Ralph McAllister Ingersoll
LT COL in Special Plans Branch, 12th US Army Group
Born 1900 in CT, Died 1985
County of residence at enlistment: Litchfield County, CT
Other residence(s): New Haven, CT; New York, NY; St. Martin; West Cornwall, CT
United States Army, European Theatre of Operations
Occupation before the war: managers and officials, n.e.c.
College education before the war: Yale 4 years
Ralph Ingersoll was born on December 8, 1900 in New Haven, CT, the youngest of three children. His father was a civil engineer who served as the chief engineer for the New Haven Railroad and later as chief engineer for the Department of Bridges in New York City. His glamorous mother died when he was ten—an occurrence on which Ralph later blamed his being "such a demonstrable idiot in matters emotional." His grandfather Ingersoll had represented Connecticut in the US House of Representatives and served as a diplomat in Russia.
By 1910 the family was living in Manhattan, but Ralph returned to Connecticut to attend the Hotchkiss School and Yale University. He graduated from Yale in 1921 with honors and a degree in mining engineering, and headed west to work in gold and copper mines in California, Arizona, and Mexico. In 1923 he parlayed his experiences into a book entitled In and Under Mexico and switched careers to journalism. Back in New York he engaged in a variety of reporting and freelance work, and in 1925 took a job as a reporter at the New Yorker. He became managing editor the following year and helped to establish the magazine's reputation. In 1930 he was named associate editor of Fortune, a failing five-month old business publication, and he turned it around, attracting a stable of outstanding writers including Archibald MacLeish and James Agee. He then took over as general manager of Time, Inc., helped to launch Life magazine in 1936, and, after its overwhelming success, became the company's publisher.
In 1937, Henry Luce offered him a million dollars in Times stock if he would stay on for five years, but Ralph turned him down. Instead, he raised $1.5 million in capital to launch his own imaginative and left-leaning New York newspaper, PM. The first edition came off the presses in June, 1940; price was $.05, compared to most NYC papers which sold for half that. But Ralph did not want to take advertising, in order not to be beholden to advertisers.
According to Rick Beyer in The Ghost Army of World War II, "the New York Times once described him as 'a prodigiously energetic egotist with a talent for making magazines, covering a war, womanizing--and pushing other people around.' He acted as a star reporter for his own paper, met face-to-face with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill, hung out at the White House with FDR, and made good copy for other reporters."
While all this was going on, Ralph had affairs with Lillian Hellman and Laura Z. Hobson (the former was an NYU student and fledgling playwright, the latter a novelist who later skewered Ralph in her novel The Trespassers). He married Mary Elizabeth Carden in 1926; they later divorced. He made friends with, among others, James Thurber, Fiorello LaGuardia, and Ernest Hemingway. Roy Hoopes in his 1985 biography of Ralph Ingersoll, says that: "Hemingway and Ingersoll started out in a fast friendship nurtured on good drink, conversation and roughneck deep sea fishing, and Hemingway exuberantly hugged Ingersoll after he caught his first sailfish in Key West. Later the macho man of American literature, souring on Ingersoll because of their differences over the production of a film, began calling him 'Ingersnake' behind his back."
He was drafted after the US entered World War II, and though he complained about this--feeling that publishers should be exempt—he eventually gave in and enlisted as a private on July 31, 1942. He quickly won a commission and became a staff officer. He served in North Africa, and then returned to New York to write a best-selling book about his experiences entitled The Battle is the Pay-Off. By 1943, now with the rank of CPT, he was stationed in London and worked on strategic deceptions, including Operation Fortitude, as part of the Special Plans Branch, 12th US Army Group. Then, according to his own accounts, he developed the idea of creating a tactical deception unit that could imitate multiple different units in Europe. Rick Beyer says that "he referred to the unit as 'my con artists,' and said its creation was 'my only original contribution to my country's armed forces. . . . When I first dreamed it up, I considered it one of my more improbable dreams, but damned if the Pentagon planners didn't buy it whole.'" Rick Beyer also points out that "one of his most important collaborators was his immediate superior, Colonel Billy Harris."
After he was discharged from the Army with the rank of LTC, Ralph returned to New York and PM. He married his second wife, Elaine Kieffer Cobb, in 1945 and they had two children in quick succession: Ralph II and Ian. Sadly, Elaine died giving birth to Ian. In the same timeframe, PM failed financially--partly due to his being absent from the helm for three years, partly to a disagreement with major investor Marshall Field on the issue of taking advertising, and partly due to political controversy. This left Ralph with two babies to support and no income. He went into business with Texas millionaire Charles Marsh and tried being a gentleman farmer in Virginia. He married again in 1948 to Mary Sue Hill Doolittle, who brought three stepchildren to the marriage.
He continued to write, publishing a total of seven non-fiction works and two novels, In the mid-1950s, he established Ingersoll Publications Co., which owned a chain of small to medium-sized newspapers in the Northeast—19 dailies and a number of weeklies. This became a highly profitable venture.
He and Mary Sue divorced in 1962, and married his fourth wife, Thelma Saks Bradford, in 1964.
According to his obituary in the New York Times, Ralph II took over Ingersoll Publications in 1982 "after buying his father out in a bitterly contested deal that left them no longer on speaking terms."
Ralph died on March 8, 1985 in Miami Beach. At the time he was living in West Cornwall, CT, and had been at his winter home in St. Martin. He was flown to Miami for surgery but suffered a stroke after the surgery.
A Note re Ingersoll Publications
Ralph II built the company into one of the largest newspaper companies in the US using $240 million in junk bond debt. When the junk bond market collapsed, Ingersoll lost control of the company in 1990, swapping for dailies and weeklies in England and Ireland, a stake which he had lost by 1994. Ingersoll Publications eventually merged and morphed into 21st Century Media and then into Digital First Media.
1921 passport application
1922 Yale yearbook; notation re his receiving honors
1940 New York Times article about his launching PM
1942 enlistment record
1948 New York Times; his father's obituary
1961 New York Times book review of his book Point of Departure; contains biographical details
1980 article in North Adams Transcript (MA) re his honorary degree from BU
1985 Social Security death index
1985 obituary in the Herald-News (Passaic NJ)
1985 obituary in the New York Times
1985 obituary in the Los Angeles Times
1985 New York Times review of his biography by Hoopes
1985 Washington Post review of the book
1990 article in the Washington Post about Ralph II and Ingersoll Publications
1990 article in the New York Times about Ralph II and Ingersoll Publications
Blog in Veterans Affairs website