Harold Ross & “Specific People” New Yorker Covers


Irvin Nov '41









I was leafing through Thomas Kunkel’s book, Letters From the Editor (the Editor: The New Yorker’s founder and first editor, Harold Ross) when I came upon the one letter in the book to Rea Irvin (Irvin was The New Yorker’s art consultant from the magazine’s inception through 1952).  Written in May of 1942, Ross’s letter concerned a recently purchased cover of Irvin’s. It reads, in part:


I put through the Halloween cover with Hitler, although it violates my solemn stand about no more specific people on covers.


 Ross’s mentioning “no more specific people on covers” meant that there had to have been previous New Yorker covers with specific people, or at least one cover with a specific person. Curious, I took The Complete Book of Covers from The New Yorker off the shelf and began looking at the magazine’s covers, beginning with the very first New Yorker cover –- you know the one: Irvin’s very own top-hatted dandy commonly referred to as Eustace Tilley. Paging through the book I didn’t find a “specific person” cover until I arrived at the issue of November 22, 1941. A child at the door of a wealthy home is sporting a Hitler mask. The artist: Rea Irvin.

The next issue with a specific person is the cover Ross referred to in the May ’42 letter to Irvin. It’s a Halloween themed cover (the issue is dated October 31, 1942) and again Hitler is the specific person -– this time he’s a witch.

Irvin: OCt 31 '42









Paging through the years and all those magnificent covers, it wasn’t until July 15, 1944 that another cover with a specific person (in this case it’s persons) presented itself. The subject matter: D-Day. Besides President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, General Eisenhower and Field Marshal Montgomery, there again was Hitler. The artist: Rea Irvin.

Irvin's DDay Cover






















And that was the end of the string of specific people on New Yorker covers in Ross’s lifetime (he died December 6, 1951), unless you count Santa Claus, Abe Lincoln, and busts of philosophers.


Reading Ross’s letter was also a reminder of how The New Yorker has completely turned around, specific-people–on-the-cover-wise from those long ago days. A look back at just the past three years turns up close to 25 specific people covers. The specific people represented include the Pope, President Obama (numerous covers), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Nelson Mandela, Derek Jeter, President Putin, Anthony Wiener, Mitt Romney…well, you get the idea.

One comment

  1. Ross’s instincts were sound here. For many decades, the magazine published brilliant covers that did not reflect the editorial content within and that were not directly concerned with enhancing newsstand sales. The covers maintained their vitality long after the headlines of the moment were forgotten.

    The New Yorker’s current obsession with putting politicians and events from the weekly news cycle on its covers means it is following the same general path as the other news publications, albeit without headlines and blurbs. The covers that depict everyday life in the City and suburbs, seasonal domestic scenes, and unexpected flights of whimsy are scarcer now, but no one can deny the ability of the current crop of covers to create buzz on today’s social media. What remains to be seen is whether these covers will still be appreciated years from now, a question that few publications other than the New Yorker have to ask themselves.

    That said, I’ve always been extremely fond of Edward Sorel’s 1993 cover of Bill Clinton giving his Inaugural speech while the past Presidents look on. Such a cover would have been unheard of under Ross or William Shawn. It would be a shame to have missed it.

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