Lillian Ross, a pioneer of literary journalism, has died aged ninety-nine

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Lillian Ross came of age at a time when it was rude to ask a lady how old she was, and – oddly, miraculously – this practice, as far as she was concerned, was seen long before the age of disclosure. complete. For those of us who joined the magazine in the later years of her tenure, which is almost all of us, she was a colleague of undetermined service.

Photograph by William Shawn

It wasn’t until Lillian witnessed the way Nelson Mandela was celebrated on his 95th birthday in 2013 that she realized that she had come of age, with her achievements, was, in a way, an achievement in itself. . Her age later became a point of pride: she turned ninety-nine in June.

Lillian has joined The New Yorker in 1945, and she continued to appear in its pages for the next seventy years, meaning that she was not just a collaborator but a designer, one whose style and tone became a standard to which later writers aspired. This tone – extremely attentive, intimate and very often amused – has emerged in some of his earliest and most well-known pieces, most notably his Profile of Ernest Hemingway and the five-part series on the making of “The Red Badge of the courage ”by John Huston. “(The Xerox’s of her articles for distribution in journalism classes nationwide, if stacked on top of each other, would reach the moon.) She mastered the Talk of the Town form, with its comedic distillation of manners She was ready for anything, but also knew when to turn down a mission. When presented with an article about the Hope Diamond in 2010, she said she hadn’t seen a story. “C ‘maybe I’m not the right one to watch, “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 spoke of them like his children. “

Ross, who spent decades in a relationship with William Shawn, the magazine’s second editor, who was married, adopted a son, Erik, born in 1965. Boiling from motherhood, she sent JD a baby photo. Salinger, a longtime friend. “He bursts out laughing,” Salinger replied. “Oh, if he can just hang on to it.”

It was fitting that Lillian defied being defined by her age: her relationship with the youngest, especially the very young, was immediate and absolute. She adored babies, insisting on visiting a young colleague’s home the day after her oldest son returned from the hospital. “I like them fresh! ” she said.

In 1960, she joined a group of twelfth graders from Bean Blossom Township High School, in Stinesville, Indiana, population of three hundred and fifty-five, when they arrived in New York City for a class trip, and ably chronicles their suspicious 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 the class should ‘have fun’ on their last night in town , and not before. “

In her fifth decade as an editor, in the mid-90s, she sat down with a group of grade ten students from private schools on the Upper East Side. Ross has always had an attentive ear to the eerie rhythms of spoken English, and she captured their jaded, world-weary, and 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 reporters’ first efforts to capture the positive conversations on the page: “The three of you come to my house, you know, at five o’clock? Do you bring all your clothes? Do I take everything out of my closet and spread it all out on the floor? Do we try everything?

She took young people seriously, an art not always cultivated among adults. (She wrote a Talk story about Lin-Manuel Miranda ten years ago, when he was just a twenty-seven-year-old teenager.) Women in particular, become more difficult as the years go by. ‘accumulate. Lillian was a generous champion of the magazine’s young writers, especially young writers who, like her, sought to chronicle New York’s human comedy. In them – in us – she surely recognized her mischievous, enduring and overwhelming being. ??

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