Harold Ross was the founder and first editor of The New Yorker magazine. He was born in Aspen, Colorado in 1892 and died in 1952, in Manhattan (where else?), of cancer.

When Ross was a child, his family left Colorado and moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. They stayed there until Ross was in his teens. He joined a child-reporter program run by the Salt Lake Tribune, wrote for his high school paper, and dropped out of school after the tenth grade. A hundred years ago, that wasn't as odd as it is now. He threw school over for a reporting job on the Salt Lake Telegram (as I recall, H.L. Mencken pulled the same stunt a few years earlier, across the country in Baltimore). This was in the days when any city in the US had more than one newspaper, and the big cities had swarms of them. Ross loved it. The hard-living newspaperman schtick agreed with him.

In the next few years, Ross wrote for papers all over the country. He covered the celebrated Leo Frank case in Atlanta in 1913 (yet another Trial of the Century). He tried to get newspaper work in New York City, but it didn't work out. By 1915, he was in San Francisco. There was a war in Europe at the time1, which the United States joined in 1917. Ross joined the Army.

He wasn't the blood-and-guts type. He wiggled his way onto the staff of the Stars and Stripes, the new-hatched newspaper of the American Expeditionary Force in France2. At the Stars and Stripes, Ross met Alexander Woollcott, who had been a drama critic at the New York Times. Woollcott later wrote for The New Yorker, and in the 1930s became some kind of bizarre radio celebrity.

After the war, Ross finally finagled his way into New York City. He edited a magazine called The Home Sector, a private successor to the WWI Stars and Stripes. It's supposed to have been a sort of dim precursor to The New Yorker, with a lot of WWI veterans' issues thrown in. It didn't do well, and the American Legion Weekly absorbed it. Ross didn't enjoy working for a house organ.

In 1925, Ross cut to the chase and founded The New Yorker. His idea was to do something light, sophisticated, and well-written. He aimed himself as squarely away from politically-committed intellectuals as from Middle America. The Prospectus for investors is a blast to read. It declares, famously, that "The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque." The thing ends with an enumeration of the editorial board: You're doing okay when you've got George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, and Edna Ferber on a list like that. It's worth noting that the original concept wasn't quite the same magazine that we all grew up with several decades later. It changed over time, as all things will.

The New Yorker had some tough early years. It's hard to sell advertising when you've got very little circulation, and it's hard to build up circulation when you can't afford to pay writers very much. It's all hard when you're not a big enough name for anybody to feel flattered that you're publishing him. Some of them make it; not only did Ross's magazine survive, but so also have a thousand thousand slimy things that never deserved to.

Insert platitude about the Algonquin Round Table.

The fun of all this is the fact that Ross kept on playing his Barbarian Reporter from the Wild West role. It's hard to imagine anybody who less resembles Eustace Tilley. As an editor, he was famously crotchety and "difficult". He played the philistine well beyond his natural inclination, I think: After all, look what he created. He didn't create it by accident. He was an obsessively involved, hands-on editor. Here's the opening of in internal memo entitled "The Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles", written by fiction editor Wolcott Gibbs in the late 1930s. I'm quoting it because it's funny and full of good thoughts about writing, but also because from all I've read of Ross, it seems to reflect the man's views accurately.

The average contributor to this magazine is semi-literate; that is, he is ornate to no purpose, full of senseless and elegant variations, and can be relied on to use three sentences where a word would do. It is impossible to lay down any exact and complete formula for bringing order out of this underbrush, but there are a few general rules.

1. Writers always use too damn many adverbs. On one page, recently, I found eleven modifying the verb "said": "He said morosely, violently, eloquently", and so on. Editorial theory should probably be that a writer who can't make his context indicate the way his character is talking ought to be in another line of work. Anyway, it is impossible for a character to go through all these emotional states one after the other. Lon Chaney might be able to do it, but he is dead.


Yes, they were that obsessed with the mechanics of writing. Ross demanded clarity and precision from writers. He would write maddening, dense questions in the margins of drafts: "Why's he doing that?" "Who's she?" "When?" "Why?" Ambiguity bugged him. All of this fed the myth he was creating about himself, but it also made for a lot of good writing in the magazine.

In passing, we should probably mention what Ross called "separation of Church and State": The finances of the company (it's a business, remember?) were rigidly kept apart from the editorial process. There was some kind of literary notion going on there, but I think Ross just didn't like to hear about money.

The New Yorker couldn't go on forever being wholly fizzy and frivolous. There was a Depression in the 1930s and a war in the 1940s, and you can't ignore those things. By the 1940s, the magazine was becoming an institution and Ross was becoming something of a celebrity. He had a divorce, a long-running feud with the famous cretin Walter Winchell, wealth, powerful friends, and so on. All the trappings of success.

Ross died in 1952, after having gotten a second divorce out of the way. For several decades thereafter, The New Yorker was edited by William Shawn, a much less colorful character. Shawn was as mythically colorless as Ross was mythically colorful3. They make a weird pair. Last I checked, Ross's daughter Lillian was still writing for the magazine. E.B. White's stepson Roger Angell has written for them as well.

During Ross's tenure, he employed several writers: James Thurber, E.B. White, Vladimir Nabokov, S.J. Perelman, Rebecca West, Nathanael West (no relation, I think), James M. Cain, Lillian Hellman, Ring Lardner, and others. There were artists also. Al Hirschfeld and Charles Addams spring to mind.

The biographical information in this writeup is mostly from Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker, by Thomas Kunkel. It is a biography which I bought because they had it for cheap at the remainder table.

1 We now call it World War I, but at the time nobody knew there'd be a second, so it was often referred to as "the war", or "this damned war". People who didn't live in Europe sometimes called it "the war in Europe." In the twenties and thirties, a lot of people called it "The Great War", not because they enjoyed it but because it was very large by the standards of the time.

2 That's a place in Europe, lurking between Spain and Italy.

3 I'm really going light on the Myth of Ross material here. He was annoying, but he had charm. He seems to have lived his life in great gusts of boyish enthusiasm and strange tangents. He had puritannical streak, too, and he believed that writers did their best work when underpaid and in debt. There's a whole literature on the Myth of Ross (as on The New Yorker in general); James Thurber's Life with Ross is as good a place to start as any.

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