Sunday, November 6, 2016

Birthday: “If you can’t be funny, be interesting.”


Harold Wallace Ross (1892-1951)
Recipient, The Peabody Award

Aspen, Colorado was not hip in 1892; it was a mining town. When the silver boom collapsed in 1900, that was that, and the Ross family packed up and left. The boy Harold was eight.

They ended up in Salt Lake, and Harold managed to stay in school until he was thirteen. He ran away- you could do that in those days- to Denver, where he lived with an uncle and got a job with The Denver Post.

Over the next couple of years he bounced from paper to paper all over the country. He was a good writer: in Atlanta, he covered the notorious Leo Frank trial. In New Orleans, he noticed some carved nudes in the woodwork of a bar, assembled some virtuous citizens to be horrified, and wrote an expose’. Honor was served all ‘round. The paper’s circulation went up, and so did the bar’s sales.

Ross ended up in an Army railway engineers’ regiment in France for World War II, which, after a time, became dull. He went AWOL, walked 150 miles to Paris, and talked his way onto the masthead of the Army’s new, soldier-written, paper, Stars and Stripes. War being a legendary democratizer, he met- and befriended- wealthy Easterners who would play major roles in his life: the columnist Franklin Pierce Adams, critic Alexander Woollcott, Grantland Rice, and his first wife, Jane Grant, who became the first woman reporter for The New York Times.

The War To End All Wars itself ended. Back in the States, Ross edited a short-lived magazine for returning vets, and did a stint at a humor magazine, Judge. At one event he interrogated former Secretary of War Newton D. Baker at length, concluding, “Well, Mr Secretary, that clears up everything except how Joe Higgins was made corporal of my unit.”

Through Woollcott and Adams, he ended up at the Algonquin Round Table, from whose members he picked writers for a new, postwar American zeitgeisty rag-about-town he called The New Yorker. It was going to be about the cool kids, by the cool kids- not at all for “the little old lady in Dubuque,” he said.

The magazine was launched February 1, 1925. The cover featured a Regency dandy the staff took to calling Eustace Tilley. He has appeared on the anniversary cover 90 times since. Why Ross wanted such a retro emblem for a Jazz Age magazine, only he knew, and for once, he didn’t issue a memo.


The New Yorker had a rocky start. Rounding up funny, interesting copy, great stories, interesting poetry and zippy cartoons 52 times a year is a challenge not even the Round Table could meet. “It was like opening a restaurant and depending on your friends,” one wrote.

Ross wheedled some money from his friend Raoul Fleischmann, of the yeast family. Then, he wheedled some more. And more after that. It took $725,000 to make The New Yorker profitable, but only two years to do it. When the Newhouse newspaper and magazine chain bought the magazine from the Fleischmanns in 1985, it sold for $168 million: two hundred dollars a share.


Gap-toothed, disheveled, with a three-inch tall quiff of brow hair rising, volcanically, from his furrowed brow, Ross was an apparent rube with an eye for sophistication in others. He drew in innumerable writers who went on to brilliant careers, paying them poorly, and by the piece; staff writers, who supplied the departments, like E.B. White’s Talk of the Town, and wrote the long profiles for which the magazine became famous, were on salary and notoriously ill-supervised (“Write something, goddammit” was a famous Ross memo to one).

He edited with a microscope it seemed: he was forever in quest of absolute clarity, as his notorious queries on manuscripts showed. Two characters were chatting beside a fireplace, Emily Hahn wrote. "Which side of the fireplace?" Ross queried. In his account of John F. Kennedy's PT-109 wreck in the South Pacific, John Hersey reported that Kennedy "wrote a message" on a coconut to some native islanders. "With what, for God's sakes?" Ross demanded.

“Who he?” was a regular Ross query; he insisted there were only two people everyone in the world knew: Sherlock Holmes and Harry Houdini. Everyone else, you checked.

roosevelt the new yorker.jpg

Another was, “Is Moby Dick the man or the whale?” He played to his bumpkin image, using it to soften what would, otherwise, have been editing sessions verging on vivisection for the writers). After Ross’ edits, the magazine's fact-checking department was a literary inquisition, with articles going through “fifteen or twenty edits, by six to eight people.” Ross obsessed about commas, and was thought to sleep with a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

He swore constantly, but “on the whole, standards of rectitude and taste, sometimes in the form of puritanical reserve, were more on his mind. In one prolonged letter, he has the energy to debate with E. B. White about the use of the phrase ‘toilet paper,’ for instance, which Ross finds ‘sickening. (“It might easily cause vomiting,” he insists. “The fact that we allow toilet paper to be advertised, under the name ‘Satin Tissue,’ has nothing to do with this matter.”)’

While World War I made Ross, World War II made The New Yorker. As war cloud roiled, the magazine met its own heavy weather from critics of its aloofness from public affairs.  Ross began to find his way with his freelancers in Europe, telling one, Janet Flanner, “I don’t want you to tell me what you think about what goes on in Paris, I want you to tell me what the people in Paris think.” Once America entered the war, Ross practically depopulated the staff the draft hadn’t scooped up, sending them to places all over the world. His chief aide, William Shawn, ran the war for the magazine, and made it a serious magazine with funny cartoons. A War Department program to give GIs stuff to read led to a pony version of the magazine and a generation of subscribers in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Once the war ended, Ross realized the world had changed, and kept with the long, serious pieces; the August 31, 1946 issue carried one story: John Hersey’s book, “Hiroshima.”


Each of Ross’ three wives learned, the hard way, that he was really married to The New Yorker. It was all he did, chain-smoking his way through 1399 issues and twenty-six years. After surgery to remove a cancerous lung he developed complications and died suddenly at 59.

Shawn succeeded Ross, and ran the magazine in his own, neo-Rossian way, for 35 years. Today there is less fiction, almost no poetry, and no twenty thousand word articles on, say, zinc. But its covers remain The Talk of the Town: telling snaps of where we are, in this moment.


The little old lady in Dubuque has been replaced by Iowa Senator Joni Ernst:
WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) shared more folksy stories of her childhood on Wednesday, telling reporters that she used to wear a bucket on her head for no apparent reason. 
“I’d be walking outside our house and see a bucket lying there, and I’d say to myself, ‘That’s a perfectly good bucket, I think I’ll put it on my head,’ ” she said. “It wasn’t because I needed a hat or anything. I must have had, oh gosh, a half-dozen hats or so. I just wanted to wear a bucket.”

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