To the Editors:
Reading Russell Baker on the Love Boat (a.k.a. The New Yorker) [NYR, March 23], I was reminded that nearly forty years ago, during a brief tenure as the fill-in writer of Time’s “Press” section, I was assigned a piece about the magazine. I can’t recall the peg: it was either William Shawn’s tenth anniversary as editor or the publication of one of those books about the magazine that its writers seem to grind out as a kind of vanity publishing, of interest to New Yorker writers and editors, if no one else. One purpose of the piece was to compare Shawn’s editorial skills with those of his predecessor (and New Yorker founder) Harold Ross. The writers and editors questioned all maintained that Mr. Shawn was at the very least Ross’s equal, the indiscreet even saying he might even have been the founder’s better. Only one New Yorker writer had a contrary view—the late Phyllis McGinley. “The difference between Ross and Shawn,” McGinley said (not for attribution, as Iremember), “is the difference between genius and talent.” I would imagine that this remark was the cruelest that Shawn ever suffered.
One additional point. Penelope Gilliatt always referred to Shawn as “Bill,” never as “Mister Shawn.” I cannot attest to whether she called him by his diminutive in private, but then Penelope was on such familiar terms with the universe that I expect that when she arrived at the gates of heaven in 1993 she greeted the Holy Ghost as “Holy.”
John Gregory Dunne
New York City
June 15, 2000