Confession of a Feminist V
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
“We must not forget that we are dealing with a woman”
The first time Jane Grant saw Harold Ross after their divorce, he jumped into her taxi after spotting her at a red light and refused to leave. “For God’s Sake! What was the matter with Paris,” he demanded, knowing she’d just visited Janet Flanner. “You look awful.” It was a terrible thing to hear from an estranged former spouse, but he was right. Grant had been diagnosed with cancer.
Ross meddled enough to show he cared, but not enough to send the wrong message. He insisted on accompanying her to a specialist, yelling through the door, “I’ll give you $50,000 if you’ll save her life.” He asked her older sister in Missouri to care for her after a surgery, urged Grant to head south to recover, and sent flowers and presents. “During those turbulent days [his mother] had written me tender letters, but Ross had made me promise not to write to her.” She agreed on the condition that he explain the silence to his mother, “but he never did, and I guess I never really expected he would...he had never liked, and had rarely performed, unpleasant duties.” He didn’t show up when it was time to take her home, but she didn’t need him to: “One of my beaus [did].”
The Times promised Grant a job after she recovered, but 1931, the beginning of the Great Depression, was her last on record as a staff writer; after that, she appeared occasionally as a correspondant. She tried to make it as a freelancer but after three years, she was barely covering expenses and the economy showed little sign of recovery. Grant, newly healthy and free to do as she pleased, needed a change.
To pay for it, she asked Ross for an advance on her dividends, but the request was met with silence. (He was “beau-ing girls—old friends and new.” They’d ask Grant for permission or report back it was all quite unserious. “There was a persistent belief among our friends that we would be reconciled,” although they made no movement toward it.) She borrowed against her F-R stock, sold off what she could bear to part with, and confirmed a few assignments fromor the Times, scraping just enough money together to send herself on a seven-month reporting trip around the globe.
Grant’s first stop was the Empire of Manchuria, a Japanese puppet state in Northeast China and Inner Mongolia. She was the first woman to interview Puyi, the last Emperor of China who had been forced to abdicate after the Xinhai Revolution, and she witnessed the arrival of a new royal consort, a young girl. She rode the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow, where she remained for two months before traveling by car, horse, boat, and more trains, to Germany.
By the time Grant made it to Berlin, a year after Adoph Hitler had taken power, her letters of introduction were worthless. They were addressed to officials who had fled, been replaced, or simply disappeared. Undeterred, she managed to charm her way into the office of the Director of the Nazi Foreign Press Bureau, who criticzed her nail polish and lipstick as “symbols of a modern inferiority complex on the part of the weaker sex — eternally haunted by the specter of declining attraction and under-magnetism.” They managed to tolerate each other long enough to make it through an interview that was picked up by papers across the United States.
Grant celebrated in France with an extended stay at Janet Flanner’s apartment, reading first drafts of her New Yorker stories and using whatever letters of introduction were still applicable. Invigorated, Grant stayed to write I Saw What I Could, a 219-page manuscript that expanded on her most popular dispatches.
She returned to New York and found it changed. Getting published was difficult. One by one, book editors told her that readers had no interest in the experiences of a woman reporter. I Saw What I Could was never published. Ross had married Marie-Françoise Élie “and some months later his French wife presented him with his daughter, Patricia.”
She’d met someone, too, and he thought her manuscript was “a swell travel story.” William Harris, a financial analyst, was quickly becoming her favorite suitor in no small part because he was in awe of all she had accomplished. The letters turned lustful (“I want to smother your neck and breasts and arms,” he wrote) to loving (“Not that I even dare to hope that you’ll ever marry me,”) but either way, they were incriminating. Harris was married.
It’s unclear when Grant found out about his wife, Polly, or their life in Connecticut, but by the time she left for Greece in 1936, she knew too much. Harris wanted to leave Polly, but his wealth was tied to her family. While he claimed to be figuring out how to disentangle himself, Polly was injured in a car crash, and he couldn’t leave her in that state. And there was the issue of his mother; a divorce would kill her. “You have had a long time in which to straighten this matter out,” Grant wrote in what she swore was her final letter, “and it is not my intention to fall in between. So, again I say, if you are a married man when I come home I don’t want to see you.”
He spent the time apart well. The Great Depression was a good excuse to leave finance for Fortune, a new, large-format business magazine targeted at the upper class, after convincing its founder, Henry Luce, to create the position of literary editor for him. (Luce and Ross had been at odds for years. “Who reads Fortune?” Ross once asked. “Dentists.”) Then, he asked Polly for a divorce. When Grant heard the news, she responded by sending all of her suitcases to his apartment. But they would not be married. Or at least, not yet. Ross wasn’t the only man she’d seen change after he took his vows, and she needed to be sure. She proposed a six-month trial much like the one she rejected from Ross in 1920.
Grant was willing to commit to a 100-year-old barn on a decent parcel of land in Litchfield, Connecticut, a small town in the foothills of the Berkshires. The seller liked Grant, but she worried that the small, isolated community wouldn’t take kindly to a divorced woman living alone, or, even worse, in sin. Grant didn’t want to lose Litchfield or Harris, so she gave in. On June 3, 1939, they wed.
The New Yorker had been hit hard by the Depression and the war looming in Europe. “Nobody feels funny right now,” Ross complained to her. Circulation was dropping, as were ads for luxury goods. Grant saw “the magazine began to shrink alarmingly,” yet Fleischmann, their first investor, had been using the magazine’s revenue to subsidize Stage, his new publication. Fleischmann was also luring advertisers, readers, and even writers from The New Yorker toward it. The magazine couldn’t make her dividend payment, and neither could Ross.
He had gambling debts all over town, owed the government back taxes on a large Manhattan apartment and a house in Stamford, Connecticut and, in 1939, he had gone through another divorce. (He married for a third time in 1940 and died before that divorce could be finalized.) Unlike Grant, his second wife expected alimony and child support, but he no longer saw the difference between that arrangement and the one he’d made with Grant. In a letter to her lawyers, Ross railed against “the palpable absurdity in her present dependence on me for financial support [when she] believes that women should be themselves self-reliant, self-supporting, etc.” They responding by reviewing the difference between alimony, which she had rejected, and equity, which she had earned as a founder. She had to deal with Fleischmann.
In 1942, she recruited Ruth, Fleischmann’s ex-wife, and led a shareholders’ revolt. Getting support was easy. Grant used Fleischmann’s financial statements—courtesy of Ruth—to show the board how the losses at Stage were undercutting The New Yorker. Fleischmann resisted until the board, apoplectic, threatened to sue him for malfeasance; Ruth’s name would be at the top of the court filings. That scenario made a demotion on the board and reduction in voting rights sound reasonable. Fleischmann accepted the terms. Ross wrote Grant a short thank-you note but warned her that the magazine was still in trouble.
Grant took this as a mandate. The War Department’s Special Services Division had substantial funds earmarked for reading materials; Time and Newsweek were already angling for it, but did they didn’t have their personal story. Grant went to Washington and worked her way into a meeting with Lt. Col. R. L. Trautman, Chief of the Library Division, who was in charge of ordering periodicals. She showed him old editions of Stars and Stripes, which had been smart, and Yank Talk, which had been funny, and pitched The New Yorker as their baby, made by a veteran who knew what it was like to be far from home. As a former YMCA entertainer who spent a lot of time in military canteens, Grant knew how desperately soldiers needed this kind of distraction. (She also knew that Yank Talk’s prominent placement in those canteens had led to its high circulation numbers.)
Trautman was sold on a six-by-nine-inch, advertisement-free, lightweight, monthly “pony” edition of The New Yorker, but Ross “was cold to the idea at first.” He was feeling overwhelmed, not nostalgic. The business department worried about the paper shortage, so she got Trautman to increased the magazine’s paper quota, but there was still resistance until Ik Shuman, then the managing editor, stepped in. In a memo, he sided with Grant, and then Ross did, too. She accepted their conditions: She handle the entire process herself. She would choose selections from the weekly editions, source the paper, and overseeing printing and shipping. And she would do it all for free.
Grant agreed, and then did much more. She sent bound copies of the monthly edition to important generals along with personalized notes. She praised their patriotism, pointed out connections they had to certain features or writers and, since she knew their world from experience, thoughts on where the pony edition should be stocked. She followed up with visits to Washington every few months, and, each time, the Army expanded the number of copies it ordered. Six months later, Trautman asked her if the she could increase the order. They were so happy with the monthly, they wanted a weekly.
By 1945, the circulation of the pony edition exceeded that of the parent magazine. When the soldiers came home, they remained loyal readers.: Two years after World War II, The New Yorker’s circulation doubled. For the first time, half of its readers lived outside New York. (A decade later, Sir James Plimsoll, a high-ranking Australian government official, thanked her for “the many hours of pleasure” he received from the magazine when he was a private during the war; it had been stocked in his commissary.) Ross was finally able to “fill the gap [of funny stories], many by writers who were the product of the war years.”
Grant was just getting started. She wanted to explore other ways to repackage content the magazine had already produced, and decided on six small books filled with the best material the magazine had produced since the founding. After that, she wanted to increase subscriptions on college campuses and commercial airlines.
This time, she demanded a formal role, and to be paid for it. She proposed that the board make her a consultant and pay her a one-time yearly fee of $10,000, plus expenses, or $2500 and a small percentage of profits from these “special projects.” Minutes from the board meeting suggest Grant made her displeasure known: “We must not forget that we are dealing with a woman, and one of the best ways to get into a really difficult controversy with a lady is to leave her with a sense of affront.” They countered with $2500 and nothing else.
Ross’s contract was about to expire, and he watched from the sidelines with interest. Grant was asking for $10,000 a year, the exact number that would absolve him of any financial responsibility toward her. He wrote a letter of support to the board; what anguish he felt about how much of Grant’s work had gone unseen and unpaid. They budged, but just a little, agreeing to pay her a percentage of the profits off her special projects.
When it was Ross’s turn to negotiate, he wondered how it was that the board made millions off the magazine, yet he and Grant were struggling. How lucky that they had been presented with such “a dandy opportunity for the corporation to clear its conscience.” They met him more than halfway, offering Grant a ten-year contract for a part-time, $7,500-a-year-consulting position; she was contractually obligated to apply it toward future dividend shortfalls. Ross would never have to absorb any costs, should dividends again fall. He was in the clear with Grant his ex-wife and estranged wife, too. He’d made the board nervous enough to double his salary.
Grant felt satisfied, too. She had paid role at the magazine, an apartment in the city, a house in the country, and a husband who loved her. “It turns out I dominate him, too,” she wrote from Litchfield, “but he says he has liked it.”