Told  /  Biography

Confession of a Feminist I

A serialized biography of Jane Grant (1892-1972), first woman reporter at The New York Times and co-founder of The New Yorker.

Grant grew up on a farm in Kansas, left at the age of 16, and became the first “girl reporter” at the Times two years later. During World War I, she toured Europe as a YMCA entertainer. Harold Ross—the name most people think of when you say “founder of The New Yorker”—was one of dozens of young men who courted her there. He followed her back to New York, where they both became regulars at the Algonquin Round Table. After they married, Grant supported Ross on her Times salary while they raised money for The New Yorker, staffed it, and shaped it.

The couple divorced in 1929. The way Ross told it, “My marriage to Miss Grant split largely on the reefs of women’s rights.” (He was also a prude; Grant said she never saw him naked.) She spent the next decade reporting in Russia and Nazi Germany and took two leaves of absence: one to undergo treatment for cancer, the other to write a wartime memoir called I Saw What I Could, which was never published.

Grant also worked to keep The New Yorker afloat. When a board member—the magazine’s first and chief investor, whom Grant had identified and courted—got out of control, she staged a coup with his ex-wife; when the magazine was bleeding money, she came up with new sources of revenue. After Ross’s death in 1951, a spate of books cemented him as an Essential. They barely mentioned the Inessential Grant. She complained, for instance, that James Thurber, who’d spoken with her extensively for a memoir he wrote in 1957 called The Years with Ross, minimized her contributions and used her personal experience as background. (Despite the sour grapes, she acknowledged that he recruited E. B. White to the magazine.)

Grant’s second husband, William B. Harris, encouraged her to throw her hat in, and in 1968 she published Ross, The New Yorker and Me. The memoir was late to market, hastily written, virtually unedited, and poorly received. Many of Ross’s fans and friends dismissed it as an ex-wife’s tell-all. The Times devoted most of a 300-word write-up to Grant’s part in “one of the most tumultuous menages on record,” failing to mention that she was the paper’s first woman reporter. People read Grant’s unbothered prose and mistook her for a lightweight.