Obituary: William Shawn
Thursday 10 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.
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