There shouldn’t be a licence to get things wrong

Ian Hamilton

  • Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the ‘New Yorker’ by Thomas Kunkel
    Random House, 497 pp, $25.00, March 1995, ISBN 0 679 41837 7

‘How could a man who looked like a resident of the Ozarks and talked like a saloon bar brawler set himself up as pilot of a sophisticated, elegant magazine?’ This was Ben Hecht’s way of phrasing the Big Question about Harold Ross, the question that was asked repeatedly throughout Ross’s twenty-five years in charge of the New Yorker, and is still sometimes asked today: how did he do it? Or rather (Ross loathed italics), how was that done by him? – ‘that’ being the last word in journalistic chic and ‘him’ being, well, just look at him: a Colorado bum.

Countless tales of Harold Ross’s hayseed ways have now passed into legend. ‘Is Moby Dick the whale or the man?’, ‘Willa Cather – did he write The Private Life of Helen of Troy?’ Ross, it was said, hardly ever read novels and was suspicious of poetry that aspired beyond light verse. He called music and painting the ‘two phoney arts’. He was contemptuous of all ‘fancy college men’. ‘Nobody’s going to make me arty,’ he would say. ‘This isn’t the old Dial.’

He had no politics to speak of. The New Yorker sailed through the Depression, nose in air, and managed to ignore most of the big issues of the Thirties. Instead of ideas, Ross had idiosyncrasies, phobias, taboos. ‘Certain subjects’ were understood to be banned from the New Yorker’s pages. For a time, ‘the Jewish question’ was outlawed; so too was the word ‘cancer’. Homosexuality was an absolute no-no. Ditto all mentions of what Ross used to call ‘the bodily functions’. He once complained over the telephone that a Hemingway book, so he had heard, contained a ‘bathroom’ word. When asked what the word was, he – whose speech was compulsively profane – refused to repeat it on an open line.

Although, at the outset, Ross announced that the New Yorker was not meant for the old lady from Dubuque, he always made sure that out-of-towners could read it without pain. It was, he’d say, a family magazine. According to Brendan Gill – a hostile judge – Ross’s morality was shaped by ‘the ugly commonplaces of almost a hundred years before’. His biographer describes him as ‘classically laissez-faire in everything from war to income tax’. Nobody ever called him a progressive.

Even Ross’s fabled editorial prowess is portrayed with condescension, sometimes by those who come to praise him. We read of his pedantry, his literal-mindedness, his mad grammarian’s correctness. Thurber – who used to get off lightly – called Ross ‘the most painstaking, meticulous, hair-splitting detail-criticiser the world of editing has known’. Both in Thurber’s classic memoir and in this stylish new biography, we are given samples of Ross’s handiwork, and some of these are indeed unnerving to behold. Their main feature is a kind of nagging, suspicious, utterly unembarrassed commonsense – sometimes impressively spot-on, sometimes dumbly reductive. One may not want to give Shakespeare’s galleys to this man but at the same time it would be a pleasure to let him loose on X or Y.

1. The sentence at a. differs in nature from sentence at b. In the a. sentence you are writing from the viewpoint of the Bloodgoods, in the b. sentence you’re the omnipotent author, knowing all about it. Seems to me wrong.

2. The over their shoulders phrase here give the right picture? Suggests to me on their shoulders, like a Greek maiden holding vase. (Small matter)

3. Very unexpected to learn at this late date that there’s a bar in the place. Not mentioned before, and the definite pronoun has no antecedent.

4. Is it consistent that Mrs Bloodgood would be the repository for this confidence in view of the fact that she and her husband met the Spencers only two weeks before and have only seen them that once? And is it as clear as it should be what Dora whispered?

5. And same question here. Remember, Mrs Bloodgood has only met the Spencers that one time, when she asked them to the party. How could she know?

It is clear from this why Ross had problems with some kinds of, shall we say, ‘imaginative writing’. Thurber tells the story of coming upon Ross in his office, poem in one hand, dictionary in the other. ‘I’ve got a poem here,’ said Ross, ‘that says “the leaves bronzen.” Now “bronzen” is not a verb but an adjective, just as I thought. I know, I know, it’s poetic licence – White has told me all about that. But I don’t think there should be a licence, even in poetry, to get a thing wrong.’

Was this ‘care for detail’ Ross’s way of taking revenge on the clever dicks he got to work for him: songbirds that needed bringing down to earth? Some of them thought so. Ross dreamed of a New Yorker style that would seem spontaneous and easy-going but he did everything he could to make his authors sweat for that ideal. Even as they indulged their delicious verbal fancies, he was along the corridor, deep in Fowler’s English Usage, waiting for just one of them to make just one false move. During its most distinctive years – the late Thirties, early Forties – the New Yorker’s writers sounded as if they hadn’t a trouble in the world. Ross knew that they had: big-trouble, Ross-trouble, the worst kind.

Ross’s physical appearance was also the stuff of legend. The man who chose a monocled dandy as the logo for his magazine was famously unpleasing to the eye. To many, this connoisseur of cartoons seemed to have stepped out of a cartoon: the gap-tooth grin, the stick-up thatch, the all-over-the-place arms and legs. Ross’s body resembled a huge question-mark, somebody said – perhaps too neatly. Thurber found it indescribable: those arms and legs were never still. ‘He was always in mid-flight, or on the edge of his chair, alighting or about to take off.’ Harpo Marx said that Ross looked like a cowboy who had lost his horse.

Cowboy, brawler, pedant: even before he started the New Yorker, even in Aspen, his home town, Ross was regarded as an oddball. Born in 1892, the son of an Irish silver-miner, he left school as early as he could. His aim was to become a newsman – he had worked on the local paper during his school holidays and caught the bug. His parents disapproved but even so they seem to have prepared him well. His mother, a frontier school-marm type, taught him to prize the essentials of good English grammar. They would parse sentences together and when Harold played truant, which he often did, he could usually be found in the public library: reading the novels of Bret Harte, we now discover. His father, when the silver mining failed, set up as a storekeeper and by accident arranged for his son to enjoy regular slices of real life. The boy was sent to deliver groceries to Aspen’s numerous brothels and saloons, and was not always in a hurry to get home – nor, after a time, was he to be found hiding in the library, or so we are led to presume.

In his teens, Harold began to make a habit of running away from home and when he did he would always get work as a ‘tramp reporter’, contributing short items to the newsheet of whichever town he happened to pitch up in. By the age of 16 he really had left home and was flitting from rag to rag, from the San Francisco Call and Post to the Maryland Appeal, usually covering crime stories (throughout his New Yorker career, Ross nursed the idea of starting up a ‘true crimes’ magazine). Although most of these early writings were anonymous, his biographer has Ross, in his early twenties, writing for ‘perhaps two dozen’ different papers. On one occasion during those hobo years, Ross went looking for a New York job but was rebuffed. We don’t need a biographer to tell us that this rejection would bear fruit in later years.

Ross’s first big break came when he volunteered for army service during World War One. His interest in the European hostilities was strictly professional: as he saw it, war-reporters were the ultimate hobos. But he had also developed an interest in editing. At 18, on the Maryland Appeal, he had briefly been put in charge of the whole paper and done well. He knew he had a nose for a good story. Why not get others, now and then, to follow it? He founded a regimental magazine, the Spiker, and from there rose to become editor of the official army paper, the Stars and Stripes – a phenomenal success, this, with its captive audience, its guaranteed financial backing, its freedom from the need to play footsie with its advertisers. In no time at all, Ross was the best-known private in the American Expeditionary Force, turning down captains’ poems by the dozen, despatching college men to hot-spots on the front, and altogether enjoying a doughboy-to-doughboy rapport with his trench readership. Says Thomas Kunkel: ‘the paper, perhaps more than anything other than combat itself, coalesced the disparate, cobbled-together American units into an army.’

Although one of Ross’s most effective ploys on Stars and Stripes was to ‘allow the enlisted men to speak for themselves’ – in jokes, stories, cartoons, verses – he also knew a superior prose style when he encountered one. Later on, quite a few of his New Yorker contributors would be ex-colleagues on the Stars and Stripes: most notably Alexander Woolcott, with whom he would enjoy a career-long love-hate association. When Woolcott joined the Stars and Stripes, Ross asked him what he had done in civvy street. Woolcott told him that he had been drama critic on the New York Times. At this, Ross laughed a scornful hobo’s laugh, causing Woolcott to reply: ‘You remind me of my grandfather’s coachman.’ And this thoroughbred riposte seems to have stuck in Ross’s mind, or gut. Here, surely, was big-city class of a high order. What it would be to have a magazine that could come out with lines like this week in, week out.

The Woolcott story, like so many others that have attached themselves to Ross, seems too good to be entirely true, but it was for New York that Ross headed as soon as he was out of uniform. His avowed aim was to find a way of continuing the Stars and Stripes in peacetime. The Home Front, a journal for returning vets, ran for two dozen issues but did not catch on, although it had ingredients – or ‘departments’ – that would later crop up in the New Yorker. And the experience of running it taught Ross the ins-and-outs of the magazine industry. It also, via Woolcott, brought Ross into contact with the then-embryo Algonquin network. In 1919, George Kaufman, Harpo Marx, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and the others were in their twenties and unknown. But they were wits, albeit at each other’s expense much of the time, and Ross watched with interest from the sidelines, every so often giving out ‘teamsterlike snorts’ of appreciation or ‘explosive, left-field interjections’. Several of the Algonquin group were journalists of a sort and they planted each other’s names in any columns they had access to. Ross rather despised this log-rolling and was not altogether happy with the group’s ‘dissolute lifestyle’, but he was all the time weighing up the likely talent. A magazine like the New Yorker would, he soon began to think, provide such talent with more useful employment than it would ever find at the Algonquin.

The New Yorker was partly funded with money put away for the purpose by Ross and his first wife, the journalist Jane Grant – a former singer whom he had met during his army years – but the bulk of the magazine’s launch money came from a bakery-heir, Raoul Fleischmann. Fleischmann and Ross would remain enemies for years – and this is more of a sequitur than it may seem. Much of Ross’s near-lunatic intensity of purpose was fuelled by his detestation of all those who, as he saw it, held his magazine in a financial stranglehold. Throughout his career, he saw himself as the victim of Fleischmann-like demons and hobgoblins, be they accountants, or admen, or majority stockholders. Ross hated being told what to do, even in areas where he was hopelessly at sea. And it was not just money-men who irked him: he had a way of delegating much of the magazine’s administration to literary staff-members who, for a few weeks, he would revere as saviours and then turn on with savage and bewildering distrust. Thurber was one of these figures for a while and in his book he speaks amusingly, but bitterly, for a long line of puzzled sufferers.

At first there were no money-men. Indeed, had it not been for Fleischmann’s input, there would have been no money. The New Yorker’s first issues were resounding flops, rarely getting above a circulation of three thousand, and derided by the cognoscenti as feebly arriviste, would-be smart: the Algonquin circle looked the other way. For them, as for most others, it was not at all clear what Ross was playing at: was he sucking up to high society or mocking it? He was clearly aiming for a certain ‘tone’ – assured, off-hand, ironic – without knowing where to find it. It was a tone directly opposite to the one Ross was inclined to use when trying to define it. In the very first issues of the New Yorker – from 1925-6 – he tried to make a guess at what he meant, but nobody was fooled. As one critic put it – and this hurt – ‘there is no provincialism so blatant as that of the metropolitan who lacks urbanity.’

It would not be long before this urbane critic, Niven Busch, was hired by the New Yorker. It took Ross about two years to find his feet – or rather, to find the people who knew where his feet should be. And chief among his rescuers was E.B. White. If this biography proves anything at all, it is that the New Yorker owed White almost as much as it owed Ross. White, arriving out of nowhere in 1927, had just the voice Ross had been straining for, and he could deploy it on demand, without seeming effort, in all departments of the magazine. As soon as Ross heard it, he knew why he would never have found it by himself: it was essentially good-tempered. White somehow made the superior tone likeable. It was as if he were saying to the readers: ‘Sure I’ve seen it all, and on balance I think most of what I’ve seen is worth a smile, even the bits that are perhaps to be regretted.’ Thomas Kunkel gives an apt illustration of what came to be treasured as White’s ‘magic touch’. In May 1927, the papers were full of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight and Ross ‘fretted over what was possibly left to be said. White knew.’

We noted that the Spirit of St Louis had not left the ground ten minutes before it was joined by the Spirit of Me Too. A certain oil was lubricating the engine, a certain brand of tires was the cause of the safe take-off. When the flyer landed in Paris every newspaper was ‘first to have a correspondent at the plane’. This was a heartening manifestation of that kinship that is among man’s greatest exaltations. It was beautifully and tenderly expressed in the cable Ambassador Herrick sent the boy’s patient mother: ‘Your incomparable son has done me the honour to be my guest.’ We liked that; and for twenty-four hours the world seemed pretty human. At the end of that time we were made uneasy by the volume of vaudeville contracts, testimonial writing and other offers, made by the alchemists who transmute glory into gold. We settled down to the hope that the youthful hero will capitalise himself for only as much money as he reasonably needs.

This was it: the formula. Once it was set, Ross knew how to exploit it to the hilt. Within three years of White’s arrival, the magazine’s circulation had risen to six figures, and would continue to rise throughout the whole of Ross’s reign, which ended with his death in 1951.

By then, of course, he had recruited other Whites, or would-be Whites, and driven some of them half-mad. White himself, together with his wife Katherine (the New Yorker’s long-serving and also hugely influential fiction editor), was always exempt from Ross’s tyrannies. Once, when White left to work for Harper’s – he felt like a change – Ross begged him to come back. If anyone else had dared to jump ship in this way, Ross would happily have seen him drown. As it was, White drifted back, but in his own good time. As Thomas Kunkel says, ‘for Ross, getting out the New Yorker without the Whites was like trying to walk deprived of legs.’

‘I am a monstrous person, incapable of intimate associations,’ said Ross after, or during, the failure of one of three marriages. He married impulsively, because he liked a pretty face, but was soon back behind his desk, in hiding. After all, his first wife had stood up to him: he was not going to go through all that again. ‘I’m married to this magazine. It’s all I think about.’

And so it was. When Ross was out on the town, he was really looking for ‘Talk of the Town’ items. When he read the papers, it was in the hope that he would get a story-idea, or pick up a New Yorker ‘casual’. When he made friends outside the magazine, he was usually firming up a contract. He hated the theatre, even though at least three of his friends wrote plays about him. The movies he could take or leave: every so often he needed to check up on his film critic. At one time, early on, he liked to eat, but the New Yorker gave him ulcers.

Kunkel’s biography, it need hardly be said, is largely concerned with Ross-at-work. As an evocation of the man, his book could scarcely hope to rival Thurber’s The Years with Ross or even Gill’s Here at the New Yorker (both of which he censures as unfairly slanted). But he has trawled nobly through the records and taken pains to check out the various Ross legends – some of which remain sturdily uncheckable. He also provides an illuminating year-to-year account of the New Yorker’s somewhat protracted growing-up. His chapters on the magazine’s impressive response to World War Two are certainly worth having. In many respects, Ross’s wartime issues were his best: a Stars and Stripes for highbrows, so to speak. Certainly it was good to see the monocle mist up from time to time. As E.B. White – who else – remarked: ‘We feel like a man who left his house to go to a Punch-and-Judy show and, by some error in direction, wandered into Hamlet.’ And this, come to think of it, is not a bad way of describing what it must have been like to work for Harold Ross.