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.”
Not every writer was so enchanted by a Shawn editing. After a few experiences, Margaret Case Harriman complained to Harold Ross that “it never used to be such a life-work, such a disheartening, endless, joyless, boring pain in the neck to correct proofs.” But malcontents were few. Yagoda estimates that between sixty and eighty New Yorker writers have dedicated books to Shawn. Yagoda suggests that Shawn the tigerish editor got away with his aggressions because the staff “could not but respond to his profound attention, strong respect for, and unabashed flattery of their work.” He loved them, and they loved him back.
In personal encounters Shawn apparently couldn’t bring himself to speak hard truths to writers. Rather than tell a writer his piece wasn’t good enough, he often bought it and put it in deep storage with dozens of other pieces destined never to reach the newsstands because Shawn didn’t think them good enough but hated to tell their authors. He was creating a workplace without much stimulus for writers to produce. The self-starters didn’t mind, but others wrote less and less, and two of the magazine’s best—Joseph Mitchell and J.D. Salinger—stopped writing entirely.
Was Shawn’s perfectionism a factor behind writer’s block? Mehta says he had written swiftly and easily in the past,
but now that I was at The New Yorker I seemed to be incapable of writing even a letter off the top of my head. As soon as I put down a sentence, I saw problems with it and started over. By the end of the day, I often didn’t have even one sentence that I liked, and answering a handful of letters sometimes took me most of a week. In the meantime, I could get no other [writing] work done, and felt like a taxi-driver going up and down the avenue with his meter running but without a fare.
Well, Harold Ross had also been a perfectionist nuisance. In this regard Shawn had made no vital change. In important ways, though, he changed Ross’s New Yorker significantly. Ross had wanted New Yorker pieces to be short. Shawn was more interested in complicated journalistic stories that took a lot of space to tell, and he was willing to let them run. And run and run, in the later stages of his career. Still, he published some astonishingly good journalism. Reporting had been important to the magazine in Ross’s time. When World War II made it hard for The New Yorker to continue thriving on its reputation as a humor magazine, Ross began publishing serious work by foreign correspondents writing from world capitals and battle fronts.
Shawn was his indispensable right-hand man during this change of course. After the war it was Shawn who persuaded Ross to devote an entire issue exclusively to publication of John Hersey’s Hiroshima. It doesn’t “hold up very well,” Renata Adler writes in Gone, thereby missing the point. Hiroshima was journalism, and journalism is not supposed to hold up; it is supposed to deliver the news. Hersey delivered it with stunning impact at a time when America was still almost entirely ignorant of what a nuclear bombing implied.
Yagoda’s book is also good on Ross, but Letters from the Editor is even better. It gives us Ross living and breathing. The book is an assortment of Ross’s letters, never intended for publication. Ross was obviously a natural writer, but he never wrote for his magazine, or aspired to. He would probably have rejected his own writing as unsuitable, for his prose was loud, muscular, and vulgar, and he wanted his magazine’s voice to be subdued, delicate, and polite. What’s more, he hated writers trying to inject themselves into their work, and Ross’s letters are so filled with Ross that by the end of this collection the reader seems to have met him in person. And had a wonderful time.
Temperamentally, Ross and Shawn came from opposite poles. Shawn hated rejecting work; Ross did it with gusto. When William Rose Benét submits a poem, Ross bounces back a note saying, “We like your stuff, God knows, but this verse, damn it, is obscure.”
E.B. White’s father dies, and there is no writer more important to Ross than White, but his letter of condolence discloses a man utterly incapable of syrupy pieties: “Was very sorry to hear about your father, and send my sympathy, which is about all I have to say, except that after you get to be thirty people you know keep dropping off all the time and it’s a hell of a note.”
Despite their differing personalities, Shawn’s editorship was governed to the very end by Ross’s principles. Even in the 1980s, when custom and the Supreme Court had authorized wholesale use of what Ross once called “daring words,” Shawn refused to allow them in the magazine. Ross had always hated them, and Shawn upheld the code. Ross discussed his policy in a letter to Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair, in 1933:
I am an old-fashioned double-standard boy who is shocked at nothing, absolutely nothing, in a stag gathering, but who is embarrassed poignantly at any word or reference which used to be called off-color in mixed company…. The hell of it is that in these days of disillusionment, when fathers insist that they want their daughters to have “experience before marriage” and when Vassar graduates turn up with a vocabulary which you haven’t heard since the old days in Fanny Brown’s hook shop in California, I don’t know how to gauge the standards of mixed company….
Sometimes in fiction stories and where the writer is entitled to considerable privilege, we let “Christ” go through; “bitch” probably yes; “bastard” I would shrink at. I have argued three or four “bastards” out of print in the last three or four months….
The magazine’s resistance to he-man prose endured throughout Shawn’s tenure. Younger writers complained that it showed the magazine was no longer in the cultural mainstream. Marketers worried about declining ad revenue and circulation argued that the policy made the magazine seem too old-fashioned to interest young consumers. The antique gates were finally opened by Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown, who edited the magazine after Shawn’s departure, and the old Anglo-Saxon synonyms for body excretions, sexual congress, and reproductive organs flowed in at last. Thus ended the age of Ross and Shawn.
Renata Adler’s Gone is up to more than such a small book can deliver. It is a sob of mourning for the passing of the Ross-Shawn New Yorker, and an angry attempt to settle old scores with a few former colleagues, and a cry of frustration about time’s insistence on moving on to the next thing. To mourn the death of the old New Yorker is, after all, to complain because the world changes and because people and things we love grow old, fail, and die.
Splendid though he had been, her Mr. Shawn had begun to lose his grip. She reports as much from personal observation. It should have been expected by a man as astute as Shawn. He was approaching eighty and should have known that octogenarians can-not go on and on. If he didn’t then it was surely time for him to step aside. The magazine had entered an era in which almost everything had become as impermanent as a firefly on a June night. In this hopped-up culture, The New Yorker, which stood against all things hopped-up, was becoming hard pressed to find a commercially important audience.
There are many versions of Shawn’s endgame. Adler may love Shawn, but she is not kind to him in her account of the fall. She seems to think that the magazine (Shawn, one supposes) had become dangerously filled with sinful pride in its own integrity:
…The downside of this integrity was becoming this: a moral certitude, an absence of self-doubt—especially in political matters—that became a minor flaw and then a major flaw, which led, I believe, to the eventual dissolution of the magazine…. What had been a place of originality and integrity began to publish, and defend, instances of false reporting and plagiarism. What had been a place of civility, tact, understatement, became a place of vulgarity, meanness, invasions of privacy.
She is even harder on Shawn’s attempts to pick a successor. As time passed and many were mentioned and none was chosen, she concludes that Shawn “never had the slightest intention” of making way for a successor. Shawn inspired office speculation from time to time about staff editors being chosen to succeed him, but Adler thought it was all fakery, a charade to persuade the staff—“and perhaps himself”—that he intended “permitting the magazine to survive him.”
In her view, and she is persuasive, Shawn had become so determined to hang on that he was toying with his editors’ ambitions in order to keep himself in the editor’s chair. We are left to infer that senility was beginning to distort his judgment. The staff realized that something was going wrong. Roger Angell, the fiction editor, wrote E.B. White, his stepfather, that Shawn “has been unable to delegate anything, and he has become suspicious and overexcited and even a bit paranoid about any discussion having to do with his successor or his retirement.”
He seems to have been surprised when, in 1984, the Fleischmann interests who owned a controlling share of the magazine sold it to Advance Communications, a giant publishing conglomerate operating a group of successful popular magazines through Condé Nast. S.I. Newhouse, the new owner, seemed to hit it off with Shawn and let him stay on, supposedly to pick a successor. Adler’s description of Shawn at this stage suggests a tragic Lear-like figure, a dithering old man, once master of his world, now shocked when Newhouse, in 1987, fires him.
A last sadly comic act was played out in The New Yorker offices the day Shawn received his pink slip. Most of the staff assembled in an office corridor to express their natural shock and their devotion to Shawn. Lillian Ross was “in command,” Adler recalls, and soon the group was being stampeded into action, which, these being writers, meant composing a letter. While the discussion ran on, Adler says Shawn himself several times declared, “The magazine is in jeopardy.”
Newhouse had appointed Robert Gottlieb, chief editor at Knopf, to Shawn’s job, and the meeting decided to send Gottlieb a letter urging him not to accept it. “This preposterous letter,” as Adler called it, was composed by a committee and signed, according to Yagoda, by 153 people, and Gottlieb, of course, took the job anyway.
Shawn apparently expected those who had signed to quit the magazine when he left, and he was hurt when most chose to keep their jobs. He had “asked them for a token gesture of solidarity, and they had said no to him,” Lillian Ross writes. Mehta says Shawn “actually believed that, as Gottlieb came over, all of us who had signed the protest letter would go down in the elevator and never come back.”
Shawn’s farewell letter to his staff spoke of love:
…We have built something quite wonderful together. Love has been the controlling emotion, and love is the essential word. The New Yorker, as a reader once said, has been the gentlest of magazines. Perhaps it has also been the greatest, but that matters far less. What matters most is that you and I, working together, taking strength from the inspiration that our first editor, Harold Ross, gave us, have tried constantly to find and say what is true. I must speak of love once more. I love all of you, and will love you as long as I live.
He lived to be eighty-five. In the vital years of his manhood he had cherished his dignity and his privacy. In death, those who claimed to love him seem to have thought, preserving his dignity and privacy no longer mattered. They began to write books.