The Years With Ross

To be a Miracle Man on Harold Ross’s NEW YORKER was a summons that few of those lapped for the position knew enough to refuse. But the miracle proved to be the velocity with which the incumbents came and went. Poets, editors, writers, and men about town were hired, only to be fired, often for nonexistent reasons, after a short and painful interval on the job. This is the sixth part of JAMES THURBER’S series.

HELL, I hire anybody,” Harold Ross told Ralph Ingersoll in the summer of 1925 when Ingersoll called on the editor of the New Yorker, asked for a job, and got one. It wasn’t as simple as it sounds, though, as those who have been attending these lectures on Ross will have guessed. Ingersoll had appeared in the editor’s office dressed in a Palm Beach suit he had bought for the occasion, and Ross had talked to him for only a few minutes, gesticulating widely, when his big right hand struck an inkwell. Suddenly Ingersoll’s new suit was dripping with ink and Ross was covered with embarrassment. Ingersoll had almost reached the office door on what he was sure was his way out of Ross’s life when the editor shouted, “You’re hired!” And then, a few moments later, sighed, “Hell, I hire anybody.”

From then on Ross hired anybody, and everybody, in his frantic and ceaseless search for the Fountain of Perfection. A few of us came to realize that Ross didn’t really want to find it, whether he knew it or not; that the quest itself was what kept him going. If he had found the Redeemer who, in Cabell’s words, would make everything as “neat as a trivet or an apple-pie,” he would have grasped his own starry scheme of things entire, smashed it all to bits, and then remolded it nearer to his heart’s desire, or his mind’s illusion, or whatever it was. A team of Freuds would have a hard time putting a finger on the Imp of the Perverse in Ross’s psyche. I think he was looking for two Separate kinds of Miracle Men: 1) the administrative genius who would sit at a Central Desk, push buttons, and produce Instant Perfection of organization, and 2) a literary wizard who would wave a magic wand over writers and artists and conjure up Instant Perfection in prose, drawings, and all other contents of the magazine.

H. W. Ross, being neither artist nor poet, was not equipped to bring “grace and measure” out of the chaos of man on earth, for his heart’s ease or his peace of mind, but there was in him something of the powerful urge that has animated the human male from Sir Percival to Pasteur, from Marco Polo to Admiral Peary. He never knew exactly what he was after, since he didn’t have much self-knowledge and was afraid of introspection, but I think he hoped it would be as shining as the Holy Grail, or as important as the Northwest Passage, or as rewarding as the pot of gold. He was afraid, though, that a Gorgon would pop up at any time to frustrate him, or a Questyng Beast, or a Gordian knot, and he realized that he damn well better have a Perseus on hand to help him, or a Palamedes, or an Alexander the Great. These romantic comparisons would, I am sure, move psychiatrists to ridicule; they would find in Sir Harold not the romantic that he was, but a mixed-up modern man driven by the well-known compulsion to build with one hand and tear down with the other. Well, that urge was in him, too, along with fixation, defense mechanism, inferiority complex, and all the rest.

Many of us who went with him on his Quest, part of or all the way, often became bored or infuriated, and wanted to quit, and there were scores who did quit and found an easier way to live and make a living. A few of us could not quit. We had put on the armor and strapped on the sword and we were stuck with them. Once, when E. B. White had taken all he could, or thought he had, he said he was quitting and went home. Ross paced his office all afternoon and then got White on the phone at his apartment. “You can’t quit,” he roared. “This isn’t a magazine — it’s a Movement!” Andy did not leave the Movement.

The limits and limitations of Sir Harold’s quest were defined by the very nature of his magazine, and no matter how high, and ever higher, he set his goal, it was ludicrously low compared with the objectives of the great pioneers and pathfinders whose listing above would nevertheless give Ross, I think, more comfort than discomfiture. He had humor, but he was never able to see clearly the essential comedy of a shining quest confined and constricted by mundane office walls and all the mean mechanics of magazine production. Once in a while he would say that he didn’t really give a damn, and that the only thing he had ever liked doing was getting out the Stars and Stripes in Paris. “Every magazine has its cycle,” he would say, “and this one has its cycle, too. It’s a precarious enterprise, at best, and I wouldn’t encourage anybody to invest in it.” But if you concurred in his depressive views and pretended to share his mood, he would snap out of it like a switch blade.

In the last months of his life, when he was trying to lean back and take it easy at his home near Stamford, on doctor’s orders, one of those who called on him was Hobart Weekcs, since 1928 a big cog in the New Yorker machine, a Princeton and Oxford man whose knowledge of and familiarity with make-up, proofreading, fact checking, English, and English literature frequently amazed his boss. Once Ross was about to scribble “Who he?” in the margin of a proof opposite the name William Blake, but one of those hunches or intuitions that stayed his hand made him send for Weekes. “Who’s William Blake?” he demanded, and Weekes told him. “How the hell did you know that?” Ross said. He was also astonished by Weekes’s knowledge of the differences, ecclesiastical and otherwise, between a virgin and a verger. (A virgin, instead of a verger, had crept into a Talk story about some church ceremony, but was hustled out by the learned Princeton-Oxford man before she could get into the magazine and mortify its editor.)

The day Weekes called on him at Stamford, Ross was lying on his bed, restless and disconsolate, smoking cigarettes against orders. “They don’t need me at the office any more,” said the man who had sometimes protested he didn’t want to be there. Weekes straightened him out on that, implementing and underlying the New Yorker’s need for its founder. That night, I am sure, H. W. Ross slept better.

NOTHING throws a stronger light on Harold Ross’s eternal questing, his incurable discontent, and his psychological, if not indeed almost pathological, cycle of admiration and disillusionment than the case history of Ralph McAllister Ingersoll from 1925 until he quit in 1930 to become a Luce editor, later the founder of PM, a controversial front-page figure during the war, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, and the author of half a dozen books. In 1942 he was the subject of a twopart profile in the New Yorker written by Wolcott Gibbs. When Ingersoll was on the magazine, Ross would have bet a cool million to one that no such profile would ever be published. (Thirty years ago, when Ingersoll kept suggesting a profile of Walter Winchell, Ross said, “Dismiss it from your mind. There’ll never be a profile of Winchell in this magazine.” St. Clair McKelway’s New Yorker profile of Walter Winchell in 1940 ran to six parts.)

Ingersoll, not yet twenty-five when he was hired by Ross, was a graduate of Yale’s Sheffield, and he had been a reporter and a mining engineer, but all this meant little to his employer. What meant a lot was that Ingersoll was a grandnephew of Ward McAllister and knew his way around Park Avenue and Long Island. “He knows what clubs Percy E. Pyne belongs to, and everybody else,” Ross once told me. “He has entree in the right places. He knows who owns private Pullman cars, and he can have tea with all the little old women that still have coachmen or footmen or drive electric runabouts. It’s damned important for a magazine called the New Yorker to have such a man around.” Ross had sent him, for opinion, Ellin Mackay’s “Why We Go to Cabarets,” and it was Ingersoll’s terse, emphatic “It’s a must” that persuaded Ross to print it.

When I reached the New Yorker in March, 1927, Ross’s enchantment with Ingersoll was undergoing its inevitable decline. Ross cast his own spells and broke them himself, and nobody has ever known just how or why. The great irony of Ross’s quest, to me, was the simple truth that Ingersoll, who turned up when the magazine was a few months old, was the best of all the Central Desk men, the very administrative expert Ross spent his life looking for. I think he knew this unconsciously, would not admit it even to himself, and spent a lot of time after he had let Ingersoll go trying to justify and rationalize his had judgment.

“He thinks he’s a writer,” he said to me when I told him he had lost his most valuable assistant. “He wrote a book called In and Under Mexico. I haven’t read it, and don’t want to, but it can’t be good. The top drawer of his desk was always full of medicine. If I gave him a thousand dollars a week to sit alone in a room and do nothing, in five days he would have six men helping him.” Thus spake Harold Ross, the same man who kept saying, “We haven’t got any manpower, we haven’t got anybody who knows how to delegate anything.” He had one final word the day I bawled him out for losing Ingersoll. ‘’He brought Hush-a-phones into the office. I think he talked to brokers all the time, and people like Cornelius Vanderbilt. He knew too many people.” Thus spake the man who had once boasted that Ingersoll knew everybody and that the New Yorker needed just such a man.

One of the hundred little things that plagued Ross like mosquitoes was the postal regulation that requires all periodicals to print, at certain intervals, the names of its editors and principal stockholders. To satisfy this requirement, Ingersoll was listed as managing editor, all alone for several years, and then as co-managing editor with Katharine White. “Ross never stopped taunting me about it,” Ingersoll says. “He would tell me that it didn’t mean a thing, and that he was thinking of listing his butler as managing editor — ‘the way French newspapers name janitors or elevator men as their editors, so they can be the patsies in libel suits and such.’ ”

Ross kept bringing in other men, me among them, partly for the purpose of sticking pins in Ingersoll’s pride. He told me, when I was “in charge,” to give Ingersoll orders. “Don’t let him write anything,” he once said. “He did the captions on covering art this week. That’s your fault. Change them.” By “covering art” he meant a double-page spread of drawings that used to illustrate horse racing, open air concerts, and other goings on. 1 ngersoll had done the captions for a yacht race spread, drawn by Johan Bull: “The Start,” “Midway,” and “The Finish.” Being sane at the time, or fairly so, I let them stand. “Did you change those captions?” Ross asked me later. “All you have to do is read them,” I said. “They have my touch, it’s unmistakable.” He was satisfied.

RALPH INGERSOLL and I became friends and nothing, even his passing into legend, has changed that. He spends his weekends now at his home in Castleton. Virginia, and is editor-publisher of the Middletown, New York, Times Herald and the Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Times. Without his help and direction, always efficient and untiring, I could never have got “Talk of the Town” off the ground. He took care of a thousand managerial details that I was supposed to handle, couldn’t have, and didn’t want to, and Ross never knew about it. When Ingersoll began publishing PM in 1940, I wrote a brief column for it, called “If You Ask Me,” twice a week until I went into a nervous tail spin following my fifth eye operation. Ross read a few of these columns and objected because, he said, “You’re throwing away ideas on PM that would make good casuals.” But I was out from under the strict and exacting editing for which the New Porker was and still is famous, and I needed this relaxation and the hundred dollars a column Ingersoll paid me.

One column 1 wrote in 1941 dealt with an old New Yorker Talk item some contributor had sent to the magazine twelve years before, in 1929. My wife had turned it up in going through some old stuff of mine in the early summer of 1941 when we went to Martha’s Vineyard. In my column I referred to the lost and found contribution, which had never got into print, as “an ancient fragment of urgency.” It was a letter from a woman reader, and on it was clipped a pink memo reading “Must go this week” and signed with the initials of Arthur Samuels, one of the Miracle Men of 1929. When my wife found the thing, the item was not only a dozen years old, but Arthur Samuels had been dead for three years. Ross read that PM column, all right, but all he said to me was, “God knows how we got out a Talk department when you were writing it.” Ingersoll could have told him how we managed it, and Bernard A. Bergman could have told him. too, and Raymond Holden, and Ogden Nash. All of them belonged to the Big Parade of Miracle Men that came and went across the years.

The pink memo slip for urgency is said to have been put into effect by Holden, and later to have been abandoned because one of the editors in charge of urgency was color blind. Ross took as capricious, and laughed about it only grudgingly, my suggestion that we use shape instead of color to denote urgency, “Let’s make the urgent memos round, like an alarm clock, and use rectangular or coffin-shaped ones for less immediate matters,” I said. Some way or other, in the notable confusion of all New Yorker systems, first things usually came first and others trailed along. Ross, at bottom, had about as much grasp of system as I had, which was perilously close to zero, but the difference was that he worried about it constantly and it was the least of all my concerns. We needed a guiding hand, there is no doubt about that, but often a competent secretary or a well-trained office boy could have brought about the order and pattern that Ross was confident could be achieved only through the agency of a genius sent to him by God.

After Ingersoll left in 1930, Ross realized, but never said so, that he had left behind an empty space it would take at least two men to fill. In the next few years Ross brought in at least eight hopefuls. As Ingersoll put it, in Fortune in 1935, ‘ Ross has hired them out of advertising agencies, from behind city desks, from the Social Register, from The Players Club. He brings them back from lunch, he cables for them.” One day, in 1930, Ross brought Ogden Nash into my office and said, “I’m thinking of letting Nash here take a swing at running the Talk department.” Ogden himself, in a letter to me, has told, better and more succinctly than I could, what happened to him, and I quote his letter:

My experience with Ross was brief but unfortunate. He started buying my stuff early in 1930; later that year we met for the first time — not in the office — but in a speakeasy.
I don’t need to tell you that in many ways he was a strangely innocent man and he assumed that my presence in a speakeasy meant that I was a man about town. He was, I believe, still in mourning over the departure of Ingersoll, who had apparently been the ultimate in men about town, and was looking for a suave and worldly editor. He hired me practically on the spot. It took him less than three months to discover that it takes more than a collection of speakeasy cards to make a man about town. Besides this, he didn’t need an editor anyhow, as anything he didn’t do himself was capably handled by Raymond Holden and Mrs. White. The end of the third month, therefore. found me in the employ of what was then Farrar and Rinehart.
Shortly after I moved to Baltimore where I remained for some twenty years; I was living there at the time of his death. I saw him occasionally when I visited the office.
He was an almost impossible man to work for — rude, ungracious and perpetually dissatisfied with what he read; and l admire him more than anyone I have met in professional life. Only perfection was good enough for him, and on the rare occasions he encountered it, he viewed it with astonished suspicion.
I suppose that in the twenty-odd years of our relationship I had half a dozen grudging kind words from him. Once, toward the end, he sat down and wrote me a letter of congratulation on a certain piece that was almost fulsome; those rare kind words meant more to me than any compliments from reviewers, and I wish I could afford a tombstone large enough to hold the letter.

OFFICE legend has it that the first of the Miracle Men (they were also known in the early years as Jesuses and Geniuses) was Joseph Moncure March, but he soon got the hell out from under and from on top. Someone has told me that, after a particularly rough session with Ross, March sat for hours in the make-up room one night, staring out the window, but he wasn’t the only one of us to do that; sometimes we sat for hours after work, alone except for a bottle of Scotch or rye, planning just how to tell Ross where to get off. There were a few men who had the good sense not to listen when Ross said, “Maybe you can run the magazine,” a famous epitaph for at least two dozen miscast Geniuses.

Fillmore Hyde, the New Yorker’s first literary editor, was one of these wise men. He got out early, for greener and more tranquil pastures. Hyde was a sensitive, difficult, and able editor, who took no nonsense from Ross or anybody else. On my first day at the New Yorker he snapped at me, “Boy, take this telegram.” I snapped something back at him and walked away, annoyed because he had spotted me for an office boy and not the new Redeemer. The last episode involving Fillmore Hyde at the New Yorker resulted from a letter to him that Bergman had dictated to a secretary. Bergman sent the letter back to her with instructions to do it over because she had misspelled Hyde’s name, but he had made the mistake of writing in pencil in the margin, “For God’s sake get this man’s name right. Hyde is a touchy blankety blank.” The secretary retyped the letter, incorporating the penciled sentence in it, and, the tale tells, Bergman signed it without rereading it and sent it off. I don’t know what happened after that.

Others, besides Hyde, who turned down the BigJob included Weekes, Wolcott Gibbs, and Clifton Fadiman. Ross piled so much work on Weekes just after the war years, Big Job or not, that this invaluable editor came down with a serious illness requiring a major operation and a long siege in the hospital. Ross never seemed to know when a man had reached the limit of his endurance. If you kept taking it, he kept piling it on. His strange ambivalence — admiration and disenchantment, faith and distrust — went through a series of undulations in regard to Weekes. Once, mad about something trivial, he picked up his desk phone and threw it during a conference with Hobey.

At an earlier time, Weekes felt that he was being “put in the icebox,” that some of his editorial duties were quietly being taken away from him, not to lessen the pressure of his work, but out of some Ross dissatisfaction with it. A new Genius, named Don Wharton, had appeared on the scene, and Ross had said of him, “Wharton can handle anything.” Weekes sensed that the ancient formula of hiring and firing was about to be repeated again, but he didn’t know what he had done to offend Ross. Hobey had started out as a checker and sometime Talk reporter, and had come up the hard way to chief of the copy desk, later taking on added heavy chores in the make-up and proofreading departments. He finally went to Ross and said, “There seems to be a move on foot to get rid of me. If I’m not wanted here, I’ll leave in ten minutes.” Ross didn’t say anything, just sat staring at him. A good three minutes went by, during which Ross didn’t move a muscle or speak a word. When Weekes couldn’t stand it any longer he just got up and left the room. He wasn’t fired. Hobey was one of many New Yorker men in uniform during the war, but it is to Ross’s credit that he never took advantage of this patriotic absence to get rid of any man.

WHEN I was, at least in Ross’s stubborn mind, top man, we were dealing heavily with some slight problem in his office one day (circa June, 1927,) when his secretary tiptoed in and laid on the desk an enormous typescript, bound in imitation leather and seeming to me now, in retrospect, at least as thick as a desk dictionary. It was labeled “Mistakes Made by J. Thurber as Managing Editor.” Ross stood up and stared at it, his tongue coming out of the corner of his mouth, his eyes getting darker and darker. Then he said to his secretary, “Get that thing out of here. Get rid of it. I don’t want to know what you did with it.” Since the monumental compendium of my mistakes, many of them deliberate, seemed to me a sure safe conduct out of the job I hated, I said, “Aren’t you going to read it? Don’t you want to find out what’s in it?” What he wanted to do, it came out after a lot of silent pacing, was to fire the man he held responsible for this assumption of authority, this gross insubordination, this rude interruption of his routine. I told him he would have to fire the man himself, that he was one of the best on the magazine. After a long pause and much coin jingling, he said, “I’m mistaken for him by some people, right here in the goddam hallways. It’s embarrassing. People probably think he’s me, too.” I laughed him out of that finally, but not out of his firing mood.

“I want you to fire So-and-so,” he said, changing the object, but not the subject, of his wrath. So-and-so was a young woman, long since in heaven with the angels, who wrote one of the backof-the-book departments. “She makes me nervous,” Ross said. “Last night, at Tony’s, she was damn near sitting in the lap of the man she was with.” It happened that I had been at Tony’s the night before, too, and had seen the couple, sitting and drinking and talking like any other couple in Tony’s, and I told Ross that. Then he came out with one of his accusations that were pure, patented Ross. “They were talking in awful goddam low tones,” he said. It wasn’t often that I laughed in the inner sanctum in those first months, but that was too much for me. Then I said, “Don’t you know your Shakespeare: Her voice was ever gentle and awful goddam low, an excellent thing in woman?” Ross turned away so that I couldn’t sec his grin, but his torso had one of those brief spasmodic upheavals that so often served as a sign of his amusement in the art meeting when he looked at a drawing he thought was really funny. When he turned around he was scowling. “Goddam it, Thurber, don’t quote things at me,” he said. The firing mood was gone.

It was at a restaurant called Martin and Mino’s, that Ross rarely went to, but some of the rest of us haunted during Prohibition, that he said to Gibbs, “Maybe you can run the magazine.” Gibbs quickly and sharply returned this serve, which had been both unexpected and expected, leaving Ross flatfooted. It was one of Ross’s silliest attempts to get his administrative rocket into the wild blue yonder. He should have known by then that Wolcott was much too important a writer and copy editor to be launched gaudily into a meaningless orbit in the great managerial Nowhere. Years later, when somebody wrote in an article in Harper’s that Gibbs didn’t like anything, Ross said to me, “Maybe he doesn’t like anything, but he can do everything.”

This high praise was little short of plain fact. White and I and Gibbs had joined the New Yorker staff in that order between the fall of 1926 and the end of 1927. Before Wolcott arrived, to take on a dozen different jobs and do each one superbly, Alexander King had done an interview with Alexander Woollcott in a now dead magazine called Americana. I remember only one sentence, in which Woollcott was quoted as having said, “The New Yorker is got out by a shiftless reporter with the help of two country bumpkins.” The bumpkins were W hite and I, and the reporter was, of course, Harold Ross, but “shiftless” was an unintentional misquotation. What Woollcott had actually said was “ship news reporter,” a job Ross had once had in San Francisco. “ ‘Shiftless’ is perhaps the only derogatory adjective that docs not fit Harold Ross,” Woollcott later said.

The two country bumpkins have been written about quite a lot here and there, but Wolcott Gibbs has never got the attention he deserves. He was easily, not just conceivably — to use one of his favorite words — the best copy editor the New Yorker has ever had. For years he had to deal with the 70 per cent of New Yorker fiction that has to be edited, often heavily, before it reaches print. Gibbs, an accomplished parodist, was always able to fix up a casual without distorting or even marring its author’s style. He was inimitable, as such word experts are, but when he quit as copy editor in the fiction department to become the magazine’s dramatic critic and to write some of its best casuals and profiles, he wrote and sent to Ross — this must have been twenty years ago — what he called “The Theory and Practice of New Yorker Editing,” based on his experiences, often melancholy, with the output of scores of writers, male and female. The final straw, in his editorial career, was a casual that began: “Mr. West had never been very good with machinery.” Here was the little man, a genre sometimes called, around the office, the Thurber husband, popping up for the thousandth time, and it was too much for the Gibbsian nerves.

Harold Ross said to me, one dark day during the 1930s, “If you and Gibbs and White ever leave this place, I’ll go, too.” Years later, when he didn’t have long to live, he told me one day that he had stayed late at the office the night before and flipped through some back copies of the magazine, on a lonely journey through the regrets and triumphs of the past. “There wasn’t anything the three of you couldn’t do,” he snarled. The snarled sentence was a brief preface to, “You could have got the magazine out without any other help if your private lives weren’t so damn tangled up.” He had made a list of the things he said the three of us had done in our time. It was written in pencil and I lost it long ago, but I remember most of what he wrote down, and it may be that I have added a few he forgot: covers, Goings On, Notes and Comment, The Talk of the Town, idea drawings, spots, captions, casuals, verse, newsbreaks, The Theater, The Cinema, Books, Profiles, A Reporter at Large, Onward and Upward with the Arts, Where Are They Now?, Our Footloose Correspondents, fact and fiction editing, proofreading, some make-up, and The Tennis Courts.

I covered tennis for several years (and so did Gibbs), and something I wrote in January, 1937, upset Ross when Franklin P. Adams told him I had gone out on a limb and didn’t know what I was talking about. (The limb was a place that scared Ross. He used to say he was going to write an autobiography called My Life on a Limb.) I had predicted that Donald Budge would win the singles titles at both Wimbledon and Forest Hills in 1937 and beat Baron von Cramm once or twice. I offered to bet Ross and Frank I was right, but there were no takers. In my dotage, I often sit cackling in the chimney corner when I think of my old prophecy, for Budge won at both Wimbledon and Forest Hills in 1937 and, in July that year, beat von Gramm in the Davis Cup singles. Ross didn’t play or know anything about sports, unless you count croquet, and he read such departments only for mistakes in grammar, and such. Once he broke Frank Adams’ heart, when Adams was doing the tennis column, by striking out the phrase “the Red Budge of Courage.” He hated puns, but I once got a beauty past him: “I’m tired of seeing our tennis hopes brought back home on our Wood Shields.” Ross had never heard of Sidney Wood or Frank Shields, then our two outstanding Davis Cup players, and I’m sure he didn’t know about slain warriors being brought back home upon their shields. I often wonder how he bore up under the strain of me. And vice versa.

Somebody has asked me, “Do you think the New Yorker was successful because of, or in spite of, Harold Ross?” The answer is: The New Yorker was created out of the friction produced by Ross Positive and Ross Negative. He tried, and failed, to make an executive editor out of me, and wanted to do the same thing to Gibbs. This was Ross Negative at its worst. He had the good sense, from the first, to let White alone. This was Ross Positive at its most perceptive. He got from this one trio, in the end, the “productivity” he was after from the very first. How much productivity he lost, through the years, because of the mixture in him of the perspicacious, the perverse, and the preposterous, nobody could ever measure. The files of the magazine, during his years as editor, are the only dependable record of Harold Wallace Ross Positive and Negative. My own conclusions are, at best, only one man’s footnotes, personal and debatable.

Next month: More Miracle Men.