White, Katharine S. (1892–1977)

views updated

White, Katharine S. (1892–1977)

Longtime editor at The New Yorker whose skill, eye for talent, and uncompromising taste helped to elevate the magazine to the near-mythic status it enjoyed in the mid-20th century . Name variations: Katharine S. Angell; Kay White. Born Katharine Sergeant in Winchester, Massachusetts, on September 17, 1892; died of heart failure in North Brooklin, Maine, on July 20, 1977; daughter of Charles Spencer Sergeant (a vice president of West End Railway Co., Boston) and Elizabeth Blake (Shepley) Sergeant; attended the Winsor School, Boston, 1903–09; graduated from Bryn Mawr, 1914; married Ernest Angell (a lawyer), in Brookline, Massachusetts, on May 22, 1915 (divorced 1929); married E(lwyn) B(rooks) White (the writer), in Bedford Village, New York, on November 13, 1929; children: (first marriage) Nancy Angell and Roger Angell; (second marriage) Joel McCoun White.

Joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine (August 1925); retired from The New Yorker (1961); Ernest Angell died (1973); Onward and Upward in the Garden published (1979).

Katharine S. White was of the opinion that "a writer is a special being, as fascinating as a bright beetle," according to her second husband, E.B. White. As an editor for The New Yorker magazine for over 36 years, she sought out and encouraged promising young writers such as John Updike, J.D. Salinger, Jean Stafford , John O'Hara, and Vladimir Nabokov. As a female editor in a masculine environment, White earned the respect of her colleagues and the often highly sensitive creative artists with whom she worked. Intelligent, refined, elegant, and opinionated, she was the epitome of the stylish New England upper-middle-class female. She was also reserved and self-controlled, confident of her ability to judge writing and writers. A loyal friend and a loving wife, White was a mediocre mother and a complete failure in anything domestic; she never learned to cook and disliked housekeeping. Work was the focus of her life, and The New Yorker was the center of her world.

Born in 1892 in Winchester, Massachusetts, the youngest of three daughters, Katharine Sergeant enjoyed a happy, comfortable childhood. Her parents were descended from old New England stock; her father's family came to New York "in a company of Puritans" around 1644, and produced an illustrious progeny who had early connections to Princeton University and married well. Charles Sergeant's name appeared in the Boston Blue Book, and he belonged to clubs whose members included men from the Cabot, Lodge, and Saltonstall families. Similarly, Elizabeth Blake Shepley Sergeant , Katharine's mother, was from a prominent family that arrived in Massachusetts in 1636, and became lawyers, governors, and generals in the 19th century. Katharine was six years old when her mother died and her father's sister Caroline (Aunt Crully) moved into their spacious Georgian house in Brookline. A graduate of Smith College, she provided an intellectually stimulating environment for Katharine and her two sisters, Elizabeth (Elsie) and Rosamond Sergeant . The family was rather "stiff and inhibited," but White acquired "a sense of security and a strong sense of her own self-worth" from her father and aunt.

White was tutored at home until she entered the seventh grade at the Winsor School in Boston, which had an excellent reputation. She did well in the college-preparatory courses that included mastery of French, Latin, and German. Called "Goody Sergeant" by her classmates, Katharine already revealed a maturity beyond her age; what emerged was "the picture of a girl who was in some ways a curiously old child of impossibly high standards, easily disappointed in people, and judgmental," according to Linda H. Davis .

In 1910, White entered Bryn Mawr College, known for its "high order of learning and the lofty aspirations of its students." A full two-thirds of applicants failed the entrance examinations. Three foreign languages were also required for admission. The formidable female president of Bryn Mawr, Dr. M. Carey Thomas , believed that a girls' school was preferable to a co-educational institution. Interest in love and marriage would be postponed until the young women had made some contribution to science or the humanities, but it was also hoped that "even after graduation the Bryn Mawr woman would resist the temptation to marry." However, if they chose to marry, women should be financially independent of their husbands. White took this admonition as a firm rule and followed it all of her life. Typically, she pursued her own path, and during her freshman year became engaged to Ernest Angell, a senior at Harvard. When Katharine told a fellow student about this, her friend exclaimed, "Oh, Katharine, how perfectly awful." At college, White majored in English and philosophy, worked on school magazines, and wrote stories and poems. One of the brightest students, she graduated 4th out of 79 students in her class in 1914. After graduation, she worked as a volunteer at Massachusetts General Hospital, interviewing patients; women of White's social class were expected to be productive, but not to earn a living.

A year after graduation, Katharine married Ernest at her home in Brookline. She had first met him through his sister Hildegard Angell (Katharine was 12 and he was 15) when their families spent summer holidays at Lake Chocorua in New York State. The young couple had much in common. Both were intelligent, spoke foreign languages, and had an interest in culture and elegant living. Ernest graduated from Harvard Law School in 1913 and practiced law in Cleveland, his hometown. In Cleveland, the couple lived around the corner from Ernest's strong-willed mother, Lily Curtis Angell . Katharine and Ernest were socially active and helped found a theater company. In 1916, their daughter Nancy Angell was born and less than a year later, when America entered the First World War, Ernest enlisted in the army as a first lieutenant and was sent to France.

Ernest's army pay was inadequate to support his family, and Katharine found a job conducting a survey of disabled people in Cleveland. She went on to work for the Consumers' League, lobbying for laws to protect workers. In late 1918, she took Nancy and moved back to her father's house in Brookline, continuing to do volunteer work and auditing writing classes at Boston University. By Bryn Mawr standards, White felt obliged to contribute something to society. Moreover, she was undeniably ambitious and admitted that she was unhappy "when I cannot do the work of the mind, not hands, for which I am best fitted."

After Ernest was discharged from the army in September 1919, he and Katharine moved to New York, and he joined a law firm. White worked for the Bryn Mawr Alumna Endowment Fund, which required her to travel around the country, until her son Roger was born in 1920. In France, Ernest had developed a taste for elegant living and for keeping a mistress. By 1922, White was aware that her husband was unfaithful, but his affairs were not serious enough to destroy the family. They lived a full and exciting life in New York where they had a three-story house and a quiet refuge at their summer house upstate in Sneden's Landing. White wanted to become a writer and contributed articles to The New Republic in addition to book reviews for the Atlantic Monthly and the Saturday Review of Literature. She also accompanied Ernest to Haiti and Santo Domingo. He was representing their interests in a U.S. Senate investigation of the American occupation of the areas. White's articles on conditions she personally observed in these states "are passionate indictments of the occupation and the racial prejudice and segregation," writes Davis.

My particular way of "saving the world" is rather indirect, I must admit, since it mostly involves trying to make The New Yorker a good magazine.

—Katharine S.White

But White thought her life lacked focus and direction. She needed to be productive, to earn money, to be independent. Lavish living, which included several servants, strained the Angells' finances since neither she nor Ernest could handle money well and appeared unwilling, or unable, to alter their extravagant tastes.

In the summer of 1925, a neighbor in Sneden's Landing, Fillmore Hyde, who was a staff member on the newly founded New Yorker, suggested to White that she contact the editor, Harold Ross, about working for the magazine. In August, she was hired part-time to read manuscripts; two weeks later, she was working full-time, and in the fall she became an editor. Ross "recognized in her a person of taste, intelligence, and refinement, someone who could be of immense value to his fledgling magazine." In contrast to White, Ross was not well educated and was "rather uncouth" at times, but she appreciated his abilities, his humor, and his commitment to good writing. As Davis notes, White "was not a snob; like a true aristocrat, she did not need to be." Indeed, she had found a proven friend in Ross and a profession to which she could dedicate all her energy and loyalty.

In an article entitled "Home and Office" that she wrote for The Survey in 1926, White claimed that the job of editor provided her with "a way of life infinitely more satisfying than any I have yet known." And she defended her decision to be a working mother; work was a necessity, but not for financial reasons, and she admitted that she had made "honest attempts at the domestic life," but had not succeeded. Further, she wrote, her children preferred that she work. But Nancy later complained that "she never really knew" her mother whose interests were outside the family. Roger disagreed with this. Neither Katharine nor Ernest were openly affectionate with their children or, in fact, with each other. Ernest also made no attempt to be discreet in his philandering, which led to frequent quarrels.

Working at The New Yorker, White had found the career fulfillment she had sought. She was particularly adept at dealing with young writers and took a personal interest in their progress. She edited the early work of John O'Hara and James Thurber, the latter a writer for The New Yorker and office mate of Elwyn Brooks White. E.B. (called Andy by his friends) had contributed short pieces to the magazine in 1925. Harold Ross was impressed with his writing, and Katharine suggested to Ross that he hire Andy as a regular staff member. When Andy and Katharine developed an interest in one another is not certain—Katharine carefully guarded her private life and thoughts—but in a poem Andy published in early 1928, he wrote, "And if I love you truly/ Is anyone to blame?" Intelligent, sensitive, charming, and shy, Andy was seven years younger than Katharine.

In the summer of 1928, the Angells and their children went to Europe. Andy was in France, and after Ernest sailed for New York, Katharine met Andy in Paris. She always denied they had an affair; her New England upbringing and her personality make this appear plausible. The Angells' marriage was deteriorating, and in February 1929, Ernest struck her during a quarrel. Katharine moved to their house in northern New York, while the children remained with their father. White decided to divorce Ernest and went to Reno, Nevada, to establish residency and obtain the decree. Her family strongly objected to her decision. Divorce "was a bold action" to take at this time, but so was a demanding, full-time career for a woman. Moreover, Katharine agreed to joint custody of the children; they lived with their father during the week and with Katharine on weekends and holidays. In the settlement, she received $5,000 a year in alimony, even though she was making a better salary than Ernest, which he resented. After she obtained the divorce, she moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village, hired a housekeeper, and returned to work. In November 1929, Katharine married E.B. White. Their son Joel McCoun was born in December 1930.

Following the birth, White developed pyelitis (an inflammation of the renal pelvis) and was unable to work until the fall of 1931. In addition to her editorial duties, she began reviewing children's books, which previously had not been taken seriously by The New Yorker. She considered both text and illustrations as important, and criticized books that were condescending towards children or that engaged in "sentimentality, coyness, and moralizing." As fiction editor, White convinced Harold Ross to publish submissions he was prone to reject, such as stories by Eudora Welty and John O'Hara. She also persuaded him to permit "possibly offensive language in the dialogue of stories in which the words were used to create character." During the 1930s, The New Yorker developed into "a more mature, sophisticated, urbane publication" due in large part to the cooperative efforts of Ross and of White who "became his literary counterpart, completing his education, supplying what he lacked in taste, tact, and literary judgment."

In 1937, White was associate editor of the magazine, earning a good salary plus stock options. Consequently, she and Andy lived well, employed servants, and bought a 36-acre farm in North Brooklin, Maine. Despite their successes, Andy found living in New York stressful and often complained of ill health. He decided to take a year off, travel, and relax. He would use his own money since Katharine had always kept her bank accounts separate from those of her husbands. Despite Katharine's opposition, Andy carried out his plan. On his return, he and Katharine decided to move to Maine, so Andy could write in a quieter, less demanding environment. But for Katharine the break with the magazine, her colleagues, her writers, and New York itself was a wrenching experience. Her leaving was "just too awful," said Janet Flanner ; to Flanner, who wrote for the magazine, White was "the best woman editor in the world."

In Maine, Katharine read manuscripts sent to her, reviewed children's books, and worked on an anthology of verse with Andy entitled A Subtreasury of American Humor. He wrote the introduction, and Katharine edited the 804-page book to which she had persuaded H.L. Mencken to contribute. In late 1943, Ross asked the Whites to return to New York and work on the magazine again. Both Katharine and Andy were already suffering from poor health; Katharine had a hysterectomy in 1943, and Andy experienced bouts of depression. However, Katharine was pleased to acquire new literary talent such as Vladimir Nabokov (author of the infamous novel Lolita) and Jean Stafford. As "the fighting female on the spot," White knew her influence would be greater with Ross than it had been when she lived in Maine.

Not everyone at The New Yorker got on well with Mrs. White (few people dared call her

Katharine). Some staff members complained that she tended to intimidate less self-assured colleagues, but she and Ross dealt with one another as equals. A few, like humorist James Thurber, resented being edited by a demanding woman editor. In fact, White was "supremely self-confident, a woman of seemingly unshakable poise." She was able to remain friends with Thurber even though he was openly "hostile towards women," and with the often "pompous and arrogant" writer Edmund Wilson. Katharine was also editor and friend of Wilson's wife, the writer Mary McCarthy (author of The Group); when her book was published, White told McCarthy she liked it, but "disliked the book's explicit sex scenes" and that it was "too much a social document and too little a novel about six or eight young women." White considered Vladimir Nabokov one of the magazine's "prized writers" and handled him "like an exotic hothouse flower." After rejecting his first submission to The New Yorker, she eventually edited about 30 of his published stories. Among her coterie of writers, Jean Stafford was an especially close friend. The subject of Stafford's excellent short story "Mountain Day" derived from a true-life experience of White's at Lake Chocorua in 1913.

When Harold Ross was diagnosed with cancer, White proposed that the editors take on his responsibilities to lighten his workload. The managing editor, St. Clair McKelway, claimed that she was planning to take over as Ross' successor, and he resented it. When Ross died in 1951, William Shawn became editor, and White approved the choice. She and Shawn shared common literary interests and worked well together.

Ill health began to plague Katharine's and Andy's lives during the 1950s. At various times she suffered from infectious hepatitis, mumps, and the flu. Absence from her office did not interfere, however, with reading manuscripts and encouraging new writers such as John Updike who began publishing in The New Yorker in 1954. As his editor, White "knew he was something special," and he never objected to her editorial suggestions; for example, the proper use of the colon and dash led to a long discussion on punctuation. Such meticulous attention to detail characterized White's editing and benefited "her" writers. She was an "uncommonly inspiring" editor, and her life revolved around her work which embodied her identity. However, family life was not as efficiently managed. Her sister Rosamond died in 1954, and Katharine took over caring for her elderly Aunt Caroline. She was unable to cope with housework or cooking, making domestic help a necessity, but Aunt Caroline had been a loving surrogate mother to Katharine who would not consider sending her aunt to a nursing home. Relations between Katharine and her sister Elsie had been strained for several years; Katharine stopped supplementing Elsie's income in 1955, though the reason is not known. Elsie envied Katharine's success and claimed that her sister "had no feelings" (perhaps because Katharine did little to hide her negative appraisal of Elsie's writings).

After her aunt died, Katharine and Andy went to London, spent time with A.J. Liebling, a writer for The New Yorker later married to Jean Stafford, and visited John Updike in Oxford. On their return Katharine began thinking of moving out of New York and leaving her position at the magazine. Katharine wanted Andy to be happy, but the idea of a permanent move to Maine "oppressed her." The move was postponed, however, when the head of fiction at the magazine, Gus Lobrano, died in 1956, and for almost two years Katharine (now age 63) assumed his duties. Overwork and Andy's fragile health consumed her energies. She also worried that the written word was being replaced by oral communication, especially television, and noted the "decline in quality and quantity of manuscripts the magazine received, except in poetry."

By 1958, Katharine and Andy were living on their farm in Maine. She continued to read and comment on manuscripts and began writing her "charming and eloquent essays" on gardening. The first appeared in March 1958. The break with New York and the magazine was gradual; as White wrote to Updike, "I'll never stop being a New Yorker editor and will have strong opinions on everything." But after more than 35 years, her career came to an end on January 2, 1961, the day she normally would have returned to work after the holidays. Andy wrote that Katharine looked "as though she were entering Leavenworth" the day her retirement became official.

Without the challenge of work and living in a bustling urban center, Katharine's health rapidly deteriorated. She feared that dizzy spells might indicate the presence of a brain tumor or the symptoms of a stroke. She was also afraid that her illnesses might be psychosomatic, that her head, not her body, was diseased, and this bothered her. To White, "psychosomatic illness denoted a weak mind," and she was concerned that people might think she was a hypochondriac. Both Katharine and Andy were preoccupied with their health. Each was especially solicitous of the other which, Davis asserts, strengthened their marriage. But their marriage also became "too insulated, ultimately severing [White] from the work she needed and the friends she loved." Leaving The New Yorker undoubtedly affected Katharine's health. She developed an "uncomfortable new dependency on Andy" and felt "useless and restless." Nothing could fill the void that work had provided. And White did not write easily: an extremely private person, she had trouble expressing her personal feelings in her writings. Her garden essays did at times reflect her own experiences. The publisher Alfred Knopf wanted her to collect the essays into a book, but she did not feel up to the task at the time. In spite of her physical isolation, White kept in touch with The New Yorker and her former writer clients.

Winters spent in Florida failed to alleviate bouts of debilitating illnesses; in late 1963, "wild and hideous" skin eruptions covered her body which were finally diagnosed as "subcorneal pustular dermatosis." The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, and her son Roger's divorce, further depressed her and, she claimed, affected her health. The death of her sister Elsie in 1965 was also deeply disturbing. However, White was still able to write a few garden pieces, correspond with friends, and read proofs for The New Yorker. She admitted to Stafford that "Like an old elephant, I don't forget and I can't stop being an editor." Work had kept her active and alive, but by the spring of 1969, White was becoming an invalid. Fractured vertebra, a case of shingles on top of her dermatosis, a kidney infection, and pneumonia, plus heart problems, now required expensive nursing care at home. In 1970, she resigned as garden writer at the magazine.

This official, final break with The New Yorker did not lessen her interest in the magazine's contents or in what people wrote about it. When Brendan Gill's book, Here at The New Yorker, was published in 1975, she accused Gill (a writer on the magazine) of having used "inaccurate, unsubstantiated gossip in various anecdotes." He had claimed White "was prepared to lead a palace revolution" to get rid of Harold Ross, which she vehemently denied. Gill also characterized Katharine as "loyally but not happily" moving to Maine at Andy's insistence in the late 1930s. Further, he implied that Katharine and Andy were hypochondriacs, who, in spite of their imaginary ills, were "the strongest and most productive couple that I have ever encountered." But Gill praised White's role as editor at The New Yorker: "Thanks in part to her … we would be a magazine as serious, and as ambitious, as she was, and we would be much the better for it." Ross was depicted as "an aggressively ignorant man" in contrast to White who as a graduate of Bryn Mawr "had not only a superb confidence in herself and in her eye for quality" but also "must often have intimidated Ross … [and] gave him what amounted to an intellectual conscience." Katharine was furious, but her lawyer persuaded her not to sue Gill for libel. On the other hand, Dale Kramer's Ross and The New Yorker (1952) had provided a more balanced view of the roles of Ross and White, noting that "she possessed a cultivated taste. It was something [Ross] lacked and the magazine needed." White was quick to defend those whom she felt had been maligned or unfairly criticized—this included any review of Andy's writing that was not glowingly positive.

Her feisty defense of those for whom she cared was in contrast to her warm, open relations with her children and nine grandchildren. She was especially pleased that her children were happy and professionally successful. Curiously, she accepted the unconventional lifestyles of the younger generation. She wrote to her granddaughter, Callie Angell , that Ernest Angell had returned from France in 1919, "with the French idea that a wife and a mistress was the way to live." She admitted that she had never discussed this with her own children "because I wanted them to live and respect their father." White also stated that she was not against young people living together outside of marriage, but that "the new morals … may destroy 'the family'" in the future. She hoped that her grandchildren would not use marijuana, but she did not consider the drug "wicked." The formidable Mrs. White had become "a kind of grandmother par excellence."

By early 1977, Katharine's eyesight was failing, but she still smoked cigarettes, continued her correspondence with friends, and served traditional, formal dinners for her large family. In July 1977, her heart failed, and she died at 5:00 pm on July 20. Andy composed the eulogy, and she was buried in the small Brooklin cemetery about three miles from her house. As Brendan Gill noted, White was "militantly proud… of her fitness to take part in matters of importance in the world, she knew perfectly well who she was"; by the time she died the people who best knew Katharine S. White knew this, too.


Davis, Linda H. Onward and Upward: A Biography of Katharine S. White. NY: Harper & Row, 1987.

Gill, Brendan. Here at The New Yorker. NY: Random House, 1975.

Kramer, Dale. Ross and The New Yorker. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1952.

suggested reading:

Angell, Katharine S. "Home and Office," in The Survey. December 1, 1926.

——. "Living on the Ragged Edge, Family Income vs. Family Expenses," in Harper's Monthly. Vol. 152. December 1925 (published anonymously).

Elledge, Scott. E.B. White: A Biography. NY: W.W. Norton, 1984.

Shawn, William. "Katharine S. White," in The New Yorker. August 1, 1977.


Katharine S. White's papers and books are located in the Bryn Mawr College Library, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah