Wits of the Round Table: Dorothy Parker and Harold Ross.
THE IRONY ABOUT THE LITERARY WORLD OF THE 1920S WAS that although it bemoaned the dearth of culture and inspiration in America, it was in fact experiencing a period of vibrant growth. The generation that delighted in the title “lost”—Hemingway’s epigram to The Sun Also Rises was a quote from Gertrude Stein describing him and his friends as a “Lost Generation”—found itself through creative endeavor.
As Archibald MacLeish later wrote, it was “precisely because the bottom had fallen out of the historical tradition” that his contemporaries wrote so bravely, so innovatively, so freely and tragically. “It was not the Lost Generation which was lost: it was the world out of which that generation came.” This idea of what Edmund Wilson called “the starvation of a whole civilization” allowed MacLeish, Hemingway and their friends—even Harry Crosby—to produce from the rubble something entirely, compellingly new.
From the First World War onwards, artists followed Ford Madox Ford’s maxim: “the business of art is not to elevate but to render.” The very fact that Crosby, whom friends described as an Elizabethan adventurer in spirit, should have desired to be a poet above all other things shows how crucial the role of literature was to 1920s America, as criticism, conscience, mirror and diviner. Ezra Pound, who was commissioned by Caresse to write a posthumous appreciation of Harry’s work, described the role of the 1920s artist:
Ruffle the skirts of prudes
speak of their knees and ankles.
But, above all, go to practical people—
go! Jangle their door-bells!
Say that you do no work
and that you will live forever.
While some Americans with literary or artistic aspirations spent long periods of time away from the United States, many more gravitated to New York. The leafy, brownstone-lined streets of Greenwich Village had for decades been the province of the bohemian, women with short hair and men with long, both sexes in flowing, brightly colored clothes. Their ideals of personal liberty and self-expression were quickly adopted by the post-war generation who added to them their own sense of affected disillusionment and an emancipating dose of Freud.
Some of the more adventurous ventured up to Harlem in search of exotic drum-beats. Hoping to break free from the repressive shackles of society and civilization, they believed they would find in “primitive” black culture a freer, more spontaneous, less inhibited life. Despite these avowedly high ideals, the practice was invariably low-life. Harlem may have been a place of inspiration for its own artists and writers but it did little more than service the darker needs of its white visitors.
For 1920s intellectuals, though, the earnest idealism of the Village and the fleshpots of Harlem could not compete with the allure of a smoky table in a back dining-room at the Algonquin Hotel. Here, writers and critics “whose IQ was as high as their talk was rowdy” (in the words of the scriptwriter Anita Loos, an occasional guest) gathered informally but regularly to discuss work and love affairs, to drink and gamble, and to tease each other mercilessly about their shortcomings.
The Round Table was more a lunchtime meeting of friends, “wits, poker and cribbage players, critics and writers,” than a networking opportunity. None of them, in the early years, were especially successful but all were ambitious. In 1920 Franklin Pierce Adams, known as FPA, was at thirty-nine the oldest member of the group. He chronicled this insular little coterie in his Saturday column in the New York Tribune (up to 1922) and then in the World, the “Diary of our own Samuel Pepys.” His chief pleasure was promoting the work of up-and-coming writers—many of whom, like Dorothy Parker who quipped that he “raised her from a couplet,” were Round Table regulars.
Several were drama critics, like the morose ladies’ man George Kaufman (also a director and playwright) and the effeminate Alec Woollcott, nicknamed Louisa May Woollcott. They invited their theatrical friends, including Noël Coward, who had arrived in New York with £17 in his pocket in 1921 on the first of several visits, the as-yet-unknown Harpo Marx and his brothers, the hard-drinking but charming womanizer John Barrymore and a dazzling teenager, Tallulah Bankhead, whose chief desire in life at that time was to seem more experienced than she really was. The drama critic and editor George Jean Nathan occasionally brought along the movie star Lillian Gish, with whom he had an enduring affair. She said that when she lunched with Nathan and Henry Mencken both talked “at once, neither listening to the other, each keeping up a barrage of observations and witticisms . . . . Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald often joined us, drinking their whiskey as if it were water and with seemingly no effect.”
Journalist-editors like Mencken—“the personification of shrewd good nature” and the voice of his generation—joined columnists like Heywood Broun and fiction writers like Ring Lardner, venerated by his contemporaries, who occasionally abandoned his splendid isolation in Great Neck, Long Island, to grace the Algonquin and flirt with Dorothy Parker. Bob Benchley was a noted humorist; lanky Bob Sherwood, with his Chaplinesque moustache, was an editor and, later, playwright and screenwriter. He was so shy that he dictated his copy sitting on the floor with his back to the stenographer, but at the Algonquin he blossomed.
Although female Round Tablers were outnumbered by their male counterparts they held their own. Jane Grant was the first female writer placed on general assignment by the New York Times. Along with her friend Ruth Hale, a Broadway press agent, she founded the Lucy Stone League, a feminist advocacy association named for a nineteenth-century activist; both women fought to retain their maiden names after they married. Anita Loos, whose husband lived off her earnings, was an early member of the League.
Dorothy Parker, the only female drama critic in New York, had started her career writing captions for the fashion pages at Vogue. One of her first assignments was to write the copy for an underwear spread: “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” She had been sacked as a staff writer at Vanity Fairin 1920 for observing in print that the powerful impresario Florenz Ziegfeld’s actress wife was too old for ingénue roles. Supported by friends and colleagues Bobs Benchley and Sherwood, Parker was the best-known woman at the Round Table—or the Vicious Circle, as it was known.
Vicious maybe; merciless assuredly. Even Parker’s own wit could not always defend her from that of her friends. Unhappily married to an alcoholic and morphine addict and herself prone to severe depression, she returned to the Algonquin after one suicide attempt with enormous bows tied around her gauzed wrists, complaining, “Eddie [Parker, her husband] doesn’t even have a sharp razor.” On another occasion, after she took an overdose of the sleeping powder Veronal, Bob Benchley drawled: “Dorothy, if you don’t stop this sort of thing you’ll ruin your health.”
The Round Table’s brittle charms did not have universal appeal. The aristocratic intellectual Edmund Wilson, a classmate of Scott Fitzgerald’s at Princeton and, as literary editor of Vanity Fair, a sometime stable-mate of Parker, Benchley, Sherwood, Broun and Woollcott, found them at bottom provincials masquerading as urban sophisticates. Only people from the same small-town, middle-class backgrounds could despise and mock their roots with such malice and yet be unable to escape them. Dorothy Parker was the one who stood out for Wilson: she alone, he thought, was genuinely witty as well as being able to move in circles other than her own.
Wilson’s circle was higher-brow than the wise-cracking, small-town mob at the Algonquin—a group of aspiring poets rather than hack journalists. He and his friend John Peale Bishop competed for the affections of the untamed Edna St. Vincent Millay. Their literary tastes, shaped by their years at ivy-covered colleges, were self-consciously aesthetic and decadent; their heroes were James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
When Henry Mencken and George Nathan founded the American Mercury magazine in 1924, the first issue carried a parody of the “Aesthete: Model 1924,” a composite portrait of the literary intellectual of the period by Ernest Boyd, drawing on Wilson, Gilbert Seldes, John Dos Passos, e. e. cummings and others. Born with the century, wrote Boyd, the Aesthete had a proprietary attitude towards his times. He had been molded by evening parties at Harvard and Princeton against a background of “red plush curtains and chairs but recently robbed of their prudish antimacassars.” A spell in France during the war had given him a veneration for Proust and Cézanne, a florid rhetorical style and a taste for inaccurate and spurious French phrases. “The Aesthete holds that a cliché, in French for preference, will dispose of any genius.”
Accessibility was not the Aesthete’s aim. Although he adored French literature its allure would have been tarnished if it had been widely popular. “What he wants to do is lead a cult, to communicate a mystic faith in his idols, rather than to make them available for general appreciation.” But the appeal of “the esoteric editorial chair where experiments are made with stories which ‘discard the old binding of plot and narrative’” had to compete with “the sales manager’s desk, where, it appears, the Renaissance artist of today is to be found.” Like the habitués of the Round Table, even the Aesthete was learning to be commercial.
Dorothy Parker and her friends at the Algonquin were riding the tide of a revolution in the writing business. Although they would have hated the comparison, the literary industry, as Malcolm Cowley put it, “was becoming like General Motors . . . The book trade was prospering, new publishers were competing for new authors, and suddenly it seemed that everybody you knew was living on publishers’ advances.” Authors’ advances, which made it possible to live while writing a book rather than just being paid from royalties after it came out, were a new development, pioneered during the 1920s by firms like Knopf, Viking and Random House. The number of new books published doubled between 1919 and 1929. An eager, if credulous, audience awaited: it almost seemed as if anyone who felt the urge could call themselves a writer and make a living from their pen.
The young editor Max Perkins transformed old-fashioned Charles Scribner’s Sons by pursuing (and in large part creating) the stars of the new generation: Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, Ernest Hemingway and Tom Wolfe. Sixty-six-year-old Charles Scribner II, known at the firm as “old CS,” had headed Scribner’s Sons since 1889 with his brother, Arthur. They were cigar-smoking, handsomely mustached, cautious with their money and suspicious of new writers, preferring to rely on established authors who needed very little editing like John Galsworthy, Edith Wharton and Henry James.
Against their better judgment, Perkins persuaded the Scribner brothers to publish Fitzgerald’s first novel, overseeing three rewrites over a period of two years before his elders agreed to take the manuscript. His faith was amply rewarded. Encapsulating the dreams of the generation that grew up in the wake of the Great War, This Side of Paradise was the seminal novel of the early 1920s and a runaway bestseller. “I am the man, as they say in the ads, who made America Younger-Generation conscious,” Edmund Wilson imagined his friend Fitzgerald boasting after its publication.
Fitzgerald respected Perkins enormously and liked being able to bring him into contact with friends whose work he thought Perkins might want to publish. He introduced Perkins to Ring Lardner, his neighbor on Long Island in 1923, and Perkins helped Lardner make the transition from sportswriter to one of the most celebrated short-story writers of the era.
When Fitzgerald moved to Paris in 1924 and met Ernest Hemingway he lost no time in letting Perkins know about his discovery. “This is to tell you about a young man named Ernest Hemmingway [Fitzgerald never learned to spell Hemingway’s name], who lives in Paris, (an American) writes for the transatlantic Review + has a brilliant future . . . I’d look him up right away. He’s the real thing.”
Through this introduction Perkins went on to publish the second seminal novel of the 1920s, The Sun Also Rises, which inspired a generation of imitators. It was Perkins who persuaded Hemingway to call his novel by this title rather than Fiesta, and both Perkins and Fitzgerald edited Hemingway’s “careless” and “unpublishable” manuscript heavily to produce the pared-down power of the final version. “Nowadays when almost everyone is a genius, at least for a while, the temptation for the bogus to profit is no greater than the temptation for the good man to relax,” Fitzgerald wrote in his ten-page critique. “This should frighten all of us into a lust for anything honest that people have to say about our work.”
Hemingway’s story of a group of expatriates drifting around Europe drinking, arguing and making love encapsulated the glamorous disaffectedness that characterized the Lost Generation. Malcolm Cowley described people fresh from visits to Paris swapping stories about their hero and talking in what Cowley called the “Hemingway dialect—tough, matter-of-fact and confidential.” Smith College girls in New York were wearing leather commissars’ jackets and modeling themselves on Brett Ashley, although their cheeks were too healthily pink for authenticity.
The one future bestseller Perkins failed to persuade Charles and Arthur Scribner to publish was the advertising executive Bruce Barton’s spiritual self-help book, The Man Nobody Knows. Sex and profanity they could learn to live with; making Jesus into a business adviser was a step too far.
Scholarships and fellowships like the Guggenheim Foundation, set up in 1925, supported male writers (as well as scientists and composers) including Wilson, Hart Crane, e. e. cummings, W. H. Auden, Conrad Aiken and Langston Hughes. Its declared aim was to seek out “men who were willful, uncompromising, quarrelsome, arrogant and creative”—qualities not previously valued by American society.
Readers as well as writers felt part of a vibrant new literary movement characterized by the proliferation of experimental journals like the Transatlantic Review, Broom and transition and by mass-market magazines like the Saturday Evening Post which paid so much for witty, contemporary short stories that Fitzgerald could keep Zelda in diamonds and furs almost throughout the decade. In 1890 the Middletown public library had offered its readers nineteen periodicals; by 1925 its shelves groaned with 225.
Condé Nast’s glittering Vanity Fair was edited by Frank Crowninshield, uncle of Harry Crosby’s mistress Constance Crowninshield, his Lady of the Golden Horse. Founded in 1913, it had quickly become America’s most successful chronicle of the international world of arts and letters. The writings of T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Aldous Huxley and P. G. Wodehouse were featured alongside the photographs of Albert Steichen and the drawings of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Its office’s location near the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street was one reason the Algonquin had become Parker, Benchley and Sherwood’s regular meeting place.
An insatiable national appetite for current events meant that daily papers proliferated as well. Fifty-five publishing chains controlled 230 daily newspapers with a combined circulation of over thirteen million. Although many of these papers were “sex and sensation” tabloids like W. R. Hearst’s Daily Mirror, and most placed as much importance on the twenties obsessions of sports and entertainment as on politics or international affairs, this was a publishing revolution. Increasingly Americans observed events through the media, rather than participating directly in them.
The American Mercury’s ambitious Aesthete was at the heart of this publishing boom. Although not yet thirty, as “Editor-in-Chief, Editor, Managing Editor, Contributing Editor, Bibliographical Editor, or Source Material Editor” of a newspaper or magazine he had “an accredited mouthpiece, a letterhead conferring authority, a secure place from which to bestride the narrow world in which he is already a colossus” and he reveled in his influence and fame.
Mencken himself, the editor who had commissioned Ernest Boyd’s parody of the Aesthete, could not have been further from Boyd’s precious creation. Grinning good-humoredly, Mencken reveled in sending up the pretentious and the sententious—anyone who took themselves too seriously. His Smart Set and, later, American Mercury, attacked what he called “boobus Americanus” and catered for a “civilized minority”: “men and women,” as he jokingly put it, “who had heard of James Joyce, Proust, Cézanne, Jung, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Petronius, Eugene O’Neill, and Eddington; who looked down on the movies but revered Charlie Chaplin as a great artist, could talk about relativity even if they could not understand it, knew a few of the leading complexes by name, collected Early American furniture, had ideas about progressive education, and doubted the divinity of Henry Ford and Calvin Coolidge.” More than any other writer of the day, Mencken swept provincialism and pettiness from America’s literary culture.
Like the poet Langston Hughes, who found inspiration in Harlem street slang and the strains of popular music, Mencken celebrated the vitality of modern American culture. “Nothing could exceed the brilliancy of such inventions as joy-ride, highbrow, road-louse, sob-sister, frame-up, loan-shark, nature-faker, stand-patter, lounge-lizard, has-foundry, buzzwagon, has-been, end-seat-hog, shoot-the-chutes, and grape juice diplomacy,” he wrote admiringly of his countrymen’s newly invented words in The American Language in 1919. “They are bold; they are vivid; they have humor; they meet genuine needs.”
Despite this embarrassment of literary riches, there was still room, according to Howard Ross, a straight-talking young editor and regular at the Round Table, for one more publication. Ross had been dreaming of editing his own magazine since returning from military service in Europe where he had run the U.S. army’s newspaper, Stars and Stripes.
Born in Aspen, Colorado, in 1892, Harold Ross had started his first job on a newspaper at fourteen years old as a stringer for the Salt Lake City Tribune. Over the next nine years he wrote and edited for seven different papers before leaving for France in 1917.
Ross met his future wife, the journalist Jane Grant, in Paris during the winter of 1918-19. Grant took one look at him and “decided he was really the homeliest man I’d ever met—he’d have to be good with that face and figure.” Ross’s fidgety ungainliness did nothing to soften the impression of his huge hands and feet, widely spaced teeth, big mouth and thick butternut-colored hair in a “high, stiff pompadour, like some wild gamecock’s crest” but he was engaging and modest and there was immense charm in his awkwardness. “He was always in mid-flight, or on the edge of his chair, alighting or about to take off.”
Years later James Thurber described Ross’s fuming over news that Thurber had been imitating him, to the delight of their friends. “‘I don’t know what the hell there is to imitate—go ahead and show me,’” Ross snarled at Thurber. “All the time his face was undergoing its familiar changes of expression and his fingers were flying. His flexible voice ran from a low register of growl to an upper register of what I can only call Western quacking. It was an instrument that could give special quality to such Rossisms as ‘Done and Done!’ and ‘You have me there!’ and ‘Get it on paper!’”
Janet Flanner, a friend of Grant who worked for Ross for over a decade, found him “a strange, fascinating character, sympathetic, lovable, often explosively funny, and a good talker who was the most blasphemous good talker on record.” His swearing was constant, unconscious and entirely chaste. Ross’s “goddam” and “Geezus” were simply interjections—they had nothing to do with any deity. Thurber said Ross was virtually unable “to talk without a continuous flow of profanity . . . it formed the skeleton of his speech, the very foundation of his manner and matter, and to cut it out would leave him unrecognizable to his intimates, or even to those who knew him casually.”
Ross’s sense of morality was as innocent as his swearing. Flanner remembered him discussing a couple having an affair: “I’m sure he’s s-l-e-e-p-i-n-g with her.” He was, she said, “the only man I’ve ever known who spelt out euphemisms in front of adults.”
Their post-war gang in Paris included Alec Woollcott, Heywood Broun, Ring Lardner and Franklin Pierce Adams. When they returned to New York the collective friendship flourished against a new backdrop—the smoky back room of the Algonquin Hotel.
Ross and Grant married in 1920 and three years later moved into two large converted tenements on West 47th Street in the virtual slum of Hell’s Kitchen. Their huge, elegant house, run by Chinese houseboys, was always open for an after-hours drink or a game of poker—complete with the added thrill of the possibility of being robbed while arriving or leaving. Guests included everyone from the outspoken nightclub hostess Tex Guinan to the boxer (and wannabe intellectual) Gene Tunney. They had two tenants, also Round Tablers, Hawley Truax and the temperamental Alec Woollcott whom Ross described receiving visitors “like a fat duchess holding out her dirty rings to be kissed.”
Woollcott was the frequent victim of his friends’ mockery. “He was not so much a mere participant in his own daily life as he was the Grand Marshal of a perpetual pageant, pompous in demeanor, riding a high horse, wearing the medals of his own peculiar punctilio and perfectionism,” wrote James Thurber. “His men friends loved to put banana peels in his portentous path to bring him down, high horse and all, while his women friends, whom he could slay in the subject of a sentence and eulogize in the predicate, loved to catch him before he could fall, or to pick up his outraged bulk.” Wolcott Gibbs, later writer and copy editor at the New Yorker, thought his friends tolerated Woollcott’s “insults because he also called them, or most of them, geniuses.”
In the early 1920s Ross edited The Home Sector, a magazine devoted to veterans’ issues, and, for a miserable few months in 1924, he worked at the humorous magazine Judge. From the time he had arrived back from France he had dreamt of creating and editing his own magazine, and he and Grant had been saving money to fund it since their marriage. “He carried a dummy of the magazine for two years, everywhere,” said his friend George Kaufman, “and I’m afraid he was rather a bore with it.”
Ross’s vision, as laid out in the mission statement he produced in the autumn of 1924, was a reflection of the considerations which governed his own and his friends’ and associates’ attitudes to life and work. The tone of his magazine, he said, would be marked by “gaiety, wit and satire” and though it would not be highbrow it would be sophisticated. “It would hate bunk.” It would be au fait with current events but “interpretative rather than stenographic” in its attitude to them, and would deal neither in “scandal nor sensation.” “It hopes to be so entertaining and informative as to be a necessity for the person who knows his way about or wants to.” Illustrations would be a distinguishing characteristic and it would carry “prose and verse, short and long, humorous, satirical and miscellaneous.”
Ross intended his magazine’s selling point to be avowedly directed at “a metropolitan audience.” With no disrespect intended, he said, he was not concerned with the tastes of the “old lady in Dubuque” whom editors of national magazines had to consider. New York residents hoping to decide what to do in the evening would find news of the latest supper clubs and cabarets; local incidents and personalities would be reported upon in a pastiche of “the small-town newspaper style” with which Ross had grown up.
The prospectus was compelling, but in person Ross was less prepossessing. At the Round Table he was a listener rather than a performer, better at parry than thrust in repartee. His wit never sparkled like Dorothy Parker’s or Alec Woollcott’s. Although several of his friends agreed to allow Ross to use their names on his editorial board, they thought his ambitions ridiculous. As George Kaufman observed, Ross was “completely miscast as an editor” and none of their friends thought he had a chance of getting his magazine into print. “How the hell could a man who looked like a resident of the Ozarks and talked like a saloon brawler set himself up as pilot of a sophisticated, elegant periodical?” asked the playwright Ben Hecht.
Ross’s first stroke of luck came in the person of Raoul Fleishmann. Fleishmann, who preferred the Round Table (and its regular poker game) to the bakeries in which his family had made their millions, agreed in 1924 to invest $25,000 in Ross’s idea, more than matching Ross and Grant’s own savings of $20,000. Another Round Table habitué, a Broadway press agent called John Toohey, provided Ross’s idea with a name—the New Yorker—and was amused to be given shares in the magazine as thanks. He did not anticipate that they would ever translate into anything tangible.
The first issue of the New Yorker came out on 17 February 1925. Despite art director Rea Irvin’s characteristic typesetting (still used today) and his cover illustration of a dandy examining a butterfly through a monocle, which straight away conveyed the sophisticated, self-reflective feel for which Ross was striving, the articles were labored and the editing jumbled. The wit was immature; jokes were printed with the punch-lines first; pieces were featured in more than one issue; typos abounded. “So I went to Florida for a rest,” read one supposedly humorous comment on the Florida housing boom in April 1925. “Of course I left all my money there in real estate, and had to return by boat.”
Frank Crowninshield, editor of Vanity Fair, went through the first edition in his office with one of his writers. He was all too aware that as several of his contributors were friends of Ross’s the New Yorker might become a rival. “Well, Margaret,” he said to his colleague as they finished, “I think we have nothing to fear.” Ross needed to learn, commented Niven Busch (who later became a New Yorker writer), “that there is no provincialism so blatant as that of the metropolitan who lacks urbanity.”
The New Yorker was “the outstanding flop of 1925.” Advertisers failed to materialize. Circulation dipped below 3,000. In early May, Ross, Fleishmann, Hawley Truax (Ross’s tenant and a director of the magazine) and the professional publisher John Hanrahan met at the Princeton Club and decided to cut their losses. The initial investment of $45,000 had gone and Fleishmann was owed another $65,000. It was costing between $5,000 and $8,000 a week to keep the magazine afloat. As they walked away from the meeting, Fleishmann overheard Hanrahan say, “I can’t blame Ross for calling it off, but it surely is like killing something that’s alive.” Hanrahan’s words struck Fleishmann deeply, and when he saw Ross later that afternoon he told him that he was willing to try and raise outside capital to help the New Yorker survive.
Success was slow in coming and for a while the New Yorker was a standing joke even among its contributors. When Ross asked Dorothy Parker why she hadn’t come into the office to write a piece for him, she replied tartly, “Somebody was using the pencil.” Although magazine word rates were high during this period, Ross could afford to pay his writers very little. In the magazine’s first ten months he used 282 different contributors.
The editorial board Ross had assembled from among his Round Table friends often found it difficult to contribute, either because they were too busy or because contractual obligations to other publications (most often Vanity Fair) forbade it. To hide their identities they sometimes wrote under pseudonyms. Parker, who would become literary editor in 1927, turned in only one article and two poems in 1925. Bob Benchley, from 1929 the New Yorker’s drama critic, didn’t write anything for the magazine until it had been running nearly a year. Alec Woollcott’s column “Shouts and Murmurs” was not introduced until 1929. Henry Mencken only started contributing in the 1930s.
Ross’s friends’ early reticence was actually a blessing in disguise, because it forced him to seek out new talent, like E. B. White, James Thurber and the first “Talk of the Town” writer, Ralph Ingersoll, who perfectly captured the mood of “dinner table Conversation” that Ross hoped for. Gradually Ross and his team of writers and editors found their voice: informed but offhand, detached and amusing, always slightly tongue-in-cheek. By the end of their first year Scott Fitzgerald was writing to Maxwell Perkins from Paris asking for “all the gossip that isn’t in The New Yorkeror the World.”
In the summer of 1925 Jane Grant wrote to her friend Janet Flanner, an aspiring writer who had just moved to Paris and was living on her “hopes and good bistro food on the Left Bank.” Grant told Flanner about Ross’s new magazine, and asked her if she would like to write for it. What was it called, Flanner asked—and was it any good? It was called the New Yorker, wrote Grant, and though it was not yet any good, it was going to be. Flanner was the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent for the next fourteen years.
Ross’s leadership was idiosyncratic. He was conscientious, enquiring, demanding and critical. James Thurber saw him as a mass of contradictions: “a visionary and a practicalist, imperfect at both, a dreamer and a hard worker, a genius and a plodder, obstinate and reasonable, cosmopolitan and provincial, wide-eyed and world-weary.” One day Ross called Thurber into his office. “Now in this casual way of yours here, you use a colon where anybody else would use a dash,” he said. “I’m not saying you can’t do it. I’m just bringing it up.” Thurber argued his point and Ross “agreed to let the colon stand, for he was, as I have said and now say again, at once the most obdurate and reasonable of editors.”
Ross’s own areas of knowledge were patchy in the extreme and he was profoundly suspicious of “anything smacking of scholarship.” Literature, music and art were virtually unknown to him. In 1931 the English painter Paul Nash came into the New Yorker offices to meet Ross, who greeted him with the words, “There are only two phony arts, painting and music.” Nash was a little surprised. “He is like your skyscrapers. They are unbelievable, but there they are.”
Dorothy Parker thought Ross “almost illiterate.” The only novels he had read were When Knighthood Was in Flower and Riders of the Purple Sage. He stuck his head around the corner of the subs’ office one day to ask, “Is Moby Dick the whale or the man?”
From the start the New Yorker, under Wolcott Gibbs’s careful gaze, prided itself on its scrupulous copy-editing. When Henry Mencken referred to a European restaurant in which he said he had eaten but of which the subs could find no record, they refused to include it. Not until Ross brought the restaurant’s menu into the office would they accept that it existed. “Ross has the most astute goons of any editor in the country,” said Mencken.
By 1927 the New Yorker was beginning to flourish. Vanity Fair featured Ross in its Hall of Fame for the year: “and finally because he is now editor-in-chief of The New Yorker.” The British journalist Beverley Nichols, sent to New York in 1928 to model the American Sketch in the New Yorker’s image, said Ross was producing a “high-powered, streamlined little magazine” that impressed its rivals—namely Nichols’s publisher, George Doran. That year, for the first time, the New Yorker turned a profit. Not only had it survived but it had thrived, and would continue to do so. Today, in much the same form as Ross first imagined it, his creation continues to disregard the old lady of Dubuque. Somebody once asked James Thurber whether he thought the New Yorker had succeeded “because, or in spite of, Harold Ross?” His answer was that the magazine had been “created out of the friction between Ross Positive and Ross Negative.”
By the time the New Yorker had rounded the corner, the heyday of the Round Table was over. Most of the regulars had moved on, going to Hollywood to write for the movies or producing their own plays on Broadway rather than merely reviewing them. Ross and Jane Grant’s marriage broke up and they sold the house in Hell’s Kitchen.
Harold Ross, who would marry twice more, never found a greater passion than the New Yorker. Every apartment he lived in became an extension of his office until, appropriately, he moved into the Algonquin just before he died in 1951—having edited every single edition of the New Yorker up until that point. Incurably restless to the end, it was said that after he died a fat envelope marked “Getaway Money” was found in his safety deposit box.