Our secret selves

After the death of the legendary 'New Yorker' editor William Shawn, one of the magazine's writers revealed that she had been having an affair with her boss for 40 years. Here she describes their double life
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The Independent Culture
THE SCENE is our living room. It is a beautiful, mild, early September afternoon in 1987. Bill is in his seventies. I am in my sixties. He is quite bald, with a dark, substantial fringe of hair, care- fully barbered, at the base of his skull. My hair is silver, curly, and cut short. We have similar faces - round, with high colouring. His eyes are pure light blue; mine are green. It is about six months after he left his job at the New Yorker and I went with him. We are in the apartment we found together about 30 years earlier, in a then brand-new building. It is on the 12th floor; this had been our joint choice, notwithstanding his life- long claustrophobia, his fear of heights, and his terror in most elevators.

He lived "within limits," he would say. He had never been able to fly in a plane. On a highway, he once explained to me, he had to be sure there was an exit nearby. If he was caught in a traffic jam, he would grow silent and rigid. Once, when we were in a car, halted in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a road in New York City's Central Park, we had to get out and walk to the street. He would say he could not go outside in a heavy storm, rain or snow, or in a deep freeze. I discovered that he was able, surprisingly, to stretch his limits.

Our apartment is located about half a mile south of the one he lives in with his wife, Cecille. They were married in 1928, the day after he turned 21. By 1958, when Bill and I chose this apartment, we had already been together, in other rooms, for several years. He and I had agreed we would not keep our liaison a secret from Cecille. When Bill told her about it, they talked for weeks, and then for months, with each other - an agonising time for both of them - and then she made her unshakeable decision: she would stay in the marriage, and he would make the logistical arrangements with her that our life together called for.

Now, in 1987, Bill and Cecille have three grown children, and I have a son in his last year of college to whom, since his birth, Bill has been like a devoted parent. He has never considered divorcing his wife, and I have never considered asking him to. Whatever the circumstances in his marriage, Bill not only worried about Cecille, he loved her and would go on loving her, but he felt driven to make his life with me, and I have never doubted that this place has been our home.

WILLIAM SHAWN hired me as a reporter for the New Yorker in February 1945, a few months before the end of the Second World War. I had one priority: reporting and writing. All of my energy was channeled into that work. For the time being, it was everything I wanted. I did not long for marriage. I did not long for anyone to share my life with. I had no interest in assuming responsibility for anyone's life but my own.

Bill would become the editor-in-chief in 1952, after the death of Harold Ross, the founder and first editor of the magazine. When I first met Bill, he was 37 years old and had been the managing editor for six years. By then he had been given carte blanche by Harold Ross to develop what was becoming the magazine's great tradition of literary journalism - original ways of writing nonfiction stories, including spectacular and innovative reporting about the war.

I was ostensibly "interviewed" by Bill for the job in his small, spare office, on the 19th floor at 25 West 43rd Street. He sat at a wooden table holding neatly stacked long galley proofs and a cup filled with freshly sharpened black, eraser- topped pencils. I took a scruffy, upholstered armchair alongside. I had been working for a few years for an upstart tabloid newspaper, PM, where cigarette-smoking editors in shirtsleeves were loudly confident in manner and fairly unkempt. In contrast, Bill looked quiet and uncertain. He wore a white shirt, a dark-blue tie, and a grey tweed suit, and he kept his jacket on, buttoned. He was hesitant, self-conscious, almost apologetic, and seemed not to know what questions to ask me. He looked boyish. I immediately noticed the unmistakable honesty in his face. The fullness of his mouth, the blueness of his eyes registered. I was aware of an unplaceable familiar feeling about him. He stared at me for a long time in that first meeting, almost as though his speech were frozen. I mentioned the marvellous writing of E. B. White and Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling, and he seemed pleased and responded with the word "Yes," which was somehow punctuated with a restrained sob. Bill offered me a job at $75 a week, twice my salary at PM. I said nothing. I nodded. I left his office in a daze. I was completely occupied with thoughts about myself. I was going to do the work I loved. I didn't want anything else. I didn't want to be anywhere else. I was ecstatic.

I didn't have a clue, at the beginning, about the deep turmoil going on within him. As he worked with the people who looked to him for what they needed to realize their talent, he would wonder about his own life and what he called his "ghostly aspect," his "transparency" and the "silence" of his footsteps. I learned later how he would grieve over his "secret self".

"I can grieve over it, but I cannot change it," he would eventually say to me.

As the editor I was working for, Bill was direct, clear, professional, and, from the very beginning, sympathetic. I found no hint of any "secret self" about him. He was utterly in tune with me, and I concentrated happily on the work. Naturally, like my colleagues, I emitted all the usual signs of needing the encouragement, the appreciation, and the inspiration that led to original, solid reporting and writing, especially writing that would make him laugh. His face, as open and receptive as a child's, would break up with an expression that seemed to start with joy but wound up as that sob. I noticed it but didn't question it. I also began to notice that his unusual facial expressions stayed with me, flashing in my head at odd moments. They were unexpected, moving, unsettling.

LATE IN 1949, Ernest Hemingway asked me to meet him and his wife in New York, where he planned to stop for a couple of days on his way to Europe. By that time, we were friends, and I wanted to write a profile of him for the New Yorker.

On May 30, 1950, the day the Hemingway profile, "How Do You like It Now, Gentlemen?," came out in the magazine, Bill asked me to have lunch with him at the Algonquin. I had been at the New Yorker for five years, but this was the first time I was taken to lunch at the Algonquin. It was a heady experience for me, and sitting across from Bill at the table, I grinned at him. He gave me a smile, but I saw that his hands were shaking as he took a sip of water. "It's a wonderful piece, darling," Bill said. He blushed.

I was startled, and I looked startled. He had never addressed me before as "darling."

"This piece is going to make journalistic history," he said. "After today, you're going to be famous." He seemed to choke back a sob, and he trembled, as I would see him do many times in the years to come.

"I don't need to be famous," I muttered.

"You might go on to other things," he said. "You might go away."

"I don't need to go away," I said.

We sat there, looking at each other, he appa-rently unable to disguise his feelings, and I, beginning to recognise them but trying not to give a sign that I did. I was in turmoil, but I felt happy.

A couple of months later, that summer, I started finding little poems and messages on my desk, dated and handwritten on our yellow copy paper.

The poems were unexpected and affecting - about meetings and partings. There was the first of many, many poems over the years. In time, there would be dozens and dozens of poems on occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, the pas-sage of another year, going away, coming home, Christmas, starting life in our new apartment, and, regularly, about his love.

One night when we were working on editing another piece in his office, Bill suddenly blurted out awkwardly that he was in love with me. He told me that I was "beautiful". I tried to pretend I hadn't heard and got away as soon as possible.

Alone, later, I examined the facts. I was intrigued by Bill Shawn. He was unique. His youthful energy was endearing. He was appealing, and he was interesting. I admired him, but I had no active interest in life with him outside the magazine. And I certainly didn't want a consuming relationship with anybody, let alone a man who wasn't free. I knew full well that Bill was married and had three small children; his son Wallace was then five years old, and there were year-old twins, Allen and Mary.

No one had ever uttered the word "beautiful" about me as Bill had. I had never thought, in fact, in terms of "beautiful." I didn't know how to think that way just as I didn't knew how to report that way. This was not what I had planned to encounter at this point in my life, in my work. I had never thought of myself as beautiful, quite the contrary. My mind was reeling. Without putting it in so many words to myself, I was beginning to feel connected to him.

With all the attention and praise coming my way, especially after the Hemingway profile, I felt I should have been having a lot of fun. Instead, I was being emotionally distracted and drained.

By midsummer of 1950, I felt desperately that I had to extricate myself from the muddle. I asked for, and received, an assignment to go to Hollywood to write a profile of John Huston, who had become a friend of mine, and who had invited me to come and watch him make a movie based on Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.

The day before I was scheduled to leave for California, Bill asked me to come to lunch in Bronxville, where he and his family lived for the summer in a rented home. Summers in Bronxville were intolerable to Bill Shawn. He hated to leave New York City. He always felt, he said, that he'd never be able to get back. He once explained to me that he and Cecille rented a furnished home every summer because it was Cecille's "only way of getting a vacation in the country".

Bill started out commuting by train, but he soon switched to buying a car and paying a local fireman to drive him to the city every day. If he took an occasional week's "vacation", he would stay put in Bronxville, work on manuscripts, and spend a good part of every day on the telephone talking to writers.

At any rate, I didn't want to visit Bronxville (which I had found previously to be uncomfortably hot and oppressive and irritatingly suburban) for lunch outside on the lawn. There was tension on my visit. I took photographs of five-year-old Wallace carrying on wildly under the luncheon table and of Bill holding almost-two-year-old Allen. In leaving, Bill, holding my arm tightly, walked me down the driveway to my car. He asked me to promise to let him know as soon as I got to Hollywood. I promised, feeling self- consciously as though I were being treated like a college-bound kid. He took my hand. His hand was clammy. He was trembling. Cecille, standing back at the house, was calling him. I was nervous and uncomfortable. I didn't want to be there at all, yet I didn't want to act uncaring about him. I found myself feeling sorry for him, but I admired him and loved what he was, and I was incapable of doing or saying anything falsely patronising about him. I was bewildered. He suddenly kissed me on the mouth and made a hopeless gesture with his arm. I was in a kind of daze. Then I escaped.

A year and a half later Lillian Ross returned to the office in New York. William Shawn's feelings for her had not diminished.

The poems and messages from Bill began again to appear on my desk. Once again I was frightened.

He was spelling it out for me. And he was showing me that he felt he was sinking into oblivion. It was difficult for me to understand his misery. This was a period, after all, that coincided with his creation of some of the most brilliant, spectacular, and significant journalism in history. And his magazine, however often it was attacked for its outspokenness, was also being applauded all over the world. Years later, he told me that he did not experience all this as pleasure; it brought him no happiness. However, it began to be easier for me than for most others to separate him from his work. I began to absorb the realisation that he had to be the person he was. I knew that what he was feeling was real.

Responsible as he was toward the magazine and the lives of all the creative people involved with it, attuned as he made himself to all their frailties and disappointments and successes and joys, he could do nothing to help himself. He wanted someone to know there was more to him; he was desperate to feel alive. And that responsibility was somehow, mysteriously, becoming mine.

One day I was in my office, reading my New York Daily News, when Bill appeared. We looked at each other. It was late morning. Neither of us spoke. We went outside, got into a taxi, and still without a word, went directly to the Plaza Hotel, got a pretty room, went to bed and stayed there for the rest of the day and evening. Everything between us was so natural, so easy, there wasn't anything to say about it. It seemed that we had been together for years.

Nevertheless, it was impossible to ignore the question of what to do. I had no experience with this kind of trouble. We talked about what happens in a marriage when the parties start being hurtful to each other, in effect, on a path leading to mutual destruction.

When I was with Bill, I was happy. He was happy being with me. Then I would have hours or days of despair, and I would tell him that I didn't know if I could go on with what felt like dis- honesty. But we had no arguments with each other about the course we were following because there was no possibility that he would leave Cecille. He said that his real self was not in his home. He said that his presence in his home was a deception, that he made efforts to be with his children, but that he felt like a failure with them. Cecille, he said, wanted him to be sitting there no matter what. If I left him, he said, it would change nothing in his home. If I left him, he literally could not live, he said. I believed everything he said. Bill never lied. He was no philanderer. He was no scoundrel. He was Bill.

With Cecille's knowledge, Bill installed a private telephone in his bedroom, with a number he gave solely to me. We could reach each other at any hour. We began and ended our waking hours on the telephone with each other. In the middle of the night we sometimes telephoned each other and fell asleep talking. Our lives were joined. My running-away days were over.

We found a two-room apartment - in a hotel ten blocks south of Bill and Cecille's. It was one that nobody else wanted, because the bedroom had been converted entirely into a gigantic closet to hold the clothes of the previous occupant, Marlene Dietrich. In 1958 we found the 12th-floor apartment in a newly built house in the neighbourhood, and we started buying furniture.

Bill assured me that Cecille was going along with our arrangements. From time to time, I would think: maybe she loves him so much she wants him to have what keeps him alive. Then, on many mornings, when he picked me up, I would see the familiar misery in his face. Bill never became inured to his guilt, but he never gave even the slightest intimation of wanting to change our own life.

Bill loved his children, and when he talked about them to me, they were not an abstraction; in fact, I absorbed his special sense of them completely. He told me everything about his children throughout our years together. He was able to make it seem so, and I found that he made it possible for me to go along with him. "Our love has a life of its own," he would say. For me, this was what became the norm. I would try to think about Cecille, to imagine what life was for her. But I would find myself unable to give her reality.

BILL AND I considered having a biological child together, despite the ramifications in the 1960s of taking such a step. Then fate intervened. I had been delaying surgery to remove fibroid tumours in order to prepare for pregnancy and, having delayed too long, I was compelled to have a hysterectomy. I was amazed by my philosophical acceptance of this tragedy. Bill seemed to be more distraught about it than I was.

My next step was to find a baby to adopt. I searched around in the United States, finding obstacles of one kind or another. In the end I adopted a baby in Norway. Bill and I decided over the telephone to name him Erik.

I flew with Erik to New York. As we were going through customs at the airport, I looked up to the place where friends and relatives were waiting. I took a picture that I treasure: Bill was standing there behind the glass wall, wearing his coat and his hat, and he was waving and crying. The three of us got into a taxi and went home and lived happily ever after. Erik was beautiful. His eyes were brown.

AFTER 40 YEARS, our love-making had the same passion, the same energies (alarming to me, at first, in our early weeks together), the same tenderness, the same inventiveness, the same humour, the same textures as it had in the beginning. It never deteriorated, our later wrinkles, blotches, and scars of age notwithstanding. We never changed. Things that were supposed to happen to a couple after ten years, or after 20 years, or after 40 years never happened to us. Our friendship with each other grew and flourished. For almost half a century, we were able to resist conventional rules and hold our own. And Bill was able to give me the kind of unmitigated and privileged happiness that survives death itself.

William Shawn died in December 1992

! Edited extract from 'Here But Not Here' by Lillian Ross, published by Faber tomorrow, priced pounds 12.99

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