ONE of the already well-established rituals aboard the New Yorker when I joined its jittery crew in the wayward weather of 1927 was what skipper Harold Ross, alternately dauntless ("Don’t give up the ship!”) and despairing (“We are lost, the captain shouted!”) called the weekly Talk meeting. I survived hundreds of them — physically, at any rate. Named for “The Talk of the Town,” the front-of-the-book department that was Ross’s favorite and gloomiest preoccupation in the early years, the Wednesday morning meetings rambled on for anywhere from one to three hours, depending upon the mood of the master.
When Ross’s secretary informed him that the rest of us —Katharine Angell, Andy White, Ralph Ingersoll, and I — were gathered around the table in the meeting room, Ross would saunter in, sometimes with the expression of a man who has heard an encouraging word but oftener with the worried brow of a bloodhound that is not only off the scent but is afraid it’s losing its sense of smell. (“You’re lousing up your metaphors,” I can hear Ross grumbling. “Now you got a goddam bloodhound commanding a ship.”) He would plop his brief case on the table, sit down, sigh darkly, and open the meeting with some pronouncement, either a small fact about a big man: “William Randolph Hearst still has all his teeth,” or a derogatory comment about an institution: “Medical science doesn’t even know how to cure dandruff,” or a running broad jump to some despondent conclusion: “Maude Adams lives in town now, but I haven’t got anybody that can find out what she does and where she goes and who she sees.”
Then the regular order of business began with a safari through the darkest regions (“Now, by god, I’m Stanley!”) of the X issue, the one that would reach the stands the following day. It never satisfied Ross, and it rarely put him in a good humor. There weren’t enough laughs in Talk, or any interesting facts; two drawings in the issue were too much alike; and “White and Thurber both mentioned novocain in their casuals. We’re getting neurotic.”
There was always, tossed in somewhere, a brief lecture about something: the lack of journalistic sense in the female of our species, everybody’s ignorance of the rules of grammar and syntax, the wasting talent of a certain artist who was making a career of sex, or the incompetence of some doctor who was treating a friend of Ross’s. He affected a disdain for doctors and other professional men, and once when I introduced him to a great eye surgeon, he shook hands with him and said, “I have little respect for professional men.” He actually had great respect for this particular doctor, and for several others, but his rude generalization was prompted by the little boy in him, or the partly educated adult envious of specialized training and skeptical of technical knowledge, or some orneriness of mood aggravated by the peptic ulcers that bothered him during the last thirty years of his life. Alexander Woollcott explained the ungracious phase of the fabulous editor in ten words: “Ross has the utmost contempt for anything he doesn’t understand.” But Dorothy Parker wrapped up all the Rosses in four words: “He’s a professional lunatic.”
Ross had a kind of mental file of prejudices and antipathies, some momentary, others permanent, and most of them of unrevealed origin. At one Talk meeting he scrawled on a memo pad “Hate Southerners,” handed it to Ingersoll, and growled, “Keep bringing that up every week.” It was brought up every week until Lois Long wrote a sharp satirical piece about a fictional Southern girl. Ross liked and admired many Southerners, among them Laurence Stallings and Nunnally (“Where I come from the Tobacco Road people are the country club set”) Johnson. In 1926 Johnson had told Ross he would like to review motion pictures for the magazine. “For God’s sake, why?” Ross demanded. “Movies are for old ladies and fairies. Write me some pieces.” Ross had early conceived a violent dislike of movies, and hoped his cinema critic would have at them with a cudgel. His feeling was moderated somewhat after he saw Public Enemy and Viva Villa On several visits to Hollywood he became a friend of James Cagney and Frank Capra, among others, and, a dozen of his letters prove, tried for years to interest Hollywood producers in my The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, whose film possibilities he was the first to detect.
Ross almost never got through a Talk meeting without contriving to make Ingersoll say something to irritate him. When Ingersoll suggested a dope piece about the enormous ball that surmounts the Paramount building, Ross glared at him and snarled, “I wouldn’t print a piece about that ball if Lord Louis Mountbatten were living in it.” On another Wednesday, when Ingersoll told him “I have the stuff you wanted on Thaw,” Ross’s eyes brightened darkly. Ingersoll always pronounced Thaw as if it were Thor, and Ross knew this, but he said, “I don’t want a piece about Thor, or Mercury, or any of the other Greek gods.” Ingersoll was the main target of his gripes, and I was next. “There isn’t a single laugh in the Talk of the Town,” he snapped one day, and I snapped back, “You say that every week,” and he snarled, “Well, there are even fewer this time.” Ross was not Ross until he had churned the hour, any hour, into a froth of complaint and challenge, and this was part of the inexhaustible, propulsive force of the magazine. I took up the challenge about Maude Adams, and a few days later laid on his desk her private phone number and enough data on her goings and doings for two separate pieces in “Talk of the Town.” Ross stared at the stuff as if it had been dug up by a little child, and all he said was, “Well, I’ll be damned!” It was a long time before he accepted me as a dependable reporter, but I was used to this because I had had the same experience of trial by ordeal with three different city editors of newspapers.
RUSSELL MALONEY, who took over from me in 1935 the task of writing most of Talk, once wrote in the Saturday Review that Harold Ross regarded perfection as his personal property, like his hat or his watch. This observation could be carried further without straining its soundness. In the first few years of his magazine Ross sometimes had as many as three men, in separate offices, writing pieces for Talk, each one unaware of the competition of the others. Most of them “went out like matches in the wind of Ross’s scorn,” as Ralph Ingersoll once put it. When the editor of the New Yorker became convinced that writers did not possess the perfection that was rightfully coming to him, out they went. Even when he decided that a writer probably did have his perfection, he liked to believe the fellow would never come across with it. He always hoped he would find perfection lying on his desk when he came to work, but he was pretty sure there would be no such luck.
Fifteen years ago I brought him a sheaf of some miscellaneous writings by Peter De Vries, whom I had met in Chicago, where he was then editor of Poetry, and told Ross I had found a perfect New Yorker writer. He stared at the material glumly, and said, “I’ll read it, but it won’t be funny and it won’t be well written.” Two hours later he called me into his office. Hope had risen like a full moon and shone in his face. “How can I get DeVree on the phone?” he demanded, his enthusiasm touched with excitement. Not many days after that Ross and I had lunch at the Algonquin with Peter DeVree — the name had become wedged in Ross’s mind as French, not Dutch, and he was sure the sibilant should go unsounded, as in debris, and he never got it straightened out. I had warned Pete, since I was a veteran of such first meetings, that Ross’s opening question might go off in any direction, like an unguided missile. “Hi, DeVree,” said Ross as they shook hands. “Could you do the Race Track department?” This was the kind of irrelevancy I had in mind, and Pete was prepared for it. “No,” he said, “but I can imitate a wounded gorilla.” He had once imitated a wounded gorilla on a radio program in Chicago. Ross glared at me, realizing I had briefed De Vries, and then his slow lasting grin spread over his face. “Well, don’t imitate it around the office,” he growled amiably. “The place is a zoo the way it is.” Thirty years ago Ross would probably have opened up on De Vries with “Maybe you could run the magazine” or “Could you write the Talk department?”
Ross couldn’t have described perfection, because his limited vocabulary got tangled up in his fluency (“I don’t want you to think I’m not incoherent,” he once rattled off to somebody in “21”), but he recognized it when he saw it. He handled White’s invaluable contributions as if they were fine crystal, and once stuck this note in Andy’s typewriter: “I am encouraged to go on.” Surely no other editor has ever been lost and saved so often in the course of a working week. When his heart leaped up, it leaped a long way, because it started from so far down, and its commutings over the years from the depths to the heights made Ross a specialist in appreciation. In spite of preliminary ordeal, of which there was always plenty, it became a pleasure to write for a man whose praise was so warm and genuine when it came. Dozens of us cherish old memos from him, and letters, and the memory of phone calls, and it is surprising how quickly they come to mind. I often remember a single sentence he scribbled and sent to me about one of the drawings I had done, illustrating Leigh Hunt’s “The Glove and the Lions.” It read, “it’s the goddamdest lion fight ever put down on paper.” But this is about the “Talk of the Town,” of whose significant figures White was perhaps the most important, because of his superb handling of the first, or editorial, page of that department,
ELWYN BROOKS WHITE, who had been God’s gift to the Cornell Sun and to that university’s English professors, gentlemen used to perfection in books but not in classroom themes, was getting $30 a week writing automobile advertising in New York when Ross’s magazine began. He sold Ross his first piece two months later, and then half a dozen light verses and some more “oddities,” as he calls them. He did not meet Ross until after he was hired by Katharine Angell in the fall of 1926. I might as well admit, right here, that I have done a lot of brooding about the mystery that some literary scholars have wrought out of, to quote one of them, the central paradox of Harold Ross’s nature; that is, his magic gift of surrounding himself with some of the best talent in America, despite his own literary and artistic limitations. Without detracting from his greatness as an editor, it must be pointed out that the very nature of his magazine, formless and haphazard though it was to begin with, did most of the attracting. Writers and artists of the kind Ross was looking for decided that here was a market for their wares, and to say that the head of such an enterprise, personally unknown to most of those who came to work for him, was the attracting force is to say that the candle, and not the flame, attracts the moths. I think the moths deserve most of the credit for discovering the flame.
White “brought the steel and music to the magazine,” according to Marc Connelly, famous among his colleagues for such offhand lyrical flights. Others, White among them, have not been quite so definite about what it was that the New Yorker’s “number one wheel horse” (Ingersoll’s phrase) brought to the magazine from Cornell by way of the advertising business. In 1926 White began working part time for the New Yorker at $30 a week. “I hung on to my advertising connection because I had no confidence in my ability in the world of letters,” White has written me. “Nothing that has happened in the last thirty years has shaken my lack of confidence— which is why I still hang on to newsbreaks.” Nobody else in the world of letters shares White’s lack of confidence in White.
Andy quickly cured one of Ross’s early persistent headaches, caused by the problem of newsbreaks, those garbled and often hilarious items from American journals and magazines which conveniently fill out, or “justify,” New Yorker columns. For more than thirty years White has written the taglines for these slips of the linotype machine, and some 30,000 of them have brightened the New Yorker’s pages. Nobody else, and many have tried, ever caught the difficult knack of writing the tags, or inventing the various newsbreak categories such as “Raised Eyebrows Department,” “Neatest Trick of the Week,” and a score of others. My one contribution to the categories was “How’s That Again? Department,” but I was baffled by the task of writing taglines.
Once when White was on vacation I tried my hand at it, and it turned out to have five thumbs. I invented a phony newsbreak, to see if I could get it past Ross. The item, which I credited to a mythical newspaper, went like this: “Oswego, New York, birthplace of William Tecumseh Sherman, has no monument or other memorial to the great Civil War general.” Under this I had written, “Oswego marching through Georgia?” It got into the magazine, since the checking department has never bothered to question the authenticity of newsbreaks. Sherman, of course, was born in Ohio, and this fact flickered into flame in the back of Ross’s mind when the issue containing the fake break came out. Then he checked the newspaper and found out I had made it up. He banged into my office crying, “Goddam it, Thurber, don’t kid around with the newsbreaks.”
It would be like hunting for a broken needle in a hayfield to try to find a given newsbreak published long ago, and I doubt that even Miss Ebba Jonsson, the New Yorker’s incomparable librarian, could locate my own favorite newsbreak in the roughly 1700 issues of the weekly that have been published so far. Fortunately it was printed in 1931 in a little book of New Yorker newsbreaks, called Ho Hum, with a foreword by White and drawings by Soglow. It goes like this:
The Departure of Clara Adams
[From the Burbank (Cal.) Post]
Among the first to enter was Mrs. Clara Adams of Tannersville, Pa., lone woman passenger. Slowly her nose was turned around to face in a southwesterly direction, and away from the hangar doors. Then, like some strange beast, she crawled along the grass.
Ross had been in the habit of peddling the newsbreaks around the office, letting everybody try his hand at writing lines of comment to round them out. White turned in his first batch one day in the fall of 1926, and then went out to his parents’ home in Mount Vernon, New York, where he came down with chicken pox. Ross instantly knew he had found the one and only man who could handle newsbreaks perfectly, and he got White on the phone in Mount Vernon. “I had never heard such a loud voice over any telephone,” White wrote me, “and I had never been encouraged before by an employer, so it was a memorable occasion. Then Ross asked me to come right back into the office and I had to tell him I had chicken pox. ‘You have what?' bellowed Ross.” It was one of those innumberable petty irritations that bedeviled him in his early life as an editor. He just couldn’t believe that he had at last found someone who was willing to endure the boredom and triviality and line print of newsbreaks—and then this man had contracted a child’s disease. Jt was the kind of experience that used to make him bang his hand on the table and scream, “That’s my life!”
The handling of newsbreaks, White and Ross soon found, had its special perplexities, of the kind that made the editor nervous: a couple, instead of a coupé, found in a ditch; a hippy in place of a happy bride; a ship’s captain who collapsed on the bride, instead of the bridge, during a storm at sea; and a certain percentage of items skillfully counterfeited. There were also a few fanatics who made a hobby, or even a lifework, out of reading newspapers and sending in breaks, and most of them were touchy and temperamental. One of these career men wrote, “Do not put paper clips on my rejections. They leave marks.” This complaint happened to Andy on a gloomy day. He poured Glyco-Thymoline on the breaks, instead of putting clips on them, and a few days later showed me a letter from the newsbreaker, thanking him for his care. “That’s my life,” said White.
White’s “Notes and Comment,” the first page of the “Talk of the Town,” through the years has left its firm and graceful imprint on American letters, and every now and then has exerted its influence upon local, or even wider, affairs. It was responsible for the moving of the information booth in the Pennsylvania Station out into the center of the main floor; for the changing of the lights, from colored to white, in the tower of the Empire State Building; and for directing attention to the captive audiences in Grand Central Station, where passengers had been forced to listen to broadcast commercials. This practice was officially abandoned after hearings by the Public Service Commission, at one of which Harold Ross, on the stand, proudly described himself as “editor of an adult humor magazine.” The editor made few public appearances in his lifetime, but this was one of his finest hours, and he enjoyed every minute of it. It was White, though, who had inaugurated the campaign to free the captives of commercialism.
“Notes and Comment,” called simply “Comment,” did more than anything else to set the tone and cadence of the New Yorker and to shape its turns of thought, and White’s skill in bringing this page to the kind of perfection Ross had dreamed of intensified Ross’s determination to make Talk the outstanding department of the magazine. It was a great help when God sent him an efficient and tireless young reporter named Charles H. Cooke, the magazine’s first “Our Mr. Stanley,”who was often up at dawn and abroad at midnight, digging up data.
THE prospectus had declared, “The New Yorker will be what is commonly called sophisticated, in that it will assume a reasonable degree of enlightenment on the part of its readers.” Ross found it hard to keep in mind this assumption of enlightenment, and sometimes seemed to be editing Talk for a little boy or an old lady whose faculties were dimming. When I used axe-haft, Ross followed it, in parentheses, with “the haft is the handle of the axe.” His profound uneasiness in the presence of anything smacking of scholarship or specialized knowledge is perpetuated in dozens of small changes he made in my copy. In the following excerpt from a Talk piece, which I wrote after a visit to the Metropolitan Museum, I have italicized his insertions: “For those who exclaim over armor, a thing pretty rare with us, the three new suits the museum has just come by will prove enthralling. One of them, a richly ornamented Spanish war harness, has more pieces of réchange, or you might say accessories, than any other battle suit in the world. . . . Among other prizes of the New Accession Room is the lid of an amphora, but we never did find out what an amphora is.” In another Talk item about the demands upon his hosts of the difficult and imperious Count Keyserling, I wrote that he had to have, around midnight, after his lecture, “champagne or claret,” and Ross had to explain to his sophisticated readers that claret was “French red wine,” so they would not confuse it with its prize-ring meaning of “blood.”
Harold Wallace Ross, who secretly enjoyed being thought of as raconteur and man about town, was scared to death of being mistaken for a connoisseur, or an aesthete, or a scholar, and his heavy ingenuous Colorado hand was often laid violently upon anything that struck him as “intellectual.” Thus his avid mental curiosity balked at anything that seemed to him redolent of learning. I find I once wrote of him in a letter to White, “What are you going to do about a man who would rather listen to Jim Farley discuss CocaCola than to Robert Frost describing rings of lantern light?”
Ross had the enthusiasm of a youngster at a circus for a thousand different things, but none of them was in the realm of the recondite or the academic. One day, a year before he died, I brought him together at the Algonquin with an old friend of mine who had never met him but had always been eager to find out what he was like. Ross launched immediately into a breathless discussion of his enthusiasm of the moment, the history of Bull Durham tobacco. My friend sat entranced for a quarter of an hour and, after Ross had departed, exclaimed, “He’s a Gee Whiz guy!” Ross was fascinated by facts and statistics about the big and the costly, but he didn’t like his facts bare and stark; he wanted them accompanied by comedy — you unwrapped the laugh and there was the fact, or maybe vice versa.
The Gee Whiz Guy was forever enchanted by the size and saga of the fabulous city’s great buildings. He had long wanted a profile on Jacob Volk, a building wrecker out of Herculean mythology, who tore down two hundred and fifty big structures in Manhattan during his lifetime and never passed the Woolworth Building but what he dreamed of the joys of razing it. I had wanted the piece for Talk, where it seemed to me it belonged, but Ross assigned Robert Coates to do the profile. (Ross also took Shipwreck Kelley, the flagpole sitter, away from me and profiled him. These enlargements into profiles of snapshots that belonged in Talk marked the beginning of Ross’s interest in long pieces instead of sharp vignettes.) I got Jake Volk for Talk, in spite of Ross, because the famous wrecker died while the Coates profile was in the works, and we never wrote profiles about dead men. I broke the sad news to the editor. “Damn it,” mourned Ross, “why couldn’t he have waited a week?” Ross believed that God and nature owed the New Yorker a reasonable amount of consideration in the matter of life and death. We laid Jake Volk to rest in “Talk of the Town,” which dealt with the dead as well as the quick.
He had died two months before another wrecker began taking down the old Waldorf, on whose site the Empire State Building was erected. The original Waldorf was a toughly constructed building, and the wrecker who took it apart was paid $900,000 for the job — old Jake had paid for the privilege of tearing structures down, and made his profit by selling intact sections, but the debris of the Waldorf was all taken out to sea and dumped. I wrote about the last day of the famous hotel, and eighteen months later climbed the still unfinished tower of the Empire State.
Jake shook his head at mention of Stanford White. “When he built ‘em they stayed built,” he would say sadly. One that stayed built has just been made over into apartments for fifteen or twenty families. It’s the great Italian Renaissance mansion in East 73rd Street where Joseph Pulitzer spent his last years and died without ever having been in forty-five of its sixty rooms. My bones still feel the cold of the mansion’s deserted sprawl of rooms and halls littered with trash and covered with dust when I shivered in them one wintry day in 1934. The legends of Pulitzer and Stanford White are growing dim, but the famous mansion is as staunch as ever. I trust that the ghost of Jacob Volk, seeming to munch one of the caviar sandwiches he so loved, does not mournfully stalk the corridors of the old mansion just off Fifth Avenue.
IN COLUMBUS, or in France, or for the Evening Post, I had interviewed many celebrities: Eddie Rickenbacker, who had little to say; General Pershing, who had nothing to say; Harry Sinclair, who mumbled tonelessly; Thomas A. Edison, who kept repeating, “The radio will always distort the soprano voice.” Interviews for the “Talk of the Town” were easier, because most of the characters of that period were colorful and voluble: Jimmy Walker, always eager to say something; Al Smith, a born speaker; Huey Long, who paced the four rooms of his hotel suite delivering a political speech for an hour to an audience that consisted of me; Jack Johnson, who talked about himself in the third person — “Jack Johnson don’t approve of the immorality of the Broadway theater.” If the principal celebrities of the time were to be seeded, like tennis players, on the basis of number of mentions each got in Talk, the listing of the first seven would go like this: Jimmy Walker 63, AI Smith 60, Calvin Goolidge 43, Lindbergh 33, j. P. Morgan 29, Gene Tunney 25, Otto Kahn 21. Ross once tacked an order on the bulletin board which read: “Otto Kahn has been mentioned six times in Talk recently, There will be no more mentions of him for six months.”Ross was sternly opposed to anecdotes about the Algonquin group, and when an excellent one required the use of the name Alexander Woollcott, he cursed awhile and said, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do — we’ll misspell it,” and we left out one of the “l’s.” He worried about overmention of others, too: Admiral Byrd, Rudy Vallee, Grover Whalen, and Fiorello La Guardia.
Harold Ross, ever hot for certainties in this our life, was also, being a true newspaperman, avid of exclusive stories for Talk. It wasn’t easy, though, to get them, because of the danger of their being leaked out between press time and publication day. Once we broke to the world the news of the vast Rockefeller Center project, only to find that the world knew all about it. Alva Johnston had written it up in a Sunday newspaper article before we hit the stands. We did manage what I called in my lead “A little miracle of secrecy" in reporting the first meeting of Gene Tunney and Charles A. Lindbergh, which took place at the studio of the artist Charles Baskerville in 1928. Ross and Tunney had become friends during the Stars and Stripes days in France. Ross got a great kick out of making me believe for a time, after the Tunney-Lindbergh story, that I had been hoaxed and that no such meeting had taken place — he himself had been out of town when I wrote the piece. But Gene Tunney has recently verified the old meeting in a letter to me, which be ended with, “Hal Ross was a great American,” and Mr. Baskerville, riffling through the years, recently found a photograph of himself and Tunney and Lindbergh taken that day at his studio.
Every press agent in town dreamed of getting into Talk by throwing his fast ball past Ross (one day a story reached my desk about a cockroach race at the Nut Club in Greenwich Village) but Ross was struck out only once, by, of all people, Texas Guinan. She telephoned him one day to say, in a fine imitation of breathless excitement, that Ella Wendel, last of the three wealthy Wendel sisters, who lived in the gaslit past in a mysterious Fifth Avenue mansion, had visited her night club, accompanied by two elderly gentlemen out of the carriage days of old Gotham. “She talked to me about it for half an hour,” Ross told me. I stared at the wise old newspaperman in disbelief. “She talks to everybody for half an hour on the phone,” I told him. “She talked to me for half an hour one day when I was on the Post.” Ross then went on to say that a few days after Miss Ella’s visit Tex had received from her an elegant specially-made handbag worth $4500, to replace one given her by Frank Fay, which she had lost. “You can’t believe that!” I yelled. “It’s obviously a phony. Ask any woman you know, ask any little girl.” But Ross ordered me to write the story — I told him he would have to make it an order—and it was printed, and Miss Wendel’s attorneys called on Ross and demanded a retraction of the story. H. W. Ross gave up hard. He sent out three different reporters to call on every handbag maker in the East, and they all came back with the word that he had been royally humbugged.
ONE of the clearest pictures in my mental memory book of the old days is that of Ross pounding away on his typewriter, trying, by speed and finger power, to get facility and felicity into his rewriting of Talk. “It should be like dinner-table conversation,” he used to repeat, but although he could be an entertaining dinner-table conversationalist, he was unable to hammer it into written prose. This was because be became an unreal Ross when he tried writing for the magazine, a strained and artificial personality, completely different from the undisguised and articulate one that still breathes in almost every line of the thousands of personal letters he wrote. He simply was not a New Yorker writer, never got better at it, and in the thirties gave it up, although he persisted in sticking into my copy now and then such pet expressions of his as “and such” and “otherwhere.” His “and such” spots old “Talk of the Town” pieces like flyspecks. It was his idea of achieving ease. In one story, “The studio walls are hung with oils and watercolors, with here and there a gouache and silverpoint” became “The studio walls are hung with oils and watercolors, and such.”His sense of rhythm, often orally effective, failed him on the typed page.
Sometimes I secretly rewrote his clumsier rewrites of my Talk pieces and faked his “R,”which every piece of copy had to bear when it went to the printers. He was capable of awkward sentences that would have made him bellow if he had found them in someone else’s copy; such a prize monstrosity, for instance, as “A man in a brown suit named Jones came into the room.” Once he hastily changed “colloid” to “collide,” and I sent him a note of reproof and told him to look up the word in the dictionary. He did and wrote back “It’s a hell of a complicated world.” Our clashes over Talk, frequent and lengthy in the beginning, gradually quieted down with his increasing interest in other departments of the magazine. But the late twenties were full of scraps between us. When, as something of an expert on the haunts of O. Henry in his beloved Baghdad-on-the-Subway, I wrote that he had last lived at the Hotel Caledonia, 28 West 26th Street, Ross yelled that I was wrong. F.P.A. had told him that it was the Hotel Chelsea, and to Ross the great Frank Adams was infallible. He sent a reporter to City Hall to check the vital statistics on Porter, William Sidney, and then slouched into my room to say grudgingly, “Okay on the Caledonia, Thurber,” not so much pleased that I had been right as sorry that Adams had been wrong. If I was a man who lost things, and he was sure I was, he couldn’t understand how the hell I could get facts straight.
The harassed editor, always beset by anxieties, worried about the rigor mortis of formula in “Talk of the Town” style, the repetition of “a gentleman of our acquaintance,” “a man we know,” “a Park Avenue lady,” and such. Anecdotes, of which we have printed thousands, many of them flat, some of them memorable, were like mosquitoes that pestered him continually. “Nobody in this whole goddam city seems to say anything funny except taxi drivers, children, and colored maids.” “We get too damn many about telephones and Macy’s.” And he would stick up a notice on the bulletin board beseeching everybody to turn in some fresh anecdotes. Once he paced for days, off and on, wondering what to do about a story my brother had sent in from Columbus, Ohio, dealing with Calvin Coolidge.
It seemed that Mr. Coolidge had lost a nightgown in a Pullman sleeper and had written the company asking that it be returned or that he be reimbursed for its loss. This one never did reach print, because Ross could not figure out how to “hang it,” that is, how to account for our knowing about a fact that had originated in the Near Far West.
With rue my heart is laden for one anecdote printed in Talk. It reported an incident that occurred during a convention of monumentalists, or tombstone cutters, in White Plains. A local member of the craft had shown off his own handiwork during a tour of a cemetery with a visiting headstonist. As they left the cemetery, a whistling boy walked past them. “Son of that big granite job I showed you back there,” said the White Plains man. Ross loved it and ruined it with his rewrite. He not only dragged Rotary into it, for no good reason, but tinkered clumsily with the pay-off line, so that it came out: “Son of that big granite and iron job I showed you back there.” Ross had turned a deaf car to the speech and, for all I know, may also have found out that there is always some ironwork in a granite monument.
When another superior anecdote was sent in — it is still known around the office to old-timers as the “grison anecdote” — I rewrote it and commanded Ross not to touch a single word. He read it, brought it into my office, said it was swell, looked as sad as if he had just lost a friend, and said, “Can’t I please put a comma after ‘My God’?” That comma, the record shows, is there. Here is the grison anecdote:
The Harold Wilcoxes, of Nutley, New Jersey, have a grison, which they keep in a cage on their porch. A grison is a very odd-looking South American weasellike carnivore. The other day a house-to-house salesman for a certain brand of dainty soap rang the bell (without noticing the grison) and Mrs. Wilcox answered. He launched right into his well-rehearsed praises of the soap, in the course of which he finally did see the grison. He blanched, but kept right on: “It preserves the fine texture of the most delicate skin and lends a lasting and radiant rosiness to the complexion my God, what is that thing?”
One day in 1931 H. W. Ross came into my office to say, after a lot of silent pacing, “Are we important?” The voice was not that of the man who had kept repeating a year before, “We’re getting grim.” I didn’t encourage his implied ambition for higher things and longer pieces, but said, “We’re just a fifteen-cent magazine.” He left the room without saying anything, but half an hour later stuck his head in my door again. “I don’t think so.” he said, and went away.
THE Talk meetings grew wearisome in the end and ran down like an old clock and stopped. “Thurber and White are sulky or surly or silent,” Ross once told somebody, “and we’re not getting anywhere.” Once, at meeting’s end Ross said to me, “Have you got anything else to bring up, Thurber?” and I said I had, and I brought it up, and it turned out the others had just been discussing it. “Thurber is the greatest unlistener I know,” Ross later complained. Then there was the day, very near the end, when I wrote doggerel during a meeting and shoved it across to White. Ross had figured I was making notes on something he had said, but the thing got into the magazine, I can’t remember why, and there it is in the files, entitled “Bachelor Burton.” It runs like this:
Went to buy himself a curtain,
Called on Greenburg, Moe, and Mintz,
Bought a hundred yards of chintz
Stamped with owls and all star-spangled,
Tried to hang it, fell, and strangled.
I think it held no conscious symbolism, and if I read any into it now, it would just be the creaky invention of a rusty memory.
My eight years of wandering the city for Talk ended in 1935, and my last visit piece was about a melancholy stroll along 14th Street a few days before Christmas that year. It ends like this: “We missed this year the vendors of those old-fashioned German Christmas cards with the tinsel snow and the rich colors. There used to be several of them around, and a sad man who played ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ on a flute. Nobody seemed to know what had become of them.”Most of the personalities of the Crazy Years between Lindbergh’s flight and Hitler’s heyday are dead and gone, and I had forgotten most of the tinsel snow and the colorful trivialities I gathered for the “Talk of the Town” so long ago until I looked them up in the files the other day. There was a lot of stuff to hold the interest of the Gee Whiz Guy: Ely Culbertson pondering for forty-three minutes before playing a certain card in his celebrated bridge match with Sidney Lenz; the signature of Count Felix von Luckner, fourteen inches long and two inches high, in an enormous guest book; and an item about the thirty-six-ton meteorite that Admiral Peary brought back from Greenland and presented to the Museum of Natural History. “Geezus!” said Ross. “I hope they were expecting it.”
Ross gradually lost his high interest in “Talk of the Town,” but the best of it, carefully selected, would be a valuable record of the Wonderful Town in the bizarre second quarter of this century. In 1950 I wanted to write for Talk two or three pieces about Houdini, but Ross wrote me that he didn’t want to “fritter Houdini away on Talk of the Town.” This was the epitaph for the old journalistic department as I had known it. Four years earlier he had written me a letter that clearly reveals the dying of an old passion of his. it begins “Dear Jim.” (Ross rarely called men by their first names in talking to them in the office, but he often used first names in letters, and at social gatherings at his apartment, and otherwhere. Like me, both White and Gibbs were always a little surprised by the intimate salutation, and once Gibbs was disturbed. He had been in the hospital for several weeks, and Ross had visited him there. “I was about to have a third of my right lung taken out,” Gibbs has written me. “and, as I know now, without a very good chance of surviving the operation. He came to see me the afternoon before they were going to work on me, and he called me Wolcott, pronouncing it almost right, and I swear to God it was the first time it really occurred to me that I might be going to die. I called him Harold back, but it was quite an effort in my condition.”) Here is the Ross letter, dated November 12, 1946:
The fault with Talk is mainly ideas. When you were doing the rewrite, we were getting better ideas. Shawn (peerless as an idea man) was on the job, and if I do say it myself, I was sparking some too. I was younger then. I’ve been very uneasy about the idea end of Talk for some time, now that the war is over and things aren’t so obvious. I look over the ideas every week and am discouraged. If you should know of a man who can spark ideas, there’s a job open for him, God knows.
It isn’t true that there are many reporters. At the moment, we are weak there, too, unless two or three absolutely new men should develop a flair, like Charles Cooke’s (he also was peerless). We’ve had a couple of very good girls, but one got married and left town, and the other has gone on to working on longer pieces. We use reporters on long pieces more than we used to, but no more on Talk, I think, except for people trying out. We’re trying to find young talent of all kinds and it’s hard. And as to the writing, no one writer is making it a principal interest now, and I think that makes a difference. All the boys are doing Talk along with other things. Give me you, Shawn, and Cooke and I’ll get out a Talk department. . . . It’s up to God to send some young talent around this place, and He’s been neglecting the job. That’s the trouble.
When Ross wrote that, Bill Shawn, now editor of the New Yorker, was top man on the totem pole and remained there the rest of Ross’s life, thus setting a world’s endurance record. It was characteristic of H. W. Ross to forget dial the two idea men in my day were Ralph Ingersoll and Bernard A. Bergman, who were never excelled, that Russel Crouse and Bob Coates had been two of the earliest and ablest Talk writers, and that the remarkable Haidee Eames Yates had been one of the first and liveliest reporters. Once, thirty years ago, I incorporated a line of her notes intact in one of my rewrites and sent it on to Ross. It was about a certain colorful celebrity and reported simply: “His love life seems as mixed up as a dog’s breakfast.” Ross blue-penciled it, of course, but the phrase remained a part of office lingo. And here, weary reader, let us leave them all.
Next month: The goddam drawings.