Lillian Ross, a Pioneer of Literary Journalism, Has Died at Ninety-Nine – The New Yorker

Lillian Ross came of age at a time when it was impolite to ask a lady
how old she was, and—quaintly, miraculously—that practice, as it
pertained to her, was observed well into the era of full disclosure. For
those of us who joined the magazine in the later years of her
tenure—which is to say, almost all of us—she was a colleague of
indeterminate seniority.

It was not until Lillian witnessed the way in which Nelson Mandela was
fêted upon his ninety-fifth birthday, in 2013, that she realized that to
have reached her advanced age, with her accomplishments, was, in a way,
an accomplishment of its own. Thereafter, her age became an open point
of pride: she turned ninety-nine in June.

Lillian joined The New Yorker in 1945, and she continued to appear in
its pages for the next seventy-odd years, which means that she was not
just a contributor but a creator—one of those whose style and tone
became a standard to which later writers aspired. That tone—acutely
observant, intimate, and very frequently amused—emerged in some of her
earliest and best-known pieces, including her Profile of Ernest
Hemingway
and the five-part series on the making of John Huston’s “The
Red Badge of Courage.”
(The Xeroxes of her articles made for
distribution in the nation’s journalism classes, if piled on top of one
another, would reach to the moon.) She was a master of the Talk of the
Town form, with its comic distillation of social mores. She was game for
anything, but also knew when to turn an assignment down. When she was
pitched a Talk piece on the Hope Diamond, in 2010, she said she didn’t
see a story in it. “It may be I’m the wrong one to look,” she wrote to
her editor. “The memory of the original Harry Winston I wrote about in
1954 is too strong, the way he touched his diamonds and talked about
them as his children.”

Ross, who spent decades in a relationship with William Shawn, the second
editor of this magazine, who was married, adopted a son, Erik, who was
born in 1965. Ebullient in motherhood, she sent a baby photograph to J.
D. Salinger, a friend of long standing. “He’s roaring with laughter,”
Salinger wrote back. “Oh, if he can only hold on to it.”

It was appropriate that Lillian defied being defined by her years: her
rapport with younger people, especially very young people, was immediate
and absolute. She adored babies, insisting on visiting the home of one
young colleague the day after his firstborn son came home from the
hospital. “I like ’em fresh!” she said.

In 1960, she joined a group of twelfth graders from Bean Blossom
Township High School
, in Stinesville, Indiana, population three hundred
and fifty-five, when they arrived in New York City for a class trip, and
deftly chronicled their wary distaste for the ways of the natives,
observing, “The three girls who didn’t want to go to Coney Island
explained that they firmly believed that the class should ‘have fun’ on
its last night in the city, and not before.”

In her fifth decade as a staff writer, in the mid-nineties, she sat down
with a bunch of private-school tenth graders on the Upper East Side.
Ross always had an ear for the weird rhythms of spoken English, and she
captured their profanity-laced, world-weary, sublimely innocent
conversation—in a notebook; she didn’t believe in using recorders—for
one of her best Talk of the Town stories. “The Shit-Kickers of Madison
Avenue
” was one of the earliest efforts among reporters to capture
uptalk on the page: “You three come to my house you know at five? You
bring all your clothes? I take everything out of my closet and spread
everything out on the floor? We try on all the stuff?”

She took young people seriously, an art not always cultivated among
grownups. (She wrote a Talk story about Lin-Manuel Miranda a decade ago,
when he was a mere stripling of twenty-seven.) In so doing, she provided
an example of how to be taken seriously by younger people—an objective
that, for women especially, becomes more challenging as the years mount.
Lillian was a generous champion of younger writers at the magazine,
especially younger writers who sought, like her, to chronicle New York’s
human comedy. In them—in us—she surely recognized her mischievous,
enduring, shit-kicking self. ♦

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