Choose one: it was once the best-written, most important magazine in America, but in recent years it has become coarse, shallow, and celebrity obsessed. Or, it was once a fey, long-winded dinosaur, but in recent years it has become important again and fun to read. Pooh-pooh it or pin your high school literary ambitions on writing for it, The New Yorker exudes a mystique so heady, so dense, it might as well be called Obsession. J.D. Salinger! John Updike! Staff writers burrowed in dingy cubicles nursing writers’ blocks as big as the Ritz! In traditional lore, burnished over the years in such warm, self-contented memoirs as James Thurber’s The Years With Ross and Brendan Gill’s Here at the New Yorker, journalistic eccentricity never looked so fetching.
And most fetching of all the eccentrics was William Shawn, who ran the shop for 35 years with an iron meekness and a pained commitment to the perfectly placed comma. Shawn died in 1992 at the age of 85, five years after his inelegant ouster by S.I. Newhouse, who bought The New Yorker in 1985 (former Knopf editor in chief Robert Gottlieb briefly succeeded Shawn; British ringmaster Tina Brown took over in 1992, bringing a whole lotta spangles to the circus). Now, six years after his death, here come two new books by old loyalists about the man called Mr. Shawn in the way acolytes honor Mr. T or Mister Ed. Here but Not Here (Random House, $25), by Lillian Ross, and Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker (Overlook, $29.95), by Ved Mehta, prove that even if Ms. Brown diverts us, the old Yoda of West 43rd Street still draws a curious crowd.
What we learn about the man, though, is not what the writers had in mind. For instance, Ross—the seventysomething author of Picture and Portrait of Hemingway, who wrote for the magazine from 1945 to 1987, resigned in solidarity with her man, then rejoined the fold the year after his death—toasts her late editor and lover of 40 years. Theirs was a passionate romance, she tells us, a perfect union of body and soul. But there was a hitch: Shawn was married, he was the father of three (including actor Wallace), and he split his life between two women, each knowing of the other, each unable to have him for her own, while the tortured hero mourned his fate. “I am there, but I am not there,” he sighed. “Who has declared me null and void?” he keened. “Please do not let me forget my own life,” he begged.
Ross contorts into a pretzel trying to convince us—and herself—that ambiguity was just peachy with her and that since she considered herself Shawn’s real wife, she didn’t care a tinker’s cuss about the other woman. (Au contraire, I hazard Ross would once and for all like to kill Cecille Shawn, now in her 90s, with this very book.) What’s more, Ross argues that her relationship with a man racked by guilt, grief, depression, and swallowed aggression was in fact a superior way of life.
Shawn’s quivering empathy, his exquisite sensibilities, his mole-like devotion to his calling, come across as less the temperament of a god than the manipulations of a man hurting those closest to him while clawing at devils. And in publishing such a tacky, disingenuous reminiscence, a proud, once perceptive writer comes across as a foolish old woman who was given bad publishing advice.
Not as foolish, however, as Ved Mehta, a New Yorker staff writer from 1961 to 1994, who, while scarcely mentioning her existence, seeks to top Ross in the love-of-Shawn sweepstakes. “Mr. Shawn was a tiger when it came to fighting for his writers.” “I thought him almost omniscient.” “Mr. Shawn’s charity and tolerance for people had no limits.” As the old New Yorker would have snipped, “No vivid writing, please.” Mehta—Indian-born, blind since childhood, and famous for his interminable, gasbagging serialized autobiography (of which this is naturally a part)—coos and postures, fawns and boasts, doing his late mentor no favors by championing the cause of an editor who let this kind of prissy, snobbish wheezing go on unchecked. By the time Mehta harrumphs off at the end, outraged by the forces of evil that abandoned his sainted boss to puny human fate (and, equally to the point, cut the author loose), even those loyal to the classic New Yorker may be grateful for the fresh air blowing through Tina Brown’s gaudy tent. Here but Not Here: C Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker: D