Knitting needles at The New Yorker

Lifted from the pages of The New Yorker and brought together as a retrospective, the marvelous cartoons and covers of this venerable magazine are surprisingly unified. Alternately under-stated, daft, off-the-wall, and sublime, the common thread among the drawings is delight over human foibles. ``The Art of The New Yorker - A 60 Year Retrospective'' is on view at the Boston Athenaeum until July 10. An American tour includes Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, with a final exhibition in London. In this excerpt from James Thurber's ``The Years with Ross,'' we get a peek into the peculiar decisionmaking process when editor Harold Ross selected drawings. FOR several months in 1927, I was one of the editors that attended the art meetings, and every now and then after that year I used to drop in as an unofficial observer. In 1929, a sense of order was brought to the meetings by the advent of Miss Daise E. Terry, who comforted Ross by keeping track of covers and drawings (at one time with the assistance of a youngster named Truman Capote). Miss Terry (``She's vigilant about art,'' said Ross) also took down his comments and criticisms, mainly unfavorable, in shorthand. The art meetings began after lunch and often lasted until nearly six o'clock. One week, during the thirties, finished drawings, rough sketches, and typed suggestions reached a total of some twenty-five thousand. ``We got a bank of drawings big enough to last two years,'' Ross once said, ``but there aren't enough casuals [informal articles] to last three weeks.''

In the center of a long table in the art meeting room a drawing board was set up to display the week's contributions from scores of artists, both sacred cows and unknowns. It was never easy, and still isn't, for a new artist to break into The New Yorker. Some of those whose names have become well known tried for months, or even longer, sending in dozens of rough sketches week after week. If an unknown's caption, or sketch, seemed promising, it was often bought and turned over to an established staff cartoonist. [Peter] Arno usually got the cream of the crop; the wonderful Mary Petty has never worked from any idea except her own; James Reid Parker did most of Helen Hokinson's captions; and other artists either had their own gagmen or sub-sisted on original inspiration, fortified by captions and ideas sent in by outsiders or developed by the staff. In the early years, Andy [E.B.] White and I sent to the meeting scores of captions and ideas, some of them for full-page drawings, others for double-page panels for Gluyas Williams and Rea Irvin. If a caption didn't suit Ross - and he was as finicky about some of them as a woman trying on Easter bonnets - it was given to White to ``tinker.'' [Wolcott] Gibbs and I did tinkering, too, but White was chief tinkerer to the art meeting.

No phone calls were ever put through to the meeting room on Tuesday afternoon, and only three or four of us could enter unannounced and watch without upsetting Ross. A dozen years ago I began writing a play about Ross and The New Yorker, a comedy whose three acts took place in the art room. When I showed the first draft of Act I to a famous man of the Broadway theater he said, ``I have a sense of isolation about that meeting room, as if the characters were marooned there and there was nobody else in the building. There must have been people in the other offices on the floor, but I don't feel them.''

There were plenty of people outside that quarantined room, surging about the offices and up and down the corridors. If there was an unusual racket of some kind, Ross would say to Miss Terry, ``Go out and stop that, and don't tell me what it was.'' Once it was a workman with a pneumatic drill, who had begun tearing up the floor of the reception room. The area he was ripping up had been marked off by chalk lines. I think Ross wanted a staircase put through to the floor below. The work was not supposed to start until after office hours, but the man with the drill had begun too soon, not realizing that the magazine's working day was from ten to six. According to Ralph Ingersoll, I increased the racket by banging metal wastebaskets up and down the halls, as a form of protest. Miss Terry managed to quiet the drill and me, and to clear the corridors of by-standers.

Ross at one time had his own office soundproofed and thought of extending the system to the art meeting room, but someone at Riggs Sanitarium, where he had spent a cou-ple of weeks resting up from the wrangle and jangle of life, advised him against it. Ross told White and me when he came back, ```You can exclude noise by soundproofing your mind,' this man said. You don't hear racket if you know how to concentrate. Soundproofing walls is catering to weakness.'' One summer day, to demonstrate how this theory worked, he called me into his office. ``They're putting up a building on the corner,'' he said, ``and there must be twenty automatic drills going right now.'' He dismissed this tiny irritation with a jaunty wave of his hand and began discussing some office problem that annoyed him. Suddenly he whirled and bawled at the racket outside, ``Stop that!''

The art meeting always began with the display of finished covers in color, one at a time. They were bought and scheduled six months in advance, so that in June we were studying Christmas covers. Ross sat on the edge of a chair several feet away from the table, leaning forward, the fingers of his left hand spread upon his chest, his right hand holding a white knitting needle which he used for a pointer. Miss Terry remembers the day he brought it in, having picked it up nobody knows where. She later bought a dozen more of them, so everybody could have one. From ``The Years with Ross,'' by James Thurber, published by Little, Brown & Co., Boston. Copyright1957 by James Thurber. Copyright1985 by Helen and Rosemary Thurber.

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