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Katharine S White - Rewriter of Noon

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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 | Katharine S White - Rewriter of Noon | EB White - Most Companionable of Writers | James Thurber - Raconteur Extraordinaire | Wolcott Gibbs - Surgeon with Words | William Shawn - Invisible Editor

A whiz — John Updike
Tenacious, indomitable, uncompromising — Isabel Russell
Rock of Gibraltar — Frank Sullivan
Fountain and shrine — James Thurber
Not unattractive — Harold Ross

Introducing: Katharine White, of Ross's New Yorker.

Katharine Sergeant

Born on 17 September, 1892, Katharine was the youngest of three sisters in an upper-middle-class Brookline, Massachusetts family. She became acquainted with classical literature at a very young age, and at Miss Winsor's school in Boston she was nicknamed Goody Sergeant behind her back because she was well behaved, solemn and at the top of the class.

At the time, American secondary schools struggled to prepare their students for the two most difficult college entrance exams in the country: those of Harvard and Bryn Mawr. So it is not startling that after graduating Miss Winsor's, Katharine chose to continue her education at Bryn Mawr. Bryn Mawr was established by Martha Carey Thomas, a feminist with a PhD in philosophy. Bryn Mawr graduates left with a thoroughly classical education, fluency in four languages and up-to-date knowledge of economics and politics. They were fiercely independent and ready to make their mark on the world. When Katharine told a Bryn Mawr friend that she was engaged to Ernest Angell, a senior in Harvard Law School and an old friend, the friend's reaction was, 'Oh Katharine, how perfectly awful!'

Katharine was a conscientious but not obsessive student. She was part of the 'Inner Shrine', a group of the top six students, but didn't bother memorising the 300 lines of Hamlet necessary to answer one test question for Shakespeare class. With a friend, she revived and co-edited a bimonthly magazine called Tipyn O' Bob and edited The Lantern, the college's literary annual.

Katharine Sergeant Angell

In spring, 1914, Katharine graduated in fourth place out of a class of 79. On 22 May, 1915, after a year of travel and hospital volunteering, Katharine Sergeant became Katharine Sergeant Angell. She moved to Ernest's home town of Cleveland, Ohio, where she kept house for four months before taking a job to 'earn a maid'. (Katharine's daughter Nancy, who was born in 1916, said she didn't think her mother could boil an egg.) She and Ernest joined with a few friends to form the Cleveland Play House, a theatrical group. Then, in 1917, Ernest left for France to help devise a life-insurance system for American troops at war. Katharine eventually retreated back to Brookline, where she took a series of small jobs, supposedly to support herself but actually because she enjoyed being professionally productive.

Ernest returned from the war a changed man. He moved the family to New York, which better suited his newly-acquired worldliness, and found a mistress, which better suited his newly-acquired French views on love. Katharine took another series of small jobs and gave birth to Roger. Then she heard about a part-time position on a new magazine called The New Yorker. She applied and got it, at $25 a week. Two weeks later, her salary was double that and she was working full-time. By the autumn of 1925, she was an editor.

At The New Yorker

It would be difficult to overstate Katharine's contribution to the magazine. She established the ground rules by which advertisements were accepted into the magazine and helped editor Harold Ross make decisions about what artwork to include in each issue and she explained to him why certain pieces of writing had merit (he had never graduated high school). She persuaded Ross to run serious poetry alongside the light verse. She established what would become known as a 'New Yorker story': one that follows the development of a character or situation, 'free of the burden of plot'1. She recognised and bought the first works of such literary lights as EB White, James Thurber, Vladimir Nabokov2, John O'Hara, Clarence Day, John Updike, Marianne Moore, Jean Stafford, Ogden Nash and John Cheever, among others. Ross recognised her natural superiority in such matters and made her his right-hand woman. The two became solid, though platonic, friends. As a token of his appreciation, Ross presented Katharine with a signed picture of himself inscribed, 'To Katharine Angell, God bless her, who brought this on herself.'

Katharine was short but with aristocratic presence. Her hair, which had never been cut, was neatly twisted on the back of her head. Though she seemed cool and unapproachable at first, Katharine knew how to look beyond the coarse exterior of most writers and reach the person beyond.

I noted that she had a lot of black hair and the knack of making a young contributor feel at ease. I sat there peacefully gazing at the classic features of my future wife without — as usual — knowing what I was doing.
— EB White

Her ability to deal with even the most difficult writers meant that Ross and fellow editor Wolcott Gibbs cheerfully passed her the most obnoxious writers, such as John O'Hara or Alexander Woollcott. Katharine used a combination of maternal concern and firmness to give each writer what he needed. She perfected a style of editor's letter that combined personal and business, expressing interest and sometimes regret, always encouragement, often comfort. Her writers soon came to love and trust her. Vladimir Nabokov sent her Lolita to preview before publishing it and John O'Hara went through the trouble of sobering up before every editing session with her. Woollcott considered her a good friend, but enjoyed seeing how far he could push her. He refused to be edited as a rule, but would deign to allow her to plead with him in his own living room, where he would usually be dressed in his pyjama pants and dressing gown, his potbelly protruding slightly between the two. Usually — because on one notable occasion he opened the door in the nude. To his chagrin, Katharine didn't blink. 'Go back and put your clothes on, Mr Woollcott,' she ordered.

Her perspicacity extended to Ross himself, a man many dismissed as a dressed-up hobo. She recognised his genius and he hers. She admired his attitude to life and thoughtfully provided him with classical reading material for transatlantic trips. He occasionally forgot not to swear in front of her and once gave her an introductory letter to a friend that began, 'This is to introduce Mrs Angell, who is not unattractive.' He included Katharine in almost all aspects of producing The New Yorker, and as her life with Ernest became increasingly unbearable, she threw herself into the magazine. One of her greatest contributions was the day she convinced a shy young man who signed his articles 'EBW' to join the staff as a part-time newsbreak editor.

Katharine Sergeant Angell White

Ernest's career as a lawyer was prestigious enough, but Katharine soon outstripped him. However, even their double income couldn't keep up with their expensive lifestyle. Ernest was also a shameless philanderer, and once suggested that Katharine herself have an affair to balance things. Katharine was naturally shocked, and didn't intend to. But as she became increasingly unhappy at home her happiest hours became those she spent at the magazine office, working with EB 'Andy' White.

In an effort to save their marriage, Katharine and Ernest took a trip to Europe. Andy was taking a similar trip with Gus Lobrano3 and arranged to meet Katharine in Paris. The two went on a canoeing trip on the Seine together while Ernest was off elsewhere. After this minor debauchery, the two decided to limit their relationship strictly to business. Andy was notoriously afraid of commitment and had been fickle in love before — and Katharine knew that.

Still, Katharine's marriage continued to deteriorate. After one argument late in February, 1929 when Ernest slapped her across the face and knocked her down, Katharine walked out, determined to get a divorce4. She moved to Nevada, where divorce was easier to acquire, and settled at the Circle S Ranch in Reno. She learned to ride, swam in the nude and wrote long letters back to New York. She received long responses from Ross about the magazine and from her in-laws begging her to reconsider, but only non-committal ones from Andy, who was going through one of his 'artistic' periods. When she returned to the office, though, Andy picked up where he'd left off, and the two married.

Woman Editor

The Whites maintained their individual independence within their marriage; Katharine spent long hours at the office and brought home manuscripts that she'd read between spurts of sleep while chain-smoking. Meanwhile, Andy was liable to be holidaying in Florida or Maine with their son, Joel. Katharine said the letters she received were a fair exchange for his distance, but in 1937, when Andy decided to 'take a year off', Katharine was less than happy. She threw herself into her work as Associate Editor. She received invitations to speak, sit on committees and have her biography written. She refused unless she thought there were constructive purpose in acquiescing.

Because of their different lifestyles, Andy nearly missed Joel's birth, 31 December, 1930. Following the birth, Katharine bled uncontrollably and became increasingly weak. Then, Andy proudly related, a nurse whispered to his wife, 'Do you want to say a little prayer, dearie?'

'Certainly not!' Katharine replied in her clear Boston voice, and promptly recovered.

Andy decided he worked best from Maine, and Katharine agreed to move. Andy's old friend Gus Lobrano would take over Katharine's position full-time; she would work part-time from Maine and visit throughout the year. Numerous New Yorker writers were horrified on Katharine's behalf — she was abandoning a prestigious position, particularly for a woman — but she insisted she didn't mind. Whether she did or not, they certainly minded. 'You have been a friend and a guide, a counsellor and a prop and a Rock of Gibraltar to me for so long that I don't know just how I am going to manage without you,' Frank Sullivan wrote.

Katharine didn't disappear, though. She continued to edit, criticise, propose ideas and correspond with writers and editors while tending a garden in Maine. Ross described one of her letters as 'One of the most satisfying, eloquent and amusing documents of the year.' She also, with the help of her first son, Roger Angell, reviewed children's books, often running contrary to popular sentiment. She panned The Little Prince as a book about adult ideas written in a childish way.

In soft tweeds and a pale sweater, [she] sits at her cherrywood desk, one leg tucked under her, with a lighted Benson and Hedges in one hand and a soft brown pencil in another as she works her way down a page of Caslon-type galleys, with her tortoiseshell glasses down her nose. Her desk is littered with papers and ashes and eraser rubbings.

Across the hall Andy sits up at his pine desk, facing her.... there are messages to himself taped up on the bookcase behind.... Andy reads a passage aloud from today's letter from Frank Sullivan or his brother Stanley or a grain merchant in Ellsworth, and my mother laughs, scarcely lifting her eyes from the page. Soon the noises of her typing out another letter to Harold Ross or Gus Lobrano are joined by the slow clatter of his Underwood: a New England light industry is again in full gear, pouring out its high-market daily product.

— Roger Angell in Let Me Finish

Though fiction had been a mainstay of The New Yorker for years, New Yorker stories received almost no recognition from critics. To remedy that, Katharine began compiling an annual anthology entitled Short Stories from The New Yorker in 1940. Reviewers noted with surprise that the stories were quite impressive, and New Yorker literature received more attention thereafter.

Ageing but Active

While Andy invented illnesses to excuse himself from public appearances, Katharine suffered from real, debilitating and rare diseases. She rapidly became a hypochondriac in the second sense of the word: someone obsessed with her ill health. Her letters dwelt on that subject in great and detailed length. In conversation, either of the Whites was likely to skip from a friendly inquiry about one's latest doings to an unabridged description of their latest symptoms in a blink. Their children named the phenomenon the 'White Shift', after the Red Shift of the Doppler Effect. The Whites were energetic valetudinarians; though falling apart and feeling terrible, they were never depressed. For them, shared illness was a form of companionship.

It was always wonderful to behold the intuitive adjustments by which one of them got well in time for the other to get sick. What a mountain of good work they have accumulated in that see-saw fashion! Certainly they have been the strongest and most productive unhealthy couple that I have ever encountered.
— Brendan Gill in Here at the New Yorker

One of Katharine's more peculiar (and humiliating) conditions was called subcorneal pustular dermatosis, a rash of pus-filled bumps that made contact with almost any cloth pure agony. She was forced to swap her signature tweeds and sweaters for loose dresses. She also underwent a battery of hospital tests and examinations. At one hospital check-in the nurse asked, 'Occupation — housewife?' Though suffering, Katharine rose and corrected with dignity, 'Semi-retired fiction editor.'

Her trove of health problems, compounded with the side effects of her medications, made it difficult for Katharine to work, but it was impossible for the powerhouse of a woman to slow down and remain content. Instead, she edited Andy's writing, answered his fan mail, shielded him from the prying public, wrote a gardening column for The New Yorker, composed her 'Victorian will' and kept up a web of correspondence with a phalanx of old friends. She also kept a house full of nurses and domestic help hopping.

The two still respected each other's independence, and for much of the day they worked separately, typing notes to each other across the hall. At late afternoon, they'd meet for martinis and then dinner. As her medication muddled Katharine's thinking, Andy occasionally felt compelled to gently rein her in, particularly when she was defending his honour as a writer, a matter she took very much to heart. But he never took any of her late peccadilloes seriously; he seemed to look at the frail and demanding old woman and see only his younger, poised wife. Utterly romantic, Andy was often caught picking flowers for her. The two were a study in contrasts: Andy preferred simplicity; Katharine was a born bureaucrat. He could pass an evening watching the geese march across the lawn; she was ordering Christmas gifts before Thanksgiving.

Katharine died on 20 July, 1977, and Andy was crushed. 'She seemed beautiful to me the first time I saw her, and she seemed beautiful to me when I gave her the small kiss that was goodbye.' He didn't attend her small funeral, but composed the service, including a poem he'd written about her years earlier that she particularly loved.

Lady Before Breakfast

....By eight o'clock she has rewritten noon
For faults in style, in taste, in fact, in spelling;
Suspicious of the sleazy phrase so soon,
She's edited the tale before it's telling....
1These became known as New Yorker short stories, and were developed to a fine art by Dorothy Parker, Robert M Coates, John O'Hara and Sally Benson.2Admittedly, this was Nabokov's first English-language recognition — he'd been published elsewhere in other languages before.3Lobrano shared an apartment with Andy for many years, and followed him on to The New Yorker.4She later asserted that the real final straw had been that Ernest didn't like The Great Gatsby.

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