ROSS, KINCAID CROSS SABERS

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The great Lillian Ross, one of the finest journalists of our time, very rarely raises her voice. But when she does, watch out.

If you are not acquainted with Ms. Ross' work, a brief refresher. She was one of Harold Ross' (no relation) brightest young writers at The New Yorker and half a century later is still on the job. Her long piece on Ernest Hemingway in the magazine was a classic. So, too, her piece on the making, by John Huston, of the movie version of "The Red Badge of Courage."

Such pieces inspired Thurber to write of her as the young woman who had a tape recorder in her head, or some such awed remark. And the Hemingway piece, particularly, aroused enormous controversy because it seemed to portray a Hemingway very nearly out of control.

The great man and wife Mary had just flown into New York from Havana with Papa's new novel, "Across the River and Into the Trees," under his arm for a few days of shopping and visiting pals before embarking for Europe. Lillian Ross had somehow gotten Hem to agree to let her hang about and take notes the whole time. The resulting portrayal of Hemingway's boasting (he was all set to go into the ring with "Mr. Stendhal" and "Mr. Dostoyevsky" but not quite ready for "Mr. Tolstoi"), his grunted mock-Indian pidgin English, the champagne quaffing, his awkward attempts to purchase a new coat, as well as his visit with "the Kraut," as he called Marlene Dietrich, told the reader a good deal about the author's frame of mind as he prepared to have published his worst-ever novel.

But that was all a long time ago. What has Lillian Ross speaking out these days is another writer, Jamaica Kincaid.

Ms. Kincaid is a talented and successful writer whose latest novel, "The Autobiography of My Mother," came out to excellent reviews. She is also teaching creative writing at Harvard and raising a family in Bennington, Vermont (her husband is composer Allen Shawn, son of former New Yorker Editor William Shawn).

But no longer is she writing for The New Yorker, which first published her 20 years ago and where she'd been a staff writer until last fall before quitting in something of a huff, with a blast at Editor Tina Brown as "a little bully yellow-haired high-heeled woman from England telling me what to do."

It is not quite clear if Tina had brown hair and wore flats that Jamaica might have felt less sour about things.

But in any event, she left, announcing as she went, "I don't know one person who was there when The New Yorker was actually The New Yorker who hasn't been destroyed by it." Which is what got Lillian Ross on her case.

In a letter to the New York Observer, which had reported on the contretemps, Ms. Ross wrote of Ms. Kincaid's crack about what the magazine did to its writers:

"That is a very peculiar statement. I was at The New Yorker for years before Jamaica Kincaid got there, as were, among others, Whitney Balliett, Jane Kramer, Calvin Tomkins, Roger Angell, Susan Sheehan, Brendan Gill, Philip Hamburger, Janet Malcolm, John McPhee, Alastair Reid, George Steiner, Kennedy Fraser, Joseph Mitchell, Mark Singer, Arlene Croce, Hendrik Hertzberg, Elizabeth Macklin, Nancy Franklin, Jervis Anderson and John Updike, not to mention the artist Saul Steinberg.

"All are there now (as Jamaica Kincaid knows), and none has been `destroyed by it.' In fact, `it' at present offers the kind of guidance and support that writers and artists look for and need."

Stay tuned. We need a good lit'ry feud every so often and this could be a dandy.

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