Lillian Ross Was One of the Best Reporters on the Arts, and Life Itself

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Lillian Ross at Elaine Stritch and Liz Smith’s birthday celebration in 2010. Photo: Patrick McMullan

Lillian Ross, The New Yorker correspondent who died Wednesday of a stroke at 99, was the greatest profile writer in American journalism and one of the best reporters on the arts, and perhaps on life itself. Her masterpiece might be Picture, her 1952 account of director John Huston’s ill-fated adaptation of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, a rare work that follows the making of a major motion picture from start to finish; but it’s hard to choose, because she wrote so much during her 70-plus years as a professional journalist, and there was no perceptible dip in quality over time.

Talk Stories (1966) and Takes (1983), collections of her short Talk of the Town items, best represent the regular experience of reading Ross. The best of these have the unobtrusive, often implied shape of a “realistic” 20th-century short story with subtle modernist trappings (namely a fragmented presentation that prizes moments over the big picture). One of her heroes was Ernest Hemingway, himself the subject of a long 1950 Ross profile that was republished in book form. Ross took quite a few of her cues from Hemingway and fiction writers who were influenced by him. With few exceptions, the voice was third-person limited: they went here, he said this, she said that, and then this happened.

It is possible to spend hours reading through Ross’s archive of work, which stretches from the 1940s through the near-present, without encountering a first-person pronoun, unless she was writing about herself. And even when she was writing about herself — most notably in 1998’s Here But Not Here, an account of her decades-long affair with her married boss, New Yorker editor William Shawn, who left her nothing in his will — there was a sense of detachment, as if Ross were floating overhead looking down at her own life.

As was tradition in pre-’60s mainstream reportage, Ross only appeared in her own pieces in the form of a disembodied “royal” we, and then only as a means of getting the reader into the story quickly and explaining how the reporter came to be in a certain place at a certain time. “It was a year ago, on July 28th, that the B-25 crashed into the Empire State Building, and the Army is just now winding up the handling of claims resulting from the accident,” begins a 1946 Talk of the Town item titled “Aftermath.” “We’ve had a scholarly briefing on the subject by the officer in charge, Lieutenant Colonel James A. Travis, Chief of the Contracts and Claims branch, Office of the Air Judge Advocate.” “We” never appears again in the piece except in other people’s quotes about the crash and the resulting claims.

When a piece is thick with we’s, it’s only because the circumstances are so specific and intimate that going without them might have been distractingly awkward. One of my favorite examples is “Slow, Quick-Quick,” a 1947 Talk of the Town item about a strike by instructors at Arthur Murray dance studios. “Around nine o’clock, a dozen more pickets turned up, some with placards and some with claves, maracas, and other romantic noisemakers,” she writes. “A Latinish-looking young man, whom the pickets called Santi, began knocking out a delicate rhythm with a par of claves. The pickets formed a more or less single line and started to prance up and down Madison Avenue. One girl seemed to lag behind, and we asked her if her feet hurt. She said no, and she was a jitterbug specialist and didn’t have a chance to use her talents. ‘Jitterbugging takes up too much space,’ she continued. ‘Gee, if only I could do the Hipper-Dipper, the Mooch, or the Brushoff, or even the Reverse Spoin or Slide Kelly Slide. Boy, would that get the public on our side!’ (The details in this piece are worth appreciating on their own, such as the placards reading, “Don’t Waltz Us Around, Mr. Murray—Just Negotiate” and “Arthur Murray is a Wallflower—He Refuses to Arbitrate.”)

Ross continued to keep “We,” “I,” “me,” “my,” and other such pronouns out of her pieces whenever possible, long after it became fashionable for profile writers to spend more time describing their own feelings about a subject than the subject. She never tried to imagine what anyone in her stories might be thinking or imagining, nor did she interrupt the flow of a piece for first-person ruminations, rhapsodies, conspiracy theories, or clever asides (a hallmark of so-called New Journalism practiced by such writers as Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Gay Talese in the ’60s and beyond). Speculation on people’s motives or interior lives often came in the form of a quote by some other person in the story or a snippet of some other writer’s take on the subject, offered by way of context.

Ross preferred to build each piece by recording and then arranging details that she personally witnessed. This deprived her of tools that other writers used comfortably and ethically, and there must have been times when Ross’s adherence to her aesthetic — the in-house aesthetic of New Yorker profile writers, but amped to the max and sometimes beyond — limited her storytelling options. But she seemed to be all right with that possibility, maybe because her style, honed over seven decades, affected the reader in a unique way. What we are seeing in our mind’s eye as we read Ross is a collage made up of bits and pieces of observable reality. The overall effect of reading Ross is probably closest to watching a documentary in the “direct cinema” mode, where the filmmakers try their best not to become part of the story unless the story absolutely requires it.

The writer has a point of view on the subject, of course, and over time we start to deduce what it might be — but only because of the way that the details have begun to add up, not because the writer came out and told you that they find the person or institution likable or unlikable, efficient or incompetent, important or trivial. This can be seen in her 1995 piece “The Shit-Kickers of Madison Avenue,” which hangs out with tenth-grade private-school girls as they uptalk, smoke cigarettes, plan parties, and gripe about school. The revelation that a party planner is 29 “draws gasps.” “‘Fucking twenty-nine,’ one of the girls says. ‘That’s the age of those actors in that mindless ‘90210’ or that mindless ‘Melrose Place.’ They’re twenty-nine, and they’re like playing our age.’”

A 1952 profile of composer Ira Gershwin on opening night of a revival of his musical “Of Thee I Sing” starts out borderline-fangirlish (“When we telephoned him to ask him if we might stop by for a talk, he invited us to accompany him to the opening, and we responded with what could be the fastest ‘yes’ on record”). But from there, Ross gives us a sense of the weight Gershwin carries as both a living legend of musical theater and the remaining half of one of the great artistic partnerships of brothers (George Gershwin, who wrote the musical with him, had died 15 years earlier), as well as the sense of isolation that accrues when artists become so famous that they can’t trust anyone to be honest with them anymore. (“‘Ira!’ called a man in the crowd. ‘It’s wonderful!’ ‘My brother-in-law,’ Gershwin told us. Then a lady came up to him. ‘It’s marvelous, Ira,’ she said. ‘I love it.’ ‘My sister,’ Gershwin whispered.”) A 1954 piece on actor-filmmaker Jacques Tati reveals that he got into vaudeville because his friends thought his impressions of local rugby players were funny; he seems astonished that he was ever able to make a living as a performer, considering how awkward and shy he was, but the closing quote pulls the rug out from under the reader and confirms that Tati is not as humble as he wants the readers to think: “Chaplin is full of ideas,” he says. “I am so busy watching the working out of his beautiful ideas that I never find the time to laugh.”

One of Ross’s signatures is her willingness to reproduce large chunks of talk in ways that preserve the all-over-the-place thought processes of actual conversation, rather than dice the talk into smaller bits separated by her own summaries. This is anathema to most feature writers — in fact it’s one of the things that journalism students are often warned never to do — but Ross does it a lot. The results are hit-and-miss (sometimes you don’t need all the details her subjects provide), but other times the juxtaposition of mundane and heartrending statements make the latter pop more strongly than they might if she’d put a spotlight on them.

Her 1959 piece on A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry is a great example: Hansberry talks at length about her new house, her dog, her husband, her suddenly busy social calendar, and her mixed feelings about critics saying that the production’s quality is due to the fact that “everybody associated with it was a Negro … I’m pleased to say that we went to great pains to get the best director and the best actors for this particular play. And I like to think I wrote the play out of a specific intellectual point of view.” Later, she segues into “some autobiography” that includes her lawyer father’s involvement in a landmark Supreme Court case involving restricted covenants and her experience of attending a mostly white public school at age 8: “I was on the porch one day with my sister, swinging my legs, when a mob gathered. We went inside, and while we were in our living room, a brick came crashing through the window with such force it embedded itself in the opposite wall. I was the one the brick almost hit.”

Ross was such a good listener and meticulous writer, so clearly an artist in her own right, that some of the great cultural figures of the 20th century gladly dug themselves into holes of one kind or another while being interviewed by her, then kept digging, and in some cases came back months or years later to dig still more holes. Her slim 1980 book, Moments With Chaplin, is a portrait of a once-innovative and beloved superstar artist getting older and less relevant by the year, growing increasingly frustrated that fans and scholars are more interested in his earlier work than his later stuff, and drifting into reveries of glory days (as when an unrecognized stroll down a completely transformed Madison Avenue in 1952 gives way to Chaplin’s recollection of walking that same street in 1916 and literally stopping traffic). Chaplin seems aware of how wistful and dislocated he seems, but he keeps talking to Ross, as if he needs a public witness to whatever he’s going through. Picture, which required Ross to be “embedded” throughout the production of John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage, is not just one of the great books about filmmaking, but one of the great portraits of a filmmaker who’s bitten off more than he can chew. Huston seems to realize this almost immediately, but is obligated for financial and pride reasons to keep going. He could have sent Ross packing at any point but chose to keep her around, even as he kept trying and failing to adapt a classic with such an unusual narrative voice that it ultimately defeated his ingenuity. Ironically, Ross’s own prose throughout the piece gets closer to capturing the tone that Huston was going for onscreen than Huston does, and the existence of Picture justifies the studio’s sunk costs: They paid for the creation of a masterpiece, just not the one they signed on for.

There were never very many writers like Ross. There are even fewer today because, outside of a few legacy publications like The New Yorker, media outlets are averse to her style of reportage, which painted vivid portraits of cultural giants through steady accumulation of details, many of them mundane and fleeting. To my knowledge she never began a profile with a description of a movie star arriving late for lunch and offering a charming apology, and for the most part she seemed uninterested in the sorts of stage-managed media opportunities that provide the skeletons upon which writers hang laudatory quotes from colleagues or their own rhapsodic musings on the subject. She always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, even when nothing of importance was going on. It was the right place at the right time because Ross was there.

Lillian Ross Was One of the Best Writers on Art, and Life