At the end when everything was crashing down around him William Shawn seems to have been an authentically tragic figure. Hundreds of artists and writers were prepared to attest to his nobility and did so frequently without being asked. He was nearly eighty years old when the fall came and had been editor of The New Yorker for thirty-five years. He had been picked for the job by Harold Ross, the magazine’s founder and first editor, and he took command in 1952 shortly after Ross died. The magazine staff, a band of fractious individualists who agreed on little else, accepted Shawn without the faintest rumble of discontent. It seemed the universal opinion that he was the ideal choice for the job.
“Great” is a heavily overworked word among Americans, and for this reason was not used casually at The New Yorker, with its distaste for overstatement and tired adjectives. Soon, however, New Yorker people began calling Shawn “a great editor,” and some flirted with heresy by suggesting that he was superior even to the sainted Harold Ross. James Thurber, one of The New Yorker‘s gods, praised him in his cranky memoir, The Years with Ross. Several good things had happened to Ross in 1933, Thurber wrote. For one, “God sent him William Shawn.” At the onset of World War II Ross made Shawn his chief deputy. “Without Shawn’s hard work and constant counsel,” Thurber wrote, “Ross would never have made the distinguished record he did as editor during the war.”
From Thurber, who with E.B. White helped create the distinctive New Yorker voice, this was high praise. Not high enough, however, for Shawn’s devotees, according to Ved Mehta, himself a Shawn admirer. Mehta subtitled his 1998 memoir in praise of Shawn “The Invisible Art of Editing,” suggesting that Shawn had transcended mere journalism and become an artist. He describes a party at Shawn’s apartment in the 1960s at which other guests were denigrating Thurber and his recently published book on Ross. Edith Oliver, who reviewed off-Broadway theater for the magazine, is quoted saying, “The book is trash…. It’s all untrue,” and “Thurber is a horse’s ass.”
“‘His work has really been falling off,’ Naomi [Bliven] put in.” She was a New Yorker book reviewer. Another woman said she had run into Thurber at the Algonquin Hotel, a favorite haunt of the New Yorker set, and heard him “saying an awful lot of bitter things about Bill [Shawn] and The New Yorker‘s fiction department.”
Mehta apparently looked shocked by this vituperation, for he reports that Shawn’s eighteen-year-old son Wallace took him aside to explain that “old-timers at The New Yorker really, um, hate Thurber’s book.” It glorified Ross and “scarcely even mentions Dad.” Mehta was writing all this some thirty-five years after the party, so one cannot help wondering about the reliability of his memory, even though he could still recall Wallace emitting that “um.” Still, gang backbitings like this …