Confession of a Feminist II
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
“The gentle art of being weak”
In 1912, 18-year-old Jane Grant was offered a job as a stenographer in the Society Department at The New York Times. The position came with a ten-dollar-a-week paycheck, an “artist exemption” from New York City’s midnight curfew for women, and a warning from C. V. Van Anda, the paper’s managing editor: “There will never be advancement for women.” Van Anda was following the dictates of publisher Adolph Ochs, who “felt about women on staff as he did about features,” the reporter Ishbel Ross (no relation to Harold) wrote. “They were not part of his conception of the perfect paper.”
Grant smiled upon the restrictions, much as she had when she promised her father that she wouldn’t stay in New York longer than a year. He had agreed to pay for room and board at the home of Mrs. Willie Warner, a newly married teacher who lived a short train ride from Manhattan. He thought Grant, who usually sang a solo at their family’s Baptist church, was there to take voice lessons.
“At an early age,” she later wrote, “I had decided against both teaching and marriage. In my secret heart I meant to remain in the East once I got there. I would be a singer—perhaps go on stage. But my secret must be carefully guarded, I knew, for no such idea would be tolerated by my mother’s religious family.”
Grant hoped that the voice lessons would lead to a career, possibly as an opera singer. She had stage presence, but in New York, her voice received the damning description of “sweet.” Then Mrs. Warner died, and Grant’s father, realizing his daughter had no intention of returning to Kansas, tried to force her return. He cut her off. She moved to Manhattan, where she rented a room from Florence Williams, Van Anda’s secretary.
With three years of high school to recommend her, Grant took a job doing part-time clerical work at Collier’s Weekly during the day and rehearsed off-Broadway shows that would never open at night. She attempted to get by on breakfast alone, included in her rent, and her landlady noticed. “Miss Williams held out to me the promise of a steady job if I would acquire some business training,” she wrote. “I could forget the rent, she said, until I got on my feet.” Six weeks later, Grant had an interview at the Times. Even under Van Anda’s conditions, a job at the paper offered Grant stability, and she wasn’t worried about the rest. “Men were old hat to me,” Grant wrote of Van Anda’s scare tactics. “Adjusting myself to their world is one of the things at which I have been rather competent.”
She learned to make those “adjustments” at a young age. When Grant was six, her mother died, and her father moved the family closer to her maternal grandparents. At 10:30 every morning, except on Sundays, Grant’s grandfather—“the terror of all children,” in her description—returned from the fields to the farmhouse, where his wife had a tall glass of cold eggnog waiting for him. Brandy was his “medicine, a tonic shared with no other member of the household,” no matter how much her male cousins begged and pleaded. Grant, who was nine years old and played tomboy to fit in, came up with a plan. Feeling brave, she climbed into her grandfather’s lap, laid her head against his broad chest, and gazed “helplessly up at him,” as if that pride of place had been her only goal. He immediately offered her the glass, and she never “forgot how easy it was to practice the gentle art of being weak.”
Although Grant didn’t feel educated or urbane enough for the Times, she made the best of working in an office full of men. “I submitted to the nickname Fluff, by which reporters and lesser editors addressed me,” she wrote, taking it as a means to an end. She received far less hazing than the other women stenographers, secretaries, and telephone operators, and became an office favorite. “The reporters taught me how to handle stories and how to swear,” she recalled. “Some beau-ed me and some of the more wonderful fed me.”
Grant was everyone’s plus-one. The drama critic took her to the theater, the sportswriter to games, and the city reporters all around town. She was a fun companion, and a useful one, too. Grant could identify the power players and offer background on the spot. “No one explained to me how the society department picked its news, but I soon discovered that The Social Register had a lot to do with the selection,” so she tried to memorize it. “I got the socially great so firmly fixed in mind that I still recognize their names and can gossip competently about family trees, they tell me, with my socially minded friends.” She was a sponge, eager to learn about the reporters’ beats, what they saw, how they wrote about it. She played catch-up; she read their favorite books from college and assigned herself deadlines for never-to-be-published essays and stories. Grant started ghostwriting her bosses’ Society pages. “Go ahead, Fluff,” an editor told her the night of the annual stag party at the Salmagundi Club, where most of the men were partially naked and drunk.
Ochs didn’t like it one bit, but Van Anda called her “flypaper.” As long as she was in the building, so were his reporters; it was more convenient than having to “send across the street to the saloon.” Ochs, unconvinced, kept an eye on Grant, and frequently discovered things he disliked. When Van Anda was on vacation, Ochs learned that Grant was singing and dancing in a small show. “Through Mr. Birchall, acting managing editor, I was given the ultimatum: I must belong to the Times wholly or not at all.” She needed the money, but she quit performing. Van Anda, feeling sympathetic, started paying Grant for work she had been doing for free; at two dollars an article, she made a quarter of what male freelancers were paid. Within the year, she had her first byline.
In 1917, the America entered World War I. Grant’s favorite colleagues enlisted and she was desperate to follow, but how? She asked everyone she knew to call in favors, but the Army only wanted women nurses, and she had too little experience for the Red Cross. Alexander Woollcott, the paper’s drama critic turned army lieutenant, worked some connections, and by 1918 Grant was headed to France in the Entertainment Division of the YMCA. The job paid $80 a week, more than she was making at the Times, yet she’d never felt more valued by the paper. Before she left the office, Grant received the same internal letter male journalists were sent. (It was addressed to “Mr. Grant.”) Editors wanted to have biographical sketches handy, should they need to recognize fallen staff writers, a category Ochs would not have included her in. She returned the form with a photograph.
By the time Grant arrived in Europe, the war was winding down and demand for soldier’s entertainment ramping up. She didn’t enjoy splicing old films and performing in canteens on military bases, and she hated the YMCA uniform—the organization’s insignia was stamped upon a wool dress, a cape, and “as ugly a hat as had ever graced a head,” all in various shades of dark green. Grant still found plenty of ways to have fun in it, too. “I am pledged to be friendly and helpful with soldiers wherever I find them,” she wrote, a wink at weekends in the Loire Valley and all-night poker games at Montmartre bistros, where she drank Châteauneuf-du Pape, ate apple tarts, and turned down marriage proposals. “I wanted to have a career and be independent.”
For Grant, the real action was in Paris, where Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for American troops run by Woollcott, was based. The office was a watering hole for foreign correspondents and an opportunity to remind the Times she still managed to be in the thick of things, even lending a hand when staff writers were breaking stories.. But it was the new managing editor of Stars and Stripes who caught her attention. There was talk, she wrote, that “Harold Ross, a journalist no one had ever heard of before, had become boss of a whole pack of well-known newspaper men.” Like Grant, he never attended college. She went East, while his adventures had been out West, where he’d made a name for himself as a stringer for dozens of papers.
When Grant saw him for the first time, “slumping over his poker hand like a misshapen question mark, I decided he was really the homeliest man I’d ever met.” This opinion appeared to be universally held. Harpo Marx, later a member of the Algonquin Round Table, said Ross looked “like a cowhand who’d lost his horse.” He had “a virtual inability to talk without a continuous flow of profanity,” the humorist James Thurber wrote. Press agent Edward L. Bernays’s first impression was that he was “uncouth, uncultured, and he acted like a boob.” A determined boob. The first night he and Grant met, Ross paid the soldier sitting next to her to switch seats with him. He “toasted me frequently” and told a rival, “I’ve got dibs on this little girl, if you don’t mind, Lieutenant.” The man, his superior, was not amused. “I do mind,” he said, “and it seems to me a salute is in order.” Ross learned Grant’s address and used it often. “He embarrassed me with corsages which I couldn’t wear with my uniform and showered candy and perfume upon me.”
Ross’s gifts arrived alongside ones from a “handsome aristocrat,” a “dashing aviator,” and countless soldiers who looked far better in uniform than Ross did. “[Sgt. Bailey] betrayed his great secret today and embarrassingly admitted that he got a letter from you a week ago,” he wrote to her, well aware of the competition. “I hate to tell on him but he also gets a letter from a girl named Nora Hansen...she seems to have made up her mind about him.” In one of seven postscripts to another letter, Ross wrote, “Caroline Singer wanted to sew my service stripe on but I wouldn’t let her. I’m sentimental that way.”
People started to notice. Grant’s colleagues sent good wishes. “I responded with hot denials,” she wrote. “I was also annoyed at the great heartiness displayed by the gang at the Stars and Stripes — and the way they faded away when Ross appeared.” Grant liked Ross, but their relationship couldn’t last. He had nothing but disdain for New York, and vowed never to live there. “It would take a major readjustment, I knew, for this freedom-loving soul to consider settling down to responsibility — to adopt a life so foreign to his roving nature.”
She had a job to get back to. Without having ever asked Ochs or Van Anda for a promotion, Grant became the first “girl reporter” on staff at the Times’s City Desk. “I was sober enough to know that I was just the index to a trend,” she wrote. Expanded opportunities for work during the war and the newly won right to vote had put women “in a position to cause other than strictly domestic trouble.” Hotels were Grant’s new beat. She covered anything and everything to do with them: openings, closings, weddings, fundraisers, famous guests, and, she hoped, the occasional scandal. The promotion came with the expectation that she would do double the work of her male colleagues at half the rate; that still counted as a raise, and it came with an expense account.
Grant loved being back in New York. “I quickly fell into the old routine of work, dancing, gambling, general hilarity and bickering with [Woolcott].” Her days were varied and took her all over the city, from hotel lobbies, where she reported on the upper crust’s comings and goings, to the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which she toured with First Lady Grace Coolidge. She attended an afternoon tea hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt at the Waldorf Astoria; Grant discussed the status of women and got the bartender’s recipe for gin.
Woollcott brought her to the Algonquin Hotel’s brand new restaurant, where he’d just started a regular lunch group with other writers — including, for once, women. Ruth Hale, a press agent, and Dorothy Parker, a humorist Grant admired, was there, as were most of the Stars and Stripes staff, Ross among them. He’d rented a room in Hell’s Kitchen and taken a job editing The Home Sector, a magazine for veterans, with the sole intention of courting her seriously.
He’d been waiting for her. “After Ross’ recovery from his slight pique at my not letting him know I was returning from France he became especially attentive,” she wrote. “But I was coy about dates with him then, not only because I didn’t want to seem too eager, but also because I didn’t have too much difficulty finding other entertainment.” That wasn’t lost on Ross. “Don’t you ever buy your own dinner?” he asked her. In front of friends, he would “beat his breast to still his pounding heart, bow extravagantly when I appeared and kiss my hand with elaborate gestures.” When they were alone, “he would embark upon a devious line to convince me that we were remarkably congenial.”
Grant still played it cool. She wanted wanted him to “have no regrets about the South Seas.” They wandered around the city, and went to Coney Island, Long Beach, and New Jersey. “One Sunday afternoon at the Philharmonic during a particularly beautiful rendition of a symphony he boomed out, ‘Bet you can’t guess how many musicians are on that platform,” she remembered. “I shushed him and signified that I couldn’t guess, but he continued loudly, ‘Ninety-eight. No wonder they make so much noise.’” She seem to enjoy how poorly his “musical indoctrination” was going, and frequently invited him over for dinner.
In the process, Ross’s doubts about making a home in the city became doubts about making a home with Grant. “Goddam it, it’s a pretty howdy-do when I have to date you three weeks in advance,” he told her, “and added a few rude remarks about an escort he’d seen me with.” She was being “rushed by those other doughboys who had talked of love in France.” They argued about premarital sex. (She wanted to have it. He didn’t.) He worried about providing for her. The Home Sector had folded after 23 issues. He didn’t want to take the first job he’d been offered at the American Legion Weekly, another veteran’s magazine, even if it did pay $10,000 a year. He didn’t want to lose her, though, so Ross proposed on March 20, 1920—with two conditions. First, that he find a job he wanted, and second, that she remain faithful for six months. Sex before marriage was nonnegotiable.
If Grant was going to marry a Victorian, he’d have to be a flexible one. Her Times paycheck was enough to cover their living expenses. Ross could hold out for a better job by dipping into the $3,000 he’d made off Yank Talk, a popular soldiers’ humor book he produced in France. Grant wanted him to “stash away your salary for one of the publishing dreams.” But when it came to a trial engagement, she was intractable. “I don’t want to be tagged for future delivery,” she told him, and made a counteroffer: They’d marry within the week or end their relationship.