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Ross and Alsop: Genius and Gadfly

ISSUE:  Winter 1996
Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of The New Yorker. By Thomas Kunkel. Random House. $25.
Joe Alsop’s Cold War. By Edwin M. Yoder, Jr. North Carolina. $24.95.

Wether or not it was, is, or will be the best magazine ever, The New Yorker was the creation of the remarkable, and somewhat unlikely, Harold Ross. Thomas Kunkel has written a complete and delightfully satisfying biography, by far the best, about Ross.

Another noted journalist, Joseph Alsop, like Ross a fabled character in the business, is portrayed in an interesting and useful book by Edwin Yoder, also a journalist who is now teaching at Washington and Lee University.

I grew up on Harold Ross stories since my father, Lieutenant Adolph S. Ochs II, was, at age 22, treasurer of The Stars and Stripes in Paris during World War I. He was known to the staff of luminaries, which included Alexander Woolcott, Franklin P. Adams, Grantland Rice and many others, as “Little Itch.” The nickname, applied by Woolcott, implied that “Big Itch,” my father’s uncle and namesake was the publisher of The New York Times. The poker games of this gang in Montmartre, as recounted to me, were at least the equal in repartee to that at the Algonquin lunches later in New York.

Ross, who proudly had cards printed to show he was a buck private, rose to the top of this group as editor through the same qualities that were to bolster him as editor of The New Yorker: good writing skills, superb editing, and dogged determination to the cause at hand—including efforts far beyond the demand of duty in the nurturing of his correspondents.

While Ross, from a family of meager means, left high school after his sophomore year to become a tramp reporter in the West, Joseph Alsop had the opposite background. His family were New England aristocrats related to Theodore Roosevelt, and Joe was a Groton and Harvard graduate. He came into newspapering, and then to column-writing for the Herald Tribune Syndicate, with superior connections which he cultivated all his working life.

Yoder, a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group, early on states that in the great age of the Washington column Joe and his brother Stewart “were rivaled—if at all—” by Walter Lippmann and by Arthur Krock and James (Scotty) Reston of The New York Times.

Certainly there were times when the Alsop brothers were more interesting. They had a rule that each column must contain one piece of information that was new. From Joe, especially, there was occasionally purple and passionate language.

But Yoder seems to counteract his own statement later with: “In his soberer and less hectic moments, Joe Alsop was a superb political observer. It was when he unleashed the fretful Jeremiah in himself that gross exaggeration and misjudgment got the upper hand.”

At The New Yorker, Harold Ross threw his tantrums, yelled, and screamed—usually to a purpose. But although the magazine had its dicey moments, Ross was uninterruptedly successful from the beginning in 1925 until his death, from cancer of the windpipe—in 1951.

Why? He must have been the most hands-on editor who ever lived. Absolutely nothing on the editorial side went into the magazine without his reading or viewing it (his rule: only one talking animal cartoon per issue).

He had an unerring eye for language. Someone had to, if The New “Yorker was to take potshots at others” language in those famous “Newsbreaks.” He got it from his mother, who drilled into him a love of reading, writing, and correct language usage. (Where are such parents today? What has television done?) “He was so passionate about grammar,” Kunkel writes, “that he read Fowler’s four daunting pages on the distinction between “which” and “that” for his own amusement.” A piece might be scoured 15 or 20 times by six or eight different people in the quest for perfection.

Joe Alsop lived in a different sort of world, that of observation, opinion, and, more than occasionally, speculation. His good friend, the diplomat George Kennan, urged him to stick more to observation, in which he had extraordinary powers in fields ranging from politics to art. It was his Cassandra nature, ringing the alarm bell, that led to mistakes in such crises as Vietnam and The Missile Gap. But in the fight against Sen. Joe McCarthy and against persecution of various public figures for their views, he was a memorable leader.

Yoder raises the important question: does journalistic commentary, “written on the wing and often qualifying for the dismissive label “instant analysis,” really matter?” He traces the decline of the influential column to news analysis by reporters and to the pervasiveness of television.

(Even in its heyday, column writing was not without its problems. The editorial page pieces by Arthur Krock, cited by Yoder, may have been knowledgable but they rang with turgidity and one groaned when editing them. With Krock, perhaps, began the shaky practice of conferring column status on former bureau chiefs.)

Harold Ross began his magazine only to interest the sophisticates and wannabes of New York—making no effort in those early days to secure readers outside the New York circulation area. He had no background in New York. His hair at that time stuck up like uncut grass. The persistent characterization of his clothes was that he looked as if he rode to work in boxcars. Ogden Nash, one of the people who worked for The New Yorker, called him “really a genius, probably the strangest man in the world. . . . His expression is always that of a man who has just swallowed a bug.”

But those who had worked for Ross on the Stars and Stripes knew Ross’s qualities. With an absolutely sure hand at the kind of writing he wanted, he went after talent and, for the most part, got it and kept it. What accomplished this was his assurance to writers that he wanted what they wanted to write. This was crucial to The New Yorker’s greatness. For Ross was essentially a conservative who often dealt with liberals. It is said that one staffer, summoned to his office, was met by a blast from Ross: “What the hell did you have to write this for? Now I’ll have to print it.”

Also a factor was Ross’s extraordinary personal generosity, as in his buying a piece from a struggling writer, even though he did not intend to use it, because he felt that writer to be promising.

The New Yorker made powerful enemies with savage profiles of such figures as Walter Winchell, Henry Luce, and J. Edgar Hoover; in turn, the great Freedom of Information Act has disclosed, Mr. Hoover kept ample files on many New Yorker writers and editors. Dorothy Parker was the champion with 1,000 pages, according to Kunkel.

Joe Alsop was invariably hawkish on national security matters. In pursuing material for his column, he also was not above supplying his own views to those he interviewed. When the French were struggling with the Vietnamese problem, and before United States involvement, a French official quoted Alsop as saying that if U.S. troops were sent to Indochina he “wanted to take part in the campaign.” The official said that rather than seek his opinion, Alsop inflicted his.

For all his hawkishness and somewhat lordly manner, Alsop had a keen sense of fairness toward those in public life. He defended J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who during World War II was effectively accused of leftist sympathies—and was rehabilitated 30 years later. Alsop did the same with many of those outrageously accused by Senator McCarthy, and numerous others.

Alsop steeled himself against criticism, of which there was plenty. A climactic instance of this was the secret photographing in Moscow of Alsop and a Soviet agent in a sexual position in 1957. Copies of the picture were sent to several of Joe’s friends in Washington. But his homosexuality had not been widely known. The fairly brief mention in Yoder’s book was a factor in a huge spread on the front page of The Washington Post’s “Style” section this year, almost 40 years later.

The obvious Soviet proffering of blackmail failed completely to alter Alsop’s anti-Soviet stance, even when McCarthy hinted at his homosexuality several times. Alsop, Yoder says, considered openly discussing it but decided to ignore the issue.

The New Yorker often skirted high politics, including the McCarthy question, Ross evidently feeling that it really wasn’t his magazine’s business. Meanwhile, circulation grew as more and more writers and artists were attracted to The New Yorker style: Woolcott, Adams, S. J. Perelman, A.J. Liebling, the great master of style E.B. White, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Peter Arno (a former jazz band trumpeter), Charles Addams, Parker, Helen Holdnson, Wolcott Gibbs, John Hersey and many, many others.

The liberal strain in this accumulation often helped force political positions, as in the McCarthy episode at the end, after Ross’s death in 1951, when New Yorker writers such as White and Richard Rovere attacked the senator numerous times.

In Kunkel’s view Ross brought a kind of “Spenserian independence” to his politics and his discussions with his collection of brilliant staffers. His own views came up so seldom that few knew how he would vote in the next presidential election. (He could not go with Thomas E. Dewey, after one of those devastating profiles of the New York governor; yet he could not take Harry Truman either, despite Truman’s devoted readership of The New Yorker. )

The staff often was bemused by this frequently peculiar man who, although he called himself a country boy in the expectation that people would know he was not, was the intellectual match of any of them. By the time the staff elected him editor of The Stars and Stripes, this native of Aspen, Colorado (1892) had worked for more than a half dozen newspapers in the West and in Atlanta, where he covered the Leo Frank trial at age 20 for The Atlanta Journal. In his teens, he was editor of the Marysville, CA. Appeal, a daily. He ascended to the editorship of The Stars and Stripes, with more than a half million circulation, at age 26.

Joseph Wright Alsop VI was the equal of Harold Ross in eccentricity. In his approach to current affairs he was sometimes accused of advocating gloom for gloom’s sake. It was even ridiculously hinted that he always could manage to insult someone by noon. “The colorful and eccentric Joe,” Yoder writes, “fat, foppish, epicurean, bookish, loud, often aggressive, evoked many a distinctive memory in old friends and fellow journalists.”

Stanley Walker, the noted city editor of The New York Herald Tribune, where Joe got his start through family influence, wrote in private correspondence:

He was reeking with Roosevelt blood. . . . You asked if the other men on the staff did not regard him as “arrogant.” That is not quite the word, though it may be close. He merely had that Harvard manner, that peculiar self-assurance, or brashness, which characterizes all Roosevelts, Teddy and FDR and Eleanor and all the rest. Alsop’s impact on his comrades on the paper was similar to that of old Teddy on the cattlemen and others of the Bad Lands when he went there to ranch. In neither case did the new-found associates laugh very long, . . . One night I was about to take a cab up to see Alex Woolcott about something or other. I had been struck by a strange similarity between (them). . . He and Woolcott became good friends, and for a time saw a deal of each other. It was a wonderful thing to see these two fat showoffs spouting poetry to each other, talking of Proust, etc.etc. Each of them liked to give parties . . .and each presided with great unction and effervescence. They reminded me of two Buddhas, except they were much more lively.

Later, under a doctor’s dire warnings, Joe trimmed 100 pounds off his weight and more or less kept it off, despite his yen for foods and sauces.

Still, he was a fit subject for a lampoon; none on such a scale as that provided by humor columnist Art Buchwald. In 1968 Buchwald wrote a play entitled Sheep on the Runway, Produced by Roger Stevens, the comedy ran more than 100 performances on Broadway. The goat, “Joe Mayflower,” was a pompous syndicated columnist who schemes to transform the remote mountain kingdom of Nonomura into a U.S. protectorate and bastion of anti-communism. Mayflower detects events “boiling under the surface” of Nonomura when no one else notices.

Much of Washington was titilated. Joe and his brother Stewart were not amused. Meanwhile, Buchwald professed to have another columnist, Joseph Kraft, in mind as Joe Mayflower.

Harold Wallace Ross, as might be expected, had “a devastating capacity for hard work,” Kunkel says. He went through more than 20 second-in-commands during one two-year period. Ross kept feeling that he desperately needed the right person in this job. But in his heart were doubts that anyone really could do it.

Many a New Yorker staffer more than once put the magazine before his or her personal life. Once, when E.B. White disappeared on an amatory pursuit, a panicked Ross persuaded White’s roommate, Thurber, to tell him where White was. Ross later tried to tell White that Thurber had squealed only out of a larger loyalty to The New Yorker. White replied, “The New Yorker is a cesspool of loyalties.”

Evidently Ross’s genius was twofold. On the one hand, to E. B. White it was a “diligence in looking at everything that comes in—every picture, every manuscript. Ross also believes that talent attracts talent.”

Second, in his prodigious ability to find talent, Ross showed an understanding that “writers and artists are different from other people and must be treated—tolerated, he would more likely harrumph—as such,” Kunkel writes. William Maxwell added: “I think he thought that people with talent didn’t in general know enough to come in out of the rain, and he was trying to hold an umbrella over them.”

Although Joe Alsop got more attention, at least his equal over the long pull of their column (1946—1958, a surprisingly short period, looking back on it) was his brother Stewart.

Stewart’s strengths were his even temperament, his attractive personality, and his writing skills—both he and Joe had been English majors, Stewart at Yale and Joe at Harvard.

Although they retained their affection for each other, a few zingers flew prior to the breakup of their column. Joe, moving about in Europe, complained that Stewart’s comments about the Eisenhower administration had been bland. Stewart replied by confessing that Joe’s comments had always struck him as too shrill and by observing that in any case he had no gift for trying to imitate Joe in tone or approach. “In Stewart’s words,” Yoder writes, “Joe had been designed by God as a columnist; he had not.” Stewart was more at home as a writer for The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.

The Alsop and Ross books demonstrate a wide experience in the journalistic field. Neither man will soon be forgotten, for they had unusual character traits to go along with their editorial prowess. They each have a permanent place in the journalistic lore of the nation.


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