How odd, considering the torrents of ink that have been spilled over the years about The New Yorker (not least, former staffer Renata Adler’s toxic new memoir), that it took four and a half decades after founding editor Harold Ross’ death for him to receive full biographical treatment. And considering the number of exalted writers who worked for Ross and The New Yorker, it is perhaps odder still that Thomas Kunkel—an Indiana-born reporter and editor who paid years of journalistic dues in places like western Kentucky, San Jose, Miami, and Georgia—ultimately became the man who wrote that biography.
By now, Kunkel has written not one but two major books on the magazine’s heyday: Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of The New Yorker, his 1995 biography of Ross, and Letters From the Editor: The New Yorker’s Harold Ross, a just-released collection of 500 letters written by Ross to his colleagues, friends, and family.
Kunkel, 44, first became fascinated with Ross as a teen, when his mother—a big fan of New Yorker writer and cartoonist James Thurber—gave him a copy of Thurber’s 1959 memoir, The Years With Ross. As Kunkel immersed himself in his reporting career, he re-read the book every so often. “By then, I knew enough about the business to know that the Ross described by Thurber was not capable of doing something as important as run The New Yorker,” Kunkel says. “As humorous as he was, I knew that he could not be the whole person.”
In the early ’90s, Kunkel wrote an unsolicited letter to Roger Angell, the longtime New Yorker writer and editor, floating his take on Ross. Angell sent a three-page, single-spaced response, urging Kunkel to follow up on the idea. Angell added the names of 25 people who should be interviewed quickly—before they died.
In short order, Kunkel began seeking them out, and, roughly three years later, he finished writing Genius in Disguise. “Many of the New Yorker writers had wanted to do the biography,” Kunkel says. “But to do it you had to have the imprimatur of William Shawn,” who succeeded Ross as editor.
Kunkel—who for the last two-and-a-half years has been heading the Project on the State of the American Newspaper at the University of Maryland College of Journalism—pored over “tens of thousands” of pieces of correspondence to compile his second Ross book, Letters From the Editor. Kunkel says he can’t think of any present-day magazine editor who’s as big a figure as Ross—but he does have an idea what Ross would be doing if he were coming of age today.
“Ross today would have to be online,” Kunkel says. “He founded The New Yorker in 1925 because magazines were exploding. They were the sexy medium of the day, and people were getting wealthy. He wanted in—the only question was what the niche was going to be.”—Louis Jacobson