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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15.2 (2005) 178-195

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When Eustace Tilley Came to Madison Square Garden:

Professional Hockey and the Editorial Policy of the New Yorker in the 1920s and 1930s

In even its earliest months of publication during the winter of 1925, the New Yorker sought to position itself as an upscale humor magazine. But the often-too-slim periodical was notoriously uneven in its first numbers, and it was difficult for its few readers to see how editor Harold Ross would develop the reputation for sophistication he desired for the New Yorker while achieving its intended tone "of gaiety, wit and satire," as set out in the prospectus he had written a year before.1 Part of the initial problem, as Ross biographer Thomas Kunkel argues, was that the editor himself was uncertain whether a Manhattan aristocracy was to be the audience for his magazine or the primary target of its mockery. One attempt to strike a balance between these early positions was represented by the Rea Irwin illustration of "Eustace Tilley," the monocled dandy whose inquisitive pose on the first cover came to embody the "smart, enigmatic, relaxed, observant, amusing, yet somehow detached" mien Ross sought.2 If Tilley was the New Yorker in its early years, watching over with impeccable discernment a city more demonstrably heterogeneous than anyone of his social standing would have dared concede, it is still difficult to imagine him in attendance at Madison Square Garden, taking in a spectacle like a bicycle race, a boxing match, or, from the middle of the 1920s, a professional hockey game. And, yet, hockey reportage held considerable significance during the first decade of publishing the New Yorker, as the story itself quickly evolved beyond the discussion of a successful business venture, especially in the five years during which hockey was covered by Niven Busch, a young Manhattan writer who later found success as a novelist and screenwriter in Hollywood.

More than thirty years before Roger Angell wrote about baseball in depth in the pages of the magazine, Niven Busch was one of a number of regular contributors writing about a variety of sports in the New [End Page 178] Yorker. Although he was by no means a sports fan himself, Harold Ross must have recognized in the constituency for athletic spectacle an opportunity to investigate the range of a cosmopolitan New York to which he was not yet ready to dedicate his magazine. The rough son of a Colorado silver miner, Ross was an outsider in Manhattan; still, he instructed his first contributors to seek out subjects that "tend strongly towards the elegant—that is to say, the fashionable and smart—the dinner jacket, rather than the sailor's uniform."3 The early growth of sports coverage in the New Yorker reflects the futility of such a narrowness of purpose, of course, and it suggests that Ross knew a magazine for and about the most lively city in the United States must eventually achieve a carefully-balanced heterogeneity. In fact, Madison Square Garden, a monument to capitalist opportunity in the mid-1920s, put high-class sophisticates in their box seats in close proximity with an endless assortment of "lowlife" characters who, as Ben Yagoda points out, would not actually feature as regular subjects in the New Yorker until the 1930s.4 If these early dispatches from the Garden anticipated the sort of "highlife-lowlife" composite stories that Ross came to favor, the manner in which Busch reported on the hockey games he attended there would also have immediately grabbed the attention of his editor. Unable to compete with the coverage of sporting events in the daily newspapers, Busch shifted weekly coverage in the New Yorker from stale recapitulations of games played to a thorough investigation of the nature of the sport itself and of its sundry participants. Harold Ross was, by all accounts, fascinated with the details and...


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