Obituary: William Shawn

William Chon (William Shawn), journalist and editor, born Chicago 31 August 1907, Midwest Editor International Illustrated News 1929, reporter the New Yorker 1933- 35, Associate Editor 1935-39, Managing Editor 1939-52, Editor 1952-87, Editor Farrar Strauss and Giroux 1987-92, married 1928 Cecille Lyons (two sons, one daughter), died New York City 8 December 1992.

I FIRST met William Shawn in March 1956, writes Anthony Bailey. A telegram had summoned me - at the age of 23, a would- be writer - from my basement room in Greenwich Village to the midtown Manhattan offices of the New Yorker. I had done some trial 'Talk of the Town' pieces. Mr Shawn stood up to shake my hand as I entered his large, plainly furnished corner room - a small, rosy-cheeked man in a dark three-piece suit. For 40 minutes, he quietly asked me about my upbringing, education and aspirations. Then he said: 'Well, Mr Bailey, I'm sorry' - and my heart sank; clearly the job wasn't to be mine. But he went on: 'I'm sorry, we don't have a spare office now on the 18th floor, where most of the reporters are. Would you mind one on the 16th?'

Over the years, Shawn's apologetic tone - his diffident, almost whisper of a voice - became evident as camouflage for a man who had very firm notions of what he was doing; who was convinced that he alone could do it. He seemed hermetic; he never travelled far; he never flew in a plane. Even in summer, no air-conditioning on, he gave the impression of wearing a scarf. But behind this timidity lay an immensely determined curiosity about the world that his writers could put him in touch with. Unlike many editors, who often appear to compete with their staff, needing to demonstrate greater knowledge and acquaintance, Shawn made a point of seeming almost ignorant. When I approached him on one occasion about making a journey the length of the Iron Curtain, he said: 'Yes - where exactly is the Iron Curtain, Mr Bailey?' He wanted to know all about it. And on the journey and while writing the piece, I had him in the back of my mind - my first, expectant reader.

Shawn, open to just about anything, yet had clear ideas about what the magazine would not do. Murdoch, Maxwell, the Loch Ness Monster were 'not subjects for us'. His New Yorker was against the splashy, the sordid and the self-seeking. It eschewed topicality in favour of the oblique - and therefore was sometimes seemingly locked into perfect timeliness. It was 'writer- driven', at Shawn's behest. Writers, not editors, had the ideas. And - as in no other periodical in the world - writers were given the room to probe and worry out the depths of a subject, where truth may reside.

Shawn had a perfect sense of whether a writer was really excited about the project being proposed. If he sensed enthusiasm, even for such an obscure subject as, say, coracles, he would give the go- ahead: 'Yes, Mr Bailey - you could do that.' (And after reading that particular piece, he said, with an impish grin: 'At least I didn't have to go in a coracle.') He had precise ideas about language - every comma, every semi-colon in the magazine was weighed by him, several times, before an issue went to press. Some words pained him. I had trouble once, having used the word 'constipated' - a condition my subject, David Hockney, claimed to be suffering from. Shawn was firm: the word would not appear in 'our magazine'. I looked for an accceptable alternative: at last, 'costive' would do. Once in a rare while, in the margins of a proof, among Shawn's meticulous corrections and suggestions, all aimed at greater exactness, one would find a word like 'wonderful' or 'beautiful'. I've never had greater praise.

As a leader, Shawn had the terrible handicap of assuming that no one else could ever do his job. Younger editors who may have hoped to inherit the post were encouraged and then discouraged. He must have thought he was immortal - or, as often seemed the case, that he was the New Yorker and that it would cease with him. This, and his naivety about the increasingly cut-throat world of publishing, left him ill- equipped for the crisis that came nearly eight years ago, when the chairman, Peter Fleischmann, decided to unload the family interest in the magazine and the Newhouses, brandishing millions, took over. Many of the staff then could see the writing clearly on those eccentrically shabby editorial office walls. But Shawn did not - or was too embarrassed, too desperately courteous, to want to make a scene. He refused to suspect SI Newhouse's promises of editorial independence and continuity.

I had lunch with him in 1988, not long after he had been sacked. When I asked how he was - and he looked like an old man painted by Frans Hals - he said: 'Still perplexed.' I said that I hoped he would write - or at least dictate - a memoir. The man who had presided over such a collage of talent ought to give posterity his thoughts. Shawn was horrified at the idea. 'Oh, no, Mr Bailey,' he said. 'I couldn't do that. My relations with my writers and artists are sacrosanct.' Then he changed the subject by asking what I was writing now, recalled some details in a piece on Northern Ireland I'd written in the 1970s, and left me, as he had always done, with a feeling that I wanted once again to write something really good for him.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot