It’s the birthday of the man who founded The New Yorker magazine, Harold Ross, born in Aspen, Colorado (1892). His father worked in the mining business, and the family had to move from Colorado to Utah when the silver beds ran dry. Ross said he got interested in the newspaper business when he found out that journalists got to go on police patrols and ride fire engines. He ran away from home when he was 16 and began riding the rails around the country, working at various newspapers from New Orleans to California. He was known for his love of the nightlife in San Francisco, and he once gave the former king of Thailand a tour of seedy nightclubs.
In the 1920s, Ross worked in the New York City publishing industry and became friends with many of the important artists of the time. People like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay came to his parties, and Irving Berlin would entertain the guests on Ross’s piano. At one party in 1924, his friend George Gershwin played a new tune he’d been working on called “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Ross also began to lunch with a group of bohemian writers, including Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Edna Ferber. They met for meals at New York’s Algonquin Hotel on West Forty-fifth Street. They called themselves “The Vicious Circle,” because they loved to gossip and attack the Puritan values of American society. Ross came up with the idea for a magazine about American life, written in the same witty tone of the group’s discussions.
He raised money from a friend whose father had made a fortune in yeast, and on February 21, 1925, the first issue of The New Yorker hit the stands. Ross said: “The New Yorker starts with a declaration of serious purpose but […] it will not be too serious in executing it. […] [It] is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” For the first year, the magazine lost about 8,000 dollars a week, and it didn’t help that Ross kept losing his personal income in poker games. He would pace nervously around the office, and since he kept several dollars of change in his pockets for taxicabs, he always jingled. Whenever he grew frustrated with some aspect of the magazine, he shouted, “God, how I pity me!”
The magazine finally took off when he hired writers E.B. White and James Thurber, who developed a distinctive style for the magazine. They began to write short essays called “casuals” — brief, humorous descriptions of life in the city — and published them in a section of the magazine called “Talk of the Town.” They were widely imitated, and within a few years The New Yorker was the most popular magazine among the metropolitan upper middle class.
Ross himself never fit in with The New Yorker’s audience. He was gap-toothed, his hair was always a mess, and he spoke with a Western twang. He wore ill-fitting dark suits, and James Thurber said, “[He looked like a] carelessly carried umbrella.” He was always full of energy that he didn’t know what to do with. He once had his office soundproofed because he couldn’t stand distractions, but then he was distracted by the silence. He hired most of his staff himself, but whenever someone had to be fired, he either left the building or hid in a coat closet.
Ross had never finished high school, and people sometimes joked that he’d only read one book in his life. But he was obsessed with the details of the magazine. He believed in accuracy above all else, and pioneered the use of fact checkers for everything, including fiction and cartoons. He never let a cartoonist draw a lamp without showing the cord plugged into a socket. He said: “We have carried editing to a very high degree of fussiness here, probably to a point approaching the ultimate. I don’t know how to get it under control.”
His greatest talent was recognizing talent in others and letting his magazine change with the times. When he started The New Yorker in 1925, there were many other general-interest weekly magazines being published, such as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. The New Yorker is one of the few general-interest magazines that survive today.
Harold Ross said, “If you can’t be funny, be interesting.”