Confession of a Feminist III
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
“Harold W. Ross for himself, and Jane Grant separately and independently”
On the morning of March 27, 1920, Harold Ross signed a contract with the American Legion Weekly and then went to meet Jane Grant at the Church of the Transfiguration on Twenty-ninth Street. “It was a busy day on the marriage market,” Grant recalled. She waited in a cinnamon-colored dress she’d bought in France, one she often wore to work. “Here I was, unromantically attired in everyday clothes. My only satisfaction was plenty of old things, a new scarf, a borrowed handbag, and a saucy blue garter than encircled my leg.”
But it was to be a day like any other. She wanted to return to the Times after the ceremony, along with Woollcott, their sole witness. He was the only friend who knew they were getting married, and the right one; he booked the ceremony, reserved a room at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, bought train tickets, checked on the license, and “marched me down to Tiffany’s” when he discovered Ross had given Grant a diamond pin instead of an engagement ring. “Nothing at all,” Woollcott replied to the clerk who asked if she would like the ring, gold with orange blossoms, engraved. “She might want to use it again.” He’d also made dinner reservations for three at the Waldorf-Astoria. He would later present them with a bill for $218.85, $100 of which was for “Personal Wear and Tear.”
It was an unremarkable experience for an unsentimental couple, with one exception. “Congratulations, Mrs. Ross,” the church secretary said, shocking the young pair. “My heart stood still,” Grant recalled. “It’s not supposed to be nice to be too selfish about your possessions, but a name is different.” Ruth Hale, a journalist and associate at the Round Table, had been talking about married women’s rights since her own wedding to Heywood Broun, also a journalist. A trip to France was delayed because Hale couldn’t get a passport in her own name. “She finally capitulated and went under the cloak of Broun, but vowed upon her return to battle for women wishing to keep their own names after marriage.” Grant had never planned on marrying. It wasn’t a role she’d given much thought to. Then, just like that, her whole existence — her byline, her past, her future — was subsumed into her husband’s. They had a plan: Grant and Ross would keep their names, their jobs, and their vices without having to answer to each other.
We agreed to give each other complete independence. We were by no means as one in our tastes. I had no intention of giving up dancing just because Ross couldn’t dance, and I knew he would like to have his evenings with the men. We decided, then, to have definite nights off...Sundays we would have together. This division did not mean that we were obliged to go our separate ways on weekdays. I could invite Ross to dinner at one of the hotels or to the theatre on one of my nights and, of course, he could do the same....It seemed to me quite romantic, like continuing our courtship.
The first months were bliss. They were also spent in separate apartments, and while there was “no valid reason for the extreme secrecy of our marriage...my family in Kansas would be delighted at the prospect of my having a legal protector, and Ross’ mother had long urged him to take a wife.” He had “talked vaguely about some bridges in the West that needed burning,” but eventually, they “gave up the subterfuge.” They stayed at the Algonquin. “Ross accompanied me meekly [to a tailor],” and we measured the suits to his figure and the size of our pocketbook.” She couldn’t do anything about his “undeniably large and awkward” feet, or a housing shortage. “Good living quarters within our means were impossible to find so soon after World War I.” They moved to West 56th Street, “the old brick edifice immortalized by Charles Dickens in his American Notes.” It wasn’t permanent; they lived in Hale and Broun’s son’s room while he was away.
The honeymoon was over. “I did not think the plan would terminate so quickly,” Grant wrote. “He waited for me to arrange his social life.” And the rest of it, too. Ross wouldn’t go to the dentist unless she made the appointment, took off work to accompany him, and sat in the room during a procedure, lest he need to hold her hand.
At first, she resisted. When Woollcott called to go dancing, Grant fielded Ross’s concerns as she got ready. “‘Craziest goddam thing I ever heard of,’ he muttered, watching me move about the room sleepily as I dressed. ‘This will make you sick if you do it very often.’” It wasn’t safe, he’d argue, but her experience suggested otherwise. “Just because you used to take me home early was no reason I stayed there,” she reminded him. “I’ve done this for years.” I’ll stay up worrying, he’d say, and she’d wonder aloud whether he should still play poker. They’d both be too tired the next day, he’d point out, and she’d encourage him to take advantage of the quiet and get to sleep early. Eventually, she gave up dancing. “It wasn’t worth the struggle.”
Ross took issue with their nights in, too. “I never had one damn meal at home at which the discussion wasn’t of women’s rights and the ruthlessness of men in trampling women,” Ross grumbled. But what did he expect? He’d banned Hale and Grant from discussing maiden names at the Round Table, so they talked about it at home. Grant no longer believed that the least effective way for a woman to get what she wanted was to name it loudly. Hale proved her wrong. Marriage had, too.
She went by Jane Grant, but the outside world saw her as someone’s wife. People resisted using her maiden name. Men treated her differently. Banks wouldn’t allow a married woman to take out money or apply for credit cards without her husband’s permission. Hotels required married woman to check in under her husband’s name. The Library of Congress collected women’s work but filed it under their married names, even if they’d never used them professionally.
Broun was a supportive husband, encouraging the conversation and pouring drinks with a heavy hand. Ross was openly hostile. “Grant and Ruth Hale had maiden-name phobias, and that was all they talked about, or damn near all,” he later said. At the time, he wondered often and loudly if there was any value in their conversations. They weren’t even a real organization.
Grant and Hale took it as a suggestion. In 1921, they formed the Lucy Stone League, named for a contemporary of Elizabeth Cady Stanton who was the first to agitate for American women to keep their maiden names. Hale was president, Grant vice president. That same year, founding members Zona Gale and Edith Wharton became the first women to win Pulitzer Prizes. Amelia Earhart, though not formally a member, donated money. (This allowed her, in a letter to the Times complaining about the paper’s insistence on calling her “Mrs. Putnam,” to add, “Not that I’m rabid about it, or a Lucy Stoner.”) The group became the talk of progressive New York City. By the end of their first year, it collected membership fees from more than 300 people. Not all were women. William Coffen, an attorney who would go on to help Felicity Shpritzer become the first female police officer in New York City, was an early member. He urged them to raise money that would fund lobbying for legislation, the only way to effect real change. As Ross frequently pointed out, membership fees wouldn’t pay for that kind of access.
Once again, they took the note and announced they intended to sue Charles Evans Hughes, the U.S. Secretary of State, who refused to issue married women passports in their maiden names, at one of the least glamorous, most dramatic fundraisers Manhattan had ever seen. “This amazing bombshell was exploded last night,” the Times reported the next day, one of many outlets who covered the big reveal, just as Hale and Grant had intended. There had been a hundred influential journalists and members of New York society on the guest list. The article briefly mentioned Hale’s and Broun’s speeches on the necessity of equality, but Grant’s turn at the podium, in which she read discouraging responses to Lucy Stoner membership queries from the likes of Woodrow Wilson, took up most of the article.
Grant, now a general-assignment staff writer, focused on women, no matter what the subject. She interviewed Charles Lindbergh’s mother and trailed presidents’ wives when they came through town. She asked Charlie Chaplin what he thought of women working outside the home. “We have many fine, capable women, and I see no reason why they should not hold office and establish themselves in public life and the professions,” he responded. When she reviewed a new sedan manufactured by Apperson, a short-lived automaker, she wrote that “the average woman can talk automobile with the best of them,” and ‘‘every one is fashioned by hands that appreciate the power of women as potential purchasers.” (Assuming, if the woman was married, her husband would approve a bank withdrawal, co-sign the loan agreement, or just make the whole transaction on her behalf.)
Grant, who had always liked to be the exceptional woman among men, was changing. When she took a free trip from New York to Paris on the maiden voyage of the S.S. Manhattan, it would have made sense for her to bring Ross back to the city where they had met, but she chose Neysa McMein as her companion. McMein was a famous illustrator with a strong network of women artists in France, and that sounded like fun to Grant.
She began spending less time with her male colleagues in favor of women who worked at other papers, like Emma Bugbee of the New York Tribune and Martha Coman of the New York Herald. In 1924, they formed the New York Newspaper Women’s Club. Grant would remain an active Lucy Stoner until her death, but this Club was altogether different. When they threw fundraisers, none other than Adolph Ochs and his wife, whose membership card was issued to Mrs. Adolph Ochs (without commentary), were in attendance. Mrs. and Mr. William Hearst and Ralph Pulitzer made donations, and within months the club had enough money to rent a space in Midtown Manhattan. Florence Harding, the First Lady, sent Grant, now vice president of the organization, a congratulatory telegram.
The offices were three blocks away from 412 West Forty-seventh street, the brownstone Grant and Ross purchased with their savings. Grant did not care for the area she described as “an Irish-bordered-by-Negro slum area just west of the Ninth Avenue El,” and thought an apartment made more sense. Ross had lived in Hell’s Kitchen before, and wanted “ a proper home” for “Missus,” the black kitten friends had given them. She gave in after a depressing tour of real estate in their price range, but insisted that she be on the mortgage. It took several attempts before the bank agreed to “Harold W. Ross for himself, and Jane Grant separately and independently for herself.”
Their last attempt in communal living hadn’t been perfect, but they needed help paying the mortgage. They shared the garden level, where the kitchen and entertaining spaces were located, with Woollcott, Hawley Truax, an attorney and developer. Ross liked to take Woollcott’s money at poker, but he wasn’t an ideal housemate. Grant described him as “a highly social but undomesticated animal,” but they had adjoining offices, so there were few secrets. He figured out their scheme, and he wanted in. They rented out the top floor to friends. Soon after they moved in, Missus turned out to be a mister, found an open door, and took his shot. “Ross was hurt at this lack of fidelity. ‘After all those hours I spent teaching her tricks,’ he complained.”
Grant and Ross had one servant, a Chinese immigrant named Chang, whom they found through a Columbia professor “who befriended students and domestics when they found going here difficult after World War I.” Chang is never identified by a second name. They talk about him with paternalistic, casual racism. Chang never answered the phone, Grant complained, because he saw it as a “many headed dragon and not for anything would he answer it to take messages.” He was “perfect, except he spoke practically no English,” so “Ross would summon his pupil to put him though his paces,” she wrote, noting that she kept the textbooks he purchased. “But Chang’s eagerness to teach Ross Chinese during these sessions broke up the lessons after a few weeks and we continued our isolation.” Neighbors called the house Chinaman’s Chance, “the first of a series of sobriquets given by our friends or the interested youngsters on our street.” The others included Hell’s Parlor, the Speakeasy, and Gash House, though Grant always preferred Dorothy Parker’s suggestion: Wit’s End.
Whatever the house was called, Grant noticed that neighbors “looked upon us with cold disdain.” The brownstone had become a nighttime version of the Round Table, with Grant acting as host, restaurant manager, chef, bartender, and more. One night, dozens of unexpected guests came to dinner. Artists, writers, actors, and other unexpected guests crowded the floors. They watched F. Scott Fitzgerald read new work, Ethel Barrymore rehearse scenes, George Gershwin play, and Irving Berlin sing.
Locals found their way in, too, but not for the show. “We were shocked when we realized that we were regarded in the neighborhood as a new speakeasy,” Grant wrote, despite supplying the booze when she transformed Wit’s End into a poker hall on Saturdays, no easy feat during Prohibition. She made gin (Parker’s favorite), always eager for a new recipe. “Finding pure alcohol was no small problem, but I finally found a reliable bootlegger who would deliver it in ten-gallon cans — nothing else.” Grant upgraded to twenty gallons.
The police showed up often, “the place so reeking with the smell of gin that it would have been impossible to deny it was a pub.” Soon after a bootlegger stopped returning her calls, “a marshal appeared at the door one morning with a summons for me to appear at the District Attorney’s office.” Grant was shaken. Her roommates, including her husband, thought it was hilarious. “I told her not to give strange men her name and address,” Ross joked. Hawley sent his brother-in-law, an attorney, which came in handy. It turned out the DA was after her bootlegger and had no patience for the banter she was accustomed to. When Grant pretended not to know which bootlegger he was after, as she had so many, he threatened to “put you down for an appearance before the grand jury.” She turned to Van Anda, who had a contact at the DA’s office, and he took care of the summons.
Grant still ran the Wit’s End with purpose. Keeping the Who’s Who of New York close would benefit their dream: a magazine. “We schemed and planned, with me doing most of the talking,” she wrote. “Ross had not yet been bitten by ambition. I had caught the contagion of his mother’s fervent faith in him and was sure he would succeed.” But he hadn’t figured it out yet. Grant told him to put his ideas down on paper. They were getting closer.