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The richest and funniest portrayal of Ross and the day-to-day affairs of
The New Yorker
, however, resides in his letters, which were edited, expertly, by his biographer, Thomas Kunkel. Those letters reveal the inner life of Ross—the irascibility, the devotion, the single-mindedness—and the evolution of his idea for the New York–based weekly. “Let the other magazines be important,” he said throughout the twenties and thirties. Ross was determined to keep things light, to publish fiction, humor, reviews, artwork, and reporting that avoided heaviness, pretension. His models included
Punch
, the British publication known for its cartoons, and
Simplicissimus
, a satirical German weekly. He disdained the quarterlies, academia, and analysis—the genre known to him as “thumb-suckers.” He prized shoe-leather reporting, vivid observation, absolute clarity, and conversational tone. He preferred a limited circulation
(with expensive ads) to a mass audience. He wanted a magazine that was more stylish than
Life
, more upscale than
Collier’s
, more timely than
Vanity Fair.

Ross was not an especially political man. His racial views were retrograde, even for the times. He tended toward isolationism. When forced, he said, “I’m a liberal, though, by instinct. Human, you might say, and a meliorist by belief.” But politics and polemics were not in his early plans for the magazine; he intended to enjoy the Jazz Age, not sing the blues of impending crash. Editorially and commercially, he had conceived
The New Yorker
for the city’s “sophisticates,” a silvery, elusive sensibility that was defined, particularly in those prewar years, by an aloofness to the troubles of the world. The magazine’s dominant visual artist at the time was Peter Arno, an East Coast aristocrat, who, in his covers, portrayed the Depression, when he portrayed it at all, as a mild joke.

Ross’s letters, particularly in the magazine’s first ten years, show little concern about money and the Depression, except where it concerns the complicated financial arrangements he had with his ex-wife or a drop in ad pages. Two financial subjects do seem to thrill him: the successful investment he made in Chasen’s, a smart-set restaurant in Los Angeles built by the vaudevillian Dave Chasen, and the hiring of editorial talent—particularly Katharine Angell, who raised immeasurably the ambitions of the fiction department, and William Shawn, who came to work on “fact” pieces and eventually led the magazine for three and a half decades. 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.”) You can read your way through countless letters and think that the Depression did not exist; it hardly cast a shadow on
The New Yorker.
When James Agee and Walker Evans went off to investigate poverty in rural Alabama, it was for
Fortune.

There were those who noticed
The New Yorker
’s determined detachment. “In the class war
The New Yorker
is ostentatiously neutral,” Dwight Macdonald wrote, in a 1937 essay for
Partisan Review
called “Laugh and Lie Down.” “It makes fun of subway guards and of men-about-town, of dowagers and laundresses, of shop girls and debutantes.… Its neutrality is itself a form of upper class display, since only the economically secure
can afford such Jovian aloofness from the common struggle.” On September 6, 1940—one year after the Nazi invasion of Poland; six weeks after the magazine finished running St. Clair McKelway’s unflattering profile of Walter Winchell—Ross posted a confessional on the bulletin board that seemed to echo Macdonald’s point.

M
EMO TO
The New Yorker
S
TAFF
September 6, 1940

In the interests of avoiding possible embarrassment, I would report that I was kicked out of the Stork Club last night, or asked not to come in again (suavely), because the sight of me causes distress to Mr. [Sherman] Billingsley, the proprietor—something I’m doing my best to take in my stride. It’s because of the Winchell pieces. I don’t know to what extent Mr. Billingsley’s aversion extends into this organization, but it certainly includes McKelway.

That’s not to say that Ross or his magazine was oblivious to the accumulating catastrophe. Ben Yagoda’s fine history of
The New Yorker, About Town
, scrupulously points out the signs of belated awareness: in 1939, Rea Irvin published a portfolio of drawings called
A Nazi History of the World.
At the end of the year, Frank Sullivan, in his Christmas verse “Greetings, Friends!,” included the couplet “Lebensraum he wants? So! Well, / Let’s hope he gets it soon, in hell.” The next year, Christina Malman drew a haunting charcoal cover of armed German soldiers watching over a long stream of downtrodden prisoners, many wearing hats, some wearing skullcaps.

Still, the magazine did not figure out how to respond fully to such events until the forties. This anthology represents
The New Yorker
’s great turn, its journalistic, artistic, and political awakening. When the global conflagration began, Ross—to the surprise of his readers and even of some of his staff—proved himself prepared.

In journalism, if not in world events, Ross could be prescient. He told Janet Flanner, as she was about to sail for France, “I don’t want to know what you think about what goes on in Paris. I want to know what the French think.” In those days of stubbornly dull and ritualistic news reporting, this amounted to revolutionary counsel. Ross was, in effect, asking Flanner to rely on observation and her own intelligence and voice; questions of form were up to her. In January 1940, he told A. J. Liebling,
who was cooling his heels in France, waiting impatiently for a battle, “For the time being, I say mark time, and be prepared for excitement if it starts.” He gave much the same advice and freedom to many other writers—Mollie Panter-Downes, John Hersey, E. J. Kahn, Jr., John Lardner, and Rebecca West among them—as they set off on their assignments. He put the right players on the field, gave them enormous leeway, begged for copy—and when the time came they produced coverage of the war that was unmatched.

It is hard to overemphasize how fresh
The New Yorker
’s voices in the forties were compared with what was in most other magazines and daily newspapers. The singular “house” voice, E. B. White, wrote with the alarm of his readers. White’s Notes and Comment piece on the occasion of the Nazi march on Paris captures the sense that the world was out of synch, the danger not so far from home:

An hour or two ago, the news came that France had capitulated. The march of the vigorous and the audacious people continues, and the sound is closer, now, and easier to hear.

To many Americans, war started (spiritually) years ago with the torment of the Jews. To millions of others, less sensitive to the overtones of history, war became actual only when Paris became German. We looked at the faces in the street today, and war is at last real, and the remaining step is merely the transformation of fear into resolve.

The feeling, at the pit of every man’s stomach, that the fall of France is the end of everything will soon change into the inevitable equivalent human feeling—that perhaps this is the beginning of a lot of things.

(White’s were typically the first pieces that readers encountered in each week’s issue, and a contribution of his opens each of the sections in this volume.)

Ross was not eager for the United States to enter the war, but his personal views were hardly the point. He dispatched one writer after another into the bottomless story, so much so that there were hardly any staff members left at 25 West Forty-third Street. Ross and Shawn and the rest worked nights and weekends to make their deadlines. They faced paper rationing. Circulation increased, but the circulation department collapsed under the weight of the draft. Ross feared that he would
lose Shawn, and was relieved only when Shawn was exempted from service because he and his wife, Cecille, had a son. “
The New Yorker
is a worse madhouse than ever now,” White confided to his older brother, “on account of the departure of everybody for the wars, leaving only the senile, the psychoneurotic, the maimed, the halt, and the goofy to get out the magazine.”

What built the new reputation of the magazine was a string of pieces including Janet Flanner’s Profile of General Pétain, Liebling’s dispatches from all over Europe, and Hersey’s exclusive about a young officer named John F. Kennedy and his exploits rescuing his crewmates on the PT-109. When the Navy and Kennedy’s father, Joseph, tried to get Hersey’s piece moved from
The New Yorker
to the larger-circulation
Reader’s Digest
, Ross was uncompromising. He wrote to Joseph P. Kennedy, “All of these goings-on led us to believe that we were more or less being chivvied around by a bunch of heavyweights, and since we have long had a feeling here that we
are
kicked around a great deal by the big fellows, or in behalf of the big fellows, we were not disposed to lay down now.”

As the journalism deepened, the popularity of the magazine broadened. Between 1941 and the end of the war, in 1945, circulation went from 172,000 to 227,000. Some of that popularity was due to a free, pocket-size “pony” edition of the magazine that was distributed to men and women in the service. It was a marketing boon; many of them bought subscriptions when they came home.

The war made
The New Yorker.
And Ross knew it, even if the knowledge was tinged with regret. He feared pretension and self-importance almost as much as he feared a dropped comma. The second half of the forties was less tumultuous but no less transformative. The American Century, long predicted in jingoistic terms by Henry Luce, Ross’s bête noire, took shape. Postwar prosperity infused New York—and
The New Yorker
—with a greater sense of commercial and artistic ambition. The trauma of the war, too, was reflected in the stories of Salinger and Shaw and Nabokov. And despite his fear of pretension, Ross became less self-conscious about the life of the mind; Edmund Wilson was, notably, given the freedom to write about whatever captivated his interest, from the rites of literary culture in postwar London to the customs of the Zuni in New Mexico.

After the war, Ross was so exhausted, so worn down by his editorial struggles and his contentious relations with Fleischmann, that he threatened to resign. And yet, as the country settled into its great boom, he
grew accustomed to more ordinary battles over galleys and page proofs and seemed to take a wry and renewed pleasure in them. “There is nothing to be done about [Edmund] Wilson’s editing that I know of,” he wrote to Katharine White. “He is by far the biggest problem we ever had around here. Fights like a tiger, or holds the line like an elephant, rather.”

When there were other battles to be fought, more serious ones, Ross was never fainthearted. Liebling, E. B. White, and Lillian Ross all wrote strong pieces about the more virulent forms of anti-Communism. (The FBI accumulated a file on Liebling, calling him a “careless journalist of the
New Yorker
set” and responsible for “the pinko infiltration of
The New Yorker.
”) Ross, without making much of it, stood by them all.

By the end of the decade,
The New Yorker
was flourishing, but Ross was a wreck. He suffered from ulcers, lung ailments, and general exhaustion. He was increasingly ceding authority to Shawn. In 1951, he wrote to his friend the writer Howard Brubaker, “I started to get out a light magazine that wouldn’t concern itself with the weighty problems of the universe, and now look at me.” By the end of the year, Ross was dead. The fifties at
The New Yorker
were left to the men and women he had nurtured, hectored, cajoled, flattered, berated, agitated, mystified, and, yes, inspired.

BOOK: The 40s: The Story of a Decade
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