Biography of Harold Ross, the eccentric founder...


June 16, 1995

A RECENT biography of Harold Ross, the eccentric founder and first editor of the New Yorker, prompted us to cull these passages from James Thurber's 1959 memoir, "The Years with Ross":

Of their first meeting in 1927, two years after the launching of the magazine, Thurber wrote, "I told [Ross] I wanted to write, and he snarled, 'Writers are a dime a dozen, Thurber. What I want is an editor. I can't find editors. Nobody grows up. Do you know English?' I said I thought I knew English, and this started him off on a subject with which I was to become intensely familiar. 'Everybody thinks he knows English,' he said, 'but nobody does. I think it's because of the g--dam women schoolteachers.' He turned away from the window and glared at me as if I were on the witness stand and he were the prosecuting attorney. 'I want to make a business office out of this place,' he said. 'I'm surrounded by women and children. We have no manpower or ingenuity. I never know where anybody is, and I can't find out. Nobody tells me anything. They sit out there at their desks, getting me deeper and deeper into God knows what . . . I am, by God, going to keep sex out of this office -- sex is an incident. You've got to hold the artists' hands. Artists never go anywhere, they don't know anything, they're antisocial' . . .

"Ross was, at first view, oddly disappointing. No one, I think, would have picked him out of a line-up as the editor of the New Yorker. Even in a dinner jacket he looked loosely informal, like a carelessly carried umbrella. He was meticulous to the point of obsession about the appearance of his magazine, but he gave no thought to himself. He was usually dressed in a dark suit, with a plain dark tie, as if for protective coloration. In the spring of 1927 he came to work in a black hat so unbecoming that his secretary, Elsie Dick, went out and bought him another one. 'What became of my hat?' he demanded later. 'I threw it away,' said Miss Dick. 'It was awful.' He wore the new one without argument. Miss Dick, then in her early twenties, was a calm, quiet girl, never ruffled by Ross's moods She was one of the few persons to whom he ever gave a photograph of himself. On it he wrote, 'For Miss Dick, to whom I owe practically everything.' She could spell, never sang, whistled or hummed, knew how to how to fend off unwanted visitors, and had an intuitive sense of when the coast was clear so that he could go down in the elevator alone and not have to talk to anybody, and these things were practically everything."

Thurber's memoir, by the way, led to a serious rift between the author and his old friend and fellow New Yorker staffer, E.B. White. White and his wife, New Yorker fiction editor Katherine Angell White, strongly objected to Thurber's inclusion of material that they felt revealed too much about Ross' personal life. In the remaining two years of James Thurber's life, relations between him and the Whites were markedly cooler.

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