Harold Wallace Ross

November 6, 1892- December 6, 1951

Picture of Ross in 1927
Formal portrait in 1940

"The successful launching of a magazine from scratch requires, in addition to editorial talent, the confidence man's gift of tongue, his gambling instinct, and his ability to lose himself in his task. Ross has them all."

The apparent antithesis of an editor of a highly sophisticated magazine, Harold Ross was a high school drop-out described by some as "an illiterate clown." His backwoodsman appearance, shock of coarse brown hair (which stood 3 inches tall!), and habit of muttering, grunting, and violently exploding were all in direct contrast with the polished, classy magazine that was the product of his life's work. But even though Ross suffered from "eccentric ineptitude," he is also regarded as a creative genius and a brilliant editor.

Ross was born in the silver-mining town of Aspen, Colorado, to the Scotch-Irishman George Ross and his schoolteacher wife, Ida Martin. His family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah when he was seven years old, and Ross completed two years of high school before dropping out. He worked as a freelance journalist in "the heyday of the tramp newspapermen" and wrote for the San Francisco Call and Post until 1917 when he enlisted in the United States Army Eighteenth Engineers Railway Regiment, shortly after the U.S. entrance into World War I. Private Ross went AWOL on duty in central France but reappeared in Paris to talk his way into the position of Editor-in-Chief of the new Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for American servicemen abroad. While in Paris he edited and published a book of jokes, called Yank Talk.

When he returned to the States in May of 1919, he edited the Home Sector in New York, a weekly journal for former servicemen who had read Stars and Stripes. The journal went under, and Ross edited the humor magazine Judge for six weeks. Ross fell in with the Algonquin Round Table, a group of exclusive writers who lunched at the Algonquin Hotel for witty conversation and companionship. This group became the "aristocracy of New York sophistication." From this group, Ross culled advisory board members for the new publication he was planning- Marc Connelly, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, and Heywood Broun all joined The New Yorker at its inception. The first issue of the magazine which was "not edited for the old lady in Dubuque" ran its first issue on February 21, 1925.

Shawn, The New Yorker's second editor
Ross worked 10 hours a day every day of the week on his magazine,and it cost him three marriages- Jane Grant to whom he was married 1920-1929; Marie Francoise Elie from 1934-1939, with whom he had his only child; and Ariane Allen, whom he married in 1940, but was separated from at the time of his death. Ross worked like a fiend on The New Yorkereven as the magazine was criticized for allegedly ignoring the nation's trajectory towards WWII and remaining aloof from the social problems of American cities, including its namesake. He urged his writers to push the bounds of convention and although he promised "the whole truth without fear or favor" he also believed, as E. B. White wrote in his obituary in 1952, that "Humor was allowed to infect everything."

A lifelong heavy smoker, a diagnosis of cancer of the windpipe (bronchial carcinoma) in the summer of 1951 led to radiation treatment and a brief remission period. In December of that year, Ross died on the operating table of heart failure when surgeons removed his right lung. Ross' death came as a great shock to the staff and contributors, but the framework for the magazine was securely in place and managing editor William Shawn was able to smoothly take over the editorship in January 1952. Shawn remained the Editor of The New Yorker for 35 years, 10 longer than Ross' 25 year reign.