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 have always been common in the publishing trades.
Shawn, who was famous for shyness and dislike of confrontation, seems to have been embarrassed by the incident and ended it graciously with a small lecture, which Mehta remembers this way:
“Thurber, together with [S.J.] Perelman, has to be one of the greatest humorists of our century,” Mr. Shawn was saying… [and] went on to give examples of Thurber’s funny writing….
“Of course Thurber is a great genius,” Edith said, for the first time sounding calm. Her transformation under Mr. Shawn’s gentle prompting was remarkable.
What is striking about Mehta’s account is the sense it conveys of the group’s devotion to Shawn. They may rage against those who deny him his due share of praise, but they quickly become calm and gentle as he subtly steers them toward a more generous, more civilized view of Thurber. He was an editor in complete control of a staff utterly devoted to him.
In later years this devotion came to be expressed by some of his admirers as “love.” Here was a strange evolution at a magazine famous for despising sentimentality. A loved editor is a rare beast anywhere in the publishing trades. Many editors are admired, but there is something eerie about an editor being loved. Editors do cruel things to the submissions of writers and cartoonists. Often they throw the work back into the submitter’s face, declaring it unfit to print. Even when condescending to accept it they demand rewriting, restructuring, and slashing that often seem to turn the artist’s or cartoonist’s work into someone else’s. It is unnatural to love someone who commits these cruelties on one’s creative work; no editing matched The New Yorker‘s for thoroughness.
Yet here are 414 pages by Mehta which amount to a declaration of love for Shawn—“the legendary, saintly, canonical Mr. Shawn,” as Renata Adler calls him. And here is an astonishing memoir by Lillian Ross announcing for all the world to know that she loved Shawn and that Shawn loved her back with such vigor for so many years that she regarded herself as his wife. Hers is a love so overpowering that she must shout it out, regardless of any pain it might cause Shawn’s wife and sons. Brendan Gill also loved Shawn. His Here at The New Yorker, published in 1975, is now reissued with a new introduction that Gill wrote in 1997. When Shawn occasionally sent him a memo of thanks for performing some small favor and the memo ended “‘With love,’ then how grateful I had reason to be. For like everyone else on the magazine, I felt a desire, childish as it unquestionably was, to be a Shawn favorite, and even, still more childishly, to be first among his favorites.” What a bizarre confession. One thinks of Proust’s sleepless young Marcel yearning for Maman to come and kiss him goodnight.
Renata Adler’s memoir Gone is a turmoil of confused emotions. Oh, she loves Shawn all right. While recalling a somewhat tense business meeting with Shawn, she interrupts herself to say, “This may be an odd place to say that I loved him. I did love him.” This is not Adler’s only reference to love. Near the end of her book Shawn is fired and Adler gives The New York Times a comment that infuriates Lillian Ross—the “office wife,” as Adler calls her—prompting Ross to tell her, “You’ve lost the respect of the people who love you here.”
As often happens when love is afoot, it became the source of considerable ill temper among people at the magazine. Adler’s love for Shawn makes it impossible for her to contain her outrage for Lillian Ross’s claim to have been the most thoroughly loved of all his admirers, or, in Gill’s phrase, the “first among his favorites.” Ross’s reveries about thirty years of idyllic love with Shawn succeed only in persuading Adler that, far from loving him, Ross unconsciously “disliked and even despised him.” Ross’s book turns Shawn into “an unctuous, pompous, humorless creep, whose greatness is revealed in his feeling for her—and his dislike and disdain for everybody else.”
After Shawn’s firing, Adler pays a last visit to his office. “First of all,” she tells him, “it goes without saying, I love you and I hope to keep seeing you for the rest of our lives.” Shawn interrupts, saying “‘I love you’ quite firmly.” In their conversation they are “sometimes crying, sometimes not.” Finally Adler rises, goes to the door to leave, and Shawn says “in a tone of surprising firmness and, considering the distance, gentleness, ‘I love you.’ I said again that I loved him….”
Poor Shawn. All that love, all that respect. It became the custom to call him “Mister Shawn.” To people who didn’t know him it made him sound quaint and schoolmasterish. He wasn’t. That “Mister” marked him as an extraordinary man of respect in a publishing world where the most august figures were called simply by nicknames or ungarnished last names. Henry Luce was always just plain “Luce,” except in the presence of course. Shawn’s predecessor was not “Mr. Ross” but always “Ross.” Even at The New York Times, a model of propriety in such matters, “Mister” had become archaic. Turner Catledge, its managing editor, was “Turner,” and James Reston, its Washington main man, was “Scotty.” The publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, remained a breezy “Punch,” even in his presence. “Mister” was an antique form applied only to the revered Adolph Ochs, dead long before most living Times people had left their playpens.
To old-timers of the Harold Ross era at The New Yorker, “Mister Shawn” had been simply “Shawn” or “Bill.” Now, though, as he settled into Ross’s job and did it exceedingly well, new people at the magazine gradually turned him into “Mister Shawn.” Adler’s memoir calls him “Mr. Shawn” throughout. So does Mehta’s remembrance of what he calls “Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker.” Only Lillian Ross calls him “Bill,” thus asserting her primacy on the love ladder. Probably Shawn did not encourage the Mistering. Still the old-fashioned politeness of it spoke of something he was trying to preserve in the magazine. It might strike an up-to-date, with-it generation as musty, but it also declared that civility and politeness still mattered at The New Yorker. This was a daring attitude to strike after the 1960s when civility and politeness came to be viewed more and more as quaint remnants of a reactionary generation whose time had passed. Shawn and his New Yorker were struggling against a tide that threatened to sweep civility and politeness out of American life. In his old age he was to pay dearly for it.
In a spate of books whose appearance is timed to coincide with the magazine’s seventy-fifth birthday, it is Ben Yagoda’s About Town that best explains what made Shawn a superb editor. There was, first, a capacity for taking infinite pains to achieve precision. Although his personal manner was shy, gentle, and withdrawn, almost apologetic, he could become ruthless when working on a manuscript. Out went every bit of “extraneous, repetitive, or discordant material.” In their place Shawn inserted “just the right word, phrase, or sentence” that improved the piece. Sometimes he could leave a manuscript looking brutalized. In editing an article by Matthew Josephson, a successful writer of the 1940s, Shawn “virtually disassembled” the piece; not a single line remained as Josephson had written it until the middle of the fourth page.
Writers not only put up with these assaults, but also thanked Shawn for committing them. Almost invariably they conceded that Shawn’s editing had improved their work without changing its content. S.N. Behrman, after working with Shawn on profiles of the playwright Ferenc Molnar and the art dealer Joseph Duveen, was lyrical in praise of the results. Though the work had been hard and exhausting, it had “been wonderful also and chiefly because of Shawn’s collaboration,” Behrman wrote. “He has a passion for perfection, which is so rare in this sloppy age, and what he has contributed to the pieces is, literally, more than I could possibly compute. He is one of the rarest and subtlest minds I have ever encountered.”