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Harold Ross and the Founding of The New Yorker

Harold W. Ross was born in 1892 in Aspen, Colorado to George Ross, an Irish immigrant, and Ida Ross, a school teacher from Kansas. Ross dropped out of high school after his sophomore year. His first job as a newspaper man was in Salt Lake City, at The Tribune. He became a tramp newspaperman, working at 23 newspapers in 6 years. In 1917 he enlisted in the Army. During World War I he was a staff member and then editor of Stars & Stripes.

On returning from the war Ross launched the Home Sector, a continuation of the Stars & Stripes published for returning veterans. In 1920 Ross married Jane Grant whom he had met in France during the war through a friend and colleague at the paper, Alexander Woollcott. By the time of his marriage Ross had become editor of American Legion Weekly (which had absorbed Home Sector). It was soon apparent that Ross was not satisfied working for a house organ.

For some time the couple lived on Grant's salary from The New York Times and saved Ross's salary towards his dream publication. He believed there was a gap in the magazine industry, that there was room for a sophisticated, funny, urbane, upscale weekly. He found contemporary magazines (i.e. Judge, Life, Saturday Evening Post) either sophomoric, or middlebrow. Furthermore these national magazines were not suited to upscale advertising because they had to appeal to readers spread throughout the country and of all levels of sophistication and income. For Ross, the number of people reading his magazine would not be as important as who was reading it. Ross's audience would be educated, cosmopolitan New Yorkers, who spent money in fine restaurants and stores?the kind of audience advertisers would pay to target.

In 1924 Ross was still shopping his dummy of what would become The New Yorker around when he accepted the position as editor of Judge. While this publication embodied the stale humor for Mid-Americans to which Ross's magazine would reply, Ross hoped to experiment with some of his editorial ideas in its pages. Ross left Judge after 5 months.

Later the same year, Ross succeeded in selling his idea to Raoul Fleischmann, the yeast-fortune heir; Fleischmann supplied an initial investment of $25,000 that was matched by Ross and Grant. Fleischmann ended up investing another $700,000 in the magazine over the next three years. (At one point during the first year, Ross and Fleischmann actually decided to cease publication but changed their minds only days later). Their partnership was often rocky: Ross always suspected he was being worked to death for Fleischmann's economic benefit. Nevertheless, Fleischmann spent the rest of his life, until 1969, as vice president, president, chairman, and publisher of The New Yorker; Ross spent the rest of his as its editor. While it exacerbated his ulcers, Ross's suspicion of his publisher helped to establish the unique editorial autonomy at the magazine, an autonomy Fleischmann, and his son Peter, would respect even after Ross's death.

Early Years

The first issue of the New Yorker appeared on February 17, 1925. The first few issues were editorially and financially unsuccessful, and Ross was forced to include a lot of poor material to fill unsold advertising space. These lean months led to Ross's (and later William Shawn's) infamous habit of stockpiling manuscripts against a day when there might be no good copy to publish. For several years, departments were constantly switched in and out of the magazine until a proper mix was established; yet, even as the magazine's format gelled, the execution still suffered. Only art?cartoons, covers, illustrations?worked from the beginning, thanks to the influence of the art director, Rea Irvin. Irvin not only created the layout, typeface, and symbol?Eustace Tilley? of the magazine, but taught Ross about art.

After a large promotional push orchestrated by John Hanrahan, a man disliked by Ross because he was brought in by the panicked Fleischmann, Fall 1925's ad pages were up. By the spring of 1926 The New Yorker was making money and by the next year it was in the black. Of course, it was not only Hanrahan's promotion which helped the magazine onto its successful path. The magazine's content had improved considerably with the addition of several pivotal staff members who helped Ross define his magazine's voice much as Irvin had helped establish its look.

Katharine Angell (later Katharine S. White) was hired in the summer of 1925 as a part-time reader of manuscripts; almost immediately she became a full-time worker and a principal factor in the magazine's maturation. Ross used White as the final word on "sophistication," on taste and style, and she was involved with every aspect of the magazine. The two fed on each other's energy. In 1927 E.B. White, James Thurber, and Wolcott Gibbs all came aboard. Besides friendship and support, these writers provided the clear, precise, and imaginative prose about urbane topics for which the New Yorker became famous.

In 1929, hot on the heels of the stock market crash, the magazine announced it would appear in two editions: one for New York City (to appeal to advertisers targeting its inhabitants only) and one for the rest of the country. Somehow, The New Yorker was able to sustain its success throughout the thirties. It remained aloof from the Depression, maintaining its ironic, whimsical, and casual tone. According to William Shawn, at that time the staff was "actually proud of being apolitical and socially detached." The magazine had yet to establish its reputation for analytical journalism: it remained primarily a humor magazine.

Even as the magazine flourished and the staff solidified, Ross's frenetic panic-ridden management style lingered. It was difficult for him to delegate authority: his vision and investment were at stake. Ross knew he could not continue his attempts to do it all (without driving himself and his staff crazy), yet, rather than dividing responsibilities sensibly, Ross searched for the man or woman who could do it all. For years he sought someone who could head the editorial department, keep all departments on schedule, and get the magazine out each week. He called this savior a "managing editor', but to everyone else he was known as "Ross's Jesus." There were as many as 30 of these figures, all failures.

Finally in the 1936, with Ik Shuman floundering much as his predecessors had, the Jesus parade ended. Ross offered St. Clair McKelway, who was then a reporter and editor of non-fiction (or Fact) pieces, this "managing editor" position. McKelway accepted on the condition that Fact?journalism?editorship be separated from Fiction?fiction, verse, art?editorship. Not only would this division create more manageable parts, but would free fiction editors, such as Wolcott Gibbs and Katharine White, from the responsibility of editing journalism. Ross accepted this deal: McKelway became editor of Fact, taking Sanderson Vanderbilt and William Shawn as his assistants; White became Fiction editor; and Shuman was left with the remaining administrative duties.

In McKelway's three year tenure as editor (1936-1939) he developed a group of young writers who would establish the magazine's standards of literary journalism. This group of writers included Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, Brendan Gill, E.J. Kahn Jr., Emily Kahn, and Philip Hamburger.

Fiction, on the other hand, was slower to develop. Ross was less predisposed to fiction than his successor Shawn, and, especially in the beginning, the magazine's low pay made it impossible to compete for the works of Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Ross could not get the big names, but felt he could still find good writing. He made his fiction editors?Katharine White, then Gus Lobrano?keep lists of promising young writers and stay in touch with them. He also insisted that his editors tend to these writers with the utmost care and attention by providing prompt readings, responses, and payment. Editors became the writers' friends and support.

This treatment helped compensate for the magazine's famous low pay. (Unlike Fact writers, who had the luxury of accumulating debt from the magazine's drawing accounts, fiction writers lived from sale to sale.) It was one reason writers continued to publish their work in The New Yorker even after it had helped them achieve renown.

The War Years

McKelway resigned in 1939 and returned to writing and reporting exclusively. William Shawn became editor of Fact. One of his first acts as editor was to convince Ross that the magazine should seriously commit to covering the coming war, in contrast to its near obliviousness to the Depression.

Reports-in words and pictures-were dispatched from all over the world. They were literary first-hand accounts, not full of received information, about interesting people, places, and things. The dispatches from overseas ?written by A. J. Liebling, E. J. Kahn, Philip Hamburger, and Mollie Panter-Downes among others?gave the magazine a new depth, scope, and seriousness that continued after the war's end. The most famous, and perhaps most important, of these articles was John Hersey's "Hiroshima," which appeared as an entire issue of the magazine on August 31, 1946. It was Shawn who urged Ross to give Hersey's article its own issue. Ross later called its publication the most satisfying thing he had done in his life.

As the magazine flourished editorially, business became better than ever. In 1944 total revenues exceeded $4 million for the first time. Because of wartime excess-profit taxes and paper shortages the magazine needed to find ways to limit circulation?actually ceasing to take new subscriptions for a period during 1943. That same year, Jane Grant, by then Ross's ex-wife, suggested the magazine publish a smaller sized edition for distribution to the armed forces. Ik Shuman convinced Fleischmann and Ross that it would help solve some of their paper woes, and Grant used her vast connections to circumvent governmental red tape.

The "pony" edition appeared in September 1943 as a monthly with no ads and a circulation of 20,000; by the following March it was a weekly, and by the end of 1944 its circulation exceeded 150,000. The edition was a success in every way. Most importantly, it introduced a whole new generation of readers to the magazine. After the war, circulation of the regular magazine increased dramatically, and for the first time The New Yorker became more of a national publication than a comic weekly for "sophisticated" East-Coasters. In 1947 the magazine's circulation leapfrogged to 320,000, many of the readers living outside New York. The magazine was a national cultural heavyweight.

Despite the success, there were problems at the magazine. The loss of manpower in the office meant that for much of the war years Shawn and Ross were practically handling the entire Fact department themselves. In the spring of 1943 the Whites came back to New York and the magazine. (In 1938 the Whites had left for Maine, leaving two giant holes at the magazine and depriving Ross of two of his best friends.) Their return provided some relief for a beleaguered Ross. Still, racked by the stress of the short-staffed war years and personal financial problems Ross felt he had to leave the magazine, something he had threatened several times previously during disputes with Fleischmann. Over the years Ross had grown increasingly hostile towards Fleischmann and his "group." Ross suspected that while all his hard work had helped make this "group" rich, which it did, Ross's only profits were ulcers and alimony payments. By November 1945, however, Ross signed a new contract, which included an option to quit with three months notice, and a consultant job for Jane Grant. The latter stipulation was added to absolve Ross of any financial obligations to his ex-wife.

Ross's new contract also required that Ross groom a successor. The three front-runners were Shawn, Gus Lobrano (Fiction editor), and James Geraghty (Art Director). When Ross died on December 6, 1951, during an operation for lung cancer, the successor was still unknown.

The Succession

On January 21, 1952 a memo from Fleischmann was posted in the editorial offices. It announced that William Shawn had accepted the position of editor effective immediately. Shawn had begun his career at the New Yorker as a "Talk of the Town" reporter in 1933, in 1936 he was associate editor to McKelway, and in 1939, Shawn became managing editor of Fact and Ross's right hand.

Brendan Gill writes: "Under Shawn, the magazine broadened its range, lifted its gaze, deepened its insights." Many consider Shawn responsible for bringing social consciousness to Ross's creed of facts, accuracy, and clarity and thus transforming a cosmopolitan humor magazine into the most important one in the nation if not the world. However, it is apparent that this transformation was well under way by the time World War II definitively established the magazine as a source of serious journalism. Shawn's influence is obvious, but it was the state of the world ?depression, fascism, war? which made Ross's decision to steer his magazine in a more serious direction ineluctable.

Shawn happened to be the perfect man to help Ross make the magazine more intellectually challenging, politically engaged, and journalistically audacious, and then continue these trends as editor. Under Shawn's editorship the magazine would to cover the entire world and consistently raise the standards for literary and investigative journalism. Shawn's New Yorker became the most successful magazine in the country and one of the most important in the world.

The Editing Process

Over the Ross and Shawn years the magazine was edited and put together in similar ways. Both editors read every word of the each issue before it was published. (Some staff claim Shawn read most pieces two or three times.) Ross's editorial style was hands on, detailed oriented, and some say maddening. He produced query sheets and memos of incredible detail and length. Shawn did not share Ross's penchant for memo writing. Instead he conducted most of his business with writers, staff, and Ross in person. He was known for his almost reverential treatment of writers and an editing style which was firm while never condescending and he cultivated strong bonds with those he worked with closely. (By 1970 Shawn had already had 50 books dedicated to him.) While the styles of the editors differed (out of the office as well as in) their goal was the same: accuracy and clarity.

Neither editor had complete control of what advertisements went into the magazine, but their opinions of certain ads or products carried great weight. Eventually, strict rules were promulgated in the ad department regulating the copy of ads and the type of products allowed in the magazine. Both editors believed in a strict separation between the business and editorial sides of the magazine. (Shawn went as far as banning members of the advertising staff from the 18th floor of 25 West Forty-third Street, the editorial offices.) Shawn admitted, however, that he was able to meddle in advertising affairs more than he would have been able to at any other publication.

Ross's struggles with Fleischmann left Shawn with an environment in which he enjoyed great freedoms. He set his own budget and never needed to provide an accounting of how each year's money was spent. This allowed Shawn to give his writers exceptional leeway to develop their own ideas (articles were never assigned) into articles, while they were supported by drawing accounts, far more generous and therefore dangerous, than those of the Ross days. The lack of fiscal accountability also allowed Shawn to keep everyone's salary or payments a secret, which was a New Yorker tradition. (Ross's systems for paying writers were notoriously Byzantine: no one really understood their own pay, and so, as Ross hoped, neither could anyone figure out what the other writers or staff earned. Under Shawn, methods of payment and salary became no less mystifying.)

In the case of both staff and freelance writers, Fact pieces had to be approved by the Fact editor and/or Ross or later Shawn. Topics, or persons in the case of Profiles, were "reserved" by writers, or for writers by editors. After the writer wrote the first draft he or she collaborated with an editor (by letter or more often in person) in line-by-line revision. For Fiction no reservations were made; stories were considered only on submission; they were read by several editors and then a vote on acceptance was taken.

Proofs of edited stories went to the editor, copy editor, and fact-checking department. The editor reviewed all the corrections made on the proofs with the author by phone, mail, or in person. New Yorker editors were famous for "suggesting" changes; while editors were always tactful, never adversarial, writers were aware that refusing certain suggestions might mean his or her story would not appear in the magazine. After the last changes were made the story was proofed again and put into the manuscript bank where it is ready to run at any time.

Art-especially cartoons-were a collaborative affair. "Idea men" were employed by the magazine to come up with cartoon concepts and captions. Some of these idea men would execute their own first drawings. Ross, Shawn, or other editors would assign an idea to the artist they felt most suited to its execution. On Tuesday afternoons, Ross, then Shawn, would preside over the art meetings in which drawings were critiqued and changes suggested.

Tension and Turmoil

After reaching its peak in the late 1960s, the magazine's ad space continually decreased through the 1980s. William Shawn believed that the staff edited the magazine not for advertisers, or even readers, but for itself; he did not believe in editing down for a certain audience, but in putting out the best possible magazine. Outside the magazine Shawn's editorial integrity and talents were admired and acknowledged almost universally. Yet, as revenues continued to decline, his principled stances sometimes exasperated internal tensions.

In the early 1970's, Shawn began to feel the need to groom a successor. His first candidate was Bob Bingham, but by 1975, three years after he had made Bingham "executive editor," Shawn knew Bingham could not be Editor. His next choice was Jonathan Schell, a young man who had written several articles and Comment (as the "Notes and Comments" department was known) pieces on Vietnam that some readers and staff found overly polemical, ideological, and political. Senior editorial staff reacted against Schell as Shawn's successor; soon Shawn dropped the idea of grooming Schell. In 1978, in an attempt to calm the waters stirred by the Schell affair, Shawn circulated a memo stating that he was staying on. Peter Fleischmann, who had succeeded his father as chairman of The New Yorker Inc. in 1969, was still not satisfied. He was growing tired of the persistence of the succession question and made no secret of his frustration with Shawn's indecision. Shawn responded to this lack of confidence by resigning, with the stipulation that he would remain for two years or until a new editor was found and sufficiently prepared.

Shawn did not leave in two years, and the drama played itself out inconclusively until 1985 when S. I. Newhouse Jr.'s Advance Publications, Inc. bought The New Yorker. Advance Publications also owned the Condé Nast magazine group and Random House. There was considerable unrest spreading throughout the editorial floors; the staff feared for its editorial autonomy. While Advance Publications attempted to assuage their fears with a statement of commitment to Shawn and his magazine, significant changes were imminent.

The End of an Era

The changes began in 1986. Peter Fleischmann resigned due to health reasons, although many suspected his stepping down was precipitated by the takeover. Then on February 13, 1987, William Shawn was fired and Robert Gottlieb was named Editor of the magazine. The magazine was seen as needing a transfusion of new blood after 25 years of William Shawn's editorship: in addition to the steady decline in revenues, the magazine did not seem to be cultivating new talent. While the staff agreed in part with this view, it was angered by the manner of Shawn's dismissal and questioned the ability of Gottlieb, an outsider with no magazine experience, to fill Shawn's formidable shoes.

Gottlieb's tenure was relatively uneventful and moderately successful. In June of 1992, however, he resigned after disputes with S.I. Newhouse over the direction the magazine should take. Gottlieb thought that the few small changes he had made at the magazine were enough and saw no need for further evolvement. Tina Brown, who had been editor at Vanity Fair, another of Newhouse's Condé Nast publications, was named Editor.

From the guide to the New Yorker records, ca.1924-1984, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)

Weekly magazine founded in New York City in 1925 by Harold W. Ross, Jane Grant, Alexander Woollcott and Raoul Fleischman. Ross, a former newspaper writer, convinced Fleischman, heir to a fortune derived from yeast and bakery businesses, to provide funds to establish a sophisticated, humorous publication aimed at a cosmopolitan audience. The first issue appeared on February 17, 1925. The New Yorker's signature editorial style was defined during the late 1920s by Ross, Grant, fiction editor Katharine White, and art director Rea Irvin, who designed the layout, typeface, and famous Eustace Tilley symbol. Prominent authors associated with the magazine's early years include E. B. White, James Thurber, Wolcott Gibbs, Edmund Wilson and Dorothy Parker. During the early 1930s, The New Yorker maintained an aloof, casual tone towards social issues associated with the economic depression, remaining primarily a humor magazine. Stronger emphasis was placed on serious journalism beginning in 1936, as non-fiction editor St. Clair McElway cultivated the talent of such writers as Joseph Mitchell, A. J. Liebling, Brendan Gill, Philip Hamburger and Emily Kahn. McKelway's successor, William Shawn, convinced Harold Ross to devote much attention to World War II.

After the war, circulation increased dramatically as The New Yorker became a truly national publication. Harold Ross died in 1951 and was succeeded as Editor by William Shawn, who continued to broaden the magazine's outlook and raise its standards for literary and investigative journalism. Shawn maintained Ross' meticulous editorial standards, reading every word of each issue before appeared. Even the copy and content of advertisements was subject to editorial review. Advertising sales peaked in the late 1960s, then gradually declined through the 1970s and 1980s, despite the magazine's formidable literary reputation. In 1985 The New Yorker was purchased by Advance Publications, Inc., owner of the Conde Nast magazine group. A highly controversial change of leadership took place in 1987, when William Shawn was fired and Robert Gottlieb was named Editor. Gottlieb resigned in 1992, and was succeeded by former Vanity Fair Editor Tina Brown, who left the magazine in 1998 and was succeeded by David Remnick.

From the guide to the New Yorker public relations department materials, 1932-1988, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf New Yorker Magazine, Inc. New Yorker public relations department materials, 1932-1988. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf New Yorker public relations department materials, 1932-1988 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
referencedIn Vladimir Nabokov papers, 1918-1987, 1934-1975 The New York Public Library. Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
creatorOf New Yorker records, ca.1924-1984 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
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