgusted reaction.)
The New Yorker Matures
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the magazine grew rapidly. Interestingly, though it targeted the upwardly-mobile urban middle class, by 1930 fully 30% of the readership lived outside of New York City. By 1932 the number had surpassed 50% of the 125,000 readers13, and by 1945 over 73% of the readership lived outside the metropolitan area. By the end of World War II, readership reached 300,000, and Ross, who felt his magazine should interest only a select few, was heard to mutter nervously, 'Too many people. We must be doing something wrong.' The magazine's position as voice of the intellectual and sophisticated appealed to both those that possessed these traits and those who aspired to them.
The Payment System
I want more money I want more money I want more money I want more money I want more money I want more money I want more money I want more money I want more money I want more money I want more money .
— John O'Hara to Ross14
The New Yorker's trajectory from biggest joke to greatest literary magazine is best measured by the loyalty of its writers and artists. Though The New Yorker paid less than any other magazine and staff writers were forced to pad their income with book contracts, stage versions and columns in other periodicals, they remained dedicated first and foremost to The New Yorker. 'I would rather write for The New Yorker at five cents a word than for Cosmopolitan at a dollar a word,' declared Ring Lardner.
New Yorker writers were not salaried. They were paid by the word only after their submission had run. New Yorker legend had it that there were enough edited articles in the galleys for the magazine to run for over ten years if the editor should somehow be incapacitated. Writers never knew when their article would appear in print. To prevent his writers from starving, Ross eventually instituted individual drawing accounts that allowed the writers to spend money against the publication of future pieces. Because The New Yorker required only first rights to everything its writers wrote, the authors would sell any rejected pieces and the reprinting rights of purchased pieces to other publications.
Even with the drawing account and the rights to publish elsewhere, many writers disliked the hand-to-mouth living. Joe Mitchell refused to join the staff until Ross promised him a steady salary. Geoffrey Hellman complained to Raoul Fleischmann about his low pay, received an indifferent response and stormed off to join Time magazine. He was back within two years and found his office exactly as he'd left it. Masterful, elegant writers were attracted to The New Yorker and, once caught, found it difficult to leave. (Rogers EM Whitaker put it somewhat differently, calling New Yorker writers 'congenital unemployables', who were simply incapable of working in a normal office.)
The actual method by which payment for a piece was decided was indecipherable to anyone but Ross. Writers received variable word rates, inexplicable bonuses and apparently arbitrary cost-of-living adjustments. Ross, who loved numbers, would readily pound out typewritten pages to writers explaining how their payment amount had been reached, but his system was so complicated that it baffled tax advisors.
These bonus arrangements are in general use... to stimulate or coerce writers into doing more work. One of them sent Frank Sullivan back to his psychoanalyst within two weeks.
— Harold Ross
In the early years, Ross's biggest obsession was the shorter, more casual articles. He insisted that things be 'funny' and would occasionally stalk his office, eyebrows furrowed, growling, 'We're getting grim!' When the Great Depression hit the magazine and humour seemed scarce, this grim spectre haunted him more and more. Yet while many other periodicals suffered losses during the Depression, The New Yorker first hit its stride, its staff burgeoning with the best writers and artists in the city. It consistently returned higher and higher profits and, padded by advertising, became thicker and thicker15. Ross also ceased to insist that all articles and advertising centre around New York City, and the magazine tentatively branched out to acknowledge the rest of the USA and foreign countries.
Then World War II grabbed the magazine's best talent and sent them to the front. Ross had to scrape the bottom of the barrel and Brendan Gill, then an editor, recalls having to rewrite submissions to make them printable. Luckily, the bottom of the barrel also contained William Shawn, a Talk reporter, who became the magazine's last Genius. Unlike Ross, Shawn had education and sophistication, and under his soft-spoken but firm guidance, the magazine began publishing longer pieces on serious, journalistic topics. Even Ross was impressed to hear that they read and thought highly of his magazine at 10 Downing Street. After some string-pulling by Jane Grant, the US government acknowledged that The New Yorker was as necessary for civilised life as Time and Newsweek and allowed them to print an ad-free 'pony edition' for the troops, which by the end of the War had higher circulation than The New Yorker itself. After the War, Ross allowed Shawn to persuade him to dedicate an entire issue to 'Hiroshima', a long reporting article by John Hersey. This was considered a risky but ground-breaking journalistic step. In 1949, The New Yorker Book of War Pieces was published to high acclaim; it has been called the finest collection of war reporting ever published.
During the McCarthy Era, The New Yorker was accused of communist tendencies. Ross, who had laboured to keep the magazine apolitical and non-partisan, was upset, particularly by one columnist's assertion that 'The New Yorker is red from top to bottom'. 'It isn't even read from cover to cover,' Thurber soothed the agitated editor. But the stereotype persisted, and one publication, after attacking an artist or author as subversive, would add in parentheses, 'Also writes for The New Yorker'.
Passing the Torch
On 6 December, 1951, Harold Ross died during an operation and William Shawn, fact editor and current Genius, succeeded him in the editorial position. The New Yorker, like any good magazine, picked up and went on, despite the loss of its helmsman. When asked, 'What will happen to The New Yorker now that Ross is dead?' Joe Liebling replied, 'The same thing that happened to analysis after Freud died.'