Harold Ross: “How the hell could a man who looked like a resident of the Ozarks and talked like a saloon brawler set himself up as the pilot of a sophisticated periodical?”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of Harold Ross, a miner’s son born in Aspen, Colorado, who later founded The New Yorker.

Ross could be elusive about his personal life; when the Saturday Evening Post asked him for a biography, he responded by writing a seven-sentence letter that began with “I was born in Aspen, Colorado” and ended with “I knew this subject would come up sometime.” Aspen was a mining town and Ross helped the family by delivering beer and groceries to the red-light district.

Ross liked to read, and to tell jokes, and he especially liked to read the newspaper. When he was 13, he ran away from home to an uncle in Denver and worked for the Denver Post. Eventually, he returned to Aspen and his family, but not to school. Instead, he began to find work, first as a stringer and later as an editor, for newspapers in San Francisco, New Orleans, and Atlanta.

When World War I began, Ross found himself in France. He was once described as looking like “a dishonest Abe Lincoln,” with coarse, stiff hair that rose three inches off his head. He was rejected for Officer Training because of his habit of swearing, so he hiked 150 miles to Paris to apply for a job as the editor for Stars and Stripes, the U.S. serviceman’s newspaper.

Back in the United States, he toiled on humor magazines like Judge and for the veteran’s magazine The Home Sector, but he was also toying with the idea of starting his own magazine, one that would reflect the cosmopolitan lifestyle and intelligence of New York City. Ross was a sometime member of “The Vicious Circle,” a group of wits and writers who gathered regularly at the Algonquin Bar in Manhattan. There he met writers Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker and broached the idea for a weekly magazine he might call “Our Town” or “Manhattan.”

Parker called Ross “a professional lunatic,” and writer Ben Hecht was skeptical too. He said, “How the hell could a man who looked like a resident of the Ozarks and talked like a saloon brawler set himself up as the pilot of a sophisticated, elegant periodical?”

Ross persevered and the first issue of The New Yorker debuted on February 21, 1925. From the start, Ross was determined not to have a regular, dry weekly. He once scoffed, “Who reads Fortune Magazine? Dentists.” The first issue of magazine declared, “The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” During his time at Stars and Stripes, Ross had learned that a weekly couldn’t compete with a daily for hot news, so he devised a magazine that relied on long features, personality profiles, and behind-the-scenes stories. The New Yorker became famous for its witty cartoons, and its “Talk of the Town” and “Letter from Paris” features.

Harold Ross told his writers, “If you can’t be funny, be interesting,” and he was famous for his obsessive editing. He worked 10 hours a day, every day of the week, editing each issue: 1,399 issues in all, until his death, which cost him three marriages.

When New Yorker writer and editor James Thurber asked him if it was worth it, Ross replied, “I’m married to this magazine. It’s all I think about.”

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