Harold Ross’s father was not a Mormon. But his uncle joined the Church to get trade for his Salt Lake City grocery store. When Harold was fourteen he went to work in this store and, before lie became sensitive about his eccentricities, he used to talk about his career there. He used to tell people he was so explosive a practical joker that his uncle remarked that no matter how well a business was founded, Harold could wreck it in two weeks. So just before the two weeks were up he was fired.
Nephew Harold has run The New Yorker for nine years now, but its owner, Raoul Fleischmann, can still sympathize with the uncle. If you must have a reason why The New Yorker is able to make big business of frivolity, look to this effervescent quality in its genius, Harold Ross. To survive him at all it had early to acquire an organization and a technique which is not only foolproof but temperament-proof. For The New Yorker is fifteen cents’ worth of commercialized temperament, distillate of bitter wit and frustrated humor—and these are explosive ingredients with which to devise a commercially stable formula.
Yet The New Yorker is a good publishing property. Its fundamental success is based on the simple mathematics that a merchant can, at $550 a New Yorker page, call his advertisement to the attention of some 62,000 active and literate inhabitants of the metropolitan area; while to reach the same group, either through a national medium or through a local paper, would cost him several times that amount. Vogue’s New York circulation is 28,000 and to reach it one must buy the whole national coverage and pay $1,500. A full page in the New York Times reaches 389,000 but its circulation can hardly be called exclusive and the page costs $2,131. The comparison is not scientific but it makes sense. To the Manhattan department store, to the impresario of a new fad, whether in low-heeled shoes or high-priced liquor, The New Yorker is a boon and a blessing and has been ever since a few months after it was founded in 1925.
The New Yorker also has a circulation outside of New York which adds 63,000 to the above figure—and for which it charges an advertiser $300 more. That is another story which will presently be told. But essentially it is The New Yorker’s hold upon New York that enabled it to earn $517,000 in 1929—on an investment of $400, 000 only four years before. As much more again was spent to launch the magazine, but the balance was borrowed and repaid in two years. In 1933, with luxury advertising pale and disheartened, the paper still netted its backers $263,000; in the first six months of ’34 it has profited almost as much as in the whole of last year.
If these are small figures compared to the net of a great publishing house, remember that it has been done with one magazine with a circulation not in the millions but barely over 100,000 in all. His magazine figures are lost in his consolidated balance sheet, but all of William Randolph Hearst’s publications—including Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, House Beautiful and Home & Field, Good Housekeeping, Town & Country, and his twenty-eight newspapers—earned just under $6,000,000 last year. McCall’s (McCall’s, Redbook, and Blue Book) made $1,057,000; Curtis (Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Country Gentleman), only $226,000. McGraw-Hill’s great chain of trade journals lost $385,000. The New Yorker has nothing to apologize for as a money maker. And this year it has accomplished what no other weekly has been able to do in a generation: for the first six months it ran more pages of advertising than—hold your breath—the Saturday Evening Post itself!
So successful was Harold Ross’s trick—and so obvious the economics—that many a man has wondered why it is not played again. The answer, of course, is that it is not so easy as it looks. Any 62,000 readers wouldn’t do. Nor would even the right people do if the magazine failed to keep them in a high state of reader excitement, acutely responsive to advertising— for, figured “per thousand readers,” its rates are high ($8.85 against $5.45 for the New York Times). The New Yorker must attract and hold its highly selective audience on its wit. And on the honesty and intelligence of its information—for, in point of number of words, The New Yorker is as concerned with telling you what’s going on in town as it is in amusing you. And these things take skill; they can’t be done with a hired office and a list of hack writers. Far and away more important to The New Yorker than to most publishing ventures is its editorial kudos.
It is sometimes argued in publishing circles that The New Yorker’s commercial idea—an advertising medium concentrated on the upper spending group of New York—was so good that its capitalization by an able editor was a happy coincidence. Had some Lee Shubert of the publishing world caught on to the idea, the twenties might, the reasoning goes, have left us a tawdry bauble, a Miss New Yorker in a bathing suit instead of a dandy in a high hat. Once a good magazine was successful in the rôle, a poor one couldn’t compete with it (there were attempts); hence The New Yorker survives. The theory is ingenious even if it never can be proved. But the odds are that a less distinctive medium would have failed with the discriminating readership it needed for its commercial success. And for the conception of the medium that did succeed, there is but one man to thank. His name is Harold Ross.
There is no more fascinating individual to caricature. His face is made of rubber which he stretches in every direction. Out of the lower half hangs a huge Hapsburg lip to which cigarettes stick. Widespread teeth diverge downward. Until civilization overtook him a few years ago, ramrod straight hair rose from his forehead, diverged upward and outward. It was Ina Claire who once remarked that her life’s ambition was to walk through it barefoot. Under heavy eyebrows, Ross’s eyes are fierce, shifty, restless. He is nervous beyond belief. Wildly, with great sweeping gestures, he talks—with furious intensity, with steady unimaginative profanity. He has charm—and the vitality of a mad bull.
This strange Lochinvar came out of the West with a lore of his own behind him. His journalistic career began in his native Salt Lake City when he disclaimed interest in the parental Ross wrecking company—its business is described as “materials reclaiming”—and went to work as an office boy on a Salt Lake paper. He was still a kid in military school who stripped off his uniform coat after classes and ran errands for the editor in the militia’s pants.
Ross was only eighteen when he pulled out of Salt Lake. No college graduated the future Editor of The New Yorker, and for the next seven years he drifted, a vagabond reporter. He is best remembered around the Golden Gate—he was waterfront man for the San Francisco Call—for his feat of having provided the local newspaper club with an elegant set of wicker furniture. The club had no furniture so Ross took a police launch, sneaked out to the Panama-Pacific Exposition grounds, leaped ashore and cabbaged all the furniture from the Danish Building. It came in mighty handy. His most famous friend in San Francisco was the present King of Siam whom he once chaperoned on a “see-nightlife-incognito” tour. His local nickname was “Rough House.”
It was in Atlanta that his reputation as a reporter was made when he covered the Franks rape and lynching. He was known there as the greatest picture swiper ever to operate in Georgia. From Atlanta he drifted. For a while he bossed a gang of Negroes in Panama. But it was the War that made him. Harold Ross enlisted as a private in the Railway Engineers Corp, and it was when his regiment reached Bordeaux that he heard of a newspaper about to be launched in Paris. It was to be the famous Stars and Stripes, and he resolved to get on it. When early inquiries informed him that he must become an officer he look the military seriously for the lust time. He worked earnestly as company clerk and was rewarded with being chosen one of four enlisted nun picked to attend the special officers’ school at Langres. There he spent an unhappy winter, wading in mud and waiting for his papers, only to learn in the spring that, far from insuring his transfer, his energy had made it impossible—line officers could not be spared for typewriter pounding. Wild with rage, Ross plunged into the task of getting himself demoted. He overslept conscientiously, left puttees unlaced and blouse unbuttoned, began talking back to officers. At last he succeeded: he was sent back to Bordeaux a private once more—in disgrace.
But for a second time he had outdone himself. So infuriated were his superiors that they exiled him to outpost duty with an old army sergeant and ignored the requests for his transfer which were at last coming through from Paris. So that in the end he had to resort to what he might have done long before. He stepped out of a window one night, beat his way A.W.O.L. to Paris.
When his papers were finally set in order his ambition was fulfilled and he found himself a junior member of the newly founded weekly which was to collect the adventurous cream of the contemporary journalism. There were Alexander Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams, Grantland Rice, many another. How “Rough House” Ross, late of the San Francisco waterfront, was to rise through this firmament to edit the Stars and Stripes is still another story. In effect he led a mutiny against the commanding officer which took the form of a petition that the Inspector General look into his mental condition and his financial accounts. The resultant explosion was successful, for to have arrested the mutineers would have been to put an end to the paper. When G.H.Q. at least refused to make the ringleader Editor, his fellow conspirators did the job tacitly. Which is all the more amusing because his ousted rival had once placed him under arrest for being scooped by the Paris Herald and then dismissed him as “a type that is passing.”
Life was very simple for the new Editor—without real advertising or circulation problems. His bafflement with the complexities of peace-time, metropolitan publishing root back to those elysian days.
But to those days also dates the germ of The New Yorker editorial idea. The Stars and Stripes was written by enlisted men for enlisted men, without benefit of propaganda. Why, thought its Editor, could not a group in America write for their own kind, and to hell with the others? By the time the War was over he was sure of himself and his idea. A Private to the end, he had done his job with Generals to the right, left, fore, and aft of him; he had run his paper for the ranks, made an honest medium in a world without intellectual honesty. He had won the respect of his associates. He was ready for his entrance into New York.
It was not conspicuous. There was an abortive attempt to carry on the Stars and Stripes, spirit, staff, and circulation, as the Home Sector. Then Ross tried the American Legion Weekly and quit in a huff when he saw his journal heading into politics. For a while he edited Judge, made a second stormy exit when the owners cut his editorial budget. He turned down fat offers to work on Hearst’s Cosmopolitan with Ray Long, to edit Redbook. For all the time, beneath the shaving-brush hair, his idea was sprouting, his idea for a weekly paper. But since it was an idea that needed money to back it, the most important thing Harold Ross did was play poker with the Thanatopsis Literary & Inside Straight Club.
F. P. A.’s (Franklin P. Adams) column in the old New York World kept a generation conscious of that little group of serious wits who lunched at the Algonquin Hotel and met Saturday nights in one another’s homes to play cards. Again the Stars and Stripes motif appears, for the Thanatopsis first met in War-time Nini’s in Paris. It was Ross who prompted the resurrection in Manhattan, and it was across a round, green table that he met Raoul Fleischmann, one of the first outsiders (nonjournalists) to be elected to the group. The New Yorker was about to be harvested.
But the Fleischmanns are hardly a cliquy family. They scattered early, have remained apart. Youngest Brother Gustav’s branch settled in Buffalo. Two daughters—Raoul’s sisters—are married and live abroad. His only brother, Charles Russell, lives in New York, loves racing, is the owner of several horses. When the yeast business was sold to Standard Brands, the deal was in stock. Most Fleischmanns have hung on to it.
But when Harold Ross met him playing poker, it was 1924 and Raoul Fleischmann was still dabbling at the baking business, managing an uptown branch. He owned about a million dollars’ worth of stock but didn’t like yeast or baking. Besides, his new friends in the Algonquin fascinated him. And he was a good gambler. So Harold Ross had to seek out his office in the baking plant only twice and the thing was done.
Not for the old lady
For all his garrulousness, Ross is articulate only when he is in a rage. It must have been difficult for him to convey his idea to Fleischmann. But the basic conception of The New Yorker is as brilliant as it has proved sound. It is a twofold conception, one editorial, one publishing. The editorial conception was of caviar: to publish a weekly magazine of such delicate humor and satire that only a few would at first appreciate it. But it would be honest humor and satire, written up to the highest standards, not down for the millions of mass national circulation. To express his disdain for the millions, Ross pronounced The New Yorker’s original fumbling slogan (since discarded): “Not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” Back of it lay Ross’s profound irritation at the bounds placed on the editor of a national medium—not merely bounds of “good taste” but of point of view. And back of it lay his own editing philosophy: “An editor prints what pleases him. If enough people like what he does he is a success. If they don’t he’s a failure.” And his deep-rooted, instinctive appreciation of what was sound, what was honest. A little in awe of the wits with whom he had suddenly found himself in post-War New York, provincial Ross saw an unexploited gold mine in their light, debunking approach to life. Among the things he did not see was how far the integrity of this idea would carry his magazine. He thought of 10,000, dreamed of 50,000 circulation.
Whether Ross realized the publishing opportunity, whether he sensed what it would mean to local merchants to have a medium like The New Yorker to reënforce their newspaper campaigns, is a question whose answer time has obliterated. But the two ideas, the artistic and the commercial, joined and were one. The caviar like con-tents would automatically limit the paper’s circulation to the alert, possibly the irresponsible, certainly the influential, buying-wise. There was only one place in America where sophisticates—who might be pleased by what might please Ross—could be found in sufficient numbers. And that was New York. When John Peter Tuohy, the Saturday Evening Post writer, suggested that the nameless magazine be called The New Yorker, the idea was complete. It was all over but the shouting—the shouting and the gnashing of teeth.
The first issue of The New Yorker came out on Thursday, the nineteenth of February, 1925, dated the following Saturday. Fifteen thousand copies were sold under cover of a newsstand barrage of placards depicting a supercilious antique in high stock and high hat, observing a butterfly through a monocle. The drawing was Rea Irvin’s for the first New Yorker cover—the one that is still sentimentally reprinted on anniversary issues in February. The note it set was so far beyond the contents it covered that by the third week only 12,000 copies were sold, the week after 10,500. The magazine was terrible.
It was full of Life and Judge humor and half-baked Broadway gossip. It had neither good rhymes nor much reason. And it looked as if it had been made up by the office cat’s knocking over the wastebasket. It was its own best joke.
For Ross had committed himself to a publishing date before he had anything to publish. He was abysmally ignorant of New York, knowing only the handful of literary celebrities who frequented the Algonquin Hotel. He had neither wit nor the ability to write himself—except in his characteristic sharp, pointed letters. All he knew was what he didn’t want, and he had to print a lot of that because there was nothing else to print. One of the shrewdest and at the same time one of the most naïve of individuals, he was—and still is—hopelessly incompetent in judging and handling human beings. He had been suffering from sinus and stomach ailments for nearly a year; he was a sick man. With everything he did he made life harder for himself.
Magazines are not laid out in drafting rooms and the best prospectuses are pale reflections of what the editor hopes to accomplish. Harold Ross had before him a task like unto assembling a symphony orchestra of amateurs and teaching each individual to play at the same time. And since there is no back lot available to publishers, he had to practice in public. The New Yorker of today, even The New Yorker of 1926, was no preconception. It was put together by a man whose one amazingly right instinct was the instinct for detecting what is phony. The magazine grew, a monument to thousands and thousands of tiny prejudices, nearly all of which are astonishingly worthy.*
There are two things that measure Ross’s genius. One was the fact that he never deluded himself on how little he knew—and he learns some things rapidly; the other was his sublime dissatisfaction with everything and everyone as he battered his way to what he was after but did not know how to ask for. He is not a large man, but he is a furious and a mad one. Men left The New Yorker for sanitariums, they had fits on the floor, they wept, they offered to punch his nose (he is terrified of physical violence). But he kept on hiring and firing blindly. By hit or miss he found the individuals who could articulate his ideas—and who could stand the pace of his temperament, for the one was as necessary as the other.
Few ventures have accumulated the lore of bitterness that grew in the wake of Irvin’s monocled dandy. Ross’s way was cruel and largely unnecessary. And for a while it looked as if it wouldn’t work.
In late April the magazine was officially buried. It had but 8,000 readers, was losing $8,000 a week. With an amateur publisher and a debit balance it was surrounded by troublesome counselors. There came the day when Mr. Fleischmann faced the facts. The legend is that he met with his executives for luncheon in the Princeton Club and that all were so relieved when the decision to quit was announced that a toast was called to dollars gallantly lost. And another. Which is how it is supposed to have come about that they trooped back, four-ish in the afternoon, and no one remembered to give the order that would stop the presses. History bears out only the fact that Fleischmann was discouraged, did give up, and that it took twenty-four hours to talk him into a sort of eight-month plan for carrying on.
Through the summer Ross was to redouble his efforts to find something to print, people to draw and write it. But whenever he found a manuscript he liked, got a belly laugh from a picture, it was to go not into the magazine, but into his drawer. For the uninterested public, two covers and anything inside was to do. The budget was cut from $8,000 to $5,000 a week. Meanwhile the other departments were to gird their loins. On the twelfth of September all fronts were to strike at once, in one last desperate attempt to swarm over the penthouses. There were to be full-page advertisements in the papers. $60,000 worth. The venture was to have until the first of the year to prove itself.
These were historic days for The New Yorker and it was about this time that the name Eustace Tilley began to be associated with the magazine and erroneously with the high-hatted gentleman on its first cover. The inventor was Corey Ford, a young humorist, most of whose work has been published in Vanity Fair. But for The New Yorker he wrote a series of advertisements called “The Making of a Magazine.” In it he burlesqued the “Pulp-to-a-Great-Institution” type of promotion, building his story around an incarnation of Rea Irvin’s dilettante. And this fabulous individual he called Mr. Eustace Tilley.
Mr. Tilley was a huge success. Pictures of him were drawn by The New Yorker’s first staff artist, Johan Bull, who showed him collecting the rags to make The New Yorker’s pulp, planting gardens of commas, sweeping out the office, etc., all in immaculate top hat and cutaway. If Harold Ross thought his humor too broad, the advertising gentry, to whom it was addressed, roared with honest laughter. And several years later even Ross accepted him to the extent of using his name to list a private office telephone in the directory. And many a layman still refers to the magazine as Mr. Tilley’s journal.
The story of Mr. Tilley’s publishing putsch is its own tale, told elsewhere. What counted now, however, was Ross’s editorial success. The New Yorker was gathering form rapidly; the beginnings of a staff had been found. But a single article was to seal the bargain.
It was called “Why We Go to Cabarets. A Post-Débutante Explains” and it was signed by Ellin Mackay (not until 1926 did she marry Irving Berlin). If you read it today you are not likely to be amused. The thesis is that nice girls go to night clubs to avoid New York stag lines, and its bitterest crack denounces these luckless young men as “pretty terrible.” But—and you can never explain these things—it took Park Avenue in a storm of gossip. And its success broke through and corrected the one major miscalculation in Ross’s whole conception: the importance of the Social (Capital S) in metropolitan New York. To the little Salt Lake City boy a fine house and fine Feathers meant Class. That there existed in New York a class which, if it had outgrown the stuffiness of Ward McAllister, had nevertheless a common tradition and a common heritage of gentility, bred or hastily acquired, was fact unknown to him. That it was important to him, far beyond its numbers or the genuineness of its claims, equally escaped him. Mentally he had grown up in New York in the West Forties and it must have been hard For him to understand why the trained celebrities he knew were not enough, how he could take Broadway and Newspaper Row (if there were such a place) and still lose New York. Ellin Mackay handed him Park Avenue, in a longhand manuscript, bound in leather for submission to editors.
Ross wasn’t even sure it was valuable. He sent it to his new—his fourth or fifth new—staff It passed. It was printed. Out West, Ellin Mackay’s grandmother may not have impressed Ross’s school teaching mother from New England sixty years ago. She didn’t. But between 1865 and 1925 things had been happening to the Mackays, things that mean something to the New York Ross knew nothing about. New York’s editors printed Ellin’s Story on the front pages. It broke to a T. The débutante season was on. Overnight The New Yorker became its own talk of the town. And it had a real lorgnette turned on it after a little of the coarseness and the vulgarity of the first months had been distilled. If it still smacked of both it was tolerable, and its wit was fresh and new.
An internal who’s who
If the things you have read so far about the Editor of The New Yorker confuse you, do not consider that unnatural. The (loser you come to Harold Ross, the more confused you will be. Until you get to be Harold Ross himself—and then you will be hopelessly bewildered.
The only important biographical fact omitted above is his marriage to Jane Grant. Ross met her in Paris when he was Editor of the Stars and Stripes. A Lucy Stoner, she kept her own name throughout their marriage. After the War she became a reporter for the New York Times, She still is, most recently featuring in an exclusive interview with the Emperor of Manchukuo. Today her ex-husband lives in a Thirty-eighth Street penthouse with one Edward McNamara, who is best remembered as the Singing Cop. He was the policeman whom Otto Kahn backed for an operatic career. Manhattan playgoers remember him as the huge, jovial cop in Strictly Dishonorable. His voice is still to be heard occasionally on the radio.
Ross has worked steadily on his magazine since its inception. Only once has he been away more than a few weeks and that was the time he went to famed Riggs sanatorium to recover from a nervous breakdown. It was all new to him and he was fascinated. And in turn he fascinated the staff. No stranger hallucination had they ever met than that of this wild hyena from Salt Lake City, who thought he was the Editor of The New Yorker. For a month he was the pet of the place. Then a gentleman from Texas who thought he was pregnant arrived, and Ross was no longer news.
Ross lives on his nerves. Working best in a rage, his favorite trick is to prop someone’s mistake in front of him on his desk—a picture with a silly caption, a misrouted letter, for months, whenever the culprit appeals. Ross can refresh his rage by gazing at the evidence of blunder, can keep his adrenals toned up. He is lull of phobias—afraid of crossing streets, afraid to the point of acute terror of the suggestion of earthquake. His native prudishness is a prejudice that probably helped the magazine more than it has hurt. The only dirty jokes The New Yorker has printed are jokes he did not understand.
But out of his amazing career has come a really great editor.
Harold Ross still is The New Yorker. His judgment of values, of importance, timeliness, effectivness is exceptional to the point of brilliance. For all his strange record with fellow human beings, those who are nearest him have great loyalty to him. If there is eternal schism in his ranks, many have a tremendous personal affection for him. He is the one man whom The New Yorker’s finest craftsmen would prefer to have criticize their work and edit it. With out him the magazine might easily disintegrate even today, and his Directors know it.
‘Comment’ and ‘Talk’
Harold ross is the real enigma of The New Yorker. But laymen who have never heard of him—and his name has never appeared in his magazine except as required by law in semiannual statements—are more apt to inquire about who writes the “Talk of the Town.” The question is not informed because the column that leads the magazine—and which is probably its single most successful feature—is really two departments, “Notes and Comment” and “Talk” itself. “Notes and Comment” is confined to the first page, is editorial in nature, and conies intact from Elwyn Brooks (Andy) While. The word most often used to describe it is whimsey—a word about which The New Yorker is extremely sensitive. But the White whimsey is barbed rather than soppy. No fairy slapping at wrists, he is a Fidel La Barba punching beautiful little blows. His has been called the best single column in New York and selections are being published in book form this fall (by Harper & Bros.). The New Yorker considers White’s comment page, with its tiny but effective rapiers of thought, exquisitely written, as the spearhead of its purpose—self-consciously hastening to add “if we have any.”
“The Talk of the Town,” which follows “Comment,” is a magazine within a magazine, boasts several reporters, an inventory, and a rewrite staff of its own. Ross still edits it himself. It is narrative rather than commentary and its object is to cover the town with gossipy chatter. Its casual, offhand air is studied, often painfully achieved. Its ingredients are anecdotes and straight factual material (which is where the reporters come in), and from a sizable inventory it is made up each week to alternate heavy and light reading and to lead its leaders (with careful ingenuousness) through as varied experiences as its three thousand words permit. The reader’s impression should be of a marvelously well-informed and active sophisticate (once it was signed Van Bibber III), telling tales offhand, with intentional disdain for the serious. But most of the facts in “Talk” are true. “Talk” gels 500 contributions a week, the chosen of which are paid for at $3 a running inch of type as finally set, though sums up to $25 have been paid for a few lines of sharp anecdote. Perhaps a third of a department will be so contributed, usually by amateurs, the largest part of whose reward is seeing their story in print. For in eight years of publishing. “Talk” has printed no more than a baker’s dozen anecdotes without editorial revision. Since his is the flavor. “Talk’s” No. I rewrite man* is the department’s alter ego. He is James Thurber.
Thurber and White
Readers of The New Yorker are familiar with the names White and Thurber. In addition to “Comment” and “Talk” they write what their staff calls “casuals’—prose bits from 500 to 2,500 words long—and sign them, Thurber with his name. While with his initials. E. B. W., or some pseudonym like Squire Cuthbert. Thurber’s “My Life and Hard Times” was The New Yorker’s best prose in ’33. To his other contributions White adds his verse as well as most of the catch lines tagged on the “news breaks” which are dotted like raisins through the book—and a high percentage of the picture captions. Thurber is now famous for his drawings. It would not be unfair to say that if Ross created the body. Thurber and White are the soul of The New Yorker.
Thurber is thirty nine. White thirty-five. The latter came out of an advertising agency (where he was extremely unhappy), the former was a newspaper reporter who had arrived at the stage of signing filler columns describing old graveyards. They are Ross’s reward for his haystack hunt for someone whose light touch could stand the grueling pace of a weekly—his philosophy was to “hire anybody.” For long before he found White and Thurber (the former in ’26, the latter in ’27) his Algonquin wits had run dry; literally scores of hopefuls had flared up and gone out like matches in the wind of his scorn.
Of the two, White is the more typical humorist. He is shy, frightened of life, often melancholy, always hypochondriac. He grew up in far Mount Vernon, New York, one of six children of a couple as gentle and charming as himself. His rather was an executive in a piano-manufacturing company. On the small side, you would be sure to miss him in a crowd. His life before The New Yorker was as glamorous as the whimsical biography that he wrote for his publishers. As typical—and because it is true—it is reprinted at the loot of this column.*
Characteristically, White omitted from his biography the fact that as editor of the Cornell Daily Sun he won the Associated Press prize for best undergraduate editorial of the year (it was on the use of correct English) and was the subject of a eulogy by Arthur Brisbane. Because the first President of Cornell was named Andrew D. While. Elwyn Brooks there acquired the nickname Andy. His intimates still use it. Also missing from his blurb is the fact that he was a successful advertising-copy writer, that he sometimes dreams of expressing himself as clearly in speech as in print, and that the most romantic episode in his career was probably his sudden marriage in 1929—an office surprise—to Kath-arine Sergeant Angell, then literary editor of The New Yorker. In her own right she will be discussed. The record of E. B. (Andy) White’s absorptions is written for all to see in “Notes and Comment”—first his Scottish terriers, then his guppies, more recently a serious interest in economics—his crusade is against the complexity of life—and a continuation of his long campaign against war.
Thurber is madder than White.* Although While writes liner English, Thurber’s prose is more vital, has an earthy quality refreshing in The New Yorker. Born in Columbus, he graduated from coeducational Ohio State University. There he is remembered as a long, lean, funny-looking grind who sat around the library all day with his hair hanging in his eyes. His introduction to worldly ways was by Elliott Nugent, later to be an actor, now a director for R.K.O. in Hollywood. Nugent was a very promising quarter-miler at Ohio, big, handsome, collegiate. He and Thurber were in the same English class—population 3,386. One day the professor read aloud a particularly brilliant student essay with the remark that “such things make teaching worth while.” On the way out Thurber and Nugent, who were strangers (everybody was a stranger to Thurber in those days), humped into each other at the door. “That was a swell essay, wasn’t it?” said Nugent, “I wonder who wrote it?” Thurber said he had. Nugent looked at him curiously, deigned to walk as far as High Street with him. They became friends, he persuading Thurber to get a haircut and stop wearing funny clothes and Thurber persuading him to give up running and go in for dramatics (which wasn’t hard, for Nugent was the son of the actor J. C. Nugent). Nugent later wrote a play. The Poor Nut, with a lot of Thurber and himself in it.
From the university Thurber went to a Columbus paper, drilled East, once edited the Nice edition of the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. During the War he served as a code clerk in the American Embassy in Paris and at the Peace Conference. His baggage when he left for overseas rivaled an aviator’s, consisted of a small satchel containing three sandwiches and a pair and a half of socks. He disliked New York when he arrived from Paris in 1926 and went to work on the Evening Post— the noise and rough ways of the citizens scared him to death. It was from the Post that Ross hired him (April. 1927), and an everlasting monument to the former’s miscalculation of men is the fact that he tried to make Thurber into a Managing Editor. For months Ross spent his energy trying to discourage Thurber even from writing.
Ross took to White instantly, sheltered him from the day of his bewildered arrival. Mm it was years before Thurber was appreciated. The history of his drawings is something for commentators to consider. From 1927 to 1920, James Grover Thurber* littered scrap paper with original Thurbers — not by the dozen he produced them, but by the thousands. Editors found hitherto unused pads of paper scribbled and ruined from top sheet to cardboard back if Thurber was left a single unguarded hour at their desks, before the high command of America’s brightest weekly he scattered them daily. And for a long time nobody but E. B. White thought they were funny. When Thurber and White collaborated on their first book, Is Sex Necessary?, it was Andy, now an inseparable companion, who picked out a handful from wastebaskets and had the faith to insist on the publishers using them as illustrations. Since everything about the hook was cockeyed. Harper’s finally agreed. It was only when the book became a best seller that Ross admitted Thurber’s scratchings were droll, timidly published one or two.* For the first he got $40; today the paper pays him $100 apiece. They were 1931’s sensational discovery for New Yorker readers; last year Paul Nash, the eminent English artist and critic, compared his work to Picasso and Matisse in a learned essay in the London Daily News.
Although neither is, strictly speaking, an editor, Thurber and White are the wheel horses of the magazine’s humor. If their rewards are complicated by intricate bookkeeping (Thurber makes perhaps $11,000 a year, White a little more) they are really the influential staff members of The New Yorker.
Close in importance is Katharine White Her inheritances are two—responsibility for the literary (as distinct from the journalistic) aspects of the paper, and its executive management. Like every other successful editor Ross hired, she was an amateur. From an old Boston family (the name was Sergeant and her father was Vice President of the Boston Elevated) she graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1914 and after a year of social servicing went to Cleveland to many a young lawyer. Ernest Angell. Civic minded, she became Executive Secretary of the Consumers’ League of Ohio and, during the War, traveled the state inspecting factories for labor conditions. She was still in the councils of the Consumers’ League when, with her husband, she returned East 10 New York. Never an editor (since her college days), she had, however, written hook reviews for the Nation, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Saturday Review of Literature. And articles for the New Republic. To The New Yorker she came as a reader, in its first spring. Her most important single contribution: taste. In 1925 Ross was without taste, either literary or good. And without that ingredient. The New Yorker was lost. Katharine Angell, hard, suave, ambitious, sure of herself, had both kinds and Ross was bright enough to see it. Definitely an anti-feminist, he resented her at first, used to tear his hair and bellow that his magazine was “run by women and children.” But he has long since grown to depend on her, often considers her his most indispensable executive. Her loyalty to the magazine is passionate. She gets $11,000 a year and stock; but most of the stock she owns she bought It was she who set the rigid formula on which “Profiles”—The New Yorker’s weekly biographical sketches-have been written for years, raised the standard of verse and prose. She has been an important factor in Ross’s education. She handles people smoothly, with a carefully studied courtesy and tact. Onto her own capable shoulders she lakes many a personal office problem shirked by her superior. Feminine, she may have recourse to tears. But she is preeminently a civilized person and when Andy White married her, a Sew Yorker dynasty was set up.
Fifth (and last) in the roll call of The Sew Yorker is Wolcott Gibbs, Associate Editor and Mrs. While’s right hand. From an old New York family—his mother was a Duel—he arrived in West Forty-fifth Street on the recommendation of his cousin, Alice Duer Miller. He is slim, handsome, macabre. He had been a reporter on a suburban paper: before that, a gentleman brake-man on the Long Island Railroad. The contact with life did not soften him. He hates everybody and everything, lakes an adolescent pride in it. To a simple, honest comment on life he is likely to snap “don’t be banal!” But he has a sharp mind and a sharper pencil, is the best parodist on the staff. And if Thurber and While are wheel horses of wit, he is the wheel horse of work. To him falls most of the interviewing of artists, a tiger’s share of the culling and pruning of manuscripts. His savage opinions on the latter always have to be discounted, but they are keen and virile. He is the practically perfect New Yorker editor.
These are the live—Ross. Thurber, White. Mrs. While. Gibbs. Concerning any given one except himself (and possibly While) Ross has never been able finally to make up his mind whether he or she is the most important member of the staff—or the least. Such uncertainty is a dominant characteristic of the Editor of The New Yorker and accounts for another tradition of the magazine: the Parade of the Executive Editors. Since the magazine began there have been no fewer than sixteen—an average of one every six months. Ross has hired them out of advertising agencies, from behind city desks, from the Social Register, from The Players club. He brings them back from lunch, he cables for them.
In office parlance. Ross’s favorite is always referred to as the “Jesus” and always the cycle is the same. For a few weeks, a few months, Ross is sure that at last he has found the man to solve all his difficulties. Although the incumbent is given a blanket portfolio, his hands are lied for the eight out of ten working hours he must spend listening to the master. But he struggles on. Then comes the awful moment when Ross is not so sure. Then the disillusionment —when nothing the unhappy hireling can do is right. Finally the extremely painful process of elimination—painful because Ross can never bring himself to lire anyone personally. Typical is his technique of removing responsibilities one by one, then assistants, at last even office furniture—hoping against hope the hint will be taken. In the end a letter, left on a desk. Ross fleeing town. Always he is terrified lest a disgruntled ex-employee commit sabotage, has been known to leave trusted secretaries on guard the night an executive leaves. Long since hardened to these interruptions, the permanent staff of the magazine goes its untroubled way, a tight-knit web of practical politics, getting out the magazine each week despite Ross, despite the “Jesus.”
All of which has little bearing on the merit—or lack of it—of the title holders. The sixteen odd have included men of ability as well as the hopelessly miscast. Joseph Moncure March was, and is, an able poet. Arthur Samuels left The New Yorker to edit Harper’s Bazaar, now runs House Beautiful. James Cain went on to write a best seller (The Postman Always Rings Twice). A few “ex-Jesuses” survived the final deflation and fitted into jobs for which they were better suited on the magazine they once “managed” Thurber is one, William Levick, layout man, is another.
The simplest rationalization of the processions is that Ross periodically presumes—and he has, as Oliver Hereford once remarked of his aunt, a whim of iron—that what his magazine needs is system. Hence he drops everything to make an executive of someone. Later he turns against system, translates his passionate distaste for order into loathing for the luckless individual.
Famous is the office anecdote of the time Ross called for a single card index which would visualize the entire inventory of the magazine. For days he and his current executive wrestled with the problem, finally devised an elaborate wall board with red cards for “Must go, A issue” items, pink for timely material, vanilla for Woollcott, and so on. As soon as, say, a “Reporter at Large” piece was O. K’d its title was typed on the light colored card and the card slipped into a complicated pigeonhole receptacle. All this was done for the benefit of the then Managing Editor. Ross and the “Jesus” argued and consulted and waved their arms behind locked doors until finally the system was perfect, the box built and nailed onto the office wall for unveiling. The inventor stepped back and dusted off his hands. It was a great idea except that the Managing Editor turned out to be color-blind.
One individual who is neither editor nor “Jesus” has stood the test of time on The New Yorker. She is Lois Long, once Lois Arno, and her importance to the magazine’s success is hard to overestimate. When the world was young her night-club department, “Tables for Two,” led a paper chase through Broadway. It was something to know who Lipstick was. The Racquet Club gladly paid her way when The New Yorker was too poor to. A bright young lady, whose father was a learned reverend in Stamford, Connecticut, she created that column and the more stable “On and Off the Avenue,” which devotes itself to shopping. To both she brought freshness and honesty, qualities hitherto nonexistent in their fields.
The motif of Long’s shopping column is worth a comment. Taken for granted these many years, when The New Yorker launched its shopping column in its first year, it was a magazine sensation. For it broke a fifty-year-old tradition that commercial names—let alone addresses and prices—should never be mentioned in polite publishing.* In impolite publishing, advertisers paid for such references and the appearance of evil had to be avoided. Ross cut through the numbing heritage, had nerve enough to tell Lois Long her only masters were her readers and that she could obviously serve them best by telling them where they could find what, critically and independently. The bet was that the honesty of the piece would eventually do its own convincing. It did. A new technique in the magazine write-up had been invented. Openly sniffed at for a year. The New Yorker’s shopping guide suddenly began to pull readers who found Long’s taste good, and whose support gave the magazine an anchor to windward of temperamental tastes in humor.
Another anchor to windward has been The New Yorker’s “Profile” department—weekly 3,600-word biographical sketches. The subjects are not assigned each week, but are scheduled from a bank or backlog. To build up its backlog the editors keep a list of eligible personalities, “let out” subjects to free-lance writers. The posting of a name under “Possible Profiles” is an arbitrary business—for The New Yorker regards the publishing of such an article as a sort of Certificate of importance. Manuscripts are secretly prepared, rarely shown to principals. The early ideal was that all “Profiles” should be written by intimates of the subject—or least intimates of intimates. But with the passing of years the magazine has fallen back on able reporters, ablest of whom today is Aha Johnston.
Alva Johnston was the star reporter of the New York Herald Tribune. The New Yorker snatched him a year or two ago, let him draw $300 a week, and started him off with the five-part profile of “Michael Romanoff.” As evidence of the importance of the department, as soon as Alva Johnston was labeled “the man who wrote The New Yorker “Profiles'” he became America’s best-known reporter overnight, featured in the Saturday Evening Post and the women’s magazines, fêted by publicity seekers wherever he went—all this despite the fact that even now Johnston writes but one out of four of these features. His reputation, however, is earned and he has come into a recognition he long deserved.
So also is the réclame which has come to Alexander Woollcott from his weekly pane, “Shouts and Murmurs.” Although he brought both a following and a reputation with him when he joined the staff in 1929—he had been tanking Manhattan dramatic critic for many years (see page 82)—The New Yorker made him into a national celebrity and his prose has been more often reprinted than any other feature in the magazine.
Pictures, pictures, pictures
The New Yorker’s art is a story in its own right. Only its illustrations kept it going during the years its text was being built up; and never has that text been able to dwarf the pictures that illume it. Hence that man who created The New Yorker from the artist’s point of view is in truth co-creator with Ross. He is Rea Irvin, who chew the first cover, who for years has passed on every drawing The New Yorker uses, in a single afternoon a week, who designed the heading type, devised the format. And who still never entirely succeeded in pleasing the man he made successful.
Most people want most to know whether The New Yorker’s artists get their own ideas. The answer is yes and no. Many a picture is drawn to order from an idea either conceived by an editor or bought from a contributor (retail price for ideas only: $5 to $25 and up). And many an artist’s idea has been scrapped after his picture has been bought. In which case it is White’s function to find a new line for it. Drawings lacking ideas will be propped up in front of him, waiting for inspiration. Some artists ate good on drawings, weak on ideas. Arno is one and much of his reputation is founded on wit that is not his own. Nowadays The New Yorker give Gluyas Williams all his ideas. Some artists, like Soglow, produce more ideas than The New Yorker could use even if they were all funny.
All New Yorker artists must submit to the staff’s curious buying methods. The magazine has never had an art editor in the accepted sense. Instead, each Tuesday afternoon, there is held what is called the Art Meeting. There about a board gather senior members—Irvin, representing ART: Ross, Katharine White. Wolcott Gibbs, perhaps one or two more (whose judgment, for the minute. Ross fancies), all representing HUMOR. JOURNALISM. Before them an office boy props drawings on an easel, one at a time, like a page changing the boards in a vaudeville theatre. Ross has the last say. A secretary takes notes of pertinent remarks, receives instructions for improvements, changes, etc., which will be relayed to artists the next day. Once the group was informal, chattery. The drawings made a pile a foot or two high. Now they come 600 to 1,000—once 3,000—strong, are all looked at. Funny pictures occasionally bring a laugh, more often silence, assent. The belly laughs are reserved for the grotesquely bad.
The New Yorker has never paid much for drawings as most magazines figure illustrative material. Where the Cosmopolitan may pay $500 for two half-page drawings The New Yorker’s scale is from $10 for a one-column spot without caption to $200 and up for a lull page. Less than half-page “idea drawings” bring $50 to $75, a full half page. $65 to $115. Lowest idea, $30.
Who owns The New Yorker?
It is only fair at this point to interject the statement that neither these figures nor those that follow are official. The) are FORTUNE’S estimates. But they are not bad estimates. As for official figures, there are none. For The New Yorker is owned, body if not soul, by an unlisted corporation called the F-R Publishing Corp. And so delicate are relationships in the sensitive world of letters that it has long made a fetish of maintaining its anonymity and of giving its earnings as little publicity as possible. But the following breakdown of contemporary ownership is not far afield: America’s foremost humorous weekly is owned by:
And the following who own more than but less than 5 per cent:
—Two other Fleischmanns—C.R., brother to Raoul, and R.G., Raoul’s wife.
—Harold Ross’s ex-wife—Jane Grant.
—One-early backer—R. H. Truax.
—The man who collaborated in writing the first New Yorker advertisements and who was later to bean Executive Editor for a year:; Arthur Samuels.
—Three whose interest lies in the administrative departments: Eugene Spaulding, General Manager, and Raymond Bowen, Advertising Manager, and his wile.
—One other Editor: Katharine White.
From many points of view this is a curious more resourceful, and able to dominate without control—surrounded by inferior people, as Lois Long once wrote of him in a burlesque “Profile”—and because for years he had no faith whatever in The New Yorker’s permanent success—Ross has never concerned himself with increasing his equity. Once when he needed money in a hurry, he sold nearly all his stock. But later bonuses have brought his interest back to where it be-all. His salary today, including Stock bonuses, is $40,000 a year.
With Fleischmann the case is not quite parallel. His $25,000 was only the first chip. Every Monday morning for nearly a year, he found upon his desk a bill for between $5,000 and $20,000 more. And for nearly two years he paid the bills and took more stock. But Strange is the history which reads that when he had put up $400,000 (and come into possession of slightly more than half the authorized stock) Mr. Fleischmann ceased increasing his equity and advanced what was needed—it took $393,000 more—against his company’s notes. That he did so was either extremely shortsighted or extremely disinterested, according to your point of view. For by the time $400,000 had been spent The New Yorker was a howling success. In 1927 Fleischmann was offered over $3,000,000 dear profit to sell out, turned it down despite Ross’s willingness to quit then and there.* The circulation was over 50,000 and the paper needed additional funds simply to see it through until advertising rates could be raised to capitalize on its editorial success.
Fleischmann’s lack of selfish interest did not slop there. When, in 1930, the F-R Publishing Corp. split its 12,500 shares into 50,000, he went even further and let his equity fall below 35 per cent by voting to leave 12,500 shares (in which all could have shared, but he most bountifully) in the treasury for later distribution to employees. The Stock dividend worked out at three shares for one.
The move was characteristic of the man and it further explains the executives grouped under the banner of “more than 1 but less than 5 per cent” ownership. For characteristic also is the company’s policy of granting small annual stock bonuses. How it comes about that few editors are represented is another paradox whose roots reach into that curious corporate conglomeration, The New Yorker’s management, but first one item must be explained—the item which reads “John Hanrahan . . . 10 per cent.”
Did Hanrahan make Ross?
The following paragraphs are shop talk pure and simple. The bored layman may profitably skip. But the ghost of an uncertainty which has troubled the trade must be laid.
The John Hanrahan who owns 10 per cent of The New Yorker is a small, brisk Irishman on whose far-away door under the eaves of a Manhattan office building is lettered “Publisher’s Counsel.” Mr. Hanrahan had grown up in New York, sold real estate and classified ads, and had been Promotion Manager of such varied enterprises as the New York Times and Hearst’s Cosmopolitan and business Manager of Nation’s Business before he hung out this shingle.
When, like many a father, Raoul Fleischmann was shocked at the first sight of his child, he sought out John Hanrahan to ask his advice. It was on the Monday after The New Yorker’s birth. A mutual friend, Eltinge Warner, publisher of Field & Stream, had sent him. Presently they entered into a contract whereby Hanrahan should function as Promotion Manager and General Adviser to the F-R Publishing Corp. For eight years Mr. Hanrahan has held both titles. In these eight years he has amassed his 10 per cent interest, but what has he contributed? Harold Ross, the other 10 per cent interest, snorts when he is asked. But on the lath and plaster side of publishing, John Hanrahan is often regarded as “the works.” By implication, his confreres so agreed when this year they put him on the Executive Committee to administer the magazine publishers’ code.
Here is the answer.
To the editorial contents of The New Yorker Hanrahan has never (with one possible qualification) contributed anything.
The three things he did contribute were:
1. The executive personnel for all departments other than the editorial. He recruited the whole show. The men he (and his men) placed are there today. It is extremely doubtful that Harold Ross could ever have organized the mechanics of his paper.
2. The series of advertisements that launched The New Yorker in the fall of ’25. They were written in collaboration with Arthur Samuels, later to be a New Yorker Executive Editor. But they were Hanrahan’s idea and in them he crystallized the negative conception of The New Yorker for the first time—in terms that advertising men could understand, if you like —but clear and unmistakable. And herein, in clarifying The New Yorker’s goal, he may easily have influenced the editorial department more than they themselves credit.*
3. Over his third, and last, contribution there hangs a cloud which not even this compendium can entirely banish. The question is: “How much of the commercial idea of The New Yorker was Hanrahan’s?” Certain it is that Ross’s original idea was more editorial than commercial. But equally certain, the happenchance of the name had already turned his thinking into the metropolis. What Hanrahan did undoubtedly do was appreciate the business opening. He supported the wavering Fleischmann and articulated the commercial opportunity, not only in his promotion but in his influence on the advertising men whom he had brought together. Hanrahan is not an original thinker, he is neither a great intellect nor a particularly modest one. He is a hustling little Irishman. But he was an important attendant, if not at the accouchement, at least during the teething of The New Yorker.
Who runs The New Yorker?
Management-wise, The New Yorker is both a course in human relations and a thesis for a psychiatrist. On paper the management parallels its ownership. Its highest vested authority is its board of nine Directors. But Harold Ross is not one of them. Nor will he, except on very bright and sunshiny days, deign even to nod to most of them. Much more apt is he to break into roars of demoniac laughter. For the credo of the man who created The New Yorker is that businessmen are tools, advertising executives morons. It is more than an intellectual conceit. It is an extreme distaste amounting to physical revulsion. Only a few exceptions prove the rule. For nine years he has kept a self-kindled feud between editorial and executive departments at fever heat. Yet for the greater part of nine years the final word in matters of state has come from neither ownership nor executive management but from the Editor with the 10 per cent interest.
The Directors themselves are pleasant individuals, able in their spheres. Between the first four—Fleischmann, Hanrahan, Eugene Spaulding (General Manager), and Raymond Bowen (Advertising Manager)—rests a voting majority of the stock. The other five are:
Charles H. Smith, Circulation Manager
E. Melville Price, Advertising Sales Manager
Rea Irvin, Original An Director and sole editorial representative
R. Hawley Truax, Lawyer
Charles E. Brindley, the faithful treasury watchdog whom Raoul Fleischmann brought with him from the baking company.
Right successful years effect many compromises. The paradox of Ross, the editorial employee without portfolio, directing his Directors is not what it once was. If he remains a lion they med for their show, they have at least learned to talk back to him. The New Yorker is Raoul Fleischmann’s only interest: he has long since ceased to be the dilettante publisher, works haul at his job and well. Eugene Spaulding is his right-hand man. Between them they administer all but the editorial departments, have recently even taken a hand in that.
From the strictly editorial-management point of view, Editor White today is more important than Editor Ross. She is a lady who has her own way. As a one-woman majority on a board of three, she recommends editorial prices, editorial pay-rolls. The other members, Fleischmann and Spaulding, still regard the editorial “budget”* as a poker too hot to be much fun to play with—although they did dictate a to per cent horizontal cut in February of ’33. The board’s decisions are not final and Ross still delights in upsetting the apple cart. But life is more orderly now after nine years and he concerns himself less and less with details. Shrewd, and able politically, Mrs. White has humored Ross in his passionate impatience with the personal problems of his staff, now handles many of the contacts herself—or delegates some to Fleischmann, some to her assistant, Gibbs. If you complain that The New Yorker has become gentler and gentler, more nebulous, less real, it is the Whites’ doing: Andy’s gossamer writing—in his increasingly important “Notes and Comment,” in his flavoring of the whole magazine with captions and fillers—Katharine’s buying and editing, her steady civilizing influence on Ross himself. Thurber’s human prose and Gibbs’s vitriol are counter influences.
Wit into dollars
The business management of The New Yorker has, from its installation by John Hanrahan, functioned smoothly. In the heyday of 1929. The New Yorker took in $2,300,000, salvaged better than $500,000—$517,757 to be exact—for the stockholders. Which figures profit at 21 pet cent of gross. Consider these figures:
Most 1929 balance sheets are of at academic interest. But The New Yorker’s has meaning because For the year 1934, the F-R Publishing Corp. is likely to break through its all-time earning peak. Two rate increases and a larger percentage of color have raised the advertising gross per page from $598 in 1929 to $822 for the first pan of 1934. If it carries the same advertising volume, this would add $583,000 to net advertising earnings. If present levels hold The New Yorker should print close to 90 per cent as much advertising in 1934 as in 1929. Its circulation has mounted from 80,000 to 125,000, which should increase its circulation revenue by $172,000, more than enough to pay for printing the extra 15,000 copies.
On the other side of the ledger. The New Yorker is benefiting richly by a reduction of some 25 per cent in its paper prices; the depression must have shaved its printing rates. Against these considerations there is a rise of over $100,000 in the editorial costs (which will presently be discussed) and $80,000 more added by the cost of subscription circulation. Other expenses have grown all along the line. Without stopping to review the pencil and paper work, a good guess at the magazine’s 1934 net would be $600,000. If advertising reaches the 1929 top, add $250,000 to this. The Directors are satisfied.
The problems for these gentlemen to consider are not complicated these days. The New Yorker’s circulation has boomed With Roosevelt and repeal, should set new highs before the year is over. Vital to its publishing policy is the breakdown of this figure into newsstand sales versus subscriptions. Slightly over half Mr. Tilley’s Rock subscribe to his journal, the rest buy their copies on the newsstands. The ratio is healthy. Sixty per cent of each year’s subscribers (a hitherto unpublished figure) renew for the next—a perfect average which has not fluctuated and which testifies to the vitality of any magazine’s circulation.
Even more important to it is The New Yorker’s metropolitan circulation. Out of 125,000, 62,000 live within fifty miles of Columbus Circle. This is by far the greatest percentage concentration of magazine circulation in the area. Of the Saturday Evening Post’s 2,900,000, only 199,500 (17 per cent) compete here. No class magazine can equal The New Yorker’s family numerically. TIME’S New York readers number 53,000, Vanity Fair’s 22,000.
It is on this group that The New Yorker has spent its promotional dollars, although since the $126,000 splurge in 1926 its bill has been small (around $30,000 or $40,000 a year). The 63,000 outside New York have tome in unsolicited. It was to capitalize on them that The New Yorker played a smart circulation-advertising trick. In October, 1929, it announced the publication of two editions, each with its own advertising rate. One edition went to New Yorkers, one 10 out-of-towners. Editorially they were the same magazine with slight make up changes, advertising-wise they ran different contents, carried at different rates. To advertise at all one has to sign for the city edition but the extra national circulation is optional and the figures are $550 a page for the former, $850 lot the whole business, national and city.* Now, with its in-town circulation at 62,000 and its national distribution touching 63,000, the old lady in Dubuque is out-buying her nephew in New York.
If today The New Yorker says little about its bargain price for the city edition only—preferring to sign advertisers for the whole show—it was that bargain price that neatly sorted values and saw the magazine through the depression. Today some 15 per cent of advertisers (accounting, however, for 26 per cent of space) limit themselves to the in town edition. Many a local department store figures it worthwhile to buy the western circulation against the annual invasion of western wives bent on Manhattan buying. Since repeal The New Yorker has become famous for its liquor advertising.
Current assets: $1,000,000
So neither advertising nor circulation troubles the sleep of the nine worthies who sit about The New Yorker’s board and they may devote themselves to the eccentricities of their editors. Cash has never been a problem. Although it took very nearly all the money Raoul Fleischmann had, he had enough. From their profits the Directors have declared their $3 dividends without interruption or change. The first came March 30, 1929; when the stock was split three for one on January 2, 1930, the reorganization automatically tripled the return. In all, $540,500 has been paid out of $1,590,500 earned.
At the end of 1933 the company had $183,000 cash on hand and current assets of $385,000, not counting an inventory of $107,000 made up mostly of drawings, manuscripts, paper, stationery. Out of earnings the company had built a portfolio of securities worth $610,000 after allowing a depreciation of $230,000 from cost. To the famed New Yorker name, its development cost and good will, was charged: one dollar. Current liabilities were $114,000 and the sole capitalization was a common stock issue of 50,000 shares of which 43,789 were outstanding. So the Directors had little to be worried about as they viewed their company on the last day of 1933. Income from all sources was $2,025,000, expenses $1,721,000. This left a profit of $304,000 which, after taxes, made a net of $263,000—$6.00 a share was available for the common stock.
The New Yorker has no outside interests despite the presence in its portfolio of two often discussed investments, one in Condé Nast, the other in the Hanrahan Publishing Co. which sponsors magazines called The Stage and Arts and Decoration.
The parentage of the latter is obvious; the former came about through the negotiation of a printing contract. For the magazine is printed by Condé Nast. No single magazine can afford the exclusive use of a printing shop of its own—its presses would lie expensively idle between issues. Some publishing companies, with several magazines to print, do own their own plants but they, like Condé Nast (Vogue, Vanity Fair, etc.), usually print other publications in their spare hours. Thus The New Yorker, which goes to press with most forms on the Friday a week before publication and with a late insert on Sunday or Monday night, fits mechanically with the production of Nast’s own work in the Greenwich plant. Today The New Yorker, with its $300,000 bill for printing, wags the dog as the shop’s most important job.
Budgets for editors
About 14 per cent of The New Yorker’s income goes to editors, artists, and contributors, lumped together in the editorial budget already mentioned. The figure for 1929 you will remember as $310,000. A little over $100,000 a year has been added to that figure through the depression, despite a 10 per cent cut which was in effect thirteen months. Which is something to raise the stockholders’ eyebrows if The New Yorker had stockholders whose eyebrows went up. For $442,000 is a lot of money to spend on the editorial budget of a magazine that does not go in for high-priced names, oil paintings, or expensive research staffs. The Cosmopolitan probably set the American (which is the world’s) high, at a boom-time $1,000,000 a year. But William Randolph Hearst has always given his favorite magazine an unlimited drawing account, and its policy has been names, expensive names, and more names. And it can spread its editorial costs over a circulation of 1,655,568, set it against an advertising gross of $2,800,000. So can the Saturday Evening Post pay top rates and consider its editorial budget modest since even now it takes in $17,300,000 in advertising. A reasonable figure for a modest national magazine should be $200,000 to $300,000. But if Ross has not seen fit to give stock to his editorial employees, he has been savage in his raids on the earning statement.
The unit figures have been scattered through captions and text, but you can check the art costs below by taking up any issue and figuring $20 for decorative spots, $50 to $100 for idea drawings, $125 to $200 for full-page illustrations, putting a premium on The New Yorker’s favorites. And you will arrive at something like $1,800 a copy. Which fits into the current $8,000-a-week budget as in these rough proportions:
Regular contributors (departments) 1,800
This is a high figure, but it is not paid out at a high unit rate. Rather it is a tribute to the fact that so many ingredients go into the making of each week’s New Yorker—close to 100 items must be bought each week, counting “news breaks,” columns, spots, ideas., etc., etc.
Since much of The New Yorker material is not marketable elsewhere, the editors have been able to set their own prices, concerned only with keeping contributors contented. They have not always been successful. The word rate equals the Post’s but from a writer’s point of view the articles are so short (a “Profile” runs up to only 3,600 words) that few have got rich on it. Nor is it an easy magazine to write for because the editors have yet to be genuinely happy about any manuscript. Except for such Sacred Cows as Woollcott and Benchley, a contributor’s copy is regarded as raw material only, to be pulled and hauled. The wounds that are left are smoothed by carefully worded, almost form, letters which go out over Katharine White’s signature. But, if you are curious, all manuscripts are read—mostly by Associate Editor John Mosher, if you are unknown—and any with merit go the round of editors with blank report sheets attached. In all, 1,000 to 1,200 manuscripts are received each week, and the digestion of them is a neat organization problem. Ross himself has described the editing of the magazine as a technique for condensing.
And so it continues. Will The New Yorker last, can it keep up the pace? The answer is yes, for this generation at least. That unsung half of the magazine which is critical and narrative—the business of keeping you posted on what’s going on in New York—is not hard to maintain. Critics like the freedom The New Yorker gives them. As to wit and satire, The New Yorker now has so firm a position that it attracts the best American producers. As with Punch in England, The New Yorker has first call on a nation’s fancy. Its occasional dull spells are the outward and visible signs of inner unhappiness and ill health. For all New Yorker editors are neurotic—if they were not, Ross would have made them so. But together they have done a magnificent job. The New Yorker has changed the wit of a generation. From coast to coast it is aped by collegiate editors (even as Mencken’s Mercury was ten years before); it has contributed to the wisecracking philosophy which first the Winchell columnists, then the movies, have popularized; it has set the pace for every other journal with pretensions to humor and/or satire. With its delicate barbed quill, it has battled nobly if ineffectively with a world that is far from perfection.
Typical of both battling and futility was the magazine’s most recent stand. With many a publisher boiling at the implications of the Tugwell Bill for regulating advertising. The New Yorker’s editorial department declared again its independence. It threatened an open approval. For weeks there was plotting in the dim corridors of 25 West Forty-fifth Street. Then the blow fell. E. B. White had written and Ross had published a frank espousal of Tugwell principles. But everything came out all right. When the advertising gentry read the item they found it so carefully swathed in whimsey that not even the stanchest Tory could take affront.
*One was against the old He-She joke formula. To declare his independence, Ross printed the old saw about the optimist. When a printer set it upside down in the first issue, he continued it week after week like this:
POP: A man who thinks he can make it in par.
JOHNNY: What is an optimist, pop?
*The New Yorker may—and often does—”let out” the rewriting of batches of “Talk of the Town” manuscripts in free-lance writers. And always important to the department have been the original items contributed to it by staff members, particularly those eyewitness accounts that come from the typewriter of E. B. White.
“The poems by E. B. W. were written in places where Mr. White had gone search of employment. When he graduated from Cornell in 1921 he found a job with the United Press. They sent him to cover the funeral of a statesman, but he took the wrong railroad, missing the cemetery by a scant forty miles. This terminated his connection with the U. P. and almost turned him against statesmen. He next worked for a house-organ editor, who set him reading the horoscopes of young ladies who worked in a silk mill. This connection lasted until he inadvertently predicted that one young lady would never marry and would have three lovely, dark haired children.
“The American Legion News Service next secured his services. There he progressed so well that he earned enough money in buy small automobile. He resigned immediately and drove away. The state of Montana pleased him, and he was only prevented from settling there by his hay fever. He continued in Seattle and got a job as a reporter on the Seattle Times. This connection lasted a year and might have lasted longer but for the fact that the Times had a rule against using the word “mangle” in the paper. Deprived of a single word. Mr. White found himself unbearably handicapped and boarded a ship which happened to be in the harbor. He worked first as night saloonman and later was transferred to the fireman’s mess, where he tented with signal distinction by stealing immense quantities of food from the main galley. The ship went to the Aleutian Islands. Some, and the Archie Ocean. After this voyage, Mr. While returned to New York and secured a position writing copy for an advertising agency. He wrote a mail-order course in automobile salesmanship in ten easy lessons, but when the first order arrived from a barber in Wisconsin, he resigned, full of remorse, and went to work with The New Yorker on their editorial staff where he has been ever since. He lives in New York with a rubber plant named Hattie.”
*Most recent evidences: when Harold Ross’s passion for locked doors irked him. Thurber borrowed a master key from the superintendent of the building, had twenty duplicates struck off and passed them out to friends as souvenirs. Because The New Yorker is not quite sure whether or not to believe him, the locks remain unchanged . . . When his typewriter wasn’t kept in repair he called up the Underwood Elliott Fisher Co. and asked that their most expensive machine be sent up, charged in the company The business office promptly hid it but loyal office boys tipped Thurber off. When Ross O.K.’d the irregularity, half the other editors and writers followed Thurber’s plume call, got direct action.
*He has since dropped the Grover from his name.
*The first Thurber ever to come formally to the notice of The New Yorker editors was a picture of a seal looking out over a barren landscape at a few black dots and exclaiming, “Hm, explorers!” E. B. White had submitted it without Thurber’s knowledge. It came back with another artist’s rendering of a seal attached, along with the advice, “This is how a seal’s whiskers grow.” Enraged, White resubmitted it the following week with his own comment: “This is how a Thurber teal’s whiskers grow.” But although the rest of the staff were for it. Ross rejected it again. All of which was some months before the publication of Is Sex Necessary?
*Although TIME, published first in 1923, had cracked the ice wide with its revolutionary policy of letting commercial names fall where they would in news stories.
*Here is the first successful New Yorker advertisement:
The Most Personal of Magazines
What kind of magazine would you make if you were going to edit it for smart New Yorkers? Of course, you’d have what goes on in the theatres, in the movies, in art, and kindred fields of interest. But so have the daily newspapers.
All that, brilliantly written, has The New Yorker—this new weekly you’ve been hearing about.
But The New Yorker goes further—very much further. Compared to the newspaper, it interprets rather than chronicles. It gives the color, the tang, the anecdote, and the chat in all the sophisticated circles of New York. It is a magazine avowedly for a metropolitan audience.
Gay in tone, pungent with satire, its pages are studded with sparkling paragraphs, stories and verse nowhere else to be found,. In art it has set a new standard in American publishing.
The New Yorker is highly personal, for the real flavor of New York is distilled from the personalities and achievements of interesting people. It is sophisticated in that it assumes a reasonable degree of intelligence and enlightenment on the part of its readers. It is not radical or highbrow, but it hates bunk.
Reading The New Yorker each week makes it possible for any man or woman to keep up with everything worth while in New York—what play to see, what book to read, where to lunch, dine and dance.
To know your way about New York, to meet current celebrities, The New Yorker is a necessity. It is most informative because of the facts and observations it prints; most interesting because it treats them so brilliantly.
*Ross felt, among other things, responsible for having lured Fleischmann into spending much more than he had intended—the original estimates had called for only $100,000 of capital. It Fleischmann took the offer he would be well out; if he didn’t, Ross was at least relieved of responsibility for future hazards.
*The quotes are because, strictly speaking, The New Yorker’s editors do not work on a budget. They simply spend the money. The accounting department figures up the bill afterwards.
*The figures are base rates for black and white. Inside color, including covers, cost $4,300 a page; the back cover brings $1,000. If a black and white inside page is “bled”—i.e. its copy fills its margins—the rate is $1,000. As with every magazine, 15 per cent of these sums go to the agency placing the advertisement.
This article was originally published in the August 1934 issue of Fortune.