Born 8 June 1927, Syracuse, New York
Daughter of Louis R. and Edna Rosenberg Ross; children: Erik
Lillian Ross comes from a middle-class Jewish background. She attended Hunter College in New York City, and in 1946 began writing for the New Yorker. Ross became a staff writer in 1948 under founding editor Harold Ross, she later worked with William Shawn, and most of the material in her books appeared first in the New Yorker. Few details of Ross' private life were ever available, as she believed that "a reporter's most valuable asset is his anonymity." However, in the late 1990s, this anonymity was shattered when it was revealed that Ross and the very-married Shawn had carried on a decades-long affair, which produced a child.
In the course of gathering material for her first New Yorker profile in 1947 (on Brooklyn-born bullfighter Sidney Franklin, reprinted in Reporting as "El Unico Matador"), Ross met Ernest Hemingway. When Hemingway visited New York for a few days in 1949, Ross was invited to accompany him. The resulting profile (New Yorker, 13 May 1950) aroused both admiration and protest, a furor which surfaced again when the article appeared in book form as Portrait of Hemingway (1961). Ross explained and defended the work, of which Hemingway himself approved, in a letter to the editors of New Republic (7 August 1961).
The Hemingway profile gave Ross a certain cachet when she went to Hollywood for 18 months to cover the entire process of making a motion picture, from original conception to stockholders' box office report. The picture was MGM's The Red Badge of Courage, directed by John Huston, and the New Yorker articles became the book Picture (1952). It was considered a literary innovation because it told a factual story in fictional form. Many objected to the ingenuous exposé of Hollywood's preference for making money over making art, but the book remains, after 25 years, as instructive as it is entertaining.
The Player: Profile of an Art (1962) is a collection of self-portraits of 55 actors and actresses. Over a four-year period, Ross and her sister, Helen, interviewed their subjects, taking copious notes and then arranging the material in the form of monologues, each prefaced by a "natural, unretouched" photograph taken by Ross
Vertical and Horizontal (1963) is a collection of stories that, taken together, chronicle with wry humor and a touch of pathos the activities of a would-be upwardly mobile New York bachelor physician in his relationships with his less than competent psychiatrist, his patients, and the women he regards as "wife material."
Reporting (1964) contains five New Yorker articles, including "Portrait of Hemingway," and "Picture." Although both "The Big Stone" and "Terrific" cover events that occurred over a period of a year, Ross would seem to have been invisibly present at every moment of decision, every casual but crucial encounter of personalities. That sixth sense for striking chords of interest from an array of random notes reappears in Talk Stories (1966), a collection of 60 short pieces originally written for the unsigned "Talk of the Town" section of the New Yorker. Ross' preoccupations are reflected in the number of articles on Adlai Stevenson, theater people, and the United Nations. Occasionally, she assumes the persona of "our man Stanley" (whose style is parodied in a review in the Reporter, 16 May 1966) or of the "wild-haired typist, Miss Rogers."
Anonymity had always been the distinguishing feature of Ross' reporting as well as of her private life. Though this is now changing with her memoirs and the recent disclosures of her private life, it doesn't change her remarkable career or the effectiveness of her writing style—it simply makes her more human. In her writing, she has rarely allowed herself to interpret or comment upon what she observes; her artistry lies in the sensitive selection of detail and the ability to suggest more than she says. By documenting the objects surrounding her subject or the subject's gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, and interpersonal relationships, Ross has been able to evoke the essence of a particular personality, an entire corporate hierarchy, or a universal human foible. Asked for her advice to young writers, Ross tells them to "try to find the strongest and most direct line from your feelings and ideas to what you write. Hold to what you know is true, no matter what is offered to you in the way of distraction." Sage advice.
Adlai Stevenson (1966). Maine Lingo: Boiled Owls, Billdads, and Wazzats (with J. Gould, 1975). Moments with Chaplin (1980). Takes: Stories from Talk of the Town (1983). Here But Not Here: A Love Story (1998). Picture (1998).
Albee, E., Conversations with Edward Albee (1988). Berner, R. T., ed., The Literature of Journalism: Text and Context (1999). Connery, T. B., ed., Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism: Representative Writers in an Emerging Genre (1992). Poirier, R., ed., Prize Stories 1964: The O. Henry Awards (1964).
Counterpoint (1964). New Criterion (1998). New York (April 1998). NY (May 1998). New Republic (7 Aug. 1961). Newsweek (18 Dec. 1961). NYTBR (15 May 1966). SR (14 Mar. 1964). Time (1 May 1964, June 1998).
—FELICIA HARDISON LONDRÉ