Confession of a Feminist VI
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
“Confession of a Feminist”
“Men are quite nice when you get to know them,” Jane Grant wrote in “Confession of a Feminist,” an essay for The American Mercury, in 1943. It was a memoir, a short history of women’s rights, and a place where she took men and women to task for working against, or not working hard enough, for equal rights. As a founding member of the Connecticut Committee for the Equal Rights Amendment, she’d been disappointed that Eleanor Roosvelt declined to speak more forcefully in support of the ERA, as did Frances Perkins, President Roosvelt’s Secretary of Labor. A few years later, Grant led a failed uprising against Alice Paul and Anita Pollitzer, two leaders of the National Woman’s Party for similar reasons.
She found greater success with the Lucy Stoners. Women were gaining prominence in their fields, and with it came the opportunity for change. Perkins was especially helpful; Congress publicly debated whether the Secretary of Labor should be allowed to receive a paycheck in her maiden name. Ruth Shipley, the first woman to head up the State Department’s Passport Division, ordered all offices to issue passports to women who used their maiden names without including “wife of.” But Grant struck out with Mrs. Douglas Horton, the recently married president of Wellesley College. “I like to be identified with his interests and have him identify with mine,” Horton wrote Grant. “I, too, am happily married and my husband and I have similar interests,” Grant responded, “but we cannot believe that our married state precludes my right to the symbol of human dignity—the name with which I was born.”
Harris had no complaints. They spent weekends in Litchfield, where they renovated the barn, cleared land, planted a 4500-square-foot vegetable garden, and dug the deepest well in the county to keep it watered. She loved arranging wildflowers but hated how fast they had to be discarded. “Never have flowers been cussed at so expertly,” Harris wrote. He set out to grow sturdier perennials, only to discover they had to be ordered from Europe. He hadn’t considered the plants to be exotic, and it made him want to know more about the business of gardening and to experiment, and that required land.
They had the right of first refusal and plenty of cash to pay for 18 acres of land surrounding their property. Harris left Fortune and returned to finance, and Grant was earning more than $30,000 a year from The New Yorker. Word got around Litchfield that they had money to spend, and their property grew. “There’s nothing like owning a house and one acre and protecting it with 90 acres, 2 houses, a 3-car garage, a hay barn, and a dog kennel,” Grant wrote in 1949. “What are we going to do with them?” It took them one bottle of bourbon to answer that question: Start a mail-order nursery called White Flower Farm, after the year they only planted white flowers in a garden.
A nursery was a risky prospect for a writer and a financier, but it was also brilliant: There were a handful of mail-order nurseries in the English-speaking world, and none in the United States. They planned to produce a mail-order catalogue that read like a magazine, mixing commentary with advice. Harris would write most of it under the pseudonym Amos Pettingill, the longtime manager of White Flower Farm who was full of encouragement and humor:
Many writers on horticulture overemphasize plant culture and, probably to have something to say, surround it with a lot of abracadabra in the form of countless do’s and dont’s. Stuff and nonsense, we say, and a hex upon those who would complicate the growing of plants. Growing is easy. Put plants in the ground, give them sun, water them, and 99 times out of 100 the things will grow.
As with The New Yorker, Grant made sure the catalogue landed on the desk of every editor she could think of, and it was an instant success. Within six months, demand was so high, they introduced a subscription fee.
They had the resources to play around. It was easy to lure a rotating cast of experts from England and Scotland with the promise of freedom and support: They could study the land and run trials without worrying about Grant and Harris, who kept their day jobs. When they weren’t in the city, they were travelling abroad to procure rare plants and seeds. The white forsythia they picked up in South Korea, sold exclusively at White Flower Farm, became popular in 1955. Medals and honors followed.
The nursery was profitable, as was The New Yorker. Harris remained a general partner at Laidlaw & Company, Grant was as busy as ever, and they were happy. “Dear Sir: This is to notify you that I love you madly,” she wrote from their seven-room co-op on Park Avenue and sent it to his nearby office. The co-op with an “H” and a “G” in bold brass letters on the door, but even The New Yorker occasionally addressed her mail to “Mrs. William Harris.”
“I’m bursting with ideas,” Grant wrote to The New Yorker’s board ahead of a weekly planning meeting, determined to launch a publicity campaign to mark themagazine’s 25th anniversary. “A new attack is in order.” Television, books, and radio campaigns were all on the table.
Grant had never been happier, and Ross more miserable. He was lonely and sick. After a bad case of the flu in 1950, a doctor sent him to the Lahey Clinic in Boston for an extended stay, where specialists discovered ulcers, then pleurisy, and finally cancer of the windpipe. He relied heavily on William Shawn, his longtime deputy, but didn’t tell anyone about the clinic when he returned to New York, nor did he explain that, when he disappeared for days at a time, he was undergoing dozens of radiation treatments.
Grant saw him in November 1951 and, just as he had those years before in the taxi, immediately knew something was wrong. “Our encounters had become less frequent and it shocked me to see him walk with his shoulders so stooped.” She wanted to help, as he had, but her messages, like everyone else’s, piled up. On December 6, 1951, Grant’s phone rang at midnight. It was Fred Norman, Ross’s secretary at TheNew Yorker. Ross had died of an embolism.