Harold Wallace Ross (November 6, 1892 – December 6, 1951) was an American journalist and founder of the New Yorker magazine, which he edited from the magazine's inception in 1925 until his death. A member of the New York City group of writers, critics, and actors known as the Algonquin Round Table, he was able to use his connections to begin this sophisticated, humorous, but not sensational publication. Under Ross' leadership, the innovative magazine heralded a new era of publishing, thanks to its unique approach to modern literary works, current events, social and political issues, and humorous cartoons. Ross was a self-taught writer and editor, he valued good writing not fame and he gave equal opportunity to the experienced and novice writer applicants. As a result, many of those who became great names in American literature got their start writing for the New Yorker. The legacy of Ross lives on in the standards for both form and content of writing maintained by the New Yorker, which have directly or indirectly influenced the writing of authors and contributors to other publications. As influential as the written word is, and even more so when cleverly illustrated in the style Ross promoted, this is no small contribution to human society.
Born in Aspen, Colorado on November 6, 1892, to George and Ida (Martin) Ross, Harold Wallace Ross was the son of an Irish immigrant and a schoolteacher. Ida Ross sponsored poetry readings and “similar occasions of an edifying nature.” George Ross worked in a variety of trades in the local mining community, and was known as a satirist who liked to argue against organized religion. His father's skills in observation and satire, combined with his mother's morals and teacher’s sensibilities, shaped Ross’ perspective on life.
When Ross was eight, the family left Aspen because of the collapse in the price of silver, moving to Redcliff and Silverton, Colorado, and then to Salt Lake City, Utah. There, he worked on the high school paper and was a stringer for the Salt Lake Tribune. The young Ross had adventure in his blood, dropping out of school at thirteen and running away to his uncle's in Denver where he worked for the Denver Post. Though he returned to his family, he did not return to school, instead getting a job at the Salt Lake Telegram, where he often joined police officers and firefighters on assignment. Ross read dime novels of the time and followed news reports of international conflicts, such as the Russo-Japanese War. These stories inspired him to join the U.S. Army as a war correspondent.
In World War I, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Eighteenth Engineers Railway Regiment. He edited the regimental journal and went to Paris, France to work for the Stars and Stripes (the only military-sponsored magazine U.S. soldiers had to read at the time), serving from February 1918 to April 1919. At the Stars and Stripes he met Alexander Woollcott, Cyrus Baldridge, Franklin Pierce Adams, as well as Jane Grant, who would become his first wife and helped back the New Yorker. By the time he was 25, Ross had worked for at least seven different newspapers.
After the war, Ross returned to New York City and assumed the editorship of a magazine for veterans, the Home Sector. It folded in 1920 and was absorbed by the American Legion Weekly. He then spent a few weeks at Judge, a humorous magazine. These magazines were where Ross planned a new journal, one with metropolitan sensibilities and a sophisticated tone. A partnership between Ross and yeast heir Raoul Fleishmann established the F-R Publishing Company to produce the magazine.
While working as an editor at Judge in the fall of 1924, Ross created his prospectus for the New Yorker to secure enough financial support to launch the magazine. Ross was one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table, and he used his contacts from this "Vicious Circle," including former Vanity Fair staff Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, to help get the New Yorker off the ground. The first two paragraphs of his prospectus explained Ross' intentions for his magazine, as well as how it would differ from competing magazines of the day:
The New Yorker will be a reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life. It will be human. Its general tenor will be one of gaiety, wit, and satire, but it will be more than a jester. It will not be commonly called radical or highbrow. It will be what is commonly called sophisticated, in that it will assume a reasonable degree of enlightenment on the part of its readers. It will hate bunk.
As compared to the newspaper, the New Yorker will be interpretive rather than stenographic. It will print facts that it will have to go behind the scenes to get, but it will not deal in scandal for the sake of scandal, nor sensation for the sake of sensation. Its integrity will be above suspicion. It hopes to be so entertaining and informative as to be a necessity for the person who knows his way about or wants to.
With this model, Ross set out to create the New Yorker as a new, innovative standard in magazine publishing. It changed the face of contemporary fiction, literary journalism, and comic humor and art, as well as dealt with the issues of cultural and social agendas of the day.
The New Yorker was intended as a more refined humor magazine compared to Judge and other magazines of the day. Ross famously declared in the magazine's first issue, "It has announced that it is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque [Iowa]."
The New Yorker was launched in February 1925, and its first issue immediately sold out, but the magazine floundered in the following months. Ross attributed the sales drop from early issues to the magazine’s confusing content, which led to circulation plummeting drastically by May. He was so concerned about the magazine’s aimlessness that he apologized with a letter addressed to the writing staff. He argued that the magazine was too humorous and that the content needed to be "more serious and purposeful." He set out to make the New Yorker more topical and relevant to public discourse. The magazine’s art soon became a major staple and helped increase appeal, although Ross felt that its written text was not a match for its artistic quality.
Ross considered closing the magazine, but instead decided to regroup for the fall season with improved content and a more confident tone. The magazine lost an average of $2,000 a week for three years. Gradually, the New Yorker began attracting Ross’ intended audience of sophisticated, humorous, socially-aware readers. Ross maintained that, in order for the magazine to survive and avoid its past mistakes, the advertising department needed to be kept totally separate from the editorial staff, lest content suffer from a conflict of interest that would return the magazine to its earlier, unorganized issues. With a more refined approach and a steadily growing readership, the magazine eventually attracted writers, editors, and artists of a higher caliber, both experienced and beginners.
The magazine’s stature quickly rose to a level that established celebrities of the day, such as Groucho Marx and F. Scott Fitzgerald, actively pursued Ross and submitted work as contributors. While its competitor Vanity Fair succumbed to the Great Depression, the New Yorker was able to thrive.
Ross’ writing style was self-taught, as he was a reader of few books and had never worked for a book or drama department that could have taught him how to edit a magazine. As a high school dropout, he had a suspicion of the fickleness of words with multiple meanings, and would always aim for simplicity and clarity, limiting metaphors, similes, and figures of speech.
Ross became a careful and conscientious editor who strove to keep his magazine clear and concise. One famous query to his writers was "Who he?" because Ross believed that the only two people familiar to everyone in the English-speaking world were Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes. He was notorious for overusing commas. Very aware of his limited education, his bible was Fowler's Modern English Usage.
Ross did not consider reputation and experience when he hired writers, since he himself had none when he began. He focused on whatever skills potential writers could display in front of him. Thus, a famous and renowned writer had just as much chance to write for the magazine as a budding amateur. All writers were subject to the same standards.
Ross evaluated every line of copy two or three times over, with notes for authors that ranged from a brief note of advice to long comments about verbosity. He edited every issue of the magazine from the first until his death—a total of 1,399 issues.
Ross obsessed over punctuation usage and word searches for the sake of precision. He was known to search obsessively through Webster's Dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus for ideally accurate words, and he would spend several hours experimenting with punctuation to improve article consistency and style. These habits spilled over to the rest of the writing and editorial staff, a tradition that continues at the New Yorker to this day.
The New Yorker is known for limiting swear words in its articles, a practice started in part by Ross’ awareness that vulgarity indicated class while the magazine’s intended purpose was to reflect a "cultured New York City." Ross himself was famous for his liberal use of curse words, yet he would be the first to point out the double standard of print versus spoken word.
Prior to the start of the magazine, Ross had wanted a simplistic cover to reflect the magazine's ideals. He decided that the first issue's cover would have no headlines or promotional text to hint at what lay inside. Only an image and the magazine's name would appear. Ross himself experimented with various artistic concepts, but eventually asked artists to submit work. He was soon disappointed, as he found the work submitted to be too static, literal, and clichéd to establish a landmark.
At the last moment, Ross formed a committee of himself, his friend and fellow writer Corey Ford, and his art editor Rea Irvin to work on the cover. Ross asked that Irvin create an image of "sophistication and gaiety," and Irvin drew inspiration from pictures and photos of historical dandies. Of particular inspiration was an 1834 caricature of the French Comte d'Orsay, to which Irvin added a monocle and butterfly. Ford created the name Eustace Tilley, with the first name Eustace being a play on the word "euphony" and the surname sounding, at least to Ford, vaguely humorous. Ross gave the image final approval and ensured its popularity by consistently inserting the image in the magazine. Throughout the years, there have been many variations of the Eustace Tilley image; each and every version depicts Tilley at work in some way, either through writing or action.
The New Yorker's famous single-panel cartoons were a natural progression of the cartoons and comic strips of the day. Ross, influenced by his time at Judge, wanted to include cartoons just as most other magazines of the day had. In keeping with the theme of cultured entertainment, he thought cartoons that would require a different take on comedy would best suit the humor of the seasoned and intelligent reader.
Magazine cartoons at the time were illustrated jokes with puns and "corny" captions that occupied almost as much space as the drawing itself. Assigned by Ross to create a new look for the magazine, Rea Irvin was instrumental in the invention of the New Yorker's single-panel cartoons. These cartoons often had a single line of dialogue, under the cartoon itself, to preserve the art yet give the cartoon an air of sophisticated humor. The cartoons were such a favored departure from the usual that they soon became a staple and a trademark of the New Yorker.
Near the end of his life, Ross suffered from bouts of illness and chronic ulcers. By July 1951, Ross, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with cancer of the trachea. Ross' treatment included five weeks of radiation therapy, which was a relatively new approach at the time. However, the cancer soon spread to his lungs, and he died during an operation on December 6, 1951, at the age of 59. His funeral was described as "strangely impersonal," as many celebrated writers, politicians, and performers attended the service, but very few present were particularly close to Ross. Upon his death, Ross was succeeded as editor of the New Yorker by William Shawn.
The New Yorker originated and inspired a style to magazine publishing that emphasized quality and sophistication over sensationalistic content. Ross' famous editorial and hiring approaches, as well as his rules and standards for the magazine, continue as guides for the magazine's current staff. Its single-panel cartoons are a continuing staple, and the original Eustace Tilley cover is traditionally used every year for the magazine's February anniversary issue.
Ross gave many writers and artists their first start at the New Yorker, all of whom became well-known in their respective fields during or after their work at the magazine. The following is a partial list of staff that Ross personally hired in the magazine's first few years:
Ross also kept up a voluminous correspondence, which is available to researchers at the New York Public Library.
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