Commentary Magazine


Harold Ross's “New Yorker”:
Life as a Drawing-Room Comedy

A few years ago when the art critic for the New Yorker went abroad to report on current art activities in London, Paris, and other European centers, I began receiving regular telephone calls, often several a week, from a zealous young man in that magazine’s Checking Department. I confess that the first time the fellow introduced himself, I thought the Checking Department must be something like the Accounting Office and I couldn’t imagine why he wanted to talk to me. When he made it clear that he was a kind of researcher, I was, as I suppose many people are the first time around, rather flattered to think I could help out such an august body in its scrutiny of the facts, and I cheerfully volunteered a considerable amount of information on the question at hand, namely, the relationship of certain French critics to schools and styles of painting. In the course of the first week’s telephone conversations, I found myself giving a little lecture on the ideological positions of some of the major critics on the Paris art scene. It was the kind of information which anyone following the international art scene with more than passing interest would pick up in the course of his reading and observation. I hadn’t, at that date, even been to Paris myself.

Naturally, after this personal contribution to upholding the New Yorker’s famous standard of accuracy, I was curious to see what the articles had to say. As they began appearing in the magazine, I was astonished to find myself reading the same old stuff one always found in the New Yorker wherever art was the subject under discussion. There were the same tired phrases and the same bored attitudes, as if the writer had only just managed to shake loose of his ennui long enough to take note here and there of what was going on. If one took the phrasing of the article literally, it seemed that the writer had only just happened to “drop in” to this or that exhibition, that he merely chanced to “catch” a certain artist’s work or to note a certain critic’s position. The phraseology fairly slouched in its attitude of repose, and no doubt acted as a balm to those readers who might be worried lest the subject get too serious.

Yet, behind this air of relaxation, one could not help detecting the terrifying relentlessness with which a serious subject—and a subject, moreover, in which the writer’s vital personal response counts for a great deal—had been parodied, trimmed, ridiculed, and finally made boring and absurd by the author’s attempt to make it seem completely effortless, utterly common-sensical, and open to the most easygoing attention. But I was struck all the more at the absurdity of this feigned ease when I realized that it wasn’t the author’s work—my conversations with the young man from the Checking Department made it clear that the author himself had sweated over his reports and, even at that, hadn’t got matters quite straight—but that of the rewrite man. I marveled at the discrepancy between the pains taken to get the facts of the matter as accurate as possible, and the quite different effort that had gone into making the subject seem easy and almost inconsequential to the reader.

Anyone who ponders this discrepancy will sooner or later want to come up with some explanation of its necessity. For myself, I don’t see how we can avoid concluding that the principal reason for the New Yorker’s method is ignorance: the ignorance of writers first of all, and ultimately the ignorance of readers. In a society which could assume a certain level of education and sophistication in its writers and journalists—which could make the assumption because it shared in that education and sophistication—there would be more of a public faith that writers knew more or less what they are talking about. A few inaccuracies of fact here and there would be of little consequence, and indeed might even be welcome. (Half of the most enjoyable letters-to-the-editor in the English weeklies would never be written if that country’s most cultivated journalists and men of letters were not always overstepping the bounds of factuality on some point or other.) Only where there is a deep-seated ignorance, abetted by a phony desire to appear completely knowledgeable, is factual error or some minor fault of usage an unforgivable sin.

The New Yorker’s editorial method strikes me as a peculiarly American phenomenon, and it is instructive to compare it to the method of Time, which most New Yorker men regard with contempt and disdain (having graduated, many of them, from the Luce academy themselves). In some ways the method is remarkably similar. For just as Time aspires to turn every political story or book review into a middlebrow soap opera, the New Yorker attempts to make every encounter with culture and politics a drawingroom comedy. Where it succeeds in this endeavor, it commands the greatest loyalty from its readers. The cartoons, I suppose, are the most sustained example, but some of the magazine’s celebrated writers have also become famous through this endeavor. The role of smug drawing-room comedian was the specialty of the late Wolcott Gibbs during his long tenure as drama critic, and it is still the special—one often thinks, the only—talent of the present incumbents in the movie, art, and music departments.

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What I could not have realized before reading James Thurber’s memoir of the late Harold Ross,1 the founder and first editor of the New Yorker, is the degree to which the New Yorker’s method was the direct outgrowth of the ignorance of the man who founded it, a man who was in many ways such a key figure in the history of American journalism and manners for over a quarter of a century. Thurber provides a warm, affectionate, mildly humorous account of Ross. If, as a book, The Years with Ross is also prolix, sentimental, and filled with something dangerously close to self-love, it only resembles the kind of family reminiscences which have become a stock feature of the New Yorker itself. Since Thurber’s connections with Ross and the New Yorker go back to the 20′s, his memoir also has some of the elements of an informal company history—a company history written by a humorist who is placed in the difficult position of having to repeat many well-known company jokes. The Years with Ross is written with all the love, honesty, and inside information which one has a right to expect from an old friend and colleague, but to anyone who didn’t know Ross personally—and for all I know, perhaps to many who did—the figure who emerges from its pages is not a very attractive man. He is ignorant and vain, often cruel and stupid, and in the grip of a dream which is always—in this country anyway—supposed to forgive all the sins which ignorance, vanity, and cruelty inspire: the dream of technical perfection.

Harold Ross was born in Aspen, Colorado, in 1892. He went to work as a reporter on the Salt Lake City Tribune when he was fourteen, and later worked for papers in California and in the South. During the First World War he was editor of the Stars and Strives in Paris. When he came to New York after the war, he worked for the American Legion Weekly and Judge, and began making plans for the weekly magazine that would become the New Yorker. The magazine was founded in 1925—“the outstanding flop of 1925,” Thurber calls it. Its beginnings were slow and not very distinguished. Its initial printing was 15,000 copies, and its literary contributions were not, as Thurber admits, exactly brilliant. Gradually, the magazine gained momentum as it gathered around itself the journalists, humorists, and cartoonists who were eventually responsible for its success: Dorothy Parker, E. B. White, Wolcott Gibbs, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Marc Connelly, Gluyas Williams, Helen Hokinson, Peter Arno, and of course, Thurber himself.

What these contributors brought to the magazine was an air of big-town sophistication. They aspired to a style which would be jovial, deadpan, and slightly bored. Above all, it was to be a style, which, for all its knowingness, was to be terribly, terribly innocent. Altogether, it was a concept of sophistication which at the very start was stilted and phony. It was to be sophistication without any talk of sex, politics, or religion—which is to say, sophistication with the guts removed. It had to rely on personalities in entertainment, business, and café society for its comic as well as its reportorial sustenance. In the original prospectus for the New Yorker, Ross indicated that “There will be a personal mention column—a jotting down in the small-town newspaper style of the comings, goings, and doings in the village of New York.” This bizarre idea that the ultimate in sophistication was to regard New York as a “village” whose most trivial comings, goings, and doings had to be checked and rechecked by a staff of zealous researchers before the most ephemeral item of reportage could be committed to print, underscores the phoniness of the whole enterprise.

The New Yorker was in its beginnings very much a newspaperman’s idea of a magazine, and a small-town newspaperman at that. One soon discovers in reading Thurber’s memoir that most of the contributions which earn one’s respect in the magazine nowadays—say, the occasional literary pieces by Edmund Wilson, the poems by Theodore Roethke, Howard Nemerov, and others, the architectural criticism of Lewis Mum-ford, and, this past year, the drama criticism of Kenneth Tynan—would have been beyond Ross’s ken and outside his interest. He apparently regarded Clifton Fadiman, during his term as the New Yorker’s book critic, as too much of a highbrow to be completely understood by himself. His opinion of Edmund Wilson, who succeeded Fadiman, is unreported.

Thurber does not refrain from reporting the celebrated examples of Ross’s ignorance. He was a man on whom the most common literary reference was lost. Everyone will have his favorite story on this subject, but I think one of the most illuminating is Thurber’s account of an evening spent with Ross, Mencken, and Nathan. Ross is often thought to be a kind of Menckenesque figure, and Thurber’s anecdote shows how mistaken this view is:

. . . Mencken and I began talking about Willa Cather. We were still discussing ‘the old girl’ when Ross caught the name, turned it over in his mind a couple of times, and then said, ‘Willa Cather. Willa Cather—did he write The Private Life of Helen of Troy?’ I couldn’t see Mencken’s face, but I felt the puzzled quality of his silence, and hastily came to the rescue of a situation hopelessly snarled by Ross’s incomprehensible confusion of Willa Cather and John Erskine. ‘Ross hasn’t read a novel since When Knighthood Was in Flower,’ I said, ‘or Riders of the Purple Sage. He doesn’t read anything except what goes into his magazine.’

‘I haven’t got time to read novels,’ Ross admitted.

Far from resembling Mencken, Ross was distinctly the kind of unlettered provincial who, had he held any position other than the one he did hold on the New Yorker, would have been the perfect target for Mencken’s jibes about the ignorance of the American businessman.

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Without a fuller and less sentimental history of the New Yorker’s first decade, we cannot know to what degree Ross himself was actually responsible for its success. Reading between the lines in Thurber’s book, one has a sense that E. B. White, Katharine Angell, Wolcott Gibbs, and Thurber himself gave the magazine its distinctive character. In any case, one thing is clear enough: Ross was primarily responsible for the fanatical devotion to clarity and accuracy which has come to characterize the New Yorker’s editorial style. In a way, I suppose, only someone like Ross, unread and without curiosity on any literary or intellectual subject, could have brought the New Yorker’s editorial method to such an advanced state of refinement. Only someone who could regard language as a purely technical medium, as open as any other technique to mechanical scrutiny, could have pushed this method to its final triumph over expression itself. A mind less barren would have been sidetracked by some distracting intellectual substance.

Yet it was not only its editorial method Ross perfected, but also the magazine’s peculiar outlook on the world of sophisticated culture. The Irish critic Donat O’Donnell, writing about Thurber’s book in the London Spectator, has recently given the best account of the nature of this outlook and Ross’s role in it: “An important source of the New Yorker’s financial strength today is that great class which thinks itself entitled not merely to appear but actually to feel cultured, without undergoing any dull and painful preparation, such as being educated. The conquest of this class was Ross’s achievement.”

By the time of Ross’s death, in 1951, the task of keeping up the appearance of sophisticated culture was already far more complex than it had been in the early days, and for that reason there was already a great deal in the magazine which was beyond the interest or comprehension of Ross himself. Since his death, the task has grown even more complicated and the magazine itself rather less certain about its exact domain of interest.

Still, the divided, slightly schizophrenic outlook which has characterized the New Yorker all along, and which necessarily characterizes any publication or individual who feigns an interest in cultural matters without the curiosity or capacity to face them squarely on their own terms, continues to mark the tone and substance of the New Yorker today. That is Ross’s legacy to his heirs. It turns up in many small ways, and occasionally in rather blunt and unequivocal terms. I think this is immediately evident if we consider what has happened to the drama criticism in the New Yorker since the death of Wolcott Gibbs.

Gibbs’s successor has been not one man, but two—and a neater demonstration of the schizoid mentality of the New Yorker’s present editorship would be hard to find. On the one hand, there is Kenneth Tynan, the brilliant and witty critic of the London Observer, who was invited over to cover the Broadway season. On the other hand, there is a young company man named Donald Malcolm, who was assigned to the off-Broadway theater. Now Tynan is not only a witty and literate critic with a talent for the stylish phrase; he is also hard-headed in matters of dramatic art, and he has recently demonstrated the kind of concern for the social and political significance of the theater which would have been extremely distasteful (if indeed comprehensible) to Harold Ross. Inevitably, perhaps, because of his interest in both the aesthetics of the theater and the social crisis of our time, Tynan has become something of a Brechtian in his critical views.2 A Brechtian writing about the Broadway theater for the New Yorker: what could be more unlikely? Yet, confined to Broadway, Tynan is not in a position to offend New Yorker taste. He can blast away, if he likes, against Broadway offerings, and his writing still falls into the category of critical snobbery that regular addicts of the magazine expect from Gibbs’s successor.

The off-Broadway theater, however, is out of bounds to Tynan. The task of reporting on this sphere of dramatic art, where occasionally a play of some literary, avant-garde interest shows up, has been given to Mr. Malcolm, who must represent some kind of biological mutation in being an earnest, educated, articulate spokesman for all the philistine values so dearly beloved by Ross himself. His review last season of Chekhov’s Ivanov made history (of a kind) even in the annals of a magazine noted for this kind of thing. Written as a colloquy between the critic and a cab driver and ostensibly a parody of the Chekhovian style, Malcolm’s “review” managed very neatly to bypass the entire substance of the play. The editors are right in thinking they have a real “find” in this young man; his employment pays in full their debt to Ross’s memory no matter how far they may have to go in offending it in other directions.

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There are a lot of laughs as well as some tiresome and irrelevant anecdotes in Thurber’s memoir, but there is one chapter which remains unassimilated to the neat image of Ross and his times. I found it memorable and shocking, but scarcely understandable in the bland terms of Thurber’s prose. It is the chapter called “The Secret Life of Harold Winney,” and in this case Thurber’s glib reference to his own Walter Mitty story only serves to betray his incapacity to deal with a subject which, in truth, might have been a challenge to Dostoevsky.

Harold Winney was Ross’s private secretary from 1935 to 1941. “In his years with Ross,” Thurber writes, “the pallid, silent young man steadily swindled the editor out of a total of seventy-one thousand dollars.” Thurber himself regarded Winney with extreme distaste: “I remember [him] mainly for his cold small voice, his pale nimble fingers, and his way of moving about the corridors and offices like a shadow.” Apparently Ross did not take sufficient notice of him to have any feelings at all. “I do not believe that Harold Ross ever looked at the man closely enough to have been able to describe him accurately,” Thurber writes. “He was what Ross once irritably described as a ‘worm’—that is, an unimportant cog in the New Yorker wheel, a noncreative person.”

Winney came to work for Ross at a time when the magazine was expanding and Ross’s work was growing more burdensome. He delegated fantastic powers to his anonymous secretary, including complete control over his bank accounts and financial securities. During a trip to Europe in 1938, Ross gave Winney power of attorney over his financial holdings, and never revoked the privilege when he returned to New York. Moreover, what made it easy for Winney to draw more and more easily on Ross’s fortune was his boss’s gambling habits; Ross was a steady and heavy loser at cards, and Winney took advantage of the situation to make each loss greater than it actually was. After seventy-one thousand dollars had been swindled and the chaotic state of his financial affairs was finally brought to Ross’s attention, Winney committed suicide.

“When investigators examined his apartment,” Thurber writes, “they found, among other things, a hundred and three suits of clothes which he had bought with the money stolen from Ross.” Winney had also carried on correspondence with a real estate firm in Tahiti, with a view to settling there on his small fortune, but the war prevented him from realizing this ambition. Meanwhile, Winney seems to have spent a good deal of the money at the race track, and on gifts to men friends of sports cars, skiing equipment, and other sundries of this order. He had given an election night champagne party at the Astor in November 1940.

For myself, I find something apposite and meaningful in Harold Winner’s mulcting his boss on such a grand scale and for such seemingly trivial ends. He was clearly living out the fantasy life of ease and comfort—the life of sports cars, the race track, champagne parties, and expensive vacations—which the New Yorker works so hard to inspire in its readers. In his working hours he conformed to that hardworking demeanor, the whole laborious regimen, which Ross imposed on the magazine, and in his leisure hours he conformed to the life which the New Yorker advertisements and editorial departments have held up for a generation as an ideal: the life of languid, expensive, effete pleasures. Reading Thurber’s bare and rather superior account of Harold Winney, it occurred to me that this wretched man was probably the only person who ever truly lived his life entirely in terms of the values espoused in the pages of the New Yorker. It seems more than just that he did so at the expense of the man who was most responsible for what remains, after all, an image of life that is provincial, adolescent, and at several removes from reality.

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Footnotes

1 The Years with Ross. Atlantic-Little, Brown, 310 pp., $5.00.

2 In the last few years Brecht has become a sacred figure to the writers, intellectuals, and theater people whose views dominate the critical columns of the Observer, the New Statesman, and other London weeklies. In Tynan's case, one has the impression that the example of Brecht—not only as a playwright and theorist, but also as a practical man of the theater who was able to bring his political and artistic allegiances together in the productions of his Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin—figures as an important standard of value in his critical judgments.

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