The New Yorker magazine for Feb. 20, 1984.
When the slim weekly with the mysterious cover hit the newsstands in February 1925, it was not an immediate hit. Priced at 15 cents, The New Yorker sold 15,000 copies. Three weeks later the circulation had dropped to 12,000. By April, it was down to 8,000. The humor magazine that had promoted itself as the ultimate in urban sophistication "not edited for the old lady in Dubuque" was apparently not being edited for New Yorkers either.
Creator and editor Harold Ross was a rough-edged Westerner, Colorado-born, Utah-reared, an itinerant newspaper reporter who had gone on to edit the Army paper Stars and Stripes in Paris during the European War. He came to New York when he was discharged, edited the American Legion Weekly for five years, briefly edited the humor magazine Judge, and then turned down an offer from Cosmopolitan in order to start up a magazine of his own. With a provincial’s awestruck fascination with the glamor of the metropolis, Ross had developed the idea of a journal that would reflect the jazzy and cynical spirit of New York City in the 1920s "the color, the tang, the anecdote, and the chat in all the sophisticated circles of New York," as an early ad put it. The New Yorker, Ross declared, would be "a magazine avowedly for a metropolitan audience."
Awkward and brash, with little education and less polish, Ross was anything but a sophisticated metropolitan himself. For a hick, though, he was sure he knew what the metropolitan reader wanted. And, as James Thurber, one of the writers Ross made famous, said of him, he had "a magic gift for surrounding himself with some of the best talent in America, despite his own literary and artistic limitations."
For two years Ross prowled the city looking for someone to finance the venture. Over lunch at the Algonquin Hotel with a circle of literary friends that included Stars and Stripes alumnus Alexander Woollcott, he finally found a backer in Raoul Fleischmann, whose family fortune included a bakery chain and a yeast company. Together they formed F-R (for Fleischmann-Ross) Publishing Corp., with $25,000 from F and $20,000 from R.
The talent Ross surrounded himself with and bullied into shape was stellar. His first art director was the popular illustrator Rea Irvin, who created The New Yorker’s look, laid out its format, designed its headline typeface and drew the legendary first cover, showing a bored 19th-century dandy examining a butterfly through a monocle. Although the symbolism was a little obscure for a magazine seeking to project an image of vigor and currency, the dandy became a trademark of the journal, if not for the city. Later in the year, humorist Corey Ford wrote a series of advertisements describing an imaginary magazine publisher Ford called Eustace Tilley, and the name became inseparably attached to Irvin’s fop. In time, Ross had his private office telephone listed under Tilley’s name.
Under Irvin’s direction, The New Yorker was to revolutionize the visual humor of the era, refining the crude illustrated jokes of Judge, Puck and London’s Punch into pointed one-line gag cartoons. The graphic wit of such cartoonists as Gluyas Williams, Peter Arno, George Price, Saul Steinberg, Helen Hokinson and Charles Addams set a standard unmatched elsewhere. The fiction and criticism in the new magazine were no less influential: Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley, Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker contributed regularly to the first issues, and shortly Thurber and E.B. White joined the staff to crystallize the breezy, literate editorial style that became the magazine’s personal voice.
Stylish as that voice ultimately became, though, it took a little while for Ross to determine what he wanted his magazine to be. Two months after it launched, it was losing $8,000 every week, and Ross and his little band seriously considered giving it up. They cut the budget drastically; in September, Fleischmann hesitantly decided to pump more money into an advertising campaign in the city papers. Then Ross published an article that provided the first glimmer of hope for The New Yorker’s survival.
"Why We Go To Cabarets, A Post-Debutante Explains" ran in the Nov. 26 issue, a sharp, sarcastic piece that knocked the boring young men who hung around at deb parties. Written by Ellin Mackay, who was soon to marry Irving Berlin, it struck just the right note of independence for a generation of young women who preferred nightclubs to stuffy Social Register affairs, and it spoke to exactly the market Ross had been looking for. No longer written for Broadway, The New Yorker now found its true audience in the Smart Set on Park and Fifth Aves. Mackay’s article attracted the attention of the daily press and made front-page news nationally.
Ross’ journal continued to change from issue to issue, under the restless direction of its blustering editor. Like New York itself, it constantly redefined the image of the city it sought to mirror. But the path was set; inside 10 years it had 62,000 readers in the city, outselling its rivals Vanity Fair and Vogue by a wide margin. Surprisingly to Ross and Fleischmann, The New Yorker’s circulation was far larger outside the city. Intended for Gotham’s upper crust, the New Yorker image appealed to people all over the country. Probably even old ladies in Dubuque.
First published on April 21, 1998 as part of the "Big Town" series on old New York. Find more stories about the city’s epic history here.