The Years with Ross
by James Thurber

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Little, Brown: Boston, 1959
310 pages

collected (partially) in —

Writings and Drawings

August 2001

If you knew Ross: creativity at work

The Years with Ross is a dual biography of the New Yorker magazine and its founding editor, Harold W. Ross, during the magazine's first quarter-century. This book became a favorite of my father's (who introduced it to me), as was much New Yorker material from the latter 1920s through the 1940s. During this period James Thurber was one of the magazine's main contributors, and Thurber's is a very personal recounting. The New Yorker had a rough and doubtful infancy, despite the confident times. In 1925 Billy Murray sang "If You Knew Susie" and Fred Waring did "Collegiate"; it took the new magazine a while to find its own voice.

My father shared with me one of the best excuses we've ever seen for not writing, as he found it reported here by Thurber:

... the New Yorker kept going downhill. From an original runoff of fifteen thousand copies in February [1925], its circulation fell to a pernicious-anemia low of twenty-seven hundred copies in August. One evening, during that summer of Harold Ross's greatest discontent, the harried editor ran into Dorothy Parker somewhere.

"I thought you were coming into the office to write a piece last week," he said.

Mrs. Parker turned upon him the eloquent magic of her dark and lovely eyes. "Somebody was using the pencil," she explained sorrowfully.

Clashing and intoxicating

The magazine struggled on somehow. The motivating genie behind the New Yorker, Harold W. Ross (1892-1951), had been a newspaperman on an assortment of papers, later editor of the US Army's Stars and Stripes in Paris from 1917 to 1919. One of Ross's important triumphs was keeping so many writers and artists loyally contributing to the magazine; ninety percent of Thurber's writing and drawing first appeared in the New Yorker. As he says, it was twenty years before the New Yorker began paying really good money.

The clash and grating of personalities, creative and otherwise, some of them famously difficult, must have been exacerbated by their alcohol consumption. Among all these literary people there's a lot of liquor flowing, not ostentatiously, just a background burbling stream of it; you turn into another restaurant and there are the writers and liquor again. Rather like the movies of those 1930s and 1940s, whose directors apparently hardly trusted actors to converse without thumb-twiddle or twitch unless holding a drink and cigarette. Here are dinners with drinks, parties with more drinks, and lunch meetings over cocktails: the New Yorker social history is intoxicating.

A meticulous intuition

All this time Ross was meticulous with the magazine's contents:

When he worked on a manuscript or proof, he was surrounded by dictionaries... along with one of his favorite books, Fowler's Modern English Usage. ... He read the Oxford English Dictionary the way other men read fiction, and he sometimes delved into a volume of the Britannica at random.

Shucks, that all sounds reasonable to me. And despite — or because of — Ross being "uncluttered by culture" as someone said, he had a rare editorial concentration that Thurber describes memorably:

He had a sound sense, a unique, almost intuitive perception of what was wrong with something, incomplete or out of balance, understated or over-emphasized. He reminded me of an army scout riding at the head of a troop of cavalry who suddenly raises his hand in a green and silent valley and says, "Indians," although to the ordinary eye and ear there is no faintest sign or sound of anything alarming.
Fine reminiscences, creativity at play

The Years with Ross is enlivened with many reminiscences of Ross, the New Yorker, and a wide range of creative people. A couple of Harpo Marx's anecdotes encapsulate Ross's close friendships, his compulsive gambling, and (though married three times) his awkwardness around women. Harpo Marx:

I loved Ross, he was wonderful company and his friendship was warm and personal. It was always a wonder to me that such an unworldly man could originate and edit the sophisticated New Yorker. ...

I was living at the Garden of Allah [in Hollywood] as a merry bachelor when Ross arrived from the East. I was awakened at a very early hour by the sound of his shaking a dice box outside my window. He was all ready to play, with a backgammon board... We had quite a long session, and every hour or so he would bellow, "Where are all those Hollywood beauties I've heard so much about?"

Unbeknownst to him, I finally arranged with the local Madam to send over three of her more presentables. But when they arrived, he furiously handed each girl twenty bucks and said, "Go home, girls, I'm on a triple blitz!"

All good; but the best 40% —

Most of Thurber's writings are short pieces, which over the years have been collected and shuffled and re-collected. Garrison Keillor's selection Writings and Drawings published by Library of America may prove to be a standard edition, so for convenience I show which chapters of The Years with Ross are in that collection, with a little about each below. Keillor picked the best 40%, conveying enough atmosphere and detail of The Years with Ross for many readers. On the other hand, if you read those six chapters and are fascinated, you'll enjoy the rest of the book. WD below indicates the chapter is in Writings and Drawings.

––   "Foreword"
How the book came to be written; acknowledgements.
  1. WD  "A Dime a Dozen"
    Writers and artists, that is — according to Ross. But he worked hard to snare the best for the New Yorker, and to keep them creating for it.

  2. WD  "The First Years"
    The beginnings, and Thurber encounters the New Yorker. He retells a little from a parody in which "I tried to imitate the style of James Joyce and that of Gertrude Stein, and Ross could never have read a single line of either author."

  3. WD  "Every Tuesday Afternoon"
    This was the weekly art meeting, discussing drawings, captions, and covers. Thurber tells editorial stories behind a number of drawings, his and others'.

    [Ross] became, I think, by far the most painstaking, meticulous, hairsplitting detail-criticizer the world of editing has known. ...

    My favorite of all his complaints ... The cover on the board showed a Model T driving along a dusty country road, and Ross turned his sharpshooting eye on it for a full two minutes.
    "Take this down, Miss Terry," he said. "Better dust."

  4. ––  "Mencken and Nathan and Ross"
    Anecdotes about Ross, personal and editorial. On book reviews, [Ross] "was always wary of his own book department, approaching it with curiosity, respect, and trepidation, the way I once saw a Scottie approach a turtle." Closer to the writing of his book than much of his time period, Thurber is able to recount in detail a lively 1948 conversation between Ross and H.L. Mencken, spiralling all over the literary landscape.

  5. WD  "The Talk of the Town"
    New York City news tidbits as small-town doings. It's fascinating to look behind the scenes of this department of the magazine, with tales along the way:

    One week I nodded, and rewrote an anecdote that someone had stolen from Homer's Odyssey, one about the weary seafarer who starts walking inland with an oar over his shoulder and says he is going to keep going until he comes to a land where nobody knows what the thing is for, and there he will settle down.

    "Now Thurber's falling for anecdotes a thousand years old," Ross complained, after some classical scholar had written in about it.

  6. WD  "Miracle Men"
    Ross's ongoing attempts to find editors and other managers who could bring order out of chaos at the New Yorker offices. He even tried Thurber, briefly.

  7. ––  "More Miracle Men"
    Ross's hope (for smooth organization) springs eternal, with yet more editors and managers.

  8. ––  "Onward and Upward and Outward"
    The New Yorker hitting its stride in the 1930s, becoming respected, but Ross worried that it was becoming too serious.

  9. WD  "Sex Is an Incident"
    And always worrisome for the New Yorker's editor, but often very funny in the re-telling.

    Lois [Long, later married to Peter Arno], whom Ross had been lucky enough to steal from Vanity Fair at the very start of the New Yorker, had once been an actress. She knew just how to embarrass the girl-shy editor, and loved to do it.

    The first time I ever saw her, the day after I went to work on the magazine, she came into his office with the devil in her eye.

    Ross said hastily, "Don't kiss me, Long. This is Thurber. He's going to make some sense out of this place."

    Lois Long, alias Lipstick, alias L.L., who could tell more about a man in two minutes than Ross sometimes found out in two years, plainly doubted it.

  10. ––  "Who Was Harold, What Was He?"
    Biographical bits, of which perhaps the best is E.B. White trying to teach Ross how to drive a car on an empty highway:

    He was delighted with the feeling of being in motion, and he was crazy about the horn button, which he pushed with great frequency and for no reason. "Just flirting, White," he kept saying. "Just flirting." His idea of steering a car was to keep experimenting with the wheel, to test the full range of its possibilities.

  11. ––  "Up Popped the Devil"
    Background on some interesting literary and legal wrangles, including the landmark Sidis libel case, Fortune's 1934 profile of the New Yorker, and the famous retaliatory parody by Wolcott Gibbs, "Time... Fortune... Life... Luce" (included in Gibbs' More in Sorrow).

  12. ––  "The Dough and the System"
    The magazine's Byzantine payment system, reported anecdotally, not systematically — and just as well.

  13. ––  "The Secret Life of Harold Winney"
    Ross's private secretary: a colorless, crooked bookkeeper.

  14. ––  "Writers, Artists, Poets, and Such"
    Bits from and about Robert Benchley, Charles Addams, Peter Arno, Shirley Jackson; examples of Ross's editorial opinion sheets and proofreading.

  15. ––  "Dishonest Abe and the Grand Marshall"
    Alexander Woolcott as "Grand Marshall of a perpetual pageant." "If Woolcott had the emotions of a fish, Ross had the hide of a hippo."

  16. ––  "The Last Years"
    A dignified good-bye.

The New Yorker and Ross and a lot of its contributors, not quite pandemonium. A fable for writers and editors.


© 2001 Robert Wilfred Franson

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