Dismembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker 

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Jan. 27 2000 3:30 AM

Dismembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker 

Coming soon to a bookstore near you. 

From Dusk 'Til Shawn. Which New Yorker staffer loved Mr. William Shawn the most? Despite what other biographers might have you believe, it was Ralph Treadwell, The New Yorker's longtime night-shift guard, whose loyalty to Shawn ran deepest. Though the two never met, Treadwell would often pass the long, quiet hours in the great editor's office, poring over Mr. Shawn's marked-up manuscripts of New Yorker pieces. It was there, he says, that he met his "only true hero" and began a lifelong love affair with copy editing.

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William Shawn, Man of Letters. Dolores Farber, a Minnesota housewife, corresponded with Mr. Shawn for over 30 years through two wars, through seven presidential administrations, and through Mr. Shawn's entire tenure as New Yorker editor. After a 10-year silence, Farber has finally come forward to publish 300 pages of their hitherto secret correspondence. In letter after letter Mr. Shawn gracefully responds to Farber's lengthy missives of life, love, and loss with reassuring replies, always beginning with the familiar greeting, "We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material."

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I Barely Remember Mr. Shawn's New Yorker. She was only in the typing pool for three weeks during the winter of 1964, but Ethel Witcomb remembers it as though it were yesterday. Sort of. She vividly recalls what time she clocked in (8:30 a.m.) and how much she paid for lunch at the Tastee Coffeeshop on West 43rd ($2.75), but critics will find that she's a bit vague on other facts and details, when she writes, for example, "I think Mr. Shawn was the bald one. And he was short. Yeah, I'm almost positive he was short. He smelled sweet, too ... like bacon. Best-smelling man at Esquire, Mr. Shawn."

Shawn But Not Forgotten. Most New Yorkerites knew Mr. Shawn for his thoughtful repose, but the old fellow could enjoy a good joke from time to time. Mail-room manager Frank Letty recalls that Shawn would occasionally beckon him into his office and, with a smile, offer a dry remark about the Yankees or the weather. Always one to reciprocate, Letty would frequently sneak his mail cart up behind the aging Shawn in the office halls, snap his butt with a rubber band, and yell, "Special delivery for ya, Shawnsy."

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Outside Mr. Shawn's New Yorker. To New Yorker writers, Mr. Shawn was a brilliant, commanding editor, whose pen could make a phrase sparkle on the page. Not so to the man who sold him his candied nuts. Jack O'Rourke, who saw Mr. Shawn nearly every day from his cart outside the New Yorker offices, remembers him as a cold, taciturn man, who rarely said more than, "A bag of nuts, please," or "I think I'll have some of those tasty nuts."

Below Mr. Shawn's New Yorker. The novelists, journalists, and thinkers whose prose filled Shawn's New Yorker spent much of their days roaming the office halls, striking up spirited discussions of literature or current affairs. But for Tony Gerwitz, whose accounting firm occupied the floor immediately below the magazine, the era was marked only by a loud, unceasing trudging overhead. "Intellectuals are all well and good," writes Gerwitz in his memoir, "but when they're stomping around above you all day, it becomes hard to balance the books."

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Inside Mr. Shawn. A Fantastic Voyage-style fantasy about four New Yorker writers who feel so strongly about Mr. Shawn that they miniaturize themselves and have themselves injected into the great editor's bloodstream. By traveling up into his brain, they discover the awesome secret of Mr. Shawn's editing prowess. The book ends before the readers discover the answer, but there will, we are told, be a sequel.

Bill Wasik and Erica Youngren are editorial assistants at The New Yorker.