Lillian Ross, celebrated New Yorker writer, dies at 99
Lillian Ross, a celebrated New Yorker magazine writer who created classics of literary journalism, including novel-length pieces on Ernest Hemingway and the making of a Hollywood movie, has died. She was 99.
New Yorker Editor David Remnick confirmed her death, but did not immediately have other details Wednesday.
“Lillian would knock my block off for saying so, she’d find it pretentious, but she really was a pioneer, both as a woman writing at the New Yorker and as a truly innovative artist, someone who helped change and shape nonfiction writing in English,” Remnick said in a statement.
Ross was a small, sturdy, round-faced woman with a folksy manner who so disarmed her subjects, colleague Ved Mehta once said, that they “delivered themselves unsuspectingly into her hands.”
Once delivered, they became objects of her shrewd observation, fine ear for language and cinematic writing, the main elements of a style that could, novelist Irving Wallace noted many years ago, “suddenly, almost sneakily, nail a personality naked to a page.”
Her subjects over the years included, in addition to Hemingway, John Huston and his daughter Anjelica, Adlai Stevenson, William Faulkner, Muhammad Ali, Norman Mailer, Francois Truffaut, Robin Williams and a slew of Miss Americas.
Unconcerned with journalistic boundaries, she became chummy with many of her subjects: She played tennis with Charlie Chaplin, had a date with Marlon Brando, dined with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and was “best lady” when Walter Matthau married William Saroyan’s ex-wife, Carol.
In 2012, she wrote of the famously reclusive novelist J.D. Salinger, “Jerome David Salinger was an exceptional writer and an exceptional friend. No one else could make me laugh — genuinely laugh aloud — as he could.” It was her last piece for the New Yorker.
A hallmark of her pieces was dialogue, which Ross believed revealed character more powerfully than any other device. It took up whole pages of her Hemingway profile, and sometimes one long, carefully groomed quote was all there was to her shorter masterpieces in the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” section.
Her stories were so full of conversation and other particulars that writer Edmund Wilson referred to her as “that girl Lillian Ross with the built-in tape recorder.” (For the record, she never used one, preferring a pad and pen.) She captured human interactions with an unerring eye, while minimizing her own role in the narrative. In this respect she was a model for the New Journalism of the 1960s and ‘70s practiced by writers such as Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe.
Ross was hired as a staff writer for the New Yorker in 1945 by legendary editor William Shawn. Within five years, she was not only one of its top reporters but Shawn’s mistress in a closely guarded relationship that lasted until his death in 1992.
Her tell-all account of their four-decade affair in the book “Here But Not Here, My Life with William Shawn and The New Yorker” (1998) brought Ross the harshest reviews of her career, in part because it seemed to violate one of her own cardinal rules: to refrain from writing about anyone who did not want to be written about. James Wolcott, among others who knew Shawn, wrote in Vanity Fair that if the intensely private and proper editor (called “Mr. Shawn” even by longtime associates) could have read what Ross had written “he’d probably die all over again, this time of embarrassment.”
The author of a dozen other books, some of which are standard reading in college writing courses, Ross was often described as a master of “fly-on-the-wall” journalism: She stayed out of the way and let her subjects tell the story through their actions and utterances.
This characterization of her working methods, though meant as flattery, struck Ross as absurd.
“A reporter doing a story can’t pretend to be invisible, let alone a fly,” she often said, insisting that a reporter “is always chemically involved in a story.”
She constructed her stories with a filmmaker’s sensibility, “always trying to build scenes into little story-films,” she explained in her 2002 book “Reporting Back.”
Her 1950 profile of Hemingway was largely built around four scenes Ross witnessed when the great American novelist stopped in Manhattan on his way to Europe. She showed him jovially sipping champagne with an old friend, the German American femme fatale Marlene Dietrich, whom he affectionately called “the Kraut.” Later, Ross accompanied him as he moodily shopped for a coat at Abercrombie & Fitch, commented on Van Dycks and Titians at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and lunched with venerable publisher Charles Scribner.
The profile elicited an enormous response, not all of it positive. Some readers thought Ross was ridiculing Hemingway when she quoted him talking in “jokey Indian language,” a strange dialect that left out verbs and articles. (“He liked book” instead of “He liked the book”). Her unvarnished approach did not offend Hemingway, who reviewed the text before it was published and, according to Ross, asked for only one change.
“This piece is going to make journalistic history,” Shawn predicted, and he was right. By the time Ross undertook her next major assignment, on the making of the movie “The Red Badge of Courage,” she was a celebrity in her own right.
“When Lillian Ross first came to Hollywood,” the movie’s producer, Gottfried Reinhardt, recalled in a Los Angeles Times interview in 1983, “Charlie Chaplin bowed at her feet. I watched Louis B. Mayer kiss all five of her fingers. The woman was deified.”
Given unprecedented access to the production and its principal players, Ross realized that she had a unique opportunity. What had begun as a profile of the director was evolving into a broader story with such inherent drama that it was “like a novel unraveling right in front of me.” She wondered: Why not write it like one?
“I don’t know whether this sort of thing has ever been done before,” Ross wrote in a letter to Shawn soon after she arrived in Hollywood in August 1950, “but I don’t see why I shouldn’t try to do a fact piece in a novel form, or maybe a novel in fact form…. It’s almost as though the subject material calls for that kind of form.”
Decades later, John Gregory Dunne, another astute chronicler of the movie business, praised “Picture” as “the first of that kind of book” that took readers inside the myth-making machinery of Hollywood.
Ross focused on four main characters: John Huston, the charismatic director bent on making an artistic film; Reinhardt, the budget-conscious producer; Dore Schary, the hotshot executive who pushed for the movie; and Mayer, the colorful studio chief who had serious doubts about its worthiness and commercial appeal.
“The Red Badge of Courage” is the story of a young soldier who runs from the battlefield during the Civil War. The movie had gritty death scenes and lacked the sentimentality that Mayer, a fan of Andy Hardy-type movies, most favored.
In a famous passage, Ross showed Mayer in high rant against the kind of moviemaking “Badge” represented:
“Don’t show the good, wholesome, American mother in the home. Kind. Sweet. Sacrifices. Love.” Mayer paused and by his expression demonstrated, in turn, maternal kindness, sweetness, sacrifice, and love, and then glared at Freed [Arthur Freed, a producer of musicals] and me. “No!” he cried. “Knock the mother on the jaw!” He gave himself an uppercut to the chin. “Throw the little old lady down the stairs!” He threw himself in the direction of the American flag. “Throw the mother’s good, homemade chicken soup in the mother’s face!” He threw an imaginary plate of soup in Freed’s face. “Step on the mother! Kick her! That is art, they say. Art!!” he repeated, and gave an angry growl.
The story was published in five installments under the title “Production Number 1512.” When it was issued in book form as “Picture,” Hemingway offered a book-jacket blurb, calling it “much better than most novels.”
Huston, writing in his 1994 memoir, “An Open Book,” said the stories were “not flattering” and that they “cut any number of ‘famous’ people down to size--including me--in clear, concise portraits,” but Ross’ account had much of Hollywood standing in line to read it.
Those portraits, Huston said, depended on Ross’ “uncanny” word-for-word memory of conversations and her low-key personal style. “There is nothing particularly striking about her appearance,” he noted. “She is a nice-looking little creature, gentle, quiet and unobtrusive. People forget after a while that she’s present, and express themselves with complete freedom.”
Chosen by a distinguished panel of academics and journalists as one of the top 100 works of 20th-century journalism, “Picture” has been reprinted many times, including a 1997 reissue by the Modern Library.
Ross wrote warmly about most of her subjects, particularly the famous ones. She made no secret of her fascination with “genius and talent.” One of her books, “The Player,” published in 1962, was exclusively a collection of profiles of prominent actors, including Kim Stanley, Jane Fonda, Zero Mostel and Warren Beatty.
She periodically fixed her gaze on less luminous folks, from a busload of Indiana teenagers on a visit to New York City to the ladies of the Junior League. In later years, she often cited as one of her favorite pieces a 1995 Talk of the Town story about the preoccupations of a tribe of 10th graders from elite Manhattan prep schools.
With the exception of her memoir, Ross was always loathe to reveal much about her own life. She disclosed that she was born in Syracuse, N.Y., on June 8, 1918, and later moved to New York City with her parents and two siblings. She said she began writing for her school paper when she was in sixth grade. Some years later, during a field trip to the composing room of the New York Times, she was “immediately seduced by the pungent metallic aromas of the makeup tables and Linotype machines” and soon afterward visited other newspapers on her own.
After brief stints running a publication called the Chinese Student Magazine and reporting for PM, an evening newspaper, she went to work for the New Yorker. She was only the fourth woman hired by the magazine.
Ross, who was no relation to founding editor Harold Ross, wrote one of her first pieces about Harry Truman’s pre-presidential life as a haberdasher in Kansas City, Mo. Her first bylined story to garner attention was a 1949 profile of American bullfighter Sidney Franklin, called “El Unico Matador.” She interviewed Hemingway about the bullfighter, whom he had known in Spain in the 1930s. He liked the story enough to agree to be her next major profile subject.
By Ross’ account, the affair with Shawn began about the time she finished the Hemingway piece.
Shawn began by leaving poems and affectionate messages on her desk. Eventually, he blurted out that he was in love with her.
Ross tried to evade him by fleeing to Hollywood for a year and a half for the Huston assignment, but the relationship only deepened. Any doubts she harbored melted away one day in late 1952, after she had returned to New York, when Shawn suddenly appeared in her office. Without exchanging a word, they took a cab to the Plaza Hotel, where they went to bed “and stayed there,” Ross wrote, “for the rest of the day and evening.”
Soon Shawn installed a private phone next to the bed he shared with his wife, Cecille, so that he could talk to Ross at the beginning and end of each day. Later, he helped her find an apartment about 10 blocks south of the one he shared with Cecille and their children, and divided his time between the two abodes. “Bill told me I was his wife. I felt I was,” Ross wrote.
In her memoir, Ross revealed a side of Shawn that he apparently showed no one else. He often told her he felt trapped in his official life — as New Yorker editor, and as a husband and father — but when he was with Ross, he was more carefree. He bought a sports car and took off for the Catskills in it with her. When Ross adopted her son, Erik, from Norway in 1966, Shawn helped raise him, reading him stories from the New Yorker at bedtime. Erik, a tree specialist in New York City, survives her.
As she did with Shawn, Ross portrayed herself in ways that clashed with her public persona. Bold and original as a writer, she was slavish in love. She let Shawn pick her clothes as well as the furniture and decor of their apartment. She gave up smoking because he disliked the smell. She gave up martinis because he was afraid of drinking.
Their relationship endured in this fashion for 40 years, during which Shawn never considered divorcing his wife and Ross “never considered asking him to.” Near the end of his life, she wrote, “our love-making had the same passion, the same energies (alarming to me, at first, in our early weeks together), the same tenderness, the same inventiveness, the same humor, the same textures as it had at the beginning.”
Shawn died on Dec. 8, 1992. Ross knew that he had died when she called his private bedside phone and, for the first time, Cecille Shawn answered.
Reviewers of Ross’ memoir of Shawn were aghast that she published the book while Shawn’s widow was still alive; Cecille Shawn was a vigorous 92 at the time. “[T]here can be no benign explanation for her attempt to breach the privacy of his wife, and of his sons,” former New Yorker staffer and cultural critic Renata Adler wrote in her 1999 book, “Gone, The Last Days of The New Yorker.” Others said Ross’ memoir was poorly written and often inaccurate or misleading. No one said it was boring.
Ross answered her critics tersely, explaining in a 1998 New York Times interview that she wrote the book “because it’s my life” and because Shawn was “fed up with having been pictured as a character he wasn’t.”
She had quit the magazine when Shawn was fired in 1987, shortly after the New Yorker’s ownership changed. She did not return to its pages until 1992, when Tina Brown became editor and lured her back.
Whether writing about jaded Manhattan high schoolers or movie stars like Tommy Lee Jones and Tony Curtis, Ross’ scalpel edge remained sharp, her professional imperatives undulled by age.
“Curiosity has never left me,” Ross wrote in 2002. “‘The story’ has always been all-important. ‘The story’ comes first. It always comes first.”
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