Confession of a Feminist I
A serialized biography of Jane Grant (1892-1972), first woman reporter at The New York Times and co-founder of The New Yorker.
This Week’s Schedule
Sunday: “The gentle art of being weak”
Thursday: “Confession of a Feminist”
Friday: “Ross and the Invisible Me”
Saturday: Sources and Open Discussion
A Book I Won’t Write; or, A Book One of You Should Write—Ideally Before 2025
One night last spring, during a bout of lockdown insomnia, I opened up a spreadsheet that I first started keeping in graduate school called “Inessential/Essential.” (I was reading a lot of Simone de Beauvoir at the time.) It lists the names of a few dozen straight couples from the past century or so who worked together on some professional venture. In each case, history records the man’s contribution as Essential but rarely values, or even acknowledges, the woman’s. One day, I hoped to coax these stories out of the shadows.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d looked at the spreadsheet. I’d had a baby the previous summer, turned in page proofs for my biography of George Washington in the fall, and spent the winter traveling around the country on book tour. Then came COVID and the punishing grind of life in lockdown—two parents working full time out of a small apartment in Brooklyn, no childcare. Hoping for a break, the three of us took refuge at my mother-in-law’s empty house in Cambridge. Two weeks in, the baby spiked a fever that ended up lasting nearly 50 days. Hence the insomnia.
During the day, between calls with nurses and pediatricians and insurance specialists, I worried about work. All of my speaking engagements and pending projects had been postponed indefinitely. When I found time to read academic articles and biographies, the places I usually go to for inspiration, I was too dulled by exhaustion to focus. Before COVID, I’d been hoping to write another presidential biography, this time on John F. Kennedy. I had a long list of primary sources I wanted to examine for the book proposal, all of which happened to be in Boston, but libraries and archives were closed. Also, Kennedy was about to be the subject of a long anticipated book, and while I was cautiously optimistic that it wouldn’t preclude the need for mine, I couldn’t be certain until it was released.
I thought back to my first book, Alice + Freda Forever, which told the story of an ill-fated relationship between two teen girls in 19th-century Memphis. Archival sources hadn’t been much help then, either—not because they were locked away in a COVID bubble, but because they barely existed. The book was only possible because I’d been researching it from afar for years, inadvertently finding workarounds. I was able to immerse myself in Alice and Freda’s world through secondary sources; at the time, my job as a research curator at the New York Public Library gave me access to an array of digitized primary sources. I plastered my walls with the newspaper coverage of the day, reading between the lines and learning from the inconsistencies (which, during the height of yellow journalism, were plentiful). Maybe that was the sort of project I needed. I opened “Inessential/Essential” and ticked through the list.
One name stuck out: Jane Grant. I couldn’t remember when I’d added her—or why, because I’d done myself no favors by leaving that field blank—but there was a link to an autobiographical essay she’d published in The American Mercury in 1943. It was called “Confession of a Feminist.” As I read it, I was immediately reminded of how this writer ended up in my spreadsheet.
The Mercury identified Grant as “the first general woman reporter on the [New York] Times” and “one of the founders of The New Yorker.” She was also a “leading Lucy Stoner,” a reference to the Lucy Stone League. Members of the organization included Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, and Margaret Mead, and they fought for a married woman’s right to use her maiden name, whether it be on a paycheck, a passport, or the Census. All promising signs. But it was Grant’s writing that made me perk up. At first, I wasn’t sure I liked it; she was a wit and a charmer, but she didn’t waste time polishing her sentences under a jeweler’s loupe. “Men are quite nice when you get to know them,” she wrote, less Dorothy Parker in The New Yorker than Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. “Adjusting myself to their world is one of the things at which I have been rather competent.”
I read the essay onscreen and felt my mental fog lift a little. By the time I’d printed it, I could just about see the sun. I started researching Grant’s life in earnest. The Boston area, it turned out, was a good place to have gotten stranded. We stayed because it has one of the best children’s hospitals in the country, but it’s also teeming with private booksellers. Many of the titles I wanted were obscure or out of print. When I couldn’t find what I needed online, I’d drive out to some seller’s house in the suburbs. They’d leave the book in a gallon-size ziplock bag, and I’d leave cash behind.
I loved running these errands. They were liberating. And the more research I did about Grant, the more I could imagine spending a year or two of my life writing about hers. She seemed capable of anything: Had she landed in Los Angeles, she might have become a screenwriter; in Washington, D.C., a political powerbroker. But Grant ended up in New York, where she transformed American journalism, particularly for women.
Grant grew up on a farm in Kansas, left at the age of 16, and became the first “girl reporter” at the Times two years later. During World War I, she toured Europe as a YMCA entertainer. Harold Ross—the name most people think of when you say “founder of The New Yorker”—was one of dozens of young men who courted her there. He followed her back to New York, where they both became regulars at the Algonquin Round Table. After they married, Grant supported Ross on her Times salary while they raised money for The New Yorker, staffed it, and shaped it.
The couple divorced in 1929. The way Ross told it, “My marriage to Miss Grant split largely on the reefs of women’s rights.” (He was also a prude; Grant said she never saw him naked.) She spent the next decade reporting in Russia and Nazi Germany and took two leaves of absence: one to undergo treatment for cancer, the other to write a wartime memoir called I Saw What I Could, which was never published.
Grant also worked to keep The New Yorker afloat. When a board member—the magazine’s first and chief investor, whom Grant had identified and courted—got out of control, she staged a coup with his ex-wife; when the magazine was bleeding money, she came up with new sources of revenue. After Ross’s death in 1951, a spate of books cemented him as an Essential. They barely mentioned the Inessential Grant. She complained, for instance, that James Thurber, who’d spoken with her extensively for a memoir he wrote in 1957 called The Years with Ross, minimized her contributions and used her personal experience as background. (Despite the sour grapes, she acknowledged that he recruited E. B. White to the magazine.)
Grant’s second husband, William B. Harris, encouraged her to throw her hat in, and in 1968 she published Ross, The New Yorker and Me. The memoir was late to market, hastily written, virtually unedited, and poorly received. Many of Ross’s fans and friends dismissed it as an ex-wife’s tell-all. The Times devoted most of a 300-word write-up to Grant’s part in “one of the most tumultuous menages on record,” failing to mention that she was the paper’s first woman reporter. People read Grant’s unbothered prose and mistook her for a lightweight.
(Let me be clear: I have grown quite fond of Grant’s style. Unlike her contemporary critics, I don’t hold her to a New Yorker standard. This also seems like a good place to mention that my writing has appeared on the magazine’s website and my husband, Anthony Lydgate, used to work there. I think of him as embodying the standard; he’s the best line editor around and a smart, stylish writer.)
The intervening decades haven’t been much kinder to Grant’s legacy at the magazine. She gets her best treatment in Thomas Kunkel’s Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of The New Yorker, published in 1995, and in Charles McGrath’s review of the same book. Kunkel quotes Ross’s definitive statement: “There would be no New Yorker today if it were not for her.” He acknowledges that Grant continued to play an active role at The New Yorker long after the divorce. But he omits a central fact: Kunkel writes that the couple’s split was “rather amicable (with the exception of some of the financial loose ends, which dogged Ross for years).” Those “financial loose ends” were Grant’s stake in The New Yorker, often misunderstood as a form of alimony. (Ross also owed money to bookies, the government, and another ex-wife with whom he had a child.)
Ben Yagoda’s About Town: The New Yorker and the World it Made, published in 2000, lists Grant’s memoir in its bibliography but also minimizes her contributions. Yagoda claims, for example, that “Ross had Jane Grant write to a friend of hers” about working for the magazine. That idea actually originated with Grant. She says so in her memoir: “Another suggestion of mine was Janet Flanner for our Paris letter.” (And who wrote the introduction to that memoir? Also Flanner!) Yagoda doesn’t cite his source, but Wikipedia cites him—so Ross gets credit.
I usually love a good adventure in historiography. When I figure out what happened it’s like watching a night-blooming flower open up its petals (or, more often than not, Pinnochio’s nose grow). But it was terrible to see Grant so often reduced and diminished, with no biography to challenge the others. She only has a hard-to-find memoir, and her name appears in fewer than a dozen articles on The New Yorker’s website, none of them dedicated to her. When the magazine’s current editor-in-chief, David Remnick, wrote an introduction to The 40s: The Story of a Decade in 2014, he focused on Ross. Grant’s crucial role in the founding years went unmentioned, as did her name. (I was pleased to see that Emma Allen and Laurie Gwen Shapiro credited her in recent pieces for The New Yorker.)
Grant died in 1972 at White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Connecticut, another award-winning, enduring venture that she launched with a husband. Harris, a former Wall Street investor and editor at Fortune, was Ross’s opposite. He loved everything about Grant, including her activism. He gave her papers to the University of Oregon, along with a bequest of $3.5 million to set up the Center for the Study of Women in Society.
Chasing Grant in Cambridge felt fun and exciting. Then conditions changed again. The baby’s fever broke; we returned to Brooklyn; the new Kennedy book finally arrived, and rather than pose a threat to my idea, it made it all the more necessary. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. I had to accept the obvious: I wanted to write a book on Kennedy, but I thought I should write a book on Grant. In November, I finished a proposal about Kennedy I’d been piecing together for years and sent it to my agent. The auction closed the day before Thanksgiving. I didn’t feel a shred of regret, but I did feel guilt. Kennedy was getting another biography, and Grant still had none.
As penance, I set a calendar alert for two years into the future. I planned to take what I’d written and turn it into an feature or a podcast. Grant’s story would be unavoidable. But then a line from Robert Caro’s Working started needling me. The book, which Caro published at age 83, is a brief autobiographical guide to writing. He knew the question everyone would ask: If you’re still planning to write a memoir and finish that fifth volume on LBJ, why waste time on small fry like this? “I have so many thoughts about writing, so many anecdotes about research, that I would like to preserve for anyone interested enough to read them,” he wrote. “I decided, just in case, I’d put some of them down on paper now.”
“Just in case.” I’m not half Caro’s age, but the pandemic year has made me feel what he meant. More than 500,000 Americans dead from COVID. A violent attack on the Capitol. A climate on its way to the apocalypse. I used to keep my childhood photos and other documents in California, my home state; they were on one of my lists of things to get to. During the wildfires last summer, they burned.
I don’t see a point in taking any risk with Jane Grant. So, in deference to my inner public historian, I’m serializing my research here. It’ll be free and accessible to all. You’ll get a new part of Grant’s story each day this week.
To be clear, this is not the biography Grant deserves. It’s what I could reconstruct from secondary and digitized sources in the midst of the most stressful and bizarre months I’ve ever experienced. The prose is rougher than I’d allow in a book or article; it didn’t benefit from copy editors and fact-checkers and esteemed second readers. Although it’s long for a newsletter (I think? I’m still new here!), it’s not nearly long enough to fully explore Grant’s life or the world she lived in. Here’s my hope: By the end of the week, one of you will want to write this essential woman’s biography.
Clarification: In an earlier version of this newsletter I linked to David Remnick’s essay and described it as being about The New Yorker’s founding era. Although I focus my discussion on that part of the essay, he wrote it as an introduction to The 40s: The Story of a Decade.