Lillian Ross: Witness
The pathbreaking work of a not-quite-New Journalist
March 24, 2016
Mar 24, 2016
13 Min read time
Before there was New Journalism, there was Lillian Ross.
Lillian Ross reporting on the set of John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage, outside Los Angeles, 1950. / Silvia Reinhardt
Reporting Always: Writings from the New Yorker
Scribner, $27 (cloth)
Lillian Ross is, as they say, a writer’s writer. This is often a kind of backhanded compliment, or a pitying one. Calling someone a writer’s writer is a way of praising work that nonetheless fails to elicit the popular response it deserves. Long-form reporters and writers of creative nonfiction adore Ross, but most people, if they know her at all, know only a few of her pieces: her 1950 profile of Ernest Hemingway; writings on Federico Fellini, Charlie Chaplin, and François Truffaut; and “Picture,” the five-part story about John Huston and the making of The Red Badge of Courage (1951), which Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, gruffly in one case and anxiously in the other, both acknowledged as the foundational text of literary journalism. See? A writer’s writer.
Yet Ross deserves more—greater respect, a broader readership, a more prominent place in postwar American literary history. Since 1945, the year she joined the staff of The New Yorker, of which she is still a member, Ross has quietly and steadily amassed a formidable body of reporting. Now, the book Reporting Always: Writings from the New Yorker collects her work spanning fifty-seven years. The volume is a rich pleasure and an encounter with a pioneering vision.
Yes, Reporting Always includes the Hemingway profile and an excerpt from “Picture.” But there is much else, such as a fistful of gems from her “Talk of the Town” pieces. Among the best are “Movement” and “Life Line,” both from 1960. “Movement” is a wry report from the launch party for Seymour Krim’s 1960 anthology The Beats. (“Nobody here yet who’s an authentic Beat,” a peon with Krim’s publisher tells her. “My friend put this ad in the Village Voice offering to rent Beatniks for your party,” jazz poet and trumpeter Ted Joans says. “I’m the one got rented.”) “Life Line” offers a view of the Greenwich Village coffee shop scene. At the Cafe Figaro, “the power of innocence was going full blast” and “the conversation was interrupted by a mime in whiteface,” who, owner Tom Ziegler said, was outmatched by “a better one at the Café Wha?, on Macdougal.”
Ross writes across many subjects, constructing an elegant chronicle of the second half of the twentieth century in the United States. But I like her best when she is writing about women and children. I doubt she thinks these stories are distinct from the rest, though. She staunchly maintains that all of her work is guided by the same principles: she writes only about people and places that interest her, only about people who want to be written about, and only about those whom she likes. But women and children nonetheless provide her most engrossing subjects.
Ross embodies something of the camera’s capacity for cold neutrality. She reveals a scene as we would see it—if we knew how to look.
“Symbol of All We Possess,” Ross’s 1949 story about the Miss America pageant, is sharply observed and, whomever else she might skewer, profoundly fair to the women in the contest. The story follows the fortunes of Miss New York State, Wanda Nalepa: twenty-two years old, 5’3”, registered nurse from the Bronx; ascended to the Empire State’s throne through a succession of victories that began with her crowning as Miss White Roe Inn. Relying largely on what Miss New York State says, and what other people say about her, Ross creates both a vivid image and a penetrating critique of the pageant.
The piece exemplifies Ross’s ability to build up a scene, and its subjects, with layers of detail and observation. For instance, there is the moment that unfolds shortly after Miss New York State arrives in Atlantic City. Her boyfriend, Bob, tells Ross that he is not staying for the full six days because “she’s not going to win. . . . I told her she’s not going to win. That nursing isn’t the right kind of talent.” After she is filmed and photographed, crisply attired on a hospital floor in an effort to demonstrate that talent, she makes her way over to Ross: “‘One of the papers said I was outstanding.’ She grabbed my arm. ‘Nobody ever called me outstanding before.’” And, after Miss New York State and everyone else loses out to Miss Arizona, Ross notes, “Miss New York State looked puzzled at [Miss Missouri’s] tears and said that she hadn’t cried, because when you don’t expect very much, you’re never disappointed.” The negative space around the images functions as Ross’s commentary.
Lest one assume that Ross’s best work is her earliest, another standout is “The Shit-Kickers of Madison Avenue,” from 1995. While Ross tends not to write in medias res in the same style as, say, Gay Talese, here she does so to arresting effect: “The tenth graders heading up Madison Avenue at 7:30 a.m. to the private high schools are freshly liberated from their dental braces, and their teeth look pearly and magnificent.” She goes on to describe their route and its weekend variations, and then, in the next paragraph, the ritual pecks to the cheek with which her teenage subjects greet one another. “Kisses from their mouths,” she writes, “are like the cool little first nippy smacks of a very young baby.” Oh, I thought, when I read that. Oh, my heart. When Ross hung out with wealthy Manhattan adolescents and drew from her observations an incisive portrait of youth and innocence and discomfiting world-weariness, she was in her early seventies.
These are just two selections from a well-curated collection that includes many other lovely pieces about women, teens, and children. Ross explored the milieus of New York clubwomen, dance teachers, and Hoosier teens seeing New York City for the first time. Such people were symbolically cherished but politically and socially marginalized—yet their stories appeared in The New Yorker and were reported with the same rigor Ross brought to profiles of Fellini and jeweler extraordinaire Harry Winston. This was a marked departure from the ways in which women and children were regarded and represented in midcentury media. That Ross is best known for her portraits of men of distinction and power is, in the context of this work, nearly laughable and certainly ironic. One has the sense that the broad, muscular strokes she used to profile Hemingway and Huston hardly represented the height of her powers.
• • •
Why, then, has Ross been largely overlooked? Why hasn’t her writing attracted the same devotion that attends, say, Joan Didion’s and Tom Wolfe’s? For one thing, Ross never developed, perhaps because she didn’t care to, the kind of outsized persona with which Didion, Wolfe, and their contemporaries marketed their work. For another, she may have been ahead of her time.
There has long been debate over whether Ross ought to be credited as one of the progenitors of what Wolfe boldly called the New Journalism. After all, she had been doing something described as literary journalism for nearly twenty years before Talese’s seminal profile “Joe Louis: The King as a Middle-Aged Man,” appeared in Esquire in June 1962. Likewise, some question whether she should be elevated to the pantheon of literary journalism’s greatest stylists (Jimmy Breslin, Didion, Wolfe, Talese, Mailer, et al).
For some time, I have fallen into the she ought to and the she should camps—credited as a formal innovator and justly named one of the masters of that form. But after reading Reporting Always, my opinion has changed. Yes, Ross deserves to be recognized for developing literary journalism and/or the New Journalism. But she shouldn’t be included in that stylistic pantheon. Undoubtedly, her work is as good as the others’. But what she did was not the New Journalism, even if the New Journalism was in many ways an outgrowth of writing such as hers.
What was the New Journalism, exactly? In 1972, Wolfe, the form’s chief theorizer and mythmaker, published three long essays in New York and Esquire answering that question. According to Wolfe, the New Journalism was characterized by four devices that made its exemplars “read like novels”: the use of reported dialogue; “third-person point of view”; scene-by-scene construction; and, most importantly, the use of the “everyday gestures, habits, manners, [and] customs” of the writer’s subjects. These he called “status details.” By this definition, Ross was not just practicing the New Journalism: she had practically invented it. She knew how to wield a good status detail when Wolfe was still wearing short pants. There is simply no argument to be made—though Wolfe has tried—that earlier magazine writers had been unable to do the deep reporting the New Journalism required and unequipped to use the literary devices that distinguished it stylistically.
But Ross wasn’t a New Journalist.
What really distinguished the New Journalism was the importance of the writer’s interiority to the story, and Ross didn’t go there. The most praised work of the era used interiority as a place from which to assert its authority. A classic Didion or Wolfe piece has at its center Didion or Wolfe: their feelings give meaning to their observations. It was, after all, Didion’s panic and claustrophobia that undergirded much of her most powerful writing. Take, for example, the titular essay from 1979’s The White Album, which is thought to have captured the zeitgeist of the late 1960s. Though it is also a beautiful hybrid of journalism and memoir, “The White Album” nonetheless demonstrates the degree to which Didion’s affect shaped the story. One anecdote ends with, “This may be a parable, either of my life as a reporter during this period or of the period itself.”
A section of the essay devoted to the 1968 strike at San Francisco State University is especially telling. What Didion observes there is not just selective—as any writer’s observations must be—but subjective: shot through with her politics. She describes the scene as one of “industrious self-delusion,” a synecdoche for what she sees as the hollowness of the larger processes of social change then underway. At the university, “enfants terribles and the Board of Trustees unconsciously collaborat[ed] on a wishful fantasy” of campus revolution. She is unimpressed with the student protestors’ “obligatory ‘Fifteen Demands’” and does not list any of them.
But the San Francisco State strike was more complicated, more serious, and more productive than Didion seems to have understood. She visited the campus in November 1968, shortly after it began. But it lasted until March 1969, making it the longest campus strike in the United States. The “Fifteen Demands” yielded something, too: that year, the university established its College of Ethnic Studies, the first in the nation. By 1978, when Didion was writing “The White Album,” 439 colleges and universities had also developed ethnic studies courses, majors, and departments. Perhaps she couldn’t have known that this was a possibility, but earlier in the same piece she notes that her image of Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton was later “shattered” in the face of other evidence.
This kind of interiority, which overtly painted observations with the author’s emotional and political brush, may have been what Wolfe meant by “the personal imprint.” But there is more than one way to achieve it, and Ross did—quite differently. It is easy to read in her fly-on-the-wall style a lack personality; Ross embodies something of the camera’s capacity for cold neutrality. But fidelity to a scene is not unreflective. We might imagine that Ross is revealing a scene as we would see it, but the vision—in its panoramic scope, in its depth, in the subtlety of its observations—is wholly hers. It is how we might see it if we knew how to look. And she achieved this not by asserting her interiority, her sense of how things around her ought to be, but by making a series of careful choices about which observations she shared and how she juxtaposed them. Selective, but not subjective. The result is that Ross’s work is uniquely attentive not to herself—as the New Journalism was—but to what she witnesses, to the ways in which people are always at the center of their own lives.
• • •
One of Ross’s great strengths is her concern for her subjects, not how those subjects are perceived. Rather than impose an assessment upon the reader, she documents behaviors that, of themselves, amount to something meaningful. Indeed, her mastery of the art of recording how people live, as opposed to whether her subjects’ lives match readers’ expectations, is most evident on the occasions when she fails. When she writes about her friends—not Huston and Hemingway, who would become friends—Ross loses some of her grounding. In Reporting Always, a long profile of Robin Williams and his wife Marsha exemplifies the pattern. It is an affectionate portrait of a couple Ross liked, but it is not her best work.
“Mr. and Mrs. Williams” was published in 1993. As always, Ross’s gaze is kind here, but it is not, as it usually is, equally unsparing. Describing the genesis of the Williams’s relationship, Ross writes, “Marsha met Robin at a party in San Francisco about twelve years ago. . . . In 1984, she took a job caring for Zachary, Williams’ then year-old son by his first wife, Valerie Velardi.” Marsha kept this job, Ross reports, for about a year, and then became Williams’s assistant. Her relationship and his marriage both collapsed, and after Williams and Velardi had been separated for a year, “Robin and Marsha became involved with each other.”
So far, so good. Williams’s second wife had worked for the family, first with his kids and then as his assistant. Did an admired star leave his wife for the nanny? It is a question readers might ponder, but Ross banishes it. After the 1987 release of Good Morning, Vietnam, she writes, Robin “and Marsha, who was now regularly by his side, became the targets of a certain amount of highly visible, cavalier tabloid attention. ‘The crazy, sleazy stuff they printed!’ one of the Williamses’ friends remarked to me recently. ‘Marsha is an original and exceptional woman, a real match for Robin.’” Is this a description of what Ross saw or instead a stylized account of the couple she wished to see? Whatever her desires, her choices have the effect of guarding her subject rather than exposing it.
Every writer has her limits. Additionally, though Ross is not blind to race and racism, virtually all of the stories collected in Reporting Always feature white subjects. But she shared these shortcomings even with her vaunted peers. We need not pretend that the voyeuristic ways in which Didion and Wolfe wrote about the Black Panther Party, for example, are more meaningfully inclusive. Ross, reflecting a level of consciousness that might have been brazen in 1949, at least notes that the Miss America Pageant, intended to crown the paragon of the nation’s feminine beauty, was barred to black women. Wolfe’s “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” by contrast, partakes in racial pathologizing.
At the last, one of Ross’s greatest talents lies in the cool clarity of her gaze: somehow she sees things and people simultaneously unsentimentally and with great warmth. In the closing lines of “The Shit-Kickers of Madison Avenue,” after thoroughly reporting on the interactions among the teen terrors, she returns to their kisses. One of the girls has detailed the many ways in which a weekend party had sucked, and then, Ross says, “The chubby, dark-eyed girl who was stressed out by her French teacher comes over from another table and gives the entrepreneur a soft, comforting kiss on the cheek, and one by one all the other tenth graders in the area come over and do the same.” She likes them, so we like them. And we like them not because she has told us to, but because she has shown us, with candor and respect, who they are.
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March 24, 2016
13 Min read time