Goings On About Town

Goings On About Town

Goings On About Town

Reading between the lines.
May 13 1998 3:30 AM

Goings On About Town

The secret loves of William Shawn.

Here But Not Here: A Love Story
By Lillian Ross
Random House; 288 pages; $25

Remembering Mr. Shawn's "New Yorker": The Invisible Art of Editing
By Ved Mehta
Overlook Press; 368 pages; $27.95

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One of the funniest moments in Brendan Gill's 1975 memoir, Here at "The New Yorker," comes during a luncheon at the now vanished Ritz in Manhattan. At the table are Gill; William Shawn, then editor of The New Yorker; and the reclusive English writer Henry Green. Green's new novel, Loving, has just received a very favorable review in The New Yorker. Shawn--"with his usual hushed delicacy of speech and manner"--inquires of the novelist whether he could possibly reveal what prompted the creation of such an exquisite work. Green obliges. "I once asked an old butler in Ireland what had been the happiest times of his life," he says. "The butler replied, 'Lying in bed on Sunday morning, eating tea and toast with cunty fingers.' "

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Was Shawn blushing out of prudishness, as we are meant to infer? This was, after all, a man renowned for his retiring propriety, a man who sedulously barred anything smacking of the salacious--from lingerie ads to four-letter words--from the magazine he stewarded from 1952 until 1987, five years before his death. But after reading these two new memoirs about Shawn, I wonder. "He longed for the earthiest and wildest kinds of sexual adventures," Lillian Ross discloses in hers, adding that he lusted after Hannah Arendt, Evonne Goolagong, and Madonna. As for Ved Mehta, he reports that Shawn's favorite thing to watch on television was "people dancing uninhibitedly" (Soul Train, one guesses). I suspect Shawn did not blush at the "cunty fingers" remark out of prudery. He blushed because it had hit too close to home.

Both these memoirs must be read by everyone--everyone, that is, who takes seriously the important business of sorting out precisely how he or she feels about The New Yorker, then and now. Of the two, Mehta's is far and away the more entertaining. This may seem odd, for Mehta is reputed to be a very dull writer whereas Ross is a famously zippy one. Moreover, Mehta writes as Shawn's adoring acolyte, whereas Ross writes as his longtime adulterous lover. Just knowing that Mrs. Shawn is still alive adds a certain tension to reading much of what this Other Woman chooses to divulge. Evidently, "Bill" and Lillian loved each other with a fine, pure love, a love that was more than love, a love coveted by the winged seraphs of heaven. "We had indeed become one," she tells us, freely venting the inflations of her heart.

Shawn was managing editor of The New Yorker when he hired Ross in 1945 as the magazine's second woman reporter (the first was Andy Logan). He was short and balding but had pale blue eyes to die for. As for Ross, "I was aware of the fact that I was not unappealing." During a late-night editorial session, she says, Shawn blurted out his love. A few weeks later at the office, their eyes met. Without a word--even, it seems, to the cab driver--they hied uptown to the Plaza, where matters were consummated. Thereafter, the couple set up housekeeping together in an apartment 20 blocks downtown from the Shawn residence on upper Fifth Avenue and stoically endured the sufferings of Shawn's wife, who did not want a divorce.

Now, Ross seems like a nice lady, and I certainly have nothing against adultery, which I hear is being carried on in the best circles these days. But the public flaunting of adultery--especially when spouses and children are around--well, it brings out the bourgeois in me. It also made me feel funny about William Shawn, whom I have always regarded as a great man. I loved his New Yorker. The prose it contained--the gray stuff around the cartoons--was balm for the soul: unfailingly clear, precise, logical, and quietly stylish. So what if the articles were occasionally boring? It was a sweet sort of boredom, serene and restorative, not at all like the kind induced by magazines today, which is more akin to nervous exhaustion. Besides, the moral tone of the magazine was almost wholly admirable--it was ahead of the pack on Hiroshima, civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, the environment--and this was very much Shawn's doing. I do not like to think of him in an illicit love nest, eating tea and toast with cunty fingers.

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Happily, Ross has sprinkled her memoir with clues that it is not to be taken as entirely factual. To say that Shawn was "a man who grieved over all living creatures" is forgivable hyperbole; but later to add that he "mourned" for Si Newhouse when Newhouse unceremoniously fired him in 1987 (a couple of years after buying the magazine)--well, that's a bit much. Even Jesus had his limits.

Elsewhere, Ross refers to her lover's "very powerful masculinity," only to note on the very next page that "if he suffered a paper cut on a finger and saw blood, he would come into my office, looking pale." She declares that "Bill was incapable of engendering a cliché, in deed as well as in word." But then she puts the most toe-curling clichés into his mouth: "Why am I more ghost than man?" Or: "We must arrest our love in midflight. And we fix it forever as of today, a point of pure light that will reach into eternity." (File that under Romantic Effusions We Doubt Ever Got Uttered.) Nor is Ross incapable of a melodramatic cliché herself. "Why can't we just live, just live?" she cries in anguish when she and Shawn, walking hand in hand out of Central Park, chance to see Shawn's wife slowly making her way down the block with a burden of packages.

And what does she think of Mrs. Shawn? "I found her to be sensitive and likeable." Plus, she could "do a mean Charleston." There is nothing more poignant than the image of an openly cheated-upon and humiliated wife doing "a mean Charleston."

William Shawn's indispensability as an editor is amply manifest in Ross' memoir. Word repetition? "Whatever reporting Bill asked me to do turned out to be both challenging and fun. ... For me, reporting and writing for the magazine was fun, pure fun. ... It was never 'work' for me. It was fun." Even in praising his skill as an editor, she betrays the presence of its absence. "All writers, of course, have needed the one called the 'editor,' who singularly, almost mystically, embodies the many-faceted, unique life force infusing the entire enchilada." Nice touch, that enchilada.

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When cocktail party malcontents mocked Shawn's New Yorker in the late '70s and early '80s, they would make fun of such things as E.J. Kahn's five-part series on "Grains of the World" or Elizabeth Drew's supposedly soporific reporting from Washington. But Ved Mehta was always the butt of the worst abuse. Shawn was allowing him to publish an autobiography in the pages of the magazine that was mounting up to millions of words over the years, and the very idea of it seemed to bore people silly. After the publication of two early installments, "Daddyji" and "Mamaji," each the length of a book, one critic cried: "Enoughji!"

But it kept coming. And I, for one, was grateful. Here was a boy growing up in Punjab during the fall of the Raj and the Partition, a boy who had been blinded by meningitis at the age of 3, roller-skating through the back streets of Lahore as Sikhs slaughtered Hindus and Hindus slaughtered Muslims and civilization was collapsing and then, decades later, having made his way from India to an Arkansas school for the blind to Balliol College, Oxford, to The New Yorker, re-creating the whole thing in Proustian detail and better-than-Proustian prose ...!

Mehta's multivolume autobiography, titled Continents of Exile, has loss as its overarching theme: loss of sight, of childhood, of home and country, and now--with this volume--loss of Mr. Shawn's New Yorker. The memoir takes us from the time the author was hired as a staff writer in the early '60s up to 1994, when he was "terminated" by the loathed Tina Brown in her vandalization of his cherished magazine. Mehta evidently loved William Shawn at least as much as Lillian Ross did, although his love was not requited in the same way. He likens the revered editor to the character Prince Myshkin in The Idiot: innocent and vulnerable, someone who must be protected. And long-suffering, one might infer: "He was so careful of not hurting anyone's feelings that he often listened to utterly fatuous arguments for hours on end."

Like Ross, Mehta struggles to express William Shawn's ineffable virtues. "It is as if, Mehta, he were beyond our human conception," Janet Flanner tells him once to calm him down. At times I wondered whether the author, in his ecstasies of devotion, had not inadvertently committed plagiarism. His words on Mr. Shawn sound suspiciously like those of Mr. Pooter on his boss Mr. Perkupp in The Diary of a Nobody. Compare. Mehta on Shawn: "His words were so generous that I could scarcely find my tongue, even to thank him." Pooter on Perkupp: "My heart was too full to thank him." Mehta: "I started saying to myself compulsively, 'I wish Mr. Shawn would ring,' at the oddest times of the day or night. ... How I longed for the parade of proofs, the excitement of rewriting and perfecting!" Pooter: "Mr. Perkupp, I will work night and day to serve you!"

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I am not sure I have made it sound this way so far, but Mehta's book is completely engrossing--the most enjoyable book, I think, I have ever reviewed. It oozes affection and conviction, crackles with anger, and is stuffed with thumping good stories. Many are about Mehta's daft colleagues at The New Yorker, such as the guy in the next office:

His door was always shut, but I could hear him through the wall that separated his cubicle from mine typing without pause. ... Even the changing of the paper in the typewriter seemed somehow to be incorporated into the rhythmic rat-tat-tat ... year after year went by to the sound of his typing but without a word from his typewriter appearing in the magazine.

Or the great and eccentric Irish writer Maeve Breenan, who fetched up as a bag lady. Or the legendary St. Clair McKelway, whose decisive breakdown came when he hailed a cab and prevailed upon the driver to take him to the New Yorker office at 24 West 43rd St. "O.K., Mac, if that's what you want." He was in Boston at the time. (McKelway later told Mehta that if the cabby had not called him "Mac," his nickname, an alarm might have gone off in his head.)

Mehta's writerly persona, a disarming mixture of the feline and the naive, is perfect for relating the little scandals that worried The New Yorker in the late '70s (plagiarism, frozen turbot), the drama of finding a worthy candidate to succeed the aging Shawn as editor, the purchase of the magazine by the evil Si Newhouse ("We all took fright") and the resultant plague of Gottliebs and Florios visited upon it, and what he sees as the final debacle: Tinaji.

Lillian Ross, by contrast, takes a rather cheerful view of the Brown dispensation. Indeed, the new editor even coaxed Ross into re-joining the magazine, just as she was booting Mehta out. "I found that she possessed--under the usual disguises--her own share of Bill's kind of naivete, insight, and sensitivity," Ross says of Brown. "She, too, 'got it.' " A few months after Brown was appointed editor, Shawn died at the age of 85. He had long since stopped reading his beloved magazine, in sorrow and relief. That's if you believe Mehta. Ross assures us that Mr. Shawn was reading Tina Brown's New Yorker "with new interest" in the weeks prior to his death.

Has Tina Brown betrayed the legacy of William Shawn, as Mehta fiercely believes, or has she continued and built upon it, as Ross is evidently convinced? Have the changes she has wrought enlivened a stodgy magazine or vulgarized a dignified one--or both? These are weighty questions, and one is of course loath to compromise one's life chances by hazarding unripe opinions in a public forum such as this.