Lillian Ross, reporter and precursor of the 1960s New Journalism movement

September 28, 2017 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, journalists, reporters, reporting, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.
Lillian Ross

Was she the mother of the New Journalism movement of the 1960s — the movement that showcased the deep reporting of people like Truman Capote and Gay Talese?

Many people thought so.

Lillian Ross, who died Sept. 20, 2017, at the age of 99, was doing that kind of reporting and writing for the New Yorker magazine in the 1940s and 1950s and undoubtedly influenced a bevy of writers of her era.

Ross pioneered what some called “fly-on-the-wall” reporting, but she never liked that term. “A reporter doing a story can’t pretend to be invisible, let alone a fly; he or she is seen and heard and responded to by the people he or she is writing about. A reporter is always chemically involved with a story.” (This quote is from David Remnick’s forward to Ross’ book Reporting Always.)

Ross had the knack of finding the telling detail or the essential action that was necessary for a good story or a good character study. Her writing is easy to read, straightforward, absent of analysis or flourish. But stories like hers are not easy to write. They take time, thought, starts and stops, rewriting and reframing, and occasionally tears of frustration.

The New Yorker magazine gave her time, and then it gave her a forum on which to display her talents and her hard work and an audience to read what she produced.

She amply repaid bother her magazine and her audience with stories about the rich and famous, stories about the poor and obscure, stories about New York and Hollywood, and people and places in between.

She was always a reporter who wrote about her subjects, not herself. Yet, she was there, a presence in everything she wrote.

In 1949 she reported on the Miss America contest for the magazine. The draft of her  story had the following lead paragraph:

There are thirteen million women in the United States between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight. All of them were eligible to compete for the title of Miss American in the annual contest staged in Atlantic City last month if they were high-school graduates, were not and had never been married, and were not Negroes.

In this time before the modern Civil Rights movement began, it was a courageous and far-sighted statement. Harold Ross, the famous editor of the New Yorker, objected, arguing that the writer had injected her views into the story. Lillian Ross (no relation) insisted to her editor, William Shawn, that the paragraph be published unchanged. It was.

There are views, and there are facts. The facts spoke for themselves. Ross just gave them a voice.

In a 2015 profile of her, New York Times writer Michael Kaufman said:

Throughout her long career, Ms. Ross has been both praised and pilloried for her drive and for her survival skills; for being, as one former New Yorker editor put it recently, a very ambitious journalist of the wrong sex.

Journalism needs a few more reporters with the eye, the ear, the persistence, and the courage of Lillian Ross.


Source: Lillian Ross, Acclaimed Reporter for The New Yorker, Dies at 99 – The New York Times

Ross, Lillian. Reporting. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964.

Ross, Lillian. Here but Not Here: A Love Story. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1998.

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