‘Girl with the built-in tape recorder’
LILLIAN Ross, whose innovative journalism appeared in The
New Yorker magazine for eight consecutive decades, and whose profiles and articles were considered forebears of both the non-fiction novel and unsparing modern celebrity profile, died on September 20, at a Manhattan hospital. She was 99.
The cause was a stroke, said her long-time New Yorker editor, Susan Morrison.
Ross began working at The
New Yorker in 1945, when the weekly magazine was guided by its founding editor, Harold
Ross (no relation), and teemed with a dazzling array of literary talent, including Janet Flanner, AJ Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, SJ Perelman and EB White.
Her deepest attachment was to the magazine’s long-time editor, William Shawn, the soft-spoken editor who was married to another woman.
Ross gained particular renown with her straightforward 1950 profile of novelist Ernest Hemingway that many readers initially found cruelly unflattering.
Two years later, her book Picture, an exploration of film-making, became known as perhaps the first non-fiction novel and a model for later literary works by Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and others.
Short, blunt and observant,
Ross was equipped with a supply of notebooks and a sharp ear. One of her New Yorker colleagues, humourist James Thurber, called her “the girl with the built-in tape recorder” for her ability to capture dialogue with pen and paper.
Among the hundreds of articles she wrote for the magazine were memorable portraits of fashion designer Coco Chanel, playwright Edward Albee and film stars ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Robin Williams.
Her most acclaimed early subject was Hemingway, whom she accompanied in 1950 on his short visit to New York. Hemingway often had a drink in his hand and sometimes spoke in a peculiar, clipped form of pidgin English: “Book start, then increase in pace till it becomes impossible to stand… Book is like engine. We have to slack her off gradually.”
He occasionally blurted, “How do you like it now, gentlemen?”, which became the title of the story.
Ross also recorded Hemingway’s poignant reflections on the nature of writing and mortality. “I have seen all the sunrises there have been in my life, and that’s half a hundred years,” he said. “I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast – talk them or write them down.”
Ross gave Hemingway an advance look at the story – a practice frowned on today – yet many of his devotees were incensed. By pulling back the curtain and showing Hemingway’s all-too-human frailties, Ross expanded the range of the celebrity profile.
Lillian Rosovsky was born in Syracuse, New York, most probably on June 8, 1918, according to public records. She grew up in Brooklyn.
During the 1940s she worked at PM, a New York daily newspaper, and changed her last name to Ross. A friend recommended her to The New Yorker.
Earlier in her career, Ross published a collection of short fiction, Vertical and Horizontal (1963), satirising the world of psychoanalysis. A year later, she directed a television documentary, Dancers in May.
Ross often noted that she wrote her memorable profiles without relying on a tape recorder – yet the accuracy of her quotations was never challenged.
“To me, the machine distorts the truth,” she wrote in an introduction to her 2002 book, Reporting Back. “Tape-recorded interviews are not only misleading; they are unrealistic; they are lifeless… Literal reality rarely rings true.” – The Washington Post