The New Yorker's Ross: kook, eccentric, genius

March 19, 1995|By Marion Meade | Marion Meade,Special to The Sun

'Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of The New Yorker,' by Thomas

Kunkel. 497 pages. New York: Random House. $25 The best reason to read a literary biography about the editor of a humor magazine is to be entertained, at least every now and then. But there is little fun in 'Genius in Disguise,' the life of Harold Ross (1892-1951), founder and first editor of the New Yorker and a great eccentric.

Ross was an unlikely person to create a sophisticated magazine. The son of a Colorado silver prospector, he dropped out of school in the 10th grade to become an itinerant reporter. A rawboned and snaggle-tooth country boy, he worked for two dozen papers before enlisting in the army in 1917. Overseas, Pvt. Ross promptly went AWOL and ended up in Paris working for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. After the war, he earned a living editing magazines for returning veterans.

The first issue of the New Yorker - 'not edited for the old lady in Dubuque,' promised its prospectus - appeared on Feb. 17, 1925. But if not the old lady, then who? Early issues, embarrassingly bad, hardly reached the level of college humor publishing. As the whole world knows, how ever, the magazine matured into something of a legend in journalism.

In those early years when Ross was broke, contributors had to be scavenged from the Algonquin Hotel's famous Round Table luncheon set. When his clever friends got fed up never being paid, he went outside the group and slowly scraped up a stable of young wannabe writers, whom he tended to treat as children (( and paid indentured-servant wages. Perhaps for that reason, he could seldom entice significant writers into his operation. Top Guns of the '20s and '30s - Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Lewis - not only valued their independence, but also expected a respectable wage for their labors and preferred to see their bylines well displayed.

Early on, 'Genius in Disguise' disparages previously published reminiscences by Ross' colleagues who depicted him as a rube and literary hayseed. Efforts to spruce up the subject and present a less provincial side practically guaranteed that the baby - whoops -would be dumped with the bath water. Which could be the reason why the effort of turning pages suddenly exhausted me somewhere in the vicinity of page 108 and I had to go to my bookcase for James Thurber's "The Years with Ross' and Brendan Gill's 'Here at the New Yorker."

Ross was unfazed by his own ignorance. One of his vintage author queries is: 'Is Moby Dick the whale or the man?'

His true genius may have been for self-promotion. He knew how to get great press and had people like World columnist Franklin Pierce Adams (FPA) in his pocket. Of course, it didn't hurt either to have Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott acting as unpaid press agents to maintain his public persona of literary kook.

Thomas Kunkel is a newspaperman who lives in Indiana. This is his first biography. The trouble is, his life of Ross falls into the category of house organ biography. More history of a magazine than portrait of a man; one can almost imagine that it was commissioned to celebrate the New Yorker's 70th anniversary last month. Readers who enjoy company reporters will find the book informative and well written.

Ross once instructed his Talk of the Town writers, 'If you can't be funny, be interesting.' 'Genius in Disguise' is interesting.

Marion Meade has published four biographies, including the definitive life of Dorothy Parker, 'What Fresh Hell Is This?' Her other works include two novels about medieval people, 'Stealing Heaven: The Love Story of Heloise and Abelard' and 'Sybille.' Her biography of Buster Keaton will be published in October.

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