GENIUS IN DISGUISE: HAROLD ROSS OF THE NEW YORKER By Thomas Kunkel; Random House, 497 pp., $25
FOR the first 25 years of its 70-year existence, The New Yorker magazine was the domain of its originator and first editor, Harold Ross. A Midwesterner, a school dropout, a tramp journalist, a person who was sometimes rude and coarse, he seems an unlikely creator for an urbane, witty publication.
To Thomas Kunkel, who has written a splendid life and times of the man and his magazine, the explanation for this incongruity is the title of his book: Ross was a ''Genius in Disguise.'' The somewhat boorish persona was the mask, not the man.
Certainly the published evidence of his accomplishment is strong. Few would disagree with Kunkel's assessment: ''Ross's New Yorker changed the face of contemporary fiction, perfected a new form of journalism, established new standards for humor and comic art, swayed the cultural and social agendas, and became synonymous with sophistication. It replaced convention with innovation.''
Ross defined the purpose and editorial tone of the new magazine. Subsequent editors have not fundamentally changed the formula he outlined in his prospectus. Fiction, profiles, journalism, reviews, cartoons, and Talk of the Town items were all features from the start.
The start was shaky. Arriving in New York after World War I, fresh from the excitement of being managing editor of Stars and Stripes, Ross soon decided to launch his own publication. He and his first wife, Jane Grant, found a partner who had money, Raoul Fleischmann. With an advisory board of 10 literary friends from the famous Algonquin Round Table, they launched The New Yorker in 1925. The partners almost abandoned the soon-faltering project before the first year was out, but held on for a fall push that put the new magazine on the road to success.
Part of that success was due to the strong staff Ross assembled, which included such luminaries as James Thurber, E.B. White, Katharine Angell (who became White's wife), Wolcott Gibbs, and many others. The magazine grew and prospered despite the Great Depression and the dislocations of World War II. Some of the success may have been due to timing. According to Kunkel, ''Ross's New Yorker represented an almost magical confluence of an idea, a time, and a place, arriving just after New York emerged as a world city, yet before the pervasive presence of television....''
But it was Ross who made it all happen. Kunkel's biography presents the complexities and contradictions of a man who could be a loyal friend and a generous benefactor of struggling writers, but who could also nourish a 20-year feud with his publisher that prevented Fleischmann from even setting foot in the editorial offices while Ross was alive.
Raised by a mother who had taught school, he was a strict constructionist about language and cared almost as much about commas as content. He was ''so passionate about grammar that he read [usage expert] Fowler's four daunting pages on the distinctions between 'which' and 'that' for his own amusement,'' Kunkel writes. But he gave his writers freedom to pursue individual projects out of a deep respect for creative people, often with outstanding results.
Less effective in his private life, Ross married three times and was living alone in a hotel at the end. Neither family nor co-workers knew he was seriously ill, making his death even more shattering for close friends and colleagues.
Irascible -- sometimes irrational -- Ross was a hands-on editor who read almost every word he published. ''If there had been an organization chart...,'' Kunkel writes, ''it would have resembled not the conventional pyramid but a wagon wheel, with Ross at the hub and spokes shooting off in every direction. Nothing, from major Profile to tiniest Newsbreak, went into the magazine without his approval.''
Through many illuminating anecdotes and an appendix of editor's query sheets, Kunkel details Ross's editing style. His comments ranged from single words -- such as the much-quoted ''whohe?'' -- to whole paragraphs and included minor quibbles as well as fundamental flaws. In one instance, the question ''What is Harlem?'' in the margin of a single-part profile of dancer Bill Robinson resulted in a second article to provide the needed cultural context.
A demon for accuracy, Ross insisted on fact-checking that often required a week of research time for a piece of journalism. In at least one instance, his ''fixation on facts'' went too far.
Kunkel explains: ''E.J. Kahn told of an occasion during World War II when he cabled a dispatch on deadline from the South Pacific. The story had to do with how Japanese bombing raids were driving American troops into the jungle, where mosquitoes fed on them, so Kahn made a passing reference to the nefarious alliance between the 'Japs and the mosquitoes.' Somehow in the transmission 'Japs' became 'waps.' Kahn was incommunicado, so back in New York his editor decided 'waps and mosquitoes' must be 'wasps and mosquitoes.' Seeing this, Ross was thrown, though not for long. He had his fact checkers contact entomologists at the Museum of Natural History, who decided, based on the evidence, that Kahn had stumbled onto a rare strain of wasps long thought vanished. Not only did 'wasps' make the magazine; so did several lines explaining their remarkable resurrection.''
Especially during World War II, The New Yorker was notable for its literary journalism. The long well-crafted articles set a standard. In a daring move, Ross devoted an entire issue to one subject -- John Hersey's ''Hiroshima.'' The magazine quickly sold out, and copies were being bought for as much as $15.
To the dismay of writers, Ross also sometimes held a piece until he thought the time was right to print it. Probably the record was a story that J.D. Salinger sold The New Yorker in 1941, about a boy named Holden Caulfield, the hero of his later novel ''The Catcher in the Rye.'' Because they thought it might seem ''irrelevant and unfunny,'' the editors waited until the war was over to publish it, five years later.
Many earlier books about Harold Ross and The New Yorker are more about their authors than their subject, but Kunkel's biography his first book never loses sight of its central character. Straightforward and readable, it is also intricately structured and gracefully written.
Ross is probably less well-known today than many of the writers and artists whose work he published. Good editors -- like good editing -- are often invisible. ''Genius in Disguise'' is a sympathetic portrait of one editor, unmasked and made visible.