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At the helm of America's most influential literary magazine for more than half a century, Harold Ross introduced the country to a host of exciting talent, including Robert Benchley, Alexander Woolcott, Ogden Nash, Peter Arno, Charles Addams, and Dorothy Parker. But no one could have written about this irascible, eccentric genius more affectionately or more critically than James Thurber — an American icon in his own right — whose portrait of Ross captures not only a complex literary giant but a historic ...
At the helm of America's most influential literary magazine for more than half a century, Harold Ross introduced the country to a host of exciting talent, including Robert Benchley, Alexander Woolcott, Ogden Nash, Peter Arno, Charles Addams, and Dorothy Parker. But no one could have written about this irascible, eccentric genius more affectionately or more critically than James Thurber — an American icon in his own right — whose portrait of Ross captures not only a complex literary giant but a historic friendship and a glorious era as well. "If you get Ross down on paper," warned Wolcott Gibbs to Thurber," nobody will ever believe it." But readers of this unforgettable memoir will find that they do.
Harold Ross died December 6, 1951, exactly one month after his fifty-ninth birthday. In November of the following year the New Yorker entertained the editors of Punch and some of its outstanding artists and writers. I was in Bermuda and missed the party, but weeks later met Rowland Emett for lunch at the Algonquin. "I'm sorry you didn't get to meet Ross," I began as we sat down. "Oh, but I did," he said. "He was all over the place, Nobody talked about anybody else."
Ross is still all over the place for many of us, vitally stalking the corridors of our lives, disturbed and disturbing, fretting, stimulating, more evident in death than the living presence of ordinary men. A photograph of him, full face, almost alive with a sense of contained restlessness, hangs on a wall outside his old office. I am sure he had just said to the photographer, "I haven't got time for this." That's what he said, impatiently, to anyone-doctor, lawyer, tax man-who interrupted, even momentarily, the stream of his dedicated energy. Unless a meeting, conference, or consultation touched somehow upon the working of his magazine, he began mentally pacing.
I first met Harold Ross in February, 1927, when his weekly was just two years old. He was thirty-four and I was thirty-two. The New Yorker had printed a few small pieces of mine, and a brief note from Ross had asked me to stop in and see him some day when my job as a reporter for the New York Evening Post chanced to take me uptown. Since I was getting only forty dollars a week and wanted to work for the New Yorker, I showed up at his office the next day. Our meeting wasto become for me the first of a thousand vibrant memories of this exhilarating and exasperating man.
You caught only glimpses of Ross, even if you spent a long evening with him. He was always in mid-flight, or on the edge of his chair, alighting or about to take off. He won't sit still in anybody's mind long enough for a full-length portrait, After six years of thinking about it, I realized that to do justice to Harold Ross I must write about him the way he talked and lived-leaping from peak to peak. What follows here is a monologue montage of that first day and of half a dozen swift and similar sessions. He was standing behind his desk, scowling at a manuscript tying on it, as if it were about to lash out at him. I had caught glimpses of him at the theater and at the Algonquin and, like everybody else, was familiar with the mobile face that constantly changed expression, the carrying voice, the eloquent large-fingered hands that were never in repose, but kept darting this way and that to emphasize his points or running through the thatch of hair that stood straight up until Ina Claire said she would like to take her shoes off and walk through it. That got into the gossip columns and Ross promptly had his barber flatten down the pompadour.
He wanted, first of all, to know how old I was, and when I told him it set him off on a lecture. "Men don't mature in this country, Thurber," he said. "They're children. I was editor of the Stars and Stripes when I was twenty-five. Most men in their twenties don't know their way around yet. I think it's the goddam system of women schoolteachers." He went to the window behind his desk and stared disconsolately down into the street,coins in one of his pants pockets. I learned later that he made a point of keeping four or five dollars' worth of change in his pocket because he had once got stuck in a taxi, to his vast irritation, with nothing smaller than a ten-dollar bill. The driver couldn't change it and had to park and go into the store for coins and bills, and Ross didn't have time for that.
I told him that 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 goddam 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, like any other business office," 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. Nobody has any self-discipline, nobody gets anything done. Nobody knows how to delegate anything. What I need is a man who can sit at a central desk and make this place operate like a business office, keep track of things, find out where people are. I am, by God, going to keep sex out of this office-sex is an incident. You've got to hold the artist's hands.Artists never go anywhere, they don't know anybody, they're antisocial."
Ross was never conscious of his dramatic gestures, or of his natural gift of theatrical speech.