Ross Founds

The New Yorker set standards of style for other literary magazines, helped to advance the careers of many significant American authors, and powerfully affected American literature in the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

On February 21, 1925, a new magazine of reporting, humor, fiction, and criticism hit the newsstands of New York. Initially unimpressive, The New Yorker seemed destined to be stillborn. Few could have guessed that it would soon attract a large, sophisticated readership, publish the work of some of the most talented authors in the United States, and significantly influence the nation’s literary standards and tastes. [kw]Ross Founds The New Yorker (Feb. 21, 1925)
[kw]New Yorker, Ross Founds The (Feb. 21, 1925)
Magazines;The New Yorker[New Yorker]
New Yorker, The (magazine)
[g]United States;Feb. 21, 1925: Ross Founds The New Yorker[06360]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Feb. 21, 1925: Ross Founds The New Yorker[06360]
[c]Literature;Feb. 21, 1925: Ross Founds The New Yorker[06360]
Ross, Harold W.
Grant, Jane
Arno, Peter
White, E. B.
Thurber, James
White, Katharine Sergeant

The eventual success of The New Yorker was in large part the result of the work of its founder and first editor, Harold W. Ross. Ross was born in 1892 in Aspen, Colorado, and moved with his parents to Salt Lake City when he was seven years old. After quitting high school to take a job with the Salt Lake City Tribune, Ross worked for newspapers in Sacramento, Atlanta, Panama City, New Orleans, and San Francisco. During World War I, he edited Stars and Stripes, a newspaper published in Paris for American servicemen.

After the war ended, Ross successively edited three different magazines in New York City: Home Sector (a stateside version of Stars and Stripes), the house organ of the American Legion, and the humor magazine Judge. In 1920, Ross married journalist Jane Grant, and during the early years of their marriage they frequently discussed ideas for various kinds of new magazines.

The publication of Yank Talk, a collection of jokes from Stars and Stripes, had provided the Rosses with twenty-five thousand dollars to invest in a new magazine. Believing that such a venture would require at least fifty thousand dollars, Harold Ross appealed to Raoul Fleischmann, Fleischmann, Raoul the heir to a yeast and baking fortune whom Ross knew from their mutual association with the so-called Algonquin Round Table, Algonquin Round Table a group of prominent New York literati. Arguing that the older humor magazines attempted to reach too broad an audience, Ross proposed to create a magazine for a sophisticated and educated urban elite, primarily in New York City. Looking for a creative outlet, Fleischmann agreed to help finance the project, an investment that by 1928 grew to more than half a million dollars.

Ross’s prospectus explained that the magazine would be “a reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life” that would not appeal to “the old lady in Dubuque.” To be characterized by “wit and satire,” The New Yorker would be “entertaining and informative.” The magazine would cover contemporary events, people of interest, amusements, and arts. It would include reviews of books, films, and plays, prose and verse, editorials, caricatures, sketches, cartoons, and humorous drawings. Ross planned to employ the best features of earlier “smart” magazines such as Smart Set and Vanity Fair and of the humor weeklies, but he resolved to avoid their weaknesses, such as stale jokes and dreary visual formats.

Although this prospectus was an accurate description of what The New Yorker would soon become, the issues produced during the first year were not of high quality. Fifteen thousand readers paid fifteen cents per copy to read the original issue, which appeared on February 21, 1925. Its thirty-six pages included six pages of ads; two pages of short news items about life in New York; brief analyses of music, books, and films; a profile of an opera impresario; sketches; satirical drawings; and cartoons. By April of 1925, the magazine’s circulation had dropped to eight thousand an issue, and the enterprise was losing eight thousand dollars a week. Some ridiculed the magazine; most simply ignored it. Contrary to Ross’s expectations, his friends from the Algonquin Round Table initially provided little material, and Ross, who could not write original copy, struggled to attract publishable work and to develop a winning formula. He scoured the city for talent, placing notices on bulletin boards, examining other publications, and calling everyone he knew. In May, Ross, Fleischmann, and two advisers met at the Princeton Club. Discouraged by the magazine’s lack of success and his financial losses, Fleischmann almost decided to pull the plug on the venture, but at the last moment he relented.

By the fall of 1925, advertising revenues had increased slightly, but the magazine’s existence was still precarious. An article titled “Why We Go to Cabarets,” by Ellin Mackay, appeared in the November 28, 1925, issue and helped The New Yorker turn the corner. Although the article was poorly written, its thesis was rather shocking: New York debutantes went to cabarets to meet men who interested them because the men they met at high-society functions were boring. Discussed by The New York Times, the article stirred considerable controversy and brought The New Yorker to the attention of the Park Avenue set. By the end of 1925, both the advertising revenues and circulation of the magazine had risen substantially. Although The New Yorker did not earn a profit until 1928, its survival had been assured.

Although hundreds of artists, writers, and editors passed through the magazine’s editorial offices during its early years, several individuals played key roles. The artwork, primarily because of the direction of Rea Irvin and the drawings of Peter Arno, was superior to the writing in the magazine. The most important writers to join The New Yorker in its formative period were E. B. White and James Thurber. Through his clear, precise, graceful prose, White helped to establish the style of the magazine, and he wrote two of its major departments, “The Talk of the Town” and “News and Comments.” Thurber’s comic writing and his cartoons (filled with strange dogs, amused seals, frustrated men, and predatory women) set a new standard for magazine humor. As a literary editor and then as managing editor, Katharine Sergeant White did much to promote staff harmony and to produce a well-written magazine.


The New Yorker emerged after 1930 as the leading American magazine of literature, humor, and cultural analysis. Its refined, literate style of writing was widely applauded, admired, and imitated. Many prominent American authors and artists furthered their careers through the magazine’s pages. The New Yorker elevated the character of American humor, developed a new approach to magazine biography, and followed high standards of investigative reporting. The style of The New Yorker was especially evident in its compelling short stories and beautifully polished essays. In all these ways, the magazine significantly influenced American journalism.

The New Yorker owed its success primarily to Harold Ross’s outstanding editorial ability and leadership. Ross did not seem to possess either the background or the personality needed to create or direct an urbane, witty, sophisticated literary magazine intended for New York’s upper crust. Lacking formal education, ignorant about many important facts, an explosive man who frequently lost his temper and used profanity, Ross was arrogant, aloof, tactless, and rude. Moreover, he could not write copy, but he shaped the character of The New Yorker, established its basic policies and principles, assembled a talented team of writers, artists, and contributors, guided the magazine through its formative years, and meticulously edited it for twenty-seven years.

Ross also continually experimented with the magazine’s format until he found the best blend of layout, fiction, commentary, reviews, and art. The centerpiece of the magazine became its regular departments, especially “Goings on About Town,” a thorough guide to the city’s sports, films, shows, concerts, museums, and nightclubs; “On and Off the Avenue,” a shopper’s guide; and “The Talk of the Town,” a collection of narratives, anecdotes, essays, and quips. Profiles also became an important aspect of The New Yorker. Over the years, these biographical sketches of industrial leaders, writers, actors, politicians, and other interesting personalities featured people as diverse as Nicholas Murray Butler, W. C. Fields, Henry R. Luce, Cecil B. DeMille, Jimmy Walker, and Carl Sandburg.

Another of Ross’s contributions was his recognition that the best way to attract advertising dollars was to have a well-defined audience that could be easily targeted. The New Yorker gained large revenues from advertising and pioneered in advertising craftsmanship. The magazine’s advertisements have often been read with as much care and pleasure as have its commentaries and articles.

In addition, Ross’s painstaking editorial method helped to produce The New Yorker’s lucid, suave, informative, and humorous prose style. He meticulously edited all the contents of each issue, demanding factual accuracy and complete clarity. Ross’s passion for precision led him to organize a checking system that closely examined all facts printed in the magazine. Often his notes, complaints, questions, and directions were as long as the printer’s galleys themselves. William Shawn, Ross’s successor, who served as editor of the magazine from 1952 until 1987, has written that Ross’s editorial queries “influenced writers and other editors, set technical and literary standards, established a canon of taste, and laid the basis for a tradition of good writing.” Ross’s editorial style was somewhat overbearing, but he knew how to sift wheat from chaff, and he was willing to give way when he knew that others were better informed than he was.

Many of the best American writers, humorists, and artists have worked for The New Yorker since its founding. Among the literary greats who have written for the publication are Sherwood Anderson, James Baldwin, Rachel Carson, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Lewis Mumford, Irwin Shaw, John Updike, Rebecca West, and Edmund Wilson. Truman Capote, John O’Hara, and J. D. Salinger each had more than one hundred pieces published in the magazine. By the 1930’s, most of the leading humorists in the United States were contributing to The New Yorker, including Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Frank Sullivan, Clarence Day, and H. L. Mencken. The magazine also originated the one-line cartoon. Drawn by such artists as Gardner Rea, Gluyas Williams, Helen Hokinson, Whitey Darrow, Jr., and Charles Addams, these witty cartoons focused on business, the sexes, politics, and the pretensions of the upper middle class.

Since the mid-1930’s, The New Yorker has been, in the words of George H. Douglas, “the quintessential American smart magazine, the one against which, today, all the others are judged.” Skillful editing, careful planning, and graceful writing combined to make The New Yorker instructive, amusing, and entertaining. In 1985, the Fleischmann family, which had owned The New Yorker since its inception, sold it to the Newhouse media empire, but the magazine continued to serve as the nation’s leading arbiter of literary taste. In the early twenty-first century, American college students are taught to emulate the writing style of The New Yorker; aspiring writers look to it for inspiration. As Douglas notes, the magazine “has enjoyed a long and enviable history and an enduring popularity and mystique that are probably unequaled among American magazines.” Magazines;The New Yorker[New Yorker]
New Yorker, The (magazine)

Further Reading

  • Bryan, J., III. Merry Gentlemen (and One Lady). New York: Atheneum, 1985. Memoir presents humorous profiles of fourteen writers who were connected in one way or another with the Algonquin Round Table and with The New Yorker in its early years. Among those profiled are Robert Benchley, Finis Farr, Dorothy Parker, and S. J. Perelman.
  • Douglas, George H. The Smart Magazines. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1991. Analysis of various magazines of literature, culture, and humor, including Vanity Fair, Smart Set, Life, and Judge. Provides an excellent brief account of the early history of The New Yorker; describes the context in which the magazine arose, matured, and achieved greatness as well as the personality, style, and contribution of its founder.
  • Gill, Brendan. Here at “The New Yorker.” 1975. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997. Illuminating account of the magazine by a writer who had spent almost forty years on its staff at the time this book was first published. Insider’s view of colleagues, artists, and contributors discusses their idiosyncrasies and their attitudes about fame, literature, money, and one another. Filled with funny stories. Compares and contrasts the long-running regimes of the magazine’s two most influential editors, Harold Ross and William Shawn.
  • Grant, Jane. Ross, “The New Yorker,” and Me. New York: Reynal, 1968. Memoir by Ross’s wife provides more information on New York literati and the flavor of the 1920’s than it does on Ross’s editorship of The New Yorker.
  • Kramer, Dale. Ross and “The New Yorker.” Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951. One of the best sources of information about Ross’s founding and editing of the magazine. Presents a detailed and at times entertaining account of the history and policies of The New Yorker, filled with amusing anecdotes and interesting facts.
  • Kunkel, Thomas. Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of “The New Yorker.” New York: Random House, 1995. Comprehensive biography of Ross also describes the history of The New Yorker. Includes photographs, selected bibliography, and index.
  • _______, ed. Letters from the Editor: “The New Yorker”’s Harold Ross. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Collection of Ross’s letters reveals his personality while providing information unavailable elsewhere regarding the founding and nurturing of The New Yorker. Includes index.
  • Mahon, Gigi. The Last Days of “The New Yorker.” New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988. An account of events leading to the sale of the magazine to S. I. Newhouse in 1985. Concludes that the sale represented the triumph of business interests over editorial integrity. Focuses primarily on events of the 1980’s but includes a brief description of the magazine’s founding and early days.
  • Thurber, James. The Years with Ross. 1959. Reprint. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001. Personal, highly anecdotal account of Ross’s character and editorial style based on Thurber’s own memory, letters, and contributions from colleagues at The New Yorker. Discusses the tensions and feuds between Ross and his staff.

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