By Published on .

We all have our heroes. You know, Lou Gehrig. Chesty Puller. Aly Khan (while married to Rita Hayworth). Scott Fitzgerald. Jake Kramer. Artie Shaw. Thomas Jefferson. Crazy Legs Hirsch.

Being a working journalist, I have an additional pantheon of greats: Mencken, Briton Hadden. Grantland Rice. Stewart (though not Joe) Alsop. Scotty Reston. Maggie Higgins (being a hero has nothing whatever to do with gender!). Clay Felker. Red Smith.

And, of course, Ross of The New Yorker.

There's a new biography out about Harold Ross, "Genius In Disguise," by Thomas Kunkel, published by Random House, and it got a splendid review in The New York Times Book Review.

Of course it's not the first biography of Ross or memoir of his times. Brendan Gill wrote a rather sour account some years back. One of Ross' wives, Jane Grant, did her version. And, of course, there was the towering (and regrettably out of print) James Thurber reminiscence, "The Years With Ross."

I've often cited this as not only one of the best but surely the funniest book ever written about American journalism, so I won't go into all that again.

The magazine Ross founded (in February 1925) with $25,000 from bakery tycoon Raoul Fleischmann and another 25 grand scraped up by Ross and then-wife Jane Grant, is of course quite different from that being edited today by Tina Brown with Si Newhouse's money. Today's New Yorker has color and photos and bylines and four-letter words and most of the other impedimenta essential to communicating in these final years of the millenium. It also has some crackerjack writing and cartoons and reportage and an editor in Ms. Brown who, very much like Ross and his "designated heir," Mr. Shawn, knows exactly what she (or he) wants and in most issues contrives to get it.

I grew up with The New Yorker. It was always around the house. Don't ask me why. Certainly the Bradys of Sheepshead Bay hadn't the sort of demographics you would boast about to the media buyer. But somehow my mother or someone in the family came up with the dough and the magazine's circulation department, which should have been a bit more choosy about just who got the magazine every week, put through the order.

At first it was the cartoons alone that drew me. Later, the little news breaks, or whatever they called them, at the bottom. I used to comb through newspapers looking for news breaks to send in and got to the point that someone over there at the magazine took the trouble to send rejection notes. Then, while I was living in London, I finally sold one and it was printed. Got eight bucks for it, too.

Should have kept that check but I didn't, eight bucks being eight bucks.

It was also in London I first encountered a person who actually worked for The New Yorker and had met and spoken to Ross!

This was George Woodward, who was the advertising salesman for the magazine in the U.K., which probably doesn't sound very important. Until you realize back then (this was 1959 and '60) how much British advertising ran in a quality magazine like The New Yorker: BOAC, Johnny Walker scotch, British woolens, Harrod's, Cunard Lines, the leading gins, Schweppes, Burberry, and so on. Maybe 15% of the magazine's total ad volume was British or Brit-related. And while much of it was bought in the States, George Woodward did a hell of a lot of business there in London.

He must have had an office but it seemed to me the bulk of his work was done at the bar of the Connaught Hotel in Carlos Place where, night after night, George bellied up, ordered a see-through, and waited to be joined by this client or that for a jolly good time and the confirmation of a whacking big order. Or so I assumed.

By then, of course, Raoul Fleischmann was a very old man who visited London regularly to buy suits in Savile Row and do whatever else it was that rich men did in those days when they came to London. And Mr. Woodward would make arrangements for the usual suite at the Connaught for his employer, Mr. Fleisch-mann. On one occasion, encountering George at his accustomed post, glass in hand up against the Connaught bar, I inquired casually what was up?

"Keeping the death watch, Brady, keeping the death watch," George remarked lugubriously, "Raoul's upstairs right now with his nurse." "Has he been sick?" I asked, solicitous. "No, but at his age he could go off at any time."

When we moved to Paris I started writing short stories, what Ross called "casuals," and submitting them to The New Yorker by which they were promptly rejected. So over lunch one day I informed Helene Gordon Lazareff, editor of Elle, that I'd written some great pieces about France and the French, especially French women, and couldn't get them published in the States. Helene bought two of them right away, had them translated, and they ran in Elle, and I got 600 bucks for the two.

So I never got to write for The New Yorker, except for that one news break, but I have always loved it and still do. Especially in that there continues to flourish in its ranks a genial streak of inspired madness Ross himself would have enjoyed.

You know that the magazine moved a couple of years ago from its legendarily seedy offices to a more modern site on the next block? Well, on the walls of the old offices were some original Thurber scrawls, murals of a sort, and when Steve Florio announced he planned to move, the building owners, sniffing a windfall, instantly put in a claim for the Thurber drawings on grounds they were by now part of the building's structure.

So what did Florio do? A source informs me he consulted with experts at the American Museum of Natural History, got a craftsman with a diamond-bit drill, and in the dead of the night removed the wall drawings and spirited them away.

Lawsuits have been threatened, I understand. But nothing has come of it. And the Thurber drawings are where they belong: at the magazine Ross founded and for which Thurber drew.

Most Popular
In this article: