Lillian Ross began writing in junior high school, when she contributed a piece to her school paper. "It was an unforgettable rapture," she confesses, and she decided then "what I was going to do for the rest of the century." In 1945, with many of the New Yorker's male employees drafted, editor Harold Ross (no relation) reluctantly hired a few women, paying them less than the departed men. Nevertheless, he and William Shawn, who became editor in 1952, encouraged writers to develop their own style. They were enthusiastic about Ross' "storytelling form … like a movie — showing everything from the outside, with lots of talking."
Readers may wonder about all that talking, since Ross doesn't record interviews, preferring to take notes and "trust my own ear for dialogue in revealing character and humor." Her ear serves her well for the many celebrities she profiled: the young Julie Andrews ("her eyes were shining"), whose name had just been put on a marquee as the lead in "The Boy Friend"; best friends Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, in New York promoting "Ladies in Lavender" at the Tribeca Film Festival; Ernest Hemingway, who spoke in telegraphic grunts, the better to appear gruff and manly, and Robin Williams — who dipped in and out of accents and imitations — and his wife, Marsha Garces, who had just formed their own production company "in order to protect Robin."
Besides smooth storytelling, Ross is a keen observer of fashion, always including details about what her subjects wore: Edward Albee's brown suede jacket and beige turtleneck, Coco Chanel's natural-colored straw sailor hat and ropes of pearls.
Ross says she never intrudes where she is not wanted, which may account for her subjects' candor. She felt free to follow her curiosity. In 1949, that took her to the Miss America pageant, where she followed Wanda Napela, Miss New York State, through the various stages of display and performance. Napela took her loss with equanimity "because when you don't expect very much, you're never disappointed."
A few of this book's early reports seem dated, as if describing another world — where, for example, 18 seniors from Indiana saved $957.41 over six years to fund a visit to Manhattan. Quite a few found the city "too hustly." Or where the Junior League of the City of New York, whose members Ross quaintly calls by their husbands' surnames, politely plan a Mardi Gras ball. But most of these smart, generous and closely observed pieces are simply delightful.
Linda Simon's most recent book is "The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus."