Genius In Disguise:
Harold Ross of The New Yorker
By Thomas Kunkel
512 pages; $25
Born to an immigrant miner and a "prairie schoolmarm" in a drafty Colorado home with no indoor plumbing, Ross was tossed out of high school for exploding a stink bomb. By 18 he was a "tramp reporter," drifting through newspaper jobs in Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Atlanta and San Francisco, before joining the Army during World War I. Sent to France, he abruptly went AWOL one day, trudged 150 miles to Paris and wormed his way onto the staff of the Stars and Stripes, the U.S. Army's newspaper. Soon, he was its editor.
Home from the war, Ross talked a casual acquaintance, entrepreneur Raoul Fleischmann, into funneling first $25,000, then hundreds of thousands more, into a new magazine. Despite Ross' "wild, erratic" management style, The New Yorker shot forward. Launched in 1925 as a 15-cent weekly to give people "a laugh and a lift," it broke into the black within two years, passed the 70,000 subscriber mark in 1928, was a cultural icon by the 1930s, achieved new levels of distinction covering World War II, and soon was publishing the most lustrous names in fiction.
The New Yorker was an astonishing success, and Ross its unlikely wizard.
Uncultivated himself (at various times, he was known as Hobo Ross and Roughhouse Ross), he reinvented literary journalism; tempestuous and maniacal, he won the allegiance of the nation's most exalted writers; so old-fashioned he never flew in a plane and so innocent he once asked, "Is Moby Dick the whale or the man?" he hobnobbed with the literary lights of the Algonquin Round Table and strolled around Hollywood with Ginger Rogers on his arm; profane and prone to the ethnic slurs of the times, he built a magazine lionized as a model of tolerance and sophistication.
Kunkel, a veteran journalist writing his first book, does thorough, solid work, though the style seems somewhat prosaic beside the panache of its subject. This is more a filling pancake-supper of a book than an elegant Manhattan soiree, and it doesn't fully interpret The New Yorker mystique. More seriously, perhaps, it never adequately explains why the magazine succeeded so remarkably and so soon.
What Kunkel does best, and this is a sizable service, is show what made Harold Ross special as a writer's editor.
"Ross had a respect for creative people that bordered on veneration," Kunkel explains. "Everyone else, himself included, was meant to be in their service." He understood that "writers and artists are different from other people and must be treated..as such," and he "championed them even if he didn't always grasp their ideas."
Ross "practiced 'management by walking around' long before anyone thought to call it that," constantly prodding and nurturing his talents.
And consider the talents. In 1927 alone, Ross attracted Katharine Angell (later White), E. B. White, James Thurber and Wolcott Gibbs. Following were Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, John O'Hara, Ogden Nash, A.J. Liebling, Lillian Ross, William Shawn, John Cheever, Irwin Shaw, Rebecca West, John Hersey and J.D. Salinger — to name a few.
He took exceptional steps to support them professionally and personally. He helped struggling writers find larger apartments, surprised the homesick with visits from relatives, sent relief packages to writers overseas, and often, just to help, purchased articles he had no intention of publishing.
He expressed his editorial philosophy in a letter to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: "In the long run the story is the author's and is run over the author's signature, and if the author wants to retain some bad grammar or some ambiguity, or even print two or three words upside down, we let them do it if the story is good enough..."
A magazine often seems a direct extension of its editor's personality. But Ross evidently understood that sometimes the magic lies in subordinating your own ego and trusting artists far different from you. Ross was wise enough to let his magazine transcend himself. Considering how rare a quality that is, it proved both genius and a very good disguise.