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Harold Ross - The History

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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

[Ross was] an Atlas who lacked muscle tone but who goddam well decided he was going to hold up the world anyway.
— EB White

Tramp Reporter

Harold Ross was born in Aspen, Colorado on 6 November, 1886, to George Ross, a speculator, and Ida Ross, a schoolteacher. There is no doubt that this had an effect on him; years later, Ross loved playing a 'country boy in the big city' routine, though he left Aspen as a child and lived in cities thereafter. His mother drilled the tenets of good grammar into young Harold, making him parse sentences in his spare time. This too, had an effect on him, leading to a deep-seated sense of pedantry. When the US government switched off the silver standard, the mining town of Aspen went bust, leaving the Rosses dirt-poor. This had quite an effect on Ross's mother, who later, when she would visit her affluent son in New York City, would embarrass him by cooking frugal meals in her hotel room or refusing to use the telephone because of the expense. Ross was forced to assure her that the hotel was only a dollar a night and, when they ate out, requested menus without prices.

When Ross was six, his family moved to Salt Lake City, where Ross ran away from home frequently. He completed two years of high school before he fell into a cub reporter programme at the Salt Lake City Tribune and was lost to the more genteel professions forever. He dropped out of high school to bum around the USA as a tramp reporter (a vocation glamorised by Mark Twain in Roughing It). Back then, every mining town and collection of tents had at least one newspaper, usually edited and staffed by a single man. When things got busy, he might hire a wandering reporter to cover a few stories. Ross was one of those men. When the editor of the Marysville Appeal died while Ross was on duty there, he took over for a few weeks until a replacement could be found. Then he tramped off to detail more small-town happenings in more small-town papers in more small towns.

Not a Good Soldier

When war broke out, Ross, like every excitable male in the USA, rushed to enlist. No sooner was Private Ross in France than he realised that he really, really didn't like the army. He enrolled in an officer-training programme, but soon heard about a new military newspaper that was desperately looking for reporters. He applied to be transferred to Paris, where the Stars and Stripes was based but was repeatedly ignored. Ross discovered that he didn't much like learning to be an officer either, so one day he went AWOL and tramped his way to Paris, where he presented himself at the Stars and Stripes office, ready for service. The staff-strapped newspaper was so tearfully grateful to see an experienced newspaperman that the powers that be immediately 'forgot' how he happened to have got there.

At the Stars and Stripes, Ross fell in with a few hotshot New York City reporters, most notably the celebrity theatre critic Alexander Woollcott, whom he befriended. Well, sort of. When Woollcott introduced himself as a former theatre critic for the New York Times, an unglamorous job he'd glamorised, Ross, who had unsuccessfully sought a newspaper job in the big city, burst into exaggerated laughter. Woollcott cut his laughter short by commenting, 'You remind me a great deal of my father's coachman.' And so a rocky friendship was born.

Toward the end of the war, the Stars and Stripes lost its editor and the four main contributors sat down to decide who should take over. Ross suggested they elect one of their members, who could be voted down by all four of them should they tire of taking his orders. After some back-and-forth, Ross was nominated for the position and, Woollcott joked, he kept the staff so busy rushing out on assignment that they could never get together again to vote him down. Ross also began showing symptoms of some of his later tendencies: one Christmas he gave a fellow reporter a page full of commas.

As Editor, Ross concocted several innovative ideas, such as collecting and selling the best cartoons and jokes submitted by the servicemen in a book called Yank Talk. He also insisted on the editorial independence of Stars and Stripes as a serviceman's newspaper, permitting no influence from officers or the military superstructure. His conviction towards this end was so strong that he turned down a promotion and proudly remained a private for the duration of the war. One of his bolder ideas was a campaign for servicemen to 'adopt' French war orphans. Within a few months, he'd raised over 2million francs for almost 3,500 children.

Alexander Woollcott introduced Ross to Jane Grant, an ardent young feminist who had successfully broken into the male-dominated newspaper business, worked on the New York Times and found her way to Paris. The two married secretly, with Woollcott's help1, and following the war, she dragged him back to New York City. Ross unsuccessfully started a continuation of Stars and Stripes called The Home Sector. When that failed, he edited the dying Judge humour magazine for several months, which left him with some strong ideas of what a successful humour magazine should be like. At that point, Judge was so desperate for circulation and advertising that it ran humour appealing to the lowest common denominator: toilet humour, he/she jokes, etc. Ross realised that a magazine could be successful by appealing to a very narrow niche in a very specific location and attracting ads from all the businesses that also cater to that niche in that location.

Ross and Jane bought and remodelled two townhouses in the unsavoury 'Hell's Kitchen' neighbourhood of New York and sold shares to their Stars and Stripes buddies, including (to their dismay) Woollcott. The communal living and dining rooms became something of a 24-hour salon for New York's literati. Ross also participated in a party thrown on Woollcott's behalf (and at his expense: he was listed as all 12 speakers on the programme because of his egotism). The participants enjoyed it so much that they decided to do it again every day, creating what became the famous Algonquin Round Table. Between the nightly carousing in their apartment and the daily verbal fencing at the Algonquin, Ross met New York's young and ambitious, including Raoul Fleischmann, a bored and wealthy member of a bakery-empire family. Jane pinned him as a potential investor in Ross's magazine and coaxed her husband into presenting his idea. Mostly to get away from the flour and yeast (and also because he didn't know any better), Fleischmann agreed to go 50-50 with Ross2. Within a few months he'd nearly wiped out his personal fortune, but the rest is history.

A Genius for Finding Genius

The art of starting a magazine from scratch was to see potential talent in small beginnings, and Ross was great at that.
— Katherine White

Starting a magazine isn't easy. Starting a magazine catering to the cosmopolitan class is even harder. Starting a magazine catering to a cosmopolitan class you don't fit in to is even more difficult. Ross managed to do this by working relentlessly ten hours a day, seven days a week, and by recognising and snapping up talented writers, artists and editors who could fill the gaps in his own abilities. Ross had a vision for his magazine, and if he couldn't always articulate exactly what he was looking for, he knew it when he saw it. Often this found him chasing down talented writers like Groucho Marx and Will Rogers before they became public figures3. If an artist or writer sold three pieces to the magazine, he invited them down for a friendly meeting and possibly official hire. The early magazine was like a revolving door, sucking in promising writers and editors and spitting them out when they failed to produce what Ross needed4.

The cast of characters in those early days was as shifty as the characters in a floating poker game. People drifted in and drifted out. Every week the magazine teetered on the edge of financial ruin. Katherine Angell arrived in 1925... Then Ralph McAllister Ingersoll arrived, right out of the social register. Lois Long, Peter Arno, Rogers Whittaker arrived, right out of the subway. Rea Irvin arrived before anyone else. He was the only person around the place who seemed to know what he was doing... Ross fumed, fussed, broke down partitions, changed the format every issue, strove and strove, cursed and raged.
— EB White

If Ross couldn't quite say what he was trying to do, it was probably because there was no word for it yet. Before the words 'yuppie', 'urbanisation' and 'rising professional middle class' entered the English vocabulary, Ross was editing a magazine that rode the crest of this trend. Though his magazine had pretensions to grandeur, Ross couldn't tolerate the snobbery that filled other glossy 'smart set' magazines with bright pictures of the smiling social élite and not much else. He emphasised content and humour that would appeal to those with education and broad interests. His magazine was officially for the wealthy and sophisticated — unofficially for those with pretensions to be so.

While Ross discarded writers who couldn't produce what he needed, he wheedled, coaxed, begged and bent over backwards to keep those who could. A telegram to EB White howled, 'This thing is a movement and you can't resign from a movement,' while a letter to Dorothy Parker flattered, 'If I never do anything else I can say I ran a magazine that printed your stuff. Tearful thanks.' Some have suggested that the key to Ross's success was his ability to encourage his writers to do their work better than ever by being harder on them than anyone else ever was. 'Nothing is indescribable,' he'd often bark at a writer at a loss for words. And he'd send manuscripts back for writing and rewriting until he was satisfied that they were 'half decent'.

Ross made some enduring contributions to the world of letters through The New Yorker. His 'casual essay' developed into the conversational magazine reporting we know today. He added a dictionary definition to the word 'profile' with the brief sketches of famous figures that ran (and still run) in The New Yorker. And he insisted that the drawing of the cartoon, and not the caption alone, contain the funny element, creating the single-line and no-caption cartoon5.

Married to a Magazine

I'm married to this magazine. It's all I ever think about.
— Harold Ross

By 1926, Ross and Jane were in separate bedrooms. Ross claimed to be tired of Jane's incessant feminist cant, while Jane resented Ross's obsession with the magazine to the point where he called staff meetings in their apartment on Thanksgiving morning. Mostly, though, the peripatetic Ross was sick of his sedentary lifestyle. Jane tried to keep things together, but Ross was adamant. The two divorced quite amicably in 1929. Jane continued contributing to The New Yorker.

By now, Ross was also expanding his circle of friends. Though his staffers were convinced he didn't have a life outside the magazine, Ross actually cut a swath through society, befriending Hollywood starlets, politicians and vaudeville actors. These were the people he fished with, drank with, gambled with and swapped practical jokes with. They were mostly men, because Ross was, beyond everything else, very much a man, with no comprehension of the independent Jazz Age woman.

Though The New Yorker was doing well, between his own messy personal affairs and those of two star staff members — Katherine Angell was obtaining a divorce in Reno while Andy White sulked in Canada — Ross felt the first pangs of magazine-induced ill health. In July, 1929 he made the first of a succession of trips to a sanatorium ('the bughouse', as he called it) to relax and regenerate.

The X-Ray of [my] stomach ulcer shows that it was a beauty.
— Harold Ross

Thanks to the preaching of clinicians, Ross learned that it was unhealthy to get hysterical, and the antic editor of the 1920s calmed down a tad in the 1930s. He also gave up drinking, but slowly. Life was looking smooth until he married Marie Françoise Elie (Frances), a French ex-pat who spoke only slightly more English than Ross spoke French, in 1934. Their daughter Patricia was born shortly after in 1935, and rough Ross turned out to be a doting father. Patty's first word (she was told) was 'goddammit'. The growing family bought ten acres in Connecticut, where Ross could work in serene quiet or shoot crows when he needed exercise.

Keep a sort of corridor around my desk so I can pace: I do a lot of pacing.
— Ross's sole injunction to the interior decorator

Ross and Frances didn't see eye to eye on much. She wanted to accompany him on his private bedside visits to Clarence Day; he wanted her to accompany him for chats with prostitutes. (Only chats. Ross was curious about their lives.) They divorced in 1939, and the next afternoon Frances remarried. Ross hit it off with her new husband right away, pleased that she'd made a good choice.

My Life on a Limb

Any American can be taken for 17,000 or 20,000 dollars. But it takes a really great eccentric to be robbed of $71,000 right under his busy nose.
— James Thurber in The Years with Ross

Ross was terrible about keeping track of his finances, which were particularly confusing because of his gambling habit. It wasn't unusual for him to sign over power of attorney to a trusted personal secretary. Harold Winney was one of those. Harold Winney also swindled Ross out of $71,000 by forging his signature on checks and even drawing his salary in advance. Predictably, Ross's initial reaction was pity — 'Christ, if I'd known he was in the hole I could have helped him out' — and humour — 'I was hit on the head by my own champagne corks' (of a celebration party Winney threw at the Astor). When the press got hold of the story, though, he moved on to embarrassment.

When his friend, vaudeville actor Dave Chasen, was put out of business by the talkie, Ross pulled strings to get him hired in Hollywood. When that didn't work, he helped him establish Chasen's Southern Barbecue. The restaurant was a success, and an enthusiastic Ross (VIP at ritzy '21' restaurant) kept sending money, recipes and suggestions. Today, Chasen's still has a New Yorker Room for private parties, decorated with pictures of Manhattan, drawings by Thurber and an oil portrait of Harold Ross.

I was going to wire you, but I couldn't think of anything to say that would sound tactful; I'm hypersensitive because I hear Harper's says I wasn't tactful, which is the grossest misstatement ever made about me. I am the goddamnest mass of tact known to the human race.... Fortune says I never read a book and Harper's says I'm tactless. American reporting is at a low ebb.
— Harold Ross

Ross kept in touch with his scattered contributors with tens of thousands of letters, each typed with two fingers moving like pistons6 and each exhibiting his wry, self-deprecating wit, his concern for his writers and his concern for his magazine. For example, after a newspaper printed that he was socially unacceptable at the best Manhattan households, Ross rallied his friends, saying that between coercion and calling in old favours, he was sure they could obtain him invitations to at least five or six highbrow parties. Many of his correspondents saved his letters, assuming they would one day be collected as a treasure trove of humour. They were, though not until over 50 years after his death7.

I'm more dilapidated at the moment than Yugoslavia.
— Harold Ross

Ross frequently grumbled that he'd entitle his autobiography 'My Life on a Limb'. Certainly, just as things seemed to be going smoothly, something — like World War II  — would steal away his writers and make life difficult. ('Something I did to God!') Nightmares frequently had him thrashing about in bed. By that time, Ross's ulcers were an establishment, and he carried a suitcase of medicine around that he'd imbibe throughout the day, toasting the health of his companion as he glugged the potions down. His meals were so bland he hardly had any interest in eating them. He was at the Lahey Clinic contemplating surgery when gastroenterologist Dr Sara Lahey converted him to her eating plan that, to his amazement, included foods with French names. He collaborated with her and The New Yorker's food editor to publish Good Food for Bad Stomachs, a cookbook with 500 appealing recipes for those with ulcers. Ross, 'a duodenum-scarred veteran of many years of guerilla service in the Hydrochloric War', wrote the introduction.

No reporter or editor can have friends.
— Harold Ross

Thanks to his insistence on printing the truth, Ross's social life was volatile. After printing a profile tearing apart gossip columnist Walter Winchell, Ross was unceremoniously booted from a party at the Stork Club, Winchell's VIP domain. After a profile of Woollcott titled 'Big Nemo', he lost that friend too. And a profile of Time, Life and Fortune magazines' baby tycoon founder Henry Luce poured gasoline on a smouldering feud between those magazines and The New Yorker.

Public Terror

After midnight at Dave Chasen's one summer, two guests decided it would be fun to skinny-dip in the swimming pool. After a few minutes of great fun, they noticed that Chasen and Ross hadn't joined them — in fact, Ross had his back firmly to the pool and was discussing parsley with great interest. It seems odd, then, that Ross would marry the instigator of the event, Ariane Allen, but he did. She was barely half his age when they married in 1940. Ariane seemed to have real affection for Ross, but if Ross returned the feelings, it wasn't for long. They never fought, though Ross was at his most rude when she threw a dinner party, which is saying something.

Ross's reputation as a mad genius had expanded beyond the office, and though he avoided publicity (an honorary degree, grudgingly accepted from Dartmouth University, made him feel 'sheepish'), that didn't stop journalists from writing about him. About a Harper's profile, HL Mencken wrote:

There was material enough to scare half the children in America to death, but all the authors managed to do is to touch the edges of it. I am almost tempted to spit on my hands and do [a profile] myself.... I'll print it in either the Christian Herald or the Police Gazette.

When The New Yorker attacked broadcast advertising in Grand Central Station, Ross put himself in the limelight for the first time by testifying at the public hearing. The fun started when Ross was introduced as the editor of 'an adult comic book'. When Ross was asked on the stand for his occupation, he answered, 'Editor of an adult comic book edited by a person who commutes to and from the Grand Central Terminal.' The attorney for Grand Central then challenged Ross's statement that the broadcasts gave him ringing ears by asking about his hearing. 'It is perfect, it is too good. Under the circumstances I am thinking of having an eardrum punctured,' was Ross's pointed response. The attorney then accused Ross of telling readers to complain, something Ross denied. When the attorney read a few lines from Talk of the Town that did tell readers to complain, Ross was unperturbed. 'I beg your pardon,' he said. 'I guess I must have read that in Grand Central Station.'

In 1950, the 'adult comic book' celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gala affair at the Ritz and the terrifying Ross presided, for once too gleeful to be upset by all the socialising expected of him. Ida Ross, who always cherished the hope that her son would one day be connected with the Saturday Evening Post, was no longer around to appreciate the success surrounding her little Harold.

Only months after half the celebrities in America pumped his arm, Ross was knocked horizontal by a pain in the chest that his doctors diagnosed as pleurisy. They prescribed several months of bed rest, with which Ross, unexpectedly, complied. In June, he returned to Lahey for an examination, where the doctors discovered that actually, the problem was cancer of the windpipe. As terrifying as the diagnosis was, Ross only told his good friend Hawley Truax and his attorney. And with his usual aplomb, he professed some pride to be suffering 'the same damn thing as the king of England'. Radiation therapy seemed to work and in September Ross returned to the office, staying at the Algonquin Hotel across the street (he and Ariane had separated). It didn't take long, though, before Ross realised that something was amiss, and by December his doctors thought the cancer might have metastasised to his lungs. Ross had exploratory surgery at Lahey on 6 December, only stopping to give Patty, who was at a boarding school, an unexplained hug along the way. The doctors were right: a huge lump dominated his right lung. They removed the lung, but Ross's heart failed and he died there on the table.

Truax passed the news along to the New Yorker staff, who were struck dumb. The New Yorker office narrowed to encompass only a corner office, where a stricken Andy White composed a quick obituary and an equally stricken Wolcott Gibbs offered and sought solace and advice. The most haunting spectre was blind James Thurber, who never went anywhere without someone to lead him, groping his way through the office crying 'Andy! An-dy!' in grief. The original circle was back together, but lacking the man who had made them what they now were.

But the greatest tribute to Ross, White later said, was the utter silence of all these egotistical, voluble and boisterous artists and writers at his funeral. A Yale chaplain who had never met Ross gave the eulogy, while all the assembled greats sat 'so quietly, so respectfully, and so completely forlorn.'

Ross was not easily forgotten. After a party between the staff of Punch and The New Yorker Thurber said to a writer, 'I'm sorry you didn't get to meet Ross.' 'Oh but I did,' the writer replied. 'Nobody talked about anyone else.'

1Afterwards he presented them with an itemised bill that included $100 for 'personal wear and tear'.2Jane had allowed Ross to save his salary for this purpose, while she supported both of them. Even so, she had to dig up a few more investors to keep their end of the deal.3To give credit where it's due, Jane Grant often tipped him off about potential writers.4Usually. He hired the obsessively efficient Ralph McAllister Ingersoll both because of his social-register name and because Ross spilled ink on his white suit during their interview, and eventually fired him when he got sick of his nervous habits (such as chewing paper clips).5Back then, most cartoons had two lines, usually spoken between two characters in the picture. Ross pointed out that a discerning reader could infer the first line by reading the second.6He wouldn't look at the keys, and if he began off-centre, his secretary would have to decode the results.7Most of the quotes attributed to Ross in these entries are excerpted from Thomas Kunkel's Letters from the Editor.

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