Editors at Work: How Harold Ross Did It at the New Yorker

(Tom Kunkel, author of a wonderful book about Harold Ross, the founding editor of the New Yorker, now is president of St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, and this past weekend we exchanged emails about Rick LePere, a mutual friend who died a week ago. Rick had been one of my mentors at The Washingtonian, and he also had given a lot of pro bono help to the American Journalism Review, a magazine Tom watched over when he ran the journalism school at the University of Maryland. Here’s a shortened version of a 2012 post that mostly focused on Tom’s book about Ross.)
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By Jack Limpert

In the late 1970s my sense of how an editor should behave was shaped by reading Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by Scott Berg. Perkins was a book editor at Scribner’s and his authors included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, James Jones, and many others. His genius was his ability to inspire writers to do their best work. He often had a big impact on a book—the length, structure, and title—but to the outside world the finished book always was the author’s—it was the author’s genius, not the editor’s. I translated that to often just saying, “Writers are more important than editors,” and always believed it.

The best book I’ve read about a magazine editor is Genius in Disguise, by Thomas Kunkel, about Harold Ross, the founding editor of the New Yorker. Tom worked for the New York Times  and other publications, then headed the University of Maryland journalism school.

Tom’s book is full of wonderful characters and includes lots on how Ross did his job as editor. Starting in 1925, Ross hired many talented writers and editors and he built the New Yorker into one of the nation’s great magazines. Along the way he got into plenty of fights and made plenty of mistakes—the reader can learn as much from the mistakes as from the successes.
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I asked Tom for some of his favorite words about Ross. Here are three excerpts from the book:

“In the narrowest sense, editors lay twitchy hands on someone else’s work, fixing it, patching it, polishing it, and generally trying to keep it upright. In the broadest sense, however, they set the agenda, standards, and tone for a publication. They hire and fire; they pick stories, and the writers to go with them. They must have enough ego to confidently steer talented people, but the will to subordinate it. They must assuage prima donnas, compel laggards, and sober up drunks. Equal parts shaman and showman, they must have an unwavering vision for their publication, convey it to a staff, and then sell it to the great yawning public. For these reasons and many others, editing a magazine is not a job suited to the faint or uncertain, and it is enormously difficult to do well.”

“Ross also believed that talent attracts talent. You get talent if you publish a good magazine, you get tripe if you publish tripe….And talent, the editor understood, was the key. He never stopped searching for it or, once he had found it, nurturing it. Ross had a respect for creative people that bordered on veneration; everyone else, himself included, was meant to be in their service.”

“Ross’s New Yorker changed the face of contemporary fiction, perfected a new form of literary journalism, established the standards for humor and comic art, swayed the cultural and social agendas, and became synonymous with sophistication. It replaced convention with innovation.”
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Here are three of my favorite passages from Genius in Disguise:

“Ross often pretended not to know something when in fact he did. He made it his business to be informed about a good deal more than he let on, be it a writer’s rocky marriage, Europolitics, or maybe even Herman Melville. Yet by occasionally “presenting himself” (Shawn’s phrase) to the world as a bit of a rube, Ross could use his rusticity to great advantage. Playing the Colorado hayseed, a dim fellow who needed things explained to him in one- and two-syllable words, he might elicit from a writer that perfect word to clarify a muddy sentence, or the right fact to finish an incomplete thought.”

“The contrast between the two men [Harold Ross and William Shawn] was so pronounced, in fact, that it was easy to miss how at a more fundamental level they were soulmates. Each of them lived for The New Yorker. Each prized good writing, was a fiend for punctuation and accuracy, and preferred the spotlight to be on his writers rather than himself. And each had a passion for discovery; if such a thing were possible, Shawn was every more voraciously curious than Ross.”

In 1950,  a year before Ross died, Wolcott Gibbs, the magazine’s legendary theater critic, wrote a play, Season in the Sun, which opened on Broadway. It tells the story of a magazine writer who goes off to write a novel and to get away from Horace William Dodd, his brilliant, tyrannical boss, a character clearly patterned on Ross. “Near the play’s end,” Tom writes, “Gibbs has the protagonist’s attractive young friend tell Dodd/Ross, ‘He says you’re the greatest editor in America.’ To which Dodd/Ross replies, ‘Well, they’re a pretty seedy bunch, generally speaking.’”

Comments

  1. Doesn’t anyone remember “The Years With Ross,” by James Thurber, published in 1959, a wonderful book. The following blurb about it is on the Amazon site for the volume:

    At the helm of America’s most influential literary magazine for more than half a century, Harold Ross introduced the country to a host of exciting talent, including Robert Benchley, Alexander Woolcott, Ogden Nash, Peter Arno, Charles Addams, and Dorothy Parker. But no one could have written about this irascible, eccentric genius more affectionately or more critically than James Thurber — an American icon in his own right — whose portrait of Ross captures not only a complex literary giant but a historic friendship and a glorious era as well. “If you get Ross down on paper,” warned Wolcott Gibbs to Thurber,” nobody will ever believe it.” But readers of this unforgettable memoir will find that they do.

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