I've long wanted to have a blog giveaway with a inherited book from our library, and I think I've found the right volume for the purpose: The Years With Ross, by James Thurber.
Harold Wallace Ross was the founding editor of the New Yorker, and, if Thurber is to believed, a Character of outsized contradictions. Swearing came as naturally to him as breathing, yet he was alarmed and bashful in the presence of women, a sex he feared (and yet his marriages numbered three). He apparently couldn't bear the company of young women, whom he judged to be flighty temptresses.
"I want you to fire So-and-so," he said, changing the object, but not the subject, of his wrath. So-and-so was a young woman, long since in heaven with the angels, who wrote one of the back-of-the-book departments. "She makes me nervous," Ross said. "Last night, at Tony's, she was damn near sitting in the lap of the man she was with." It happened that I had been at Tony's the night before, too, and had seen the couple, sitting and drinking and talking like any other couple in Tony's, and I told Ross that. Then he came out with one of his accusations that were pure, patented Ross. "They were talking in awful goddam low tones," he said. It wasn't often that I laughed in the inner sanctum in those first months, but that was too much for me. Then I said, "Don't you know your Shakespeare: Her voice was ever gentle and awful goddam low, an excellent thing in woman?" Ross turned away so that I couldn't see his grin, but his torso had one of those brief spasmodic upheavals that so often served as a sign of his amusement in the art meeting when he looked at a drawing he thought was really funny. When he turned around he was scowling. "Goddam it, Thurber, don't quote things at me," he said. The firing mood was gone.He ran the New Yorker almost by sheer force of his personality, but was so financially oblivious that he had $71,000 stolen right under his nose by an unscrupulous assistant. He had both an eye for talent, and a gift for driving it from his magazine through overwork. In the early years of the New Yorker, Ross, Thurber, and E.B. White wrote much of the magazine themselves, and the book is chockfull of big names of mid-century American literature: Noel Coward, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufmann, Henry Luce, H.L Mencken, and, a bit incongruously, the Marx Brothers. Here's Dorothy Parker making an appearance in the magazine's early days.
Meanwhile, the New Yorker kept going downhill. From an original runoff of fifteen thousand copies in February, its circulation fell to a pernicious-anemia low of twenty-seven hundred copies in August. One evening, during that summer of Harold Ross's greatest discontent, the harried editor ran into Dorothy Parker somewhere. "I thought you were coming into the office to write a piece last week," he said. "What happened?" Mrs. Parker turned upon him the eloquent magic of her dark and lovely eyes. "Somebody was using the pencil," she explained sorrowfully.Ross, worn down by cancer, died on the operating table a month after his fifty-ninth birthday. The Years With Ross grew out of a series of articles Thurber wrote for the Atlantic Monthly.
Want a chance to read more wry Thurberian wit? Leave a comment on this post (and don't be anonymous!), and on Christmas Eve we'll toss all the commenter names into a hat and draw a lucky winner. This is one of the few uninscribed volumes of the inherited books -- the previous owners of the house were fond of putting names and dates into their books -- so we'll even inscribe it, if desired.