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A writer's writer

Posted by Jim Concannon  June 7, 2009 05:05 PM

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Lillian Ross, who became a staff writer at the New Yorker in 1945 and developed into a legendary interviewer, is known to cherish her privacy, even though her job is to detail the lives of others. How private is she? Ross, whose specialty is blending into the background of her profiles, has a Wikipedia entry that's just one paragraph long, and part of that discusses how much she protects her privacy. By contrast, the Wikipedia entry on, say, Rex the Wonder Dog fills two computer screens. (And, no, don't even try to learn her age.)
About the only time Ross opened a window on her own life was in a narrowly focused memoir a decade ago called "Here But Not Here," which described her long-term affair with iconic New Yorker editor William Shawn (shown here on Ross's arm). Over the decades, Ross profiled Ernest Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin, Bennie Goodman, Adlai Stevenson, Robert Kennedy, and Robin Williams, among many.
Her insightful 1950 portrait of Hemingway led to a popular reappraisal of the author, whom some readers found delightful but others simply boorish. Here's how she set the scene in that piece: "Ernest Hemingway, who may well be the greatest American novelist and short-story writer of our day, rarely comes to New York. For many years, he has spent most of his time on a farm, Finca Vigia, nine miles outside Havana, with his wife, a domestic staff of nine, fifty-two cats, sixteen dogs, a couple of hundred pigeons, and three cows. When he does come to New York, it is only because he has to pass through it on his way somewhere else." In three bell-clear sentences, she paints the backdrop to the narrative to come.
Ross is in Boston Tuesday, June 9, to discuss that seminal profile and her friendship with Hemingway, part of the celebration marking the 110th anniversary of his birth. Ross will share the stage with Susan Morrison, her New Yorker editor, and also will discuss the craft of interviewing and other writers she has known. The session begins at 5:30 p.m. at the John F. Kennedy Library on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester. To assure seating, you can register at jfklibrary.org.

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