By Sabina Clarke
I have always been fascinated by Harold Ross the legendary founder of The New Yorker magazine who died before I was even aware of the publication. And I regret not meeting his painfully shy successor William Shawn who was editor until 1987 and willing to meet practically anyone.
My brush with the magazine’s elite came in 2011 by chance when I contacted the old-time staff writer Lillian Ross who came to The New Yorker in 1945 and wrote the brilliant Talk of the Town pieces that I devoured for years to see if she might be interested in the book “ Whatever Happened to Raoul Wallenberg” about the Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg written by Wallenberg’s former attorney Morris Wolff who was a client of mine.
I was shocked when she picked up the phone not expecting her to be in her office—she was ninety-three at that time. She gave me her home address and said to call whenever I came to town. I made a mental note of this and put it in a drawer thinking I had time. She died in 2017 at the age of ninety-nine.
So I was elated to stumble upon this fascinating in-depth portrait of the magazine’s founder and editor by Thomas Kunkel.
Kunkel brings Ross to life in this intimate and detailed biography and captures the magic of what it was like to work under Ross and why his writers even those he fired revered him.
The story begins at the end in New York’s storied stately Ritz-Carlton Hotel before the wrecking ball descends on its last major gala-- a glittering evening attended by the city’s cognoscenti. It is March 18, 1950 , the 25th anniversary of The New Yorker magazine. At age fifty-seven, host Harold Ross is at the pinnacle of his career –a bumbling, brilliant, complex and contradictory character who spent the better part of his life shunning the limelight and high profile affairs such as this. Never was there a more unlikely avatar of a literary magazine. Yet, just one year later at the age of 58, Ross would be dead.
Ross grew up on the western frontier the son of a Scotch-Irish immigrant from Ulster who settled in Colorado and a school-teacher mother who drummed syntax and grammar in him at home in addition to his schoolwork. His reading preferences veered towards dictionaries, detective magazines and biographies but he had a near perfect ear for the language. One of his famous quotes at the magazine was “We don’t run our magazine for dumbbells.”
Ross and Jane Grant
Ross had a genius for spotting talent. His writers who called him ‘Ross’ revered him. He attracted the best writers of the time such as E.B. White, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woolcott, John O’Hara , Ring Lardner, Maeve Brennan, Clarence Day, Kay Boyle, John Cheever, J.D. Salinger and many others.
Ross cared deeply about his writers and often got involved in their personal lives and commiserated with their problems—there was almost no separation between the two. The office was a cauldron of gossip and daily personal drama and the home of the best magazine writing anywhere.
In the following note to the writer E.B. White we see Ross’ offbeat sense of humor and his ability to not take himself too seriously: “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 (magazine) said I wasn’t tactful which is the grossest misstatement ever made about me. I am the God damnedest mass of tact known to the human race. That’s about all I am. Fortune ( magazine) said I never read a book and Harper’s says I’m tactless. American reporting is at low ebb.”
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By Sabina Clarke