Commentary Magazine


The "New Yorker:" Legends of the Fall

What becomes a legend most? Clearly not silence. A legend in their own minds, and perforce in ours, the survivors of William Shawn’s old New Yorker magazine cannot get over themselves, their specialness, their panache, their elegance, their sensitivity—or the wrong done to them and their culture when it was all put into eclipse. Especially, they cannot get over “Mr. Shawn,” as they call him (everyone else they tend to dismiss by surname alone), the greatest editor of the greatest magazine that ever existed.

It was Mr. Shawn who arrived in 1935 to help turn Harold Ross’s humorous little weekly into a serious outlet for high thought and deep purpose. It was Mr. Shawn who in 1952 became editor upon Ross’s death and thenceforth, for 35 blessed years, held the line against glitter and mere commerce, disdaining the glamorous advertisements that kept his sheet solvent (one regular ad, for fur coats, pictured the likes of the bewrapped playwright Lillian Hellman and the line, “What becomes a legend most?”) and making a home for a unique clique of rarefied spirits: themselves. Then, too soon, came the ouster from Eden: Mr. Shawn (aged seventy-nine!) was fired, his disciples were scattered, his great estate was looted by vandals: first by Robert Gottlieb, who had edited popular books in his old job in publishing; then by Tina “The Terrible” Brown, the high priestess of the moment and of Mammon. Between them, Gottlieb and Brown destroyed the New Yorker, and a national treasure was lost.

But was it? More or less in conjunction with the magazine’s 75th anniversary, three memoirs by Shawn staffers—Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker by the novelist and critic Renata Adler,1 Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker by the veteran contributor Ved Mehta,2 and Here But Not Here: My Life with William Shawn by the reporter Lillian Ross,3 who was also Shawn’s longtime lover—join in draping still more crepe on the enterprise. But sadly for them, more objective volumes—especially Carol Felsenthal’s Citizen Newhouse,4 about the man who bought the New Yorker in 1985, and Ben Yagoda’s About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made5—offer a more rational, not to say a great deal less flattering, view in which Shawn’s “enchanted kingdom” (Mehta’s words) stands forth, in Yagoda’s accurate characterization, as plain “creepy.”

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Harold Ross founded the New Yorker in 1925 to amuse himself and others, to be witty and humorous, to express the sensibility of a great metropolis approaching its own golden era. “I started this magazine because I thought it would be so much fun,” Ross wrote to a friend.6 But as time passed and things became much less funny, especially during and just after World War II, Ross also began to publish tales of the larger world and its troubles: Rebecca West on crimes, war crimes, and treason; John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Survival. The magazine was in its own golden era when Ross died unexpectedly in 1951.

In William Shawn, it seemed at first to have been left in good hands. The new chief was a fifteen-year veteran of the New Yorker and an editor of genius, able to slip seamlessly into a writer’s personal style, altering the text in most ways for the better while making it still more the writer’s own. He was wholly devoted to the New Yorker, which had become his entire existence. But he was also a knot of neuroses, which would in time entangle and undermine his magazine.

Shawn, it is clear, was aggressively passive, assertively diffident, a megalomaniac with no sense of self. The youngest of a large family, as Lillian Ross informs us, he was “the one to be shielded in every way from hurt, from ugliness, from the facts and instances of illness and death.” Later, he had to be sheltered from other things as well: from commerce and greed; from harsh, ugly noises; from the stresses of everyday living. “He had never been able to fly in a plane,” Miss Ross writes, and “he could not go outside in a heavy storm, rain, or snow, or in a deep freeze.” What he liked about editing was that it allowed him to become “invisible,” and so intense were his efforts at self-effacement that he began to doubt that he himself existed. “ ‘Who am I?’ he would ask me. ‘Am I really here?’ ”

Self-effacement, fragility, the need for protection—these became the dominating marks not only of Shawn but of his regime as well. Eventually, the whole tone of the magazine reflected this cast of mind. In the late 60’s and 70’s, especially, Shawn’s native fastidiousness found a good match in the Left’s abhorrence of striving, commercial, middle-class America—not to speak of imperialistic, war-mongering America. He stocked his staff with like-minded people, including the pacifist Jonathan Schell and the environmental minimalist Bill McKibben, whose most recent works urge people to have no more than one child, and not to spend money on holidays.

With the steady influx of people like these, the muscular glamor that marked the New Yorker in the FDR era gave way to the plodding righteousness of the age of McGovern. The magazine took on a marked countercultural tenor—if such a thing can be said of a quintessentially establishment publication—attacking large corporations, the American Medical Association, the National Rifle Association, and always the military. Urbanity was replaced with correctness, and the criterion of moral gravity shifted from Manhattan to the universities.

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Internally, the magazine was becoming quite dangerously cult-like by this time, completely wrapped up in its mission and image—“the sole embodiment,” in Ben Yagoda’s words, “of civilization and civilized values in a debased and crumbling world.” “Shawn didn’t just hire writers,” Yagoda continues, “he anointed them” into a secular “religious order” of his own. Renata Adler agrees: “the gravest sin,” she testifies in Gone, “was selling out, which could mean anything from having a life in the world outside the magazine to becoming famous [or] publishing elsewhere.”

Once on staff, however, writers were granted a kind of indulgence seldom to be encountered in the outside world, allowed to pick obscure topics and then to dilate upon them endlessly. Even Adler admits that these interminable essays—on metals, or wheat—had “long, boring stretches.” Mehta, who filled many pages of the magazine with tales of his childhood in India, admits that he “often had trouble reading even the New Yorker pieces of colleagues who were good friends of mine.”

The indulgence obviously won the devotion of some writers, but it broke the morale of several others, who, given forever to “do a piece justice,” never seemed able to get it just right. Shawn’s habit of buying articles and then not publishing them for months—or years—drained the joy out of writing. “Under the pressureless pressures of being left alone to do what they liked,” concedes Mehta, “people fell apart, . . . had nervous breakdowns, or developed writer’s block, which sometimes lasted for years.” J.D. Salinger, the magazine’s fiction star, became totally silent; another writer published nothing for three decades. In Citizen Newhouse, Carol Felsenthal quotes a longtime staffer on the atmosphere in the office: “as weird a place as you can possibly imagine,” the staff “inbred, insular,” out of this world.

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It began to fall apart in January 1985, when Peter Fleischmann, son of the New Yorker‘s original owner, sold the magazine to S.I. Newhouse, owner of a string of middlebrow newspapers and of the Condé Nast family of publications, including the popular Vanity Fair. Shawn, by then seventy-seven, resisted corporate pressures to name, much less groom, a successor. (As Mehta puts it, “Merely having a successor in place, as if the New Yorker could run just like another business, went against everything he believed in.”) One who was eventually named died shortly thereafter. Another was allowed to go off to run a different magazine. Although Shawn did promote his protégés Schell and McKibben, they were dismissed by the staff as too young and/or too arrogant. He then was thought to have picked an editor named Charles McGrath (now the editor of the New York Times Book Review), but, as Felsenthal says, he too “was never quite chosen.” Adler explains: “By then, it had become clear to many of us that Shawn did not want a successor,” and that the process was just a “charade.” Finally Newhouse lowered the boom.

The Anschluss part of this mythical saga—to hear it told, the worst thing arguably since Pearl Harbor—took place on January 12, 1987, when Newhouse announced that Shawn had been fired and Gottlieb installed in his stead. To Jonathan Schell, this was “an act of unconscionable violence.” Mehta: “In one stroke, Newhouse had destroyed the New Yorker, into which Mr. Shawn had poured his heart and soul.” The staff drew up a letter, asking Gottlieb not to come over. The effect of this letter on Newhouse was to impel him to advance the date of Shawn’s ouster from March 1 to February 15.

A distinguished editor at a prestigious house (Knopf), Gottlieb suffered from the sole flaw of being an outsider: had he been sensitive enough to have run the New Yorker, he would have been too sensitive ever to come. But he did; and when he did, William Shawn was stunned to find that his friends who had written the letter and who he was sure would “go down in the elevator and never come back” (Mehta) behaved as if nothing had happened. One who stayed was Mehta himself, to compile a damning case against the usurper. He installed a coffee machine! And a Joan Crawford poster! He killed a three-part piece—by Mehta—in favor of a story (by Doris Lessing) that Mr. Shawn had rejected! He dared to edit—and cut!—Mehta’s work! Not to be outdone in the sensitivity sweepstakes, Adler weighs in with her own list of Gottlieb offenses. He cut! He introduced graphics! He put in horizontal ads!

Could things get much worse? They could, and they did. In 1992, Gottlieb was himself ousted for Tina Brown, a young Englishwoman who had been editing Vanity Fair to great eclat and who had once described the typical story in Shawn’s New Yorker as “the 50,000-word piece on zinc.” With her accession out went zinc, in came zing, along with buzz, flash, and style. By 1998, when Brown herself left, to be succeeded by David Remnick, a prolific and serious journalist, the je ne sais quoi had totally vanished. The golden bowl was broken. The New Yorker was . . . gone.

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Only, the bowl was never that golden. Much has been made by the “old” New Yorker‘s acolytes of Tina Brown’s transgressions—the special issue edited by Roseanne, the syrupy fawning over Princess Diana, the occasional incendiary cover. But she also published essays—by Joan Acocella on Mikhail Baryshnikov, by Connie Bruck on Hillary Clinton, by David Remnick on the political afterlives of Gary Hart and Mario Cuomo, by Michael Kelly on anything—that were as good as, if not better than, anything published by Shawn. The difference was that where Shawn ran a great deal of bilge that was precious and boring along with some good things, Brown’s good things were accompanied by a great deal of bilge from the other direction: trendy, glitzy, eager to shock.

In looking back over the New Yorker‘s history it seems clear, indeed, that the real damage took place not in the transition from Shawn to Gottlieb, or from Gottlieb to Brown, but way back in 1952 in the transition from Ross to Shawn and then in the years afterward as Shawn grew ever more Shawn-like. Unlike his successor, Ross was not insular; he was not effete; and he needed protection from nothing. His correspondence reflects contact with a wide range of people—Westbrook Pegler, Rebecca West, J. Edgar Hoover, Ginger Rogers, Joseph P. Kennedy—most of them well out of reach of Shawn’s narrow wavelength. “Ross was a man of enormous social energy and mischief, and he was not reluctant to use pieces in the New Yorker as a means of settling feuds, or even starting them,” David Remnick has written.7 Whatever one thinks of his particular species of élan—“I believe in malice,” Ross once told a complaining Henry Luce—there was no sign of it either in Shawn or in his product, which rather came to resemble the morgue that Tom Wolfe called it in a famous parody in 1965. And from there things only got worse.

In Gone, Renata Adler looks back to the time when the New Yorker‘s audience formed a commune of people who not only read the magazine but defined themselves by it. This ha? its truth, but is also seriously overwrought. People who create things often exaggerate the space their works occupy inside others’ minds. It can take a long time to write a song, score a song, interpret and record a song, so that others can listen to it for several minutes and find it pleasant. One can work for years on a book, so that others can read it in several hours. One can work for weeks on an article so that others can read it, digest it like breakfast, and then go and have lunch.

What these New Yorker revenants show in their endless fascination with their own moods and feelings; their living arrangements, feuds, and office politics; their own writing (often bad) and thinking (worse) is everything that was ever wrong with their magazine. “You want to have company, a person, an affiliation, a community,” says Adler, inadvertently exposing the heart of the matter. For a time, under Shawn, a small group of people had an affiliation and a community, a safe nest, a warm bath, an identity that permitted them to think themselves better than others; and now they have it no longer. This is a great loss to them, but not to publishing—and, to judge from the quality of their books, not to the world.

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Footnotes

1 Simon & Schuster, 252 pp., $25.00.

2 Overlook, 414 pp., $29.95.

3 Random House, 240 pp., $25.00.

4 Seven Stories, 512 pp., $29.95.

5 Scribner, 480 pp., $27.50.

6 His correspondence has been newly edited by Thomas Kunkel, Letters From the Editor: The New Yorker’s Harold Ross. Modern Library, 428 pp., $26.95.

7 In his introduction to a collection of profiles from the New Yorker entitled Life Stories. Random House, 530 pp., $26.95.

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