Obituary: William Shawn

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I JOINED the New Yorker just in time to cable my first letter from London which had the dateline 3 September 1939, writes Mollie Panter-Downes (further to the obituary of William Shawn by Andrew Rosenheim and Anthony Bailey, 10 December).

I had written a few pieces for them but I did not know any of the editorial staff, and the name of St Clair McKelway, the then managing editor, who cabled the astounding but cautious invitation to try out sending them a weekly letter was unknown to me. So was that of William Shawn who began to edit my stuff soon afterwards. The copy was never changed, but encouraging letters and cables poured out from him.

I went on writing book reviews for the magazine for some years - into the Seventies, I think - when the London letters had become few and far between and finally stopped. So Bill Shawn was just about right when he reminded me in a goodbye letter after he had been sacked from the editor's chair in 1987 that 'you and I have been together for 48 years - almost half a century'. They were wonderfully happy years. It was part of Bill's loyalty that the London post was never given to anyone else while he was there. Neither was a Paris corresondent appointed to succeed the superb Janet Flanner (Genet).

We did not meet until 1947, when the magazine stood me and my husband a splendid visit to New York. Bill Shawn ceremoniously ushered me into the office I had been allotted. On the desk lay some chillingly virginal paper, blotting paper, and a holder of newly sharpened pencils. I gazed at them in alarm. What was I to work on? My solution was to sit in the office for some hours every morning while new friends dropped by and Bill was certain to come along to see how I was doing. I felt rather guilty, for the paper stayed unsullied by anything but phone numbers and hospitable dates, but it was great fun.

A reader once described the New Yorker as the gentlest of magazines and gentleness was the unmistakable stamp of Bill Shawn's editing and of his personality. He was a small man whose bright blue eyes and pink cheeks stayed blooming in the healthy air of the rather dreary old 25 West 43rd Street corridors. He did not change much over the years. I paid many more visits to New York, which invariably started with lunch at Mr Shawn's famous corner table in the Algonquin.

He would consume his equally famous meagre order of pound cake and a glass of milk, while I might choose perhaps a grill, which always looked disconcertingly enormous. Over lunch and sometimes going back to continue in his office, we would discuss how the letters were going. He settled any difficulties with a few quiet lines so that one came away feeling that it would work out all right as Shawn intended it would. He was marvellously open to ideas. He had a habit of nodding several times if he liked the suggestion of a new subject and saying, 'That would be good.' When through the years his soft voice murmured the words over the telephone to me in England, I could always picture the nod. The New Yorker was Bill Shawn's life. He loved everyone on it and they loved him back. He and it had begun to die in 1987 when he was parted from it.