‘Girl with the built-in tape recorder’

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - OBITUARIES -

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

Lil­lian Ross

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