There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
America’s media barons love the sons (and in tiny creeping numbers, the daughters) of the West. Eastern-spawned exceptions abound, but from Mark Twain to Tom Brokaw, from Johnny Carson to David Letterman, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Calvin Trillin, nothing propels a career in writing or talking like a birthplace adjacent to or beyond the 100th meridian.
Perhaps that is because in those birthplaces the curious genes imparted by pioneer and immigrant ancestry bump hard against small-town claustrophobia. Big-sky country inhabitants can huddle in such proximity or withdraw in such loneliness that certain of their offspring must flee or die.
Of such flights are made careers like those of Harold Ross, who invented The New Yorker, and Eric Sevareid, the prototypical talking head. In Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of The New Yorker and The American Journey of Eric Sevareid, Thomas Kunkel and Raymond A. Schroth etch portraits of American strivers who altered our communications culture and, in an irony of destiny, did so while leaving barely a scratch of permanent personal mark.
In The New Yorker, Ross has a fresh tombstone most weeks of the year; he died in 1951 and his magazine has seen much mutation since, but significant traces remain of the book Ross built in 26 years at its helm. Sevareid lacks even that concrete tribute. Today, when people say they loved his commentaries, they are remembering not what Sevareid said, but that he said it like a Viking god.
Both men’s stories demonstrate the seasoning by private pain of the feast conferred by public achievement. Ross and Sevareid each went through three marriages and endured chronic ill health well before death. And in each man’s tale there is evidence that desire for success, whether on the world’s terms or one’s own, can chew through a heart. Kunkel speaks directly to these matters, baldly cataloging Ross’ personal problems, while Schroth cuts the often unlovable Sevareid an excess of slack and leaves it to the reader to extrapolate from the obvious.
Oddly, given reputations that float on oceans of words, Ross and Sevareid tweaked the collective memory more for what they did than for what they wrote. And what they did bears out Norman Mailer’s observation that success often derives from the transmutation of a liability into an asset.
Having started The New Yorker, Ross could never quite manage to manage his creation; in manic compensation, he enlisted a cadre of acolytes able to translate his often inchoate vision into a weekly magazine. When he died, Ross was still deeply tangled in the lives of those he’d hired. Sevareid, by contrast, was a loner who sought a realm where he could think for himself, speak for himself, and, as much as possible, be by himself. He found it in the recording studio, composing and reciting brief commentaries for broadcast by CBS. Sevareid’s isolate gift enveloped him; at the end, he had become an Easter Island statue: remote, peculiar, tragically mysterious.
There was scant mystery to Harold Wallace Ross, a straight-facts-no-chaser reporter. His prose would never make him a star; Kunkel quotes enough from Ross’s Atlanta Journal stories on Leo Frank’s 1913 trial for the murder of Mary Phagan to make that case; they were the work of a journeyman rather than a master craftsman. What Ross had in spades was an uncanny sense of what people wanted to read, a headful of ideas for those stories, and an eye for the main chance.
Born in 1892 in Aspen, Colo., Ross had a boomtowner’s gregariousness. Hardly into his teens, he crisscrossed North and Central America as a tramp reporter. When the U.S. entered World War I, he saw a chance not merely to serve his country but to help himself to a new continent of experience. Enlisting as an engineer, Ross joined the staff of the Stars and Stripes, the official newspaper of the American Expeditionary Force. He did what needed doing: reporting, writing, assigning stories, editing copy, composing headlines, scattering ideas like sparks from a forge. He eventually became the paper’s editor, establishing friendships with Alexander Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams, Charles Baskerville, and other worthies, including Ross’ future first wife, Jane Grant—the writing and artistic talent behind The New Yorker‘s 1925 founding.
Gruff and blasphemous, Ross had the subtlety of a Caterpillar D-9 and an eight-ball player’s knack for the carom shot. He was a collection of paradoxes: a volcanic presence whose eruptions only rarely earned him permanent dislike; an editor devoted to writers; at marrow a country boy but always pleased to be in the big city; a rugged individualist so immured in his institutional status that when he died during an operation to treat his lung cancer on Dec. 6, 1951, serious consideration was given to whether or not The New Yorker could continue to publish.
Sevareid, while a star element in the CBS firmament, was never that essential—and while he reveled in the attention and income that the electronic media conferred, he also despised it. His first love was print. He began his career by chronicling his own youthful adventures; in 1935, aged 18, he published Canoeing With the Cree, an account of a 2,250-mile trip with a friend from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay. Fortuitously fired by the Minneapolis Journal in 1937, he hied himself and his first wife across the Atlantic, bound for a bicycle tour of the Continent. In London they met the new CBS bureau chief, Ed Murrow, then continued on to Paris, where Sevareid hired on with the Paris Herald Tribune.
In the summer of 1939, Murrow brought Sevareid to CBS radio, and through WWII the North Dakotan became familiar to American ears, despite his never-yielding sense of inadequacy as a broadcaster. After France fell, he came to D.C. and network affiliate WTOP. He became capital bureau chief, an assignment interrupted by several tours covering various fronts. When peace broke out, Sevareid returned to D.C. to run the bureau and provide a daily five-minute commentary that eventually begat his TV role.
From between the lines of Schroth’s scrupulously mild-mannered narration rises a portrait of petulant celebritude. When he wasn’t using his electronic reputation to sell articles, Sevareid was hectoring his bosses for more money. When his wife went bipolar, he divorced her; when the second marriage didn’t work out, or the third, he did likewise. Though his professional pronouncements were those of a man of kindness and compassion, the private Sevareid was stingy, whining, self-inflated, hypochondriacal—an early caricature of the anchorman as anchorite. He often complained that he’d rather write articles except that TV paid so well.
Of the two books, Kunkel’s is the more satisfying. His prose is crisp, his sentences diamantine; his meandering account unwinds elliptically but engagingly, like one of those long stories The New Yorker used to run. You get the feeling that he didn’t know much about Ross when he started his research, but concluded it feeling that he’d met somebody he could have liked.
The earnest Schroth, whose narrative is more linear, often couches his consideration of Sevareid in guarded terms, a biographer in such seeming awe of his subject he cannot bear to write directly of the man’s humanity: his carping, his pennypinching, his coldness. By trying to stuff Sevareid’s frailties under the carpet, the biographer gives the impression that he would have liked Sevareid to like him.
Schroth reads from The American Journey of Eric Sevareid at 7 p.m. Friday, April 28, at Borders, 18th & L Sts. NW.