Class Menagerie

Hamilton College and the birth of The New Yorker
by J. Frederick Rogers

Few publications have achieved, even for a short while, the critical and commercial success of The New Yorker magazine, much less persisted for a storied 92 years. 

Less understood, however, is the indispensable role that three Hamilton alumni played in launching the now-iconic “fifteen-cent comic paper” (as it was first dubbed by founding editor Harold Ross). Present at the creation, these Hamiltonians — a writer and gadfly by the name of Alexander Humphreys Woollcott, Class of 1909; the Solomonic peacemaker Ravaud Hawley Truax, 1909; and a lance-wielding lawyer Lloyd Paul Stryker, 1906 — helped sustain The New Yorker through its fragile infancy and often chaotic first two decades.

No one disputes that Ross was the magazine’s father and presiding muse until his death. If The New Yorker had a mother, it would surely be Jane Grant, Ross’s first wife, introduced to him by Woollcott in Paris. She prevailed on him to publish the pioneering weekly magazine intended to be, as its famous prospectus declared, “a reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life … which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.”

By the standards of his later public persona, Aleck Woollcott was an unlikely soldier. But he was a committed patriot and an enthusiastic World War I volunteer who itched to see the battlefield. His diligence as a member of the U.S. Army Hospital Corps stationed in Savenay, France, earned him the grade of sergeant (which, in his characteristically bombastic retelling, made him something of a war hero).

Alexander Woollcott, Class of 1909
Alexander Woollcott, Class of 1909

At Hamilton, Woollcott founded The Charlatans dramatic club to pursue his childhood love of theatre. Hamilton was also where he set his cap for a career as a writer. After graduation, he wormed his way onto the city desk of The New York Times, dispiritedly churning out news stories until a sudden staff vacancy allowed him to land his longed-for break as the paper’s theatre critic.

War intervened and soon he was abroad, wearing a soiled and rumpled uniform, bedecked in a sheepskin cape he had pinched from a retreating German conscript. His biographer, Samuel Hopkins Adams, Class of 1891, wrote that Woollcott often looked as though he had “just emerged from the delousing plant.”

Ever restless, Woollcott at length negotiated a transfer to the French capital to fight the “Battle of Paris,” the derisive label for that cozy administrative posting. There he was hired by Private Harold Ross to report for Stars and Stripes, the American military newspaper badly in need of trained writers and fresh energy.

Crucial to the future New Yorker magazine, Woollcott also reunited in Paris with Jane Grant, a wartime YMCA worker and his former colleague at the Times. He gallantly, and hopefully, squired her around town until one ill-starred night in November 1918, when he took her to his regular journalists’ poker game, also attended by Ross.

Woollcott’s presentation of Jane to the gat-toothed newsman from Aspen, Colo., sparked a courtship that, back in New York, would lead to their marriage, in consequence of which Woollcott suffered one of several enduring heartbreaks that shaded his life.

Shaking off his melancholy, he appointed himself the Rosses’ wedding broker, seeing to church and clergy arrangements and the purchase of a Tiffany ring — half-vindictively presenting the couple with a bill for services rendered that included $100 for “Personal Wear and Tear.”

Hawley Truax
Hawley Truax, Class of 1909

Woollcott’s classmate Hawley Truax, meanwhile, had been living in Manhattan since graduation, pursuing a law degree. These studies he abandoned following the death of his father, Chauncey S. Truax, Class of 1875, a New York lawyer, Hamilton trustee and benefactor of the now-demolished Truax Hall of Philosophy. The family, suddenly without a breadwinner, owned real estate on Long Island that needed improving.

With Truax’s widowed mother, Alice, to sustain and a brother, Chauncey Jr., Class of 1917, to put through Hamilton, the family exchequer was running low. So Truax, the junior-year Phi Beta Kappa member, class valedictorian and author of the College’s Honor Code, determinedly applied himself to the study of realty, contracting and construction.

Alice Truax had been a mother figure to Woollcott since his college days. As the two young Ought-Niners worked to establish themselves in the big city after Hamilton, they naturally fell into lodgings together in the Truax family apartment on West 57th Street. It was equally natural for Woollcott to return there after the war.

All was well with this setup until Harold and Jane Ross enlisted Truax — by then deep into the building trades — to assist them in finding a proper domicile for their newlywed life. Their friend pointed them to twin houses at 412-414 West 47th Street in the Hell’s Kitchen district just west of 9th Avenue. The dwellings needed work but, under the Truax baton, could be joined together to make a spacious home suitable for entertaining New York’s gregarious literary elite at all hours of the day and night.

From the start, the Algonquin was Woollcott’s show. He hypnotized the captive diners with endless hyperbolic stories about his reportorial feats for Stars and Stripes. These lunches, attended by the city’s sharpest writers and savviest cultural mavens, soon became a working bullpen for future New Yorker staffers.

The almost-daily lunch gatherings that would become the Algonquin Round Table had actually begun after the war as a one-off welcome-home party for Woollcott at the hotel, haphazardly organized by his journalist friends in June 1919. Many of the original and subsequent table guests would, like Woollcott, serve as important writers for The New Yorker.

From the start, the Algonquin was Woollcott’s show. He hypnotized the captive diners with endless hyperbolic stories about his reportorial feats for Stars and Stripes. These lunches, attended by the city’s sharpest writers and savviest cultural mavens, soon became a working bullpen for future New Yorker staffers.

Woollcott, whose Hamilton nickname was “Putt” (for putrid), had regularly suffered verbal and physical abuse from fellow students as the wages of his pronounced eccentricities — among them an imperious insistence on playing every female leading role in College theatricals and his exotic penchants for wearing a tarboosh and drinking absinthe. To avoid inflaming his mockers, Woollcott’s astute response to insult was never an eye for an eye. Gamely, he learned not to reject but to absorb the indignities hurled at him, intensifying them by self-deprecation. It was, his biographer Adams observed, as if Woollcott was thinking, “Good one — I’ll meet you, and go you one further!” Thus were his molesters defanged.

Woollcott — like Truax, an early Phi Beta Kappa keyholder — by his senior year bestrode College Hill as a confident and self-aware young intellectual. Aided by the abiding patronage of Grace Root and Alice Truax, Woollcott had fully lived up to the early verdict rendered by upperclassman Lloyd Paul Stryker: “We could not understand a freshman who had pondered, read, and thought so much.”

Along with honing his intellect, the undergraduate Woollcott also cultivated a mordant wit — the gleaming saber he later unsheathed at the Algonquin. And he gave as good as he got: the lacerating repartee he instigated would brand the Round Tablers forever as the “Vicious Circle.” These noontime free-for-alls became the seedbed for “Shouts & Murmurs,” the page-long humor column Woollcott invented for The New Yorker, wrote for many years and that continues today.

Hawley Truax, feeling himself ready to cut the apron strings and leave his mother’s apartment, had lately come to realize that, beyond merely joining together the Rosses’ double houses on 47th Street, several separate living quarters could also be carved out. He would move in, creating a communal, dormitory-style environment reminiscent of Hamilton days.

On hearing of this development, an incensed Woollcott stormed to the job site to confront Harold, Jane and Hawley on their perfidy. Why hadn’t he been notified of the plan? He, too, would take one of the spaces — the one across from his old roommate, Truax — and also participate in the financial underpinnings of the project. Ross, though a fearless and uncompromising newsman, could never stiffen his back to say no to Woollcott.

In 1922, the quartet of communitarians — Ross, Grant, Truax, Woollcott — signed the deed of purchase, beginning their mostly unquiet cohabitation and opening to their wide circle of unruly friends the social nest from which The New Yorker magazine would soon be hatched.

Serially frustrated with dead-end editing jobs, Ross for his part had begun imagining a project he could pilot on his own. The two leading ideas turning over in his mind were a shipping paper and an as-yet unnamed magazine about New York, both weeklies. Pressured by Grant, he brooded over the latter possibility and on the small matter of finding startup money.

Through social connections, Ross and Grant were on friendly terms with the flamboyant yeast magnate, Raoul Fleischmann, a gambler and player of horses who yearned for a high-flying investment to leaven the boredom of running the General Baking Co. Even so, he remained hesitant until Ross conceived an impressive-sounding “board of editors” composed of friends, including a reluctant Woollcott. “The only dishonest thing I ever did,” claimed Ross.

Blandished by Grant, and reassured by the existence of an editorial star chamber, Fleischmann wrote out a $25,000 check and offered office space in a Midtown building. A subsequent, alcohol-drenched meeting of the Algonquin Round Table tossed up the working title for the magazine: The New Yorker. This Ross made final when, after much suspense, it was determined that an upstate farming journal, the Rural New Yorker, had definitively gone bust, giving him clear legal access to the name. The first issue, dated Feb. 21, 1925, timidly appeared on Manhattan newsstands.

Six months later, the high-strung Woollcott impulsively dropped off the editorial board. He would later return to contribute mightily as a writer, but it was the first of several contretemps with his housemate Ross, whose own mercurial personality required the constant intermediation of Truax with Fleischmann, and of Grant with Woollcott. “I felt as if I were perched on the edge of a seething volcano,” Grant said of their communal living arrangement.

Although the shaky finances of the early magazine required regular infusions of Fleischmann cash, The New Yorker was optimistic enough about its future to publish a parody issue on Nov. 6, 1926. Longtime art editor Rea Irvin enshrined the Ross-Woollcott feud in the cover illustration, which featured a monocled Ross peering intently at his irritating, insect-like nemesis.

Lloyd Paul Stryker
Lloyd Paul Stryker, Class of 1906

Lloyd Paul Stryker, the third Hamiltonian to help birth The New Yorker, performed a strategic if less public role in the magazine’s establishment. The son of Hamilton’s ninth president, Melanchthon Woolsey Stryker, Class of 1872, young Lloyd learned welkin-ringing oratory under his father’s tutelage in an empty barn on College Hill. After law school and a first job provided by Elihu Root, Class of 1864, Stryker went on to become one of the nation’s foremost trial attorneys.

Life magazine hailed Stryker as a “virtuoso,” and his New York Times obituary called him “the most celebrated criminal lawyer since Clarence Darrow.” In his greatest career case, he defended the government official Alger Hiss against charges of Soviet espionage leveled by Whittaker Chambers in 1949. 

Stryker’s Hamilton connections bound him tightly to the magazine. He and Truax were charter shareholders, an inescapable familial obligation after Stryker married Truax’s sister. Truax, for his part, had married Alethea Rudd, sister of his 1909 classmate and later professor of English at Hamilton Robert Barnes “Bobo” Rudd. The professor’s daughter, Mary Rudd Kierstead, would go on to conduct her own notable career at The New Yorker, first as assistant to the magazine’s famed second editor, William Shawn, then as a fiction reader and sometime contributor.

A distinguished litigator, Stryker had a fully engrossing day job. But, ever the defense counsel, he found time for other pursuits, like penning an 824-page exculpatory biography of Andrew Johnson, the first U.S. president to be impeached. His Hamilton ties continually drew him into service at The New Yorker, for he and Truax were the only two men alive who could surmount the “stone wall of stupidity” that separated Ross from Fleischmann, Ross from Woollcott, and the editorial from the business side of the magazine.

By the early 1940s, The New Yorker was commercially and artistically strong enough to harbor the kind of conflicts that are born of new and growing prosperity. One of these battles, as ever pitting Ross against Fleischmann, involved a shareholder revolt concerning the management structure. Its resolution in 1943, crucial to the continuance of the magazine, demanded both the political finesse of Truax and the legal acumen of Stryker. At issue was publisher Fleischmann’s financial helming of the enterprise. Stryker had been retained to investigate the yeastmaker’s dealings, and the evidence he unearthed was not attractive. After legal volleying, the result was to empanel an executive committee to rule on all management decisions. Truax, officially appointed treasurer, would — described by a Ross biographer — serve as “on-site referee.”

The significance of this concordat for the future of The New Yorker cannot be exaggerated. By constraining Fleischmann from delving ill-advisedly into editorial matters, and Ross from applying his cockeyed business theories to the magazine’s operations, the new directorate provided administrative ballast for The New Yorker, steadying its course and enabling it to flourish into the next phase of its existence.

Fred Rogers is Hamilton’s director of annual giving.

Sources: A. Woollcott, His Life and His World by Samuel Hopkins Adams (1945); The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide by Kevin C. Fitzpatrick (2015); Here at The New Yorker by Brendan Gill (1975); Ross, The New Yorker and Me by Jane Grant (1968); Writing for The New Yorker: Critical Essays on an American Periodical ed. by Fiona Green (2015); Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of The New Yorker by Thomas Kunkel (1995); Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber, and the Golden Age of The New Yorker by Thomas Vinciguerra (2015).**

** This author’s brother is Raymond Vinciguerra ’78. Tom attended Raymond’s commencement whose speaker was ... Hawley Truax.

Share This Story:

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
Back to Top