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GENIUS IN DISGUISE by Thomas Kunkel

GENIUS IN DISGUISE

Harold Ross of The New Yorker

By Thomas Kunkel

Pub Date: March 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-679-41837-7
Publisher: Random House

 A thoroughly classy profile of the famously demanding founder and editor of the New Yorker. In getting this well-rounded portrait of Ross (18921951) on paper, the first-time biographer has balanced large details with small. Kunkel straightforwardly records how a high-school dropout, bitten by the reporting bug, propelled himself from the American West into WW I (where he helped develop Stars and Stripes) and then in 1925 was positioned for launching what was long considered the world's best magazine. Which was not, Ross wrote in his prospectus (included here), meant to attract ``the old lady from Dubuque.'' Ross slapped his materializing dream into shape with the aid of writers, editors, and friends like Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, John O'Hara, Robert Benchley, Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, Katharine Angell White, William Shawn, and James Cagney. They're all here, waving their tics and peccadilloes like banners. He details the intricacies of Ross's troubled relationships with his three wives and with co-founder Raoul Fleischmann. A prankster and a worrier, and a man with hair like ``a privet hedge'' and ``a notoriously limp handshake,'' Ross had many qualities that recommended him--and lots that didn't. Kunkel doesn't miss any of it--the Algonquin Round Table, the meager Depression coverage, the extensive WW II coverage, the decision to run John Hersey's ``Hiroshima''--while making the overriding point that no one racks up these kinds of accomplishments by accident; he dispels the popular ``caricature'' of Ross as a rude rube who miraculously produced the urbane New Yorker. Kunkel observes that ``the man from Aspen was an outsider set loose in New York, exhilarated, intimidated, and appalled by turns at what he saw, but never, ever bored.'' Kunkel writes with such fair-mindedness and so convincingly that readers, including the old lady from Dubuque, will need to remind themselves that they didn't know Ross personally.