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Harold Ross - The Man

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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

If you get him down on paper nobody will believe it.
— Wolcott Gibbs to James Thurber, author of The Years with Ross
He is like your skyscrapers. They are unbelievable, but there they are.
— Paul Nash

If ever a man embodied the maxim 'looks can deceive', Harold Ross was the man. Known to all the world merely as 'Ross' (except to the frequent irate contributor, who was likely to bellow 'Harold!' while waving one of his messy query sheets) he did not look, act or speak like anyone imagined the founder and editor of The New Yorker should have.

The Man on the Street (or in the Office)

At your first meeting, he was liable to follow his initial greeting with an outrageous comment calculated to scandalise: he declared to Paul Nash (artist) that music and painting were the two phony arts. He declared to Sherwood Anderson that 'there hasn't been a decent short story written in this country since O Henry died'. He greeted Peter De Vries with 'Can you do the racetrack department?' ('No, but I can imitate a wounded gorilla,' responded a debriefed De Vries.) In the early days, he would greet almost anyone with 'Maybe you can run the magazine.'

A Dishonest Lincoln

One in my calling should, of course, look hard-pressed, harassed, and careless, but not disorderly. I'll get my suit pressed up. The basic trouble is, though, that I'm sort of warped.
— Harold Ross regarding a photo-op

His clothes were appallingly unbecoming. His lanky, slouched figure defied the norms of human proportions; Dorothy Parker observed that his limbs seemed 'to be basted together'. He was once asked to leave the store by a Brooks Brothers salesman after a long and fruitless search for a jacket that would fit his rounded shoulders, hollow chest and long arms. Even when Ross could find something to fit, his taste was questionable. For years he wore high-button boots because he thought it gave him a debonair, New Yorker-style look. And one morning he arrived wearing a hat so hideous that his secretary felt compelled to throw it out and buy a replacement.

If you were to meet Ross, however, the first thing to catch your eye — and hold it — would be his face. He lacked the refined, chiselled look; his features were rugged, as if modelled out of clay. Women thought him incredibly manly. Men thought him incredibly ugly. Wolcott Gibbs described him as someone who could play Caliban or Mr Hyde without make-up. Alexander Woollcott, in a fit of unusually bad humour, said his friend looked 'like a dishonest Lincoln'. In truth, though Ross aged rapidly, consumed by worry for his magazine and poor health, he never could have played Hyde without make-up. For a good part of his life, he could play the frightened cartoon character, because his hair, all three inches of it, stood vertically at attention. Then a fashionable lady confessed that she yearned to take off her shoes and walk through his pompadour. This comment kept the gossip columnists unbearably gleeful, so Ross made an emergency visit to his barber and returned with forcefully flattened hair.

Competing with his hair for prominence was a gap between Ross's two top front teeth. This gap was so wide that the military felt compelled to take a full tooth census to double check that he wasn't really missing one. Ross's dentist had a desperate yearning to bridge another tooth into the gap. Ross refused, saying God gave him the gap and he'd goddam well keep it.

Always in Mid-flight

He was always in mid-flight, or on the edge of his chair, alighting or about to take off.
— James Thurber

Despite all this, far the most stimulating aspect of Ross's face was his inability to keep it expressionless. 'Poker faced he was not,' commented Parker. 'Expressions, sometimes several at a time, would race across his countenance, and... when he thought nobody was looking, not the brow alone but the whole expanse would be corrugated by his worries.'

The drama of Ross pontificating didn't end with his facial expressions. When speaking, his long fingers would dart about, emphasising his point. He would sweep one hand through his hair, rattle the change in his pocket1 with another and throw his arms about. His voice was loud and rasping and his vocabulary was rife with expletives (particularly 'goddam' and 'jeezus'), except when there were women and children in the room. Once, Ross heard that Thurber had been impersonating him at a party.

'I heard you were imitating me last night, Thurber,' he snarled. 'I don't know what the hell there is to imitate — go ahead and show me.' All this time his face was undergoing its familiar changes of expression and his fingers were flying. His flexible voice ran from a low register of growl to an upper register of what I can only call Western quacking.
— James Thurber in The Years with Ross

Thurber's impersonation would have entertained New York's literati; their attitude to Ross ranged from an amused tolerance to admiration and awe. He had great personal charisma and was an excellent conversationalist, qualities perplexing in someone Harpo Marx described as 'a cowhand who had lost his horse'. Once the famed columnist Franklin P Adams whisked Ross up north for some tobogganing. 'What does Ross look like tobogganing?' they asked him eagerly upon his return. 'Well,' he responded, 'You know what Ross looks like not tobogganing.'

Ross would sometimes check himself into a sanitorium for his health. Thurber reports that at one sanitarium, everyone's favourite patient was the irascible man 'who thought he was editor of The New Yorker'. There is no reason to believe this story is true, but there's no reason it couldn't be.

The Friend

His warmth was genuine, but always carefully covered over by gruffness or snarl or a semblance of deep disapproval.
— James Thurber

Compared to the lightning-fast wits he kept company with at the Algonquin Round Table, Ross seemed socially inept. He wasn't, really. He simply felt more comfortable with some people than with others. Women in general bothered him, and only a few could spend a protracted amount of time in his presence without eliciting a frustrated cry of 'I'm surrounded by women and children!' Yet his treatment of women was generally impeccable, in a 19th Century sort of way. Younger women described him as 'gentle' while older women found him 'courtly'. To women who knew more than he did, he was downright docile. When in conversation, he would give his female partner his complete and genuine attention, making him a great favourite.

He kept a store of melodramatic and sarcastic lines he could throw out when dealing with the difficult people in his circles: 'You can't win', 'Jeezus Christ!', 'Done and done!', 'You have me there', 'Get it on paper!', 'God how I pity me!' and a friendly 'Go to hell' for those who got the best of him. Yet he'd bid farewell with a limp wave of his hand and a heartfelt 'God bless you' (or, to one writer absconding to Hollywood, 'God bless you McNulty, goddamit.').

Father, Uncle, Brother, Guardian, Confessor and Nursemaid

I had never heard such a loud voice over the telephone and I had never been encouraged before by an employer, so it was a memorable occasion.
— EB White, recalling his first conversation with Ross

Ross hid his concern behind this rough exterior that few bothered to penetrate. Those who did were richly rewarded. Once Ross befriended someone, he was a friend for life, and a dedicated friend too. When he helped Dave Chasen establish a restaurant in Beverley Hills, he passed along any recipes or restaurateuring tips he came across, but was horrified when Chasen tried to pay him huge monetary returns on his investment. When artist Saul Steinberg was drafted into the military, Ross pulled strings to turn his slouching, unmilitary artist into an officer. When James Thurber began going blind, Ross came up with increasingly wild ways for Thurber to continue drawing cartoons for the magazine. When Ellin Mackay, the young socialite whose article 'Why We Go To Cabarets' put The New Yorker on the high-society radar screen, became embroiled in a messy romance2, Ross and his wife hid her from the press in their apartment. He helped Philip Hamburger secure a larger apartment when he deemed it necessary ('I saw your wife on the street today. For chrissake, she's pregnant!'). If Ross heard that one of 'his' writers or poets was strapped for cash, he would buy a piece he had no intention of running, and after holding it for a while, return it for reselling elsewhere. He would quibble over dollars in payment for a submission, but slide the contributor a hundred bucks out of his own pocket if he or she was hard up.

White: Was very sorry to hear about your father and send my sympathies, which is about all I have to say except that after you get to be 30 people you know keep dropping off all the time and it's a hell of a note.
— A condolence letter from Ross to White
Keep him down there until he can walk. Wheeling him through town might have a permanent effect on him. Also, he might get cold and wet.
— Ross to Mrs Thurber after James Thurber's surgery

Ross wasn't just an editor; for many of his contributors he was father, uncle, brother, guardian, confessor and nursemaid. He sent Carmine Peppe to college at his own expense. He worried when White wasn't happy or when Dorothy Parker attempted a suicide, and wrung his hands when Wolcott Gibbs had a liquor-induced meltdown — all of which happened frequently. He encouraged his writers with long letters laden with concern ('how is your health, loved your last story, can you send us another?'), short ones laden with tough love ('write something goddamit!') or wheedling ones ('If you get that story done I'll take steps to get you a new cushion for your chair'). And when Brendan Gill sent him a wooden skunk because he felt unappreciated, Ross responded with a three-page, single-spaced letter explaining how much Gill was loved and esteemed. The bottomless TLC needed by the artists and writers he already knew may have generated his famous horror of meeting new additions to the staff. Ross often feared that he was running a psychiatric clinic and not a magazine: 'What I'm running here is a goddam bughouse! Not a man in the place without a screw loose!'

Ross defended his writers and artists to the death. When Gibbs wrote a less-than-complimentary profile of Life and Time magazine's founder Henry Luce, Ross responded to Luce's outraged letter with a point-by-point multi-page response3. Ross once defended a negative book review with a letter to the publisher that began, 'Dear Bennett: You are incapable of ratiocination,' and ended 'You are my natural enemy.'

He wasn't kidding either. Though The New Yorker didn't pay much, Ross fought for his contributors' rights to pursue income elsewhere through reprints, anthologies and stage or screen adaptations. Ross fought for better royalty rates on books, fair anthology arrangements and republishing rights for writers. He would buttonhole producers to suggest plays and movies based on his writers' works. At the time, advertisers would copy an artist's style for their ads; Ross encouraged artists to sign their names in the corner of their work to differentiate the real from the forged. In the tacit war between artists/writers and their publishers, Ross was a fearsome foe of the publishers.

This even extended to himself as the bad guy. Early in the magazine's indigent days, Ross developed the convenient theory that 'if you pay a writer too well he loses the incentive to work'. When one of his authors pointed out that a contributor to every issue would still be earning less than a clerk, a stunned Ross began rolling out fat bonuses indiscriminately.

Hippo Jokester

Ross enjoyed a good joke, and it didn't matter if it was on him or not. As a reporter, his editor once sent him to hop a freight train to the Sierras for a story. The editor then asked a sheriff at the destination to arrest Ross as a joke. An indignant Ross insisted he was a reporter, but his newspaper denied knowing anyone by his name. Realising he'd been had, Ross spent the following few days regaling the small-time crooks in the jail with lurid descriptions of the three murders he was wanted for.

His favourite subject for practical jokes was Alexander Woollcott, whose friendship with Ross rapidly became tenuous. Woollcott was pompous and mercurial, was built (aptly put by Ross) like 'the first joint of your thumb' and had a higher opinion of himself than most other people did. Ross found him intolerable. One joke Ross played involved a portrait of Woollcott, of which the subject was particularly proud. Ross had an artist friend copy it with one difference: Woollcott's head was looking to the side. Ross replaced the portrait with the copy during a party and stared at it until other people noticed something was wrong too. Woollcott was supposedly disconcerted, and after the party Ross switched the pictures again, hoping to make his friend doubt his own sanity.

Another time, Ross swapped a silver-headed cane Woollcott won for accurately predicting the theatre season's hits and flops, then joined in the search with the cane up his trouser leg. A few days later, Ross arranged for a friend on a transatlantic voyage to cable Woollcott, 'I seem to have picked up by accident a silver-headed cane belonging to you. I shall be in Egypt for three years. What do you want me to do with it?' Woollcott was not amused and Ross returned the cane wrapped in such a way that it took three hours to get loose.

Yet another time, after Woollcott submitted a particularly effusive piece on the Antioch Chalice, Ross had a friend cable Woollcott that the chalice was a hoax. Woollcott called Ross frantic, demanding that he yank the piece. Ross mournfully told him it was too late, the magazine had gone to print.

Woollcott was equally unpleasant to Ross, but had to contend with a man who had the hide of a hippo. If Ross received a particularly insulting letter from Woollcott, he was liable to distribute copies to his friends. Ross could dish it out, but he could also swallow it.

For this reason, Ross's other favourite subject for jokes was himself. When he wasn't raving and nail-biting, he could laugh at the ludicrous aspect of his life with endearing ease. Thurber's teasing cartoons of Ross during Tuesday afternoon art meetings hung on Ross's wall for years. When gossip columnist Walter Winchell wrote that Ross didn't wear underpants, Ross removed the pair he had on and posted them to Winchell. When White's car was stolen and used in a bank robbery, Ross got a kick out of telling the inquiring policemen that White had been silent and brooding lately (a description of White that was not infrequently apt).

We have to maintain tone in The New Yorker and have a rule against mentioning bartenders, sheepherders, portrait painters, Long Island millionaires, and Chicagoans. Especially those that have insulted my mother.

I am not God, however. The realisation of this came slowly and hard some years ago, but I have swallowed it by now.

My regards to you both, and tell Humphrey I'm praying every night that the baby doesn't look like him.

My ulcer has come to be my pal; it's the best alibi I've ever had, and has simplified my social life beyond belief.

All bothersome noisy drunks that show up anywhere... are always old pals of mine, without exception. It has been that way all my life. It's my fate.

— excerpted from letters by Harold Ross

The Man Who Couldn't Get Into Grand Central Station

Ross liked to pigeonhole people. He had a way of storing random bits of information about a person in his head, and once entrenched the information was well nigh impossible to remove. 'White can drive a car,' Ross once noted, and months later asked White to give him driving lessons. When one reporter had to postpone a proposed Talk item because the Grand Central stationmaster became ill, Ross labelled the fellow as 'the man who couldn't get into Grand Central'. Other random items that caught were 'Gill doesn't know hardship'4 and 'Thurber is crazy'5.

The Editor

Aside from his appearance, Ross had two additional outstanding traits: his ignorance and his pedantry. Ross may have exaggerated his ignorance, since there is nothing like sitting opposite a blank-faced rube to convince reporters that they can explain something simply. But as a high school dropout, he was certainly deficient in the area most valued by his companions: literature. The entire office was convulsed the day he peered around the Thurber-White office door and asked, 'Is Moby Dick the whale or the man?' And when Ross would hold up a piece of poetry and ask with guileless curiosity, 'Why should I print this?' Katherine White would explain with touching patience.

'His ignorance was not, as it so often is in an adult, either exasperating or tiresome. There was an innocence to it — no airs, no pretence; if he did not know a thing, he asked about it. Usually the answer delighted him, and always it astonished him,' wrote Dorothy Parker. The 'Gee Whiz Guy', as Thurber dubs the ever-astonished Ross in his memoir, was once spied at a party lecturing the fashionable crowd on the goddam marvel that is menstruation. They were a rapt audience.

Ross has the charm of gaucherie.
— Charles McArthur

If Ross was ignorant, he was not ignorant of that fact, and was constantly trying to correct it. He loved facts and figures, gleefully disseminating information on how dark a bar may legally be or the name for broken glass. Upon hearing that Admiral Peary had brought the Museum of Natural History a 36-ton meteorite, the Gee Whiz Guy was awed. 'Jeezus! I hope they were expecting it!' he exclaimed.

'I am employed by The New Yorker largely as an idea man,' he once wrote, and indeed, his boundless curiosity generated many of the ideas that became New Yorker pieces.

When his wonder was about more mundane things than the number of lights in the top of the Chrysler Building, Ross hit the reference books. In Gibbs's play Season in the Sun, a character based on Ross hears that a hurricane is approaching. Unfamiliar with the phenomenon, he looks it up. Winds howl, waters deluge, glass rattles in the windowpanes, but the character is oblivious, sitting and memorising wind patterns and storm velocities.

Ross's favorite reference book was Fowler's Modern English Usage. He was so inspired by Fowler's four-page discussion of the difference between 'which' and 'that' that he had it photocopied and distributed around the office. In a 1948 Christmas Comment, White starred Ross as a modern Scrooge who 'hated wise men, whether from the East or the West, hated red ribbons, dripping candles... not to mention the low-lying cloud of unwritten thank-you letters hanging just above the horizon'. Ross-Scrooge is softened by the sight of his Bible, Fowler's. He reads his favourite passages aloud, while the narrator hastily interjects examples of usage from the New Testament. At the end, Ross leaves in high spirits laden with wrapped gifts and White concludes that 'Christmas is where the heart is' — in Ross's case, it was a relative pronoun.

Sharpshooter with a Knitting Needle

Just cross out all the proposed changes you don't agree with, including the several inserted commas if you don't want them.
— Harold Ross
We don't print riddles. A writer should never arouse curiosity without satisfying it.
— Harold Ross

Ross was an extraordinary pedant with the editorial pencil. Once he queried a sentence by Vladimir Nabokov that included the phrase 'the click of the nutcracker being passed'. Asked Ross: 'Are the Nabokovs a one-nutcracker family?' Nabokov changed 'the' to 'a'. In John Hersey's famous 'Hiroshima', he challenged a description of bicycles as 'lopsided', since they only had two dimensions. Hersey changed it to 'crumpled'.

His respect for the reader led to a practice known as 'pegging' — establishing the who-what-where-when-why-how within the first few paragraphs, and never springing any unnecessary surprises later on. His query sheets became the stuff of legends, littered with 'who he?', 'what mean?' and 'why in hell?' Robert Benchley would cross the queries out and write 'You keep out of this, Ross,' while Margaret Case Harriman returned hers with doodled illustrations in the margins. AJ Liebling had 'who he?' painted under the name on his office door. Ross would tell his editors to cross out queries that didn't make sense, but some writers enjoyed his nitpicking so much that they requested their query sheets intact.

Though the source of jokes, Ross's queries set the standard for clarity and good writing. He couldn't always say why he didn't like a sentence, but he knew when it wasn't right. According to Thurber, Ross had such an intuitive feel for the flow of writing that he could tell when a sentence had been left out in the rewriting.

We have carried editing to a very high degree of fussiness here, probably to a point approaching the ultimate. I don't know how to get it under control.
— Harold Ross

Ross's sharpshooting extended well beyond writing. Ross conducted weekly art meetings armed with a knitting needle for pointing out problems with drawings. 'Where am I standing?' he'd ask of a drawing with aerial perspective. 'In a helicopter? In an apartment across the street?' He sent back a drawing of a dusty Model T on a dusty road for 'better dust' and once snapped 'That isn't a butler it's a banker!' and sent the banker back with orders for the artist to 'make a butler out of this fellow'.

He was an impossible man to work for: rude, ungracious and perpetually dissatisfied with what he read, and I admire him more than anyone I have met in professional life. Only perfection was good enough for him, and on the rare occasions he encountered it, he viewed it with astonished suspicion... once he sat down and wrote me a letter of congratulations... those rare kind words meant more to me than any compliments from reviewers, and I wish I could afford a tombstone large enough to hold the letter.
— Ogden Nash
I've become reconciled to from six to 12 people being mad at me at any given time.
— Harold Ross

Not in Front of the Ladies

A great source of editorial fun — at least for the writers — was Ross's prudishness. Hard-playing, rough-talking Ross believed his magazine was 'a family magazine goddamit', and should be acceptable reading for ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages. From the start, his writers tried to sneak risqué humour past his naïve nose. Ross was horrified to discover that a Peter Arno cartoon depicting a young couple, the man holding the back seat of a car and telling a policeman 'We'd like to report a stolen vehicle', contained innuendo. (He'd thought it would have been equally funny if the fellow had been holding a steering wheel.) The outcome was hyper-vigilance on Ross's part, with some entertaining results. Ross once pencilled a horrified 'Oh my!' into the margins of a Comment piece that contained the words 'erect', 'penetrate' and 'rubbers' within a few lines of each other. EB White informed him that he was crazy, to which Ross just grinned; the Comment ran unchanged. Another time, Ross noticed a nipple in a spot drawing scheduled to run the next day. He sent the drawing up to Katherine White to deal with; she calmly cut 'the offending protuberance' out of the drawing and ran it with the gap.

The Father

If fathers are soft on their daughters and divorced fathers even softer, Ross was the softest of the soft. He adored his daughter Patricia from the moment she was put into his arms. He toted her around almost everywhere, spoke to her like an adult and was pleased to give in to her every whim. His idea of discipline was to beseech, 'Please listen to what your father tells you, Patty dear.' Not even he could deny that she had him wrapped around her little finger; in a goofy way, he didn't mind it there. His central worry was that she would grow up snobbish. Frequently, the two would stroll through Manhattan's less savoury neighbourhoods so that Patricia, who attended a boarding school, would see what real life was like. Whenever she was at his Stamford home, he would put her to bed, conducting heart-to-heart talks about the merits of hard work, valuing people above things and being careful about men. He'd also give her pep talks when she did poorly in school because of her dyslexia and reassured her that besides academic intelligence, there was common sense, which was equally important.

Ross often seemed a man of contradictions, a man who displayed sophomoric rudeness6 and courtly manners; incisive intelligence and vast simplicity7; punctilious perfectionism and despicable disorder8. For outsiders, it seemed inconceivable that he could edit The New Yorker; for those who knew him, the magazine was a direct reflection of the man.

During the first half hour, I felt that Ross was the last man in the world who could edit the New Yorker. I left there realising that nobody else in the world could.
— John Duncan Miller
1Once Ross was caught in a cab with only a $10 bill, and the cabbie had no change. From then on, Ross carried $5 worth of change in his pockets to prevent any such traumatic incident from recurring.2With Irving Berlin.3He pointed out that it was a parody of Time magazine, 'where nobody is described in a way that would please his mother'. He added that 'Since the article was a parody, some errors would only contribute to the general effect' and signed off 'Harold Ross, Small man... furious... mad... without taste', all adjectives Time magazine had used to describe him.4Brendan Gill had an independent income and really didn't know the pecuniary hardships of most writers.5A conclusion Thurber encouraged.6He used well-aimed spitballs to catch friends' attention at parties.7Once he gave his friend Mayor O'Dwyer a parking ticket to 'take care of'. He was astonished when the mayor described how he'd taken care of it: 'I paid it.'8The floor of his office was the depository for his coat and hat, as well as crumpled correspondence and old page proofs.

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