the fragile beginnings of the new yorker magazine -- 10/29/15

In today's encore excerpt -- from George S. Kaufman and His Friends by Scott Meredith. From its tenuous beginnings in 1922, which was a time as fertile for new magazines as the recent past has been for new websites, The New Yorker magazine went on to cause the demise of the more established Vanity Fair and to become one of the most influential magazines in the world:

"In 1922 Harold Ross had developed a plan for a new magazine focused on the New York scene a magazine to be slanted toward sophisticates and to carry the legend, 'Not for the little old lady from Dubuque.' He talked about the idea so unceasingly, holding people tightly by the arm to keep them from escaping, that he soon came to be regarded as even more tedious than untidy, which was saying a lot. His friends also thought the magazine didn't have a chance in the world particularly with Ross as its founder and editor. 'If I had any thoughts about him then' [playwright] George Kaufman told James Thurber long afterward 'they were to the effect that he didn't belong in the Army or in civilian life either. He carried a dummy of the magazine for two years everywhere and I'm afraid he was rather a bore with it.'

First issue's cover with dandy Eustace Tilley, created by Rea Irvin

"Kaufman and the others were almost right; the magazine would probably never have gotten started if the playwright had not himself though unintentionally done something which brought it about. He invited Ross to a poker game at his apartment one evening and seated him next to Raoul Fleischmann, a very pleasant and very rich young man who was heir to a baking and yeast fortune. As it turned out Fleischmann was fascinated by the odd-looking man seated next to him and by the things he was saying. When the card game was over he invited Ross to meet him again and discuss the matter further. And after a number of additional meetings and discussions he agreed to bankroll the new enterprise.

"The first issue of The New Yorker was dated February 21, 1925 and appeared on the newsstands on the 19th. It was terrible. Its stories and articles were dull and its cartoons and humor pieces were unfunny. The early issues were also as sloppy as the magazine's editor. A poem was run in one issue and then accidentally run again a few issues later. By August, the magazine which had started with a press run of 15,000 copies was selling only 2,700 copies per issue and Frank Crowninshield, editor of the fat and successful Vanity Fair, looked over an early New Yorker and said complacently 'Well I don't think we have much to worry about with this thing.'

"The magazine almost ceased to struggle months before it reached its August low. It was doing so badly three months after it started that Fleischmann watching his money pour away at a rate fast enough to alarm even a man of his resources called a luncheon meeting on May 19 and told the glum group facing him that he was pulling out. Ross tried to convince him to hang on but Fleischmann was adamant and the lunch broke up with the magazine under death notice. It was saved by a chance encounter at a friend's festivities. Frank Adams was being remarried that night and at the wedding party Ross seized hold of Fleischmann and began to plead with him again to support the magazine a while longer. In what Thurber later described as 'that atmosphere of hope, beginning, and champagne' Fleischmann finally agreed and this time held on until the magazine became so successful that it began to bring him more money than his family's yeast and baking. ... In ten years it had put Frank Crowninshield and his Vanity Fair out of business."


Scott Meredith


George S. Kaufman and his Friends




Copyright 1974 by Scott Meredith


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