WILLIAM SHAWN: The Memories of Lillian Ross

May 18, 1998

By David Michaelis

Love stories are never simple. Even for the most conventional couples, there are at least three versions of the story: his, hers and theirs. In the case of William Shawn, the late editor of The New Yorker who was married for 64 years to the former Cecille Lyon, there turns out to have been not just another version, but another romance. Lillian Ross, a great reporter and pathfinder of literary nonfiction, lived with Shawn and with him raised an adopted son. Their life together, written by Miss Ross as a love story, spanned more than 40 years of Shawn’s married life and proceeded with the acknowledgment of Mrs. Shawn. Appearing alongside an informative but more predictable memoir of William Shawn’s New Yorker by the writer Ved Mehta, Miss Ross’ unexpected reporting from home buries once and for all the mild, prudish, eccentrically mannered “Mr. Shawn” of legend and ridicule, restoring to life a Bill Shawn who is far more complex, romantic, earthy, masculine and human.

Mr. Mehta’s memoir will claim fresh space beside James Thurber’s and Brendan Gill’s yellowing best sellers, The Years with Ross and Here at “The New Yorker.” However, it ultimately fails to go beyond its own boyish hero-worship. Even in death, Shawn remains in service to the needs of his writers. As Mr. Mehta’s colleague Janet Flanner declared, “It’s as if, Mehta, he were beyond our human conception.”

But the reader has long since grown weary of that Mr. Shawn. Saintliness was only one aspect of the man. Six years after William Shawn’s death from a heart attack on Dec. 8, 1992, Lillian Ross is finally taking the story in a new direction. Miss Ross’ man is flesh and blood, a whole being. Hers is the first sighting of the Shawn who will claim attention in the future.

The reader of Mr. Mehta’s memoir, meanwhile, may need reminding that William Shawn was a magazine editor. From the moment of his arrival at The New Yorker in 1959 to his departure 30 years later, the author attributed magical powers to the wonderful Mr. Shawn. Mr. Mehta’s Shawn is mysterious, secretive, omnipotent, even “otherworldly.” A mind reader, a master of concealment, he is to this memoir as Frank Morgan is to the 1939 M-G-M Wizard of Oz , appearing to our dependent, yellow-brick-road travelers in one guise of authority after another.

Under the jurisdiction of the “saintly and quiet” Shawn, the awestruck young writer is initiated into a “sacred editing process” in which he learns that “a writer and an editor had a higher calling than self-glorification-that they were partners in a search for truth.” The great and powerful Shawn finds the magazine’s “latest inductee” an apartment to live in, meanwhile supplying an office at the magazine and a drawing account from which to pay his rent. In addition, a charge account is established for him at an East Side grocer’s. Meanwhile, as the paternal Mr. Shawn treats young Mr. Mehta’s every word with deep respect, submitting his writing to “no fewer than 16 readings,” it suddenly becomes clear that Mr. Mehta is telling a conversion story.

Ordained in Shawn’s New Yorker , Mr. Mehta has traded not just the worlds of India and Oxford for America, but the world of blindness for the world of sight. As a nonsighted person in India, he explains, he was treated as if he were handicapped. At Shawn’s magazine, he is allowed to be free of those strictures. Not only does Shawn consult with Mr. Mehta about the work of visual artists whom Mr. Mehta cannot see except through the eyes of another, but, with Shawn’s approval, Mr. Mehta begins a lifelong habit of writing as if he were sighted. On these terms, it is no wonder that the living Shawn was so often understood in a biblical sense.

Miss Ross, by contrast, shows us that as the editor in chief of one of the most influential and insular institutions in American literature and journalism, Shawn was both more alive to his work and more depressed by it than we have been led to believe.

In 1952, when Raoul Fleischmann, owner of The New Yorker , chose Shawn to succeed Harold Ross as editor, Ross (no relation to Lillian) begged Shawn not to accept the offer, warning that the job would literally kill him. But Shawn, who had been managing editor since 1939, felt he had no choice. He cared deeply about The New Yorker and about its writers and artists, and he believed that he could not abandon them at that crucial turning point in the magazine’s life. Characteristically, he gave no thought to his own life’s needs; he did “what was best for the magazine.” For the next 35 years, seven days a week, sometimes grinding all day and night, Shawn gave himself to the unending job of bringing the work of others, in his words, to a “state of something like perfection.”

In truth, he had found a hiding place. “He did this work so easily, so smoothly, so quietly, so anonymously, that he could make it seem he wasn’t doing anything at all,” writes Miss Ross. “He could make it seem he wasn’t there. He did not have to exist. He did not have to think about existing. Giving his help was a reflex action. It was life-giving-in one way-to lose himself in other creative people.”

In another way, Miss Ross reveals, it was a trap. The very qualities that made Shawn a great editor were also symptoms of a lifelong problem. He could not do for himself what he could easily do for others. As a hard-working schoolboy in Chicago, he had helped his classmates with their homework. In high school, he managed the baseball team and, as president of the class of 1925, received high praise for his “extraordinary executive and administrative knowledge.” Most telling of all, at age 14 Bill Shawn started and finished a novel for an older friend. Then, when he began writing another novel, this time for himself alone, he abandoned it, telling his mother, “It is not what I wish to write”-the very words he would use some 70 years later, when, after being fired from The New Yorker , he again attempted to write for himself alone.

The adult Shawn came to think of the job of editor as a form of “nonexistence.” It was, he once told Miss Ross, “the ultimate cell.” Imprisoned by his duties on the 19th floor at 25 West 43rd Street, he sometimes felt total despair. He grieved for a “secret self”-the writer he might have been and still sometimes hoped to be. In his marriage, meanwhile, he was even more suffocated and full of grief.

By 1952, Shawn had been married for 24 years to a woman he had met on a blind date at age 17. Cecille Lyon, a features writer at the Chicago Daily News , had given up work to devote herself to Bill and their family. She had five children in six years but only three survived: two sons, Wallace and Allen, and a daughter, Mary, who had been born brain-damaged and was sent away to a special school. The Shawns lived in an apartment at 1150 Fifth Avenue and spent summers in rented houses in Bronxville. The marriage was a shell. As Shawn later described his life at home to Miss Ross, “I am there but I am not there.” He cared about Cecille and loved his children and went off every morning to edit The New Yorker , but inside he had to remind himself that he was alive.

In a voice that one associates more with Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett than with the blithe-spirited magazine that Shawn had inherited in 1952, he questioned his existence as frankly and desperately as he questioned himself: “Why am I more ghost than man?”; “Who has declared me null and void?” His own death, which he had feared all his life, “was always with him,” Miss Ross writes. Each morning Shawn would marvel, “I’m still here.”

This voice, which we have never heard before, helps explain, in part, how his New Yorker became the dominant moral and spiritual conscience of the cold war. A man attuned daily to his own existential doomsday would logically introduce to national consciousness the dangers of nuclear testing, American policy in Vietnam, pesticides in the ecosystem, aerosol propellants in the atmosphere, nuclear statecraft and proliferation, homelessness-subjects that often became widely recognized as crises only after appearing in Shawn’s pages. His peculiar paradox was that as editor of The New Yorker , he could change the world but not himself. With no idea how to free himself from his inner turmoil, no notion of whom or even how to ask for help, he remained stuck and helpless.

Enter Miss Ross. They had been working together at The New Yorker since 1945. From the beginning there was a powerful sense of likeness between them. They were two narcissists, and instead of repelling each other, they felt profoundly whole together. Miss Ross, however, had no inkling of Shawn’s agony at first. Soon, too, Shawn’s torment was aggravated by the fact that he had fallen in love with her. On the day Miss Ross’ soon-to-be-famous profile of Ernest Hemingway appeared in the magazine, he took her to lunch at the Algonquin; calling her “darling,” he managed to hint at his feelings. Love poems and messages followed, appearing on Miss Ross’ desk. Then came his first awkward declaration of love. He meanwhile made clear that he could never leave his wife and children but at the same time left them every night to stand under Miss Ross’ fifth-floor apartment window. Eventually, by way of distance and indecision, the relationship deepened, and one day, needing no words between them, Shawn and Miss Ross exchanged a look, left the offices of The New Yorker , took a taxi to the Plaza, got a room and went to bed.

Miss Ross’ dual gift, Shawn once pointed out, is for observation and invisibility. Her steely, stainless portraits of Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin, Adlai Stevenson and Harry Winston achieved a high degree of clarity in part because of her absence from the scene. Her characterization of Bill Shawn is no less daring or sharp for her involvement in the story. As a romantic (his favorite words were “magical” and “enchanting”) and as a suitor, he lives in these pages as he has nowhere before. As Miss Ross helped him let go of deeply ingrained fears and phobias, Shawn “revealed, without apology, that he yearned for a taste, just a taste, of some of the luxury items that were so often advertised in his magazine”: Porthault, Pratesi, Baccarat, Scalamandré. Their adventures buying yellow bathing trunks for Shawn and then making their getaway to a Catskills resort have the wacky romantic appeal of oddball French films of the early 1970’s. Their lovemaking, writes Miss Ross, was passionate, tender and inventive, their zest for each other endless. The supposedly mild Shawn had a strong sexual urge; so strong that in their first weeks together, recalls Miss Ross, she found his energy “alarming.” Shawn loved women (Miss Ross’ catalogue of her man’s tastes is among the most memorable set pieces in her work), and though Miss Ross does not say so explicitly, it is clear that the freedom she helped Shawn to find allowed him in turn to be freer, easier, more himself with all women.

In time, the affair turned them into a couple. As a couple, they managed to live a life that, according to Miss Ross, felt “intrinsically normal” yet not “ordinary” at all. They spent every Christmas Eve together, while Shawn gave Thanksgiving and Christmas Day to Cecille and their children. Every day they met for breakfast, went to work together at The New Yorker , met again for lunch and again for supper, after which Shawn would drop Miss Ross at her apartment and go back to his family, a half-mile up Fifth Avenue. He would return to watch television: the 11 o’clock news and, at 11:30, The Saint -the series about that other master of concealment. From there, Miss Ross’ account turns opaque; presumably, at some point in the night, Shawn would return to his own apartment.

Lillian Ross has demonstrated in her classic pieces of reporting that selection of fact and arrangement of dialogue and observable incident can by themselves accrue meaning. Appearing to be a cheerful, disinterested bystander, Miss Ross is, in fact, a highly judgmental reporter, formidable in her approval and disapproval; for students of journalism, her work and the principles that guided her act as a medium of instruction.

Here but Not Here depends heavily on selectivity. Miss Ross’ love of her own work is stressed to the point of sternness, as are the unchanging joys of the love she and Shawn found in each other, as is their sex life, which, according to Miss Ross, “never deteriorated.” Meanwhile, shopworn words like “fidelity” and “unfaithful” and “adultery” and “mistress” are omitted. Instead, Miss Ross is clear and straightforward as she describes the feelings created by the complicated arrangements governing the private lives of what in the end amounted to 11 people. She cuts straight to the bone, remembering sadness and pain and pity and rage and guilt and disappointment, and she takes honest inventory of her own anger and “explosions” when, in the early days of their liaison, Shawn would leave her to “check in a few blocks north.” Ultimately, though, Shawn made theirs the love story-Cecille, writes Miss Ross, “was in truth outside of us”-and although it’s strange that Mrs. Shawn never divorced her husband but instead went along with the arrangements necessary for his life with Miss Ross, it’s not surprising.

Shawn never integrated himself. In “doing what was best for the magazine,” he expressed a father’s sense of responsibility to a family. But fathers, we have discovered a generation later, will be truly responsible to others if they are also responsible to themselves. Revived and kept alive by allowing himself to love Miss Ross, he simultaneously remained in a marriage in which he could not be real, either to himself or his family. Shawn never told his children about his new love or his new adopted son. He never truthfully explained his absences. Rejoined with Miss Ross after a night apart, Shawn sometimes admitted that he felt suicidal.

For all its remembered joy, this is a sad, sometimes tragic book. Miss Ross’ description of her last supper with Shawn is haunting. His eyes, always pure sky-blue, had that night turned black. The next morning, on the private telephone line previously used only by herself and Shawn, Miss Ross learns the news from Mrs. Shawn. With her son, Erik, she races to the Shawns’ apartment to find the door held only partway open by Shawn’s grown-up son Wallace, who, in shock, turns away to ask his mother’s permission to let in Lillian and Erik Ross. Death has suddenly reversed Shawn’s families: Those on the inside are now outside.

The scene is harrowing, and not only because everyone involved tries to meet each other with dignity in Shawn’s death, but because, for his survivors, the hurt in that moment seems to come as much from the life in which they’ve all been made complicit as from the death they must now face alone.

It is this scene, more than any other, that puts distance between Miss Ross and Mr. Mehta. When the Shawn family adopted the young Ved Mehta for Thanksgivings and other family gatherings-”I imagined that I was taken into the family fold as a fifth member”-the writer focused his already romantic feelings about the ” New Yorker family” on the inner circle of Shawns, but with no further penetration or insight. It is enough for Mr. Mehta to record his pleasure, and pain, at being taken in as a young man by what seemed to him an ideal family. “I never stopped comparing myself and my family unfavorably with the Shawns,” he admits, and the pathos intensifies for the reader of Lillian Ross’ memoir, who now knows all too well the other, more grown-up version of the sadly dysfunctional Shawns.

While Miss Ross rather overconscientiously speaks only for herself, Mr. Mehta risks speaking for a large and disparate group of staff writers, with varying results. In rare events such as the blackout of 1965, the plural voice succeeds at re-creating the powerful feeling of family and community and collective conscience that Shawn’s New Yorker engendered in its members and readers. At other times, such as when the staff split over important issues, most crucially the firing of Shawn in 1987 and his replacement by Robert Gottlieb, the first-person plural seems the least trustworthy voice for the story.

Although Mr. Mehta’s text is documented with much new information about Shawn’s final days, it is also tainted by bitterness. Mr. Mehta portrays the magazine’s new owner, S.I. Newhouse Jr., as a brutish stepfather usurping the place of the perfect father. A snob and a sorehead, he submits Mr. Gottlieb’s first Comment to the kind of nit-picking it would have received under Shawn’s pencil. Covering the same period, Miss Ross restrains herself mightily, keeping her eye on the man and off the office politics, in which she herself played a dramatic role. From that point of view, the role Shawn played in his own demise becomes clearer.

Earlier, Miss Ross recalls questioning Shawn’s “compulsion to be utterly forgiving and kind to people who were rude or cruel or opportunistic or destructive or insulting to him.” As both she and Shawn were Jewish, she would wonder to herself, “Why is this man trying to be more Christian than a Christian?” In the early 1980’s, with storm clouds forming over the business office at the magazine, Shawn failed to support a protective purchase offer from financier Warren Buffett in the name of fairness to New Yorker owner Peter Fleischmann-who later turned around and betrayed Shawn. Shawn’s loyalty to Fleischmann and his ultimate regret at having turned away Mr. Buffett can be read against him. More than once as the magazine changed hands, Shawn’s fair-mindedness extravagantly shortchanged not only himself, but the very writers and artists he had always fought to protect.

Lovingly re-created by Mr. Mehta, Shawn’s New Yorker exists as a ship in a bottle-it seems impossible that as recently as a decade ago there was still room in the culture for a remarkably prosperous general-interest magazine that was written and edited for the reader without the influence of the publisher, the advertiser, the pollster and the publicist, much less the voting membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Mr. Mehta makes astute points about the paternalism of Shawn’s New Yorker and the “crippling dependence” created in a certain kind of writer by an editor as selfless and idiosyncratic as Shawn. The “elusive,” external “Mr. Shawn” of Mr. Mehta’s page 414 is the same mysterious, selfless saint we met on page 9.

He is not the same man as Miss Ross’ gifted, flawed, pained, inspired Bill Shawn, a failure in his own eyes, guilty to the point of contemplating suicide but vowing still to fight his despair. This is the leader who proves, as Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War, that greatness lies in falling short of perfection. On his final day at The New Yorker , having lost the battle but won the war, Bill Shawn wrote a farewell letter to his staff. He chose 160 words to say goodbye; six times he used the word love. “Love,” he said, “has been the controlling emotion, and love is the essential word.”

This column ran on page 23 in the May 18, 1998 edition of The New York Observer.

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