William Shawn

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William Shawn

During a career with the New Yorker magazine that spanned more than 50 years, William Shawn (1907-1992) shaped its distinctive content and style, influencing writers across the U.S. and helping to mold public opinion on important issues of the day.

Described by a reporter for Time magazine as "a quiet tyrant of talent and taste," William Shawn made his mark as the longtime editor of the New Yorker, a weekly publication known for witty cartoons, quality fiction, trend-setting nonfiction, and thoughtful social commentary. Nothing on its pages escaped Shawn's careful attention; his painstaking attention to detail and unwavering commitment to truth, logic, and clarity were legendary. So, too, was his gentle, courtly, and self-effacing demeanor, which endeared him to his staff. As an anonymous New Yorker staff member declared upon Shawn's death, "No editor ever ruled a large and complex magazine as absolutely as he ruled this one; yet no editor, perhaps, ever imparted to so many writers and artists as powerful a sense of freedom and possibility."

A Comfortable Childhood

A native of Chicago, Illinois, William Shawn was the youngest of six children born on August 31, 1907 to Benjamin W. Chon, a salesman, and his wife, Anna Bransky Chon, both non-observant Jews of Eastern European origin. (Early in his writing career, Shawn followed in the footsteps of one of his older brothers and changed the spelling of his surname.) Benjamin Chon was a self-made man who had started out as a street peddler and worked his way up to become the owner of a successful jewelry and cutlery store. He prospered along with the city's burgeoning meat packing industry during the early part of the twentieth century. As a result, he and his family enjoyed a comfortable life on the city's South Side.

The Chon household was a lively and happy one. All of the children took music lessons. William's instrument of choice was the piano; he subsequently developed into an above-average jazz pianist. He also liked sports, particularly baseball. Serious and shy, he was the quietest and most sensitive of his siblings and, as the youngest, he was smothered with attention. He was especially close to his mother, who was very protective of him, even more so after he survived a bout of scarlet fever during his teens.

Left College to Become a Writer

In 1925, after completing his secondary education at a Chicago-area private school, Shawn headed off to the University of Michigan. Campus life was not to his liking, however, and he dropped out early in his junior year. On the recommendation of one of his English professors, he decided to do some writing. Seeking a bit of adventure and a more hospitable climate, Shawn moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico. There, he turned out a few pieces of fiction, none of which he was able to sell to the magazines he contacted. To earn a living, he began working as a reporter for the local newspaper, the Optic.

Shawn remained with the Optic for about six months before returning to Chicago. He soon found a job with the Hearst-owned International Illustrated News, writing captions and headlines for photographs and sending them out by wire to newspapers around the country. In September 1928, he married a fellow journalist named Cecille Lyon. Several months later they journeyed to Paris on a delayed honeymoon financed by Shawn's father. They remained in Europe for nearly a year, arriving back in the United States not long before the stock market crashed in October 1929.

During the early years of the Depression, Shawn worked as a free-lance writer, producing advertising copy and even some short stories that were published in the Chicago Daily News under a pseudonym. By 1932, however, there was no such work to be had in Chicago. He and his wife then moved to New York, where he hoped to try his luck as a songwriter. Unsuccessful at that, Shawn found a job writing publicity for J. C. Penney. That did not last long either. By the end of the year, he was once again unemployed.

Joined the New Yorker Staff

Cecille Shawn had begun picking up some free-lance writing assignments from the New Yorker, which she promptly turned over to her husband to complete. This subterfuge continued until Shawn was officially hired in 1933 as a reporter for the publication's "Talk of the Town" section. Within two years, having demonstrated his conscientiousness and outstanding organizational skills, he was promoted to associate editor. In this role, Shawn was responsible for developing story and art ideas and writing captions.

In 1939, Shawn was named managing editor. Over the next dozen years, he worked in tandem with its founder and editor, Harold Ross. The legendary Ross was Shawn's opposite personality-wise but his spiritual soul mate in editorial matters. While Ross could be loud, melodramatic, and tactlessly blunt in his dealings with others, Shawn was mild-mannered, soft-spoken, exceedingly patient, and unfailingly courteous. He routinely addressed everyone-even people he had known for years-as "Mr.," "Miss," or "Mrs."; he in turn was always respectfully and affectionately known as "Mr. Shawn." This helped create a certain distance between him and his colleagues; indeed, as one who never shared a personal observation of any kind, he remained in many ways a rather mysterious figure. He was also mildly eccentric, with a phobic dislike of crowds, fast driving, self-service elevators, and air conditioning.

However, both Ross and Shawn shared an ardent enthusiasm for their work and spent long hours striving to make each issue of the New Yorker the absolute best it could be. As managing editor, Shawn presided over the fact-checking department for nonfiction pieces, establishing and maintaining rigorously high standards for accuracy and thoroughness that mirrored Ross's own passionate devotion to clarity and truth. "No 'fact' was ever taken for granted, if it could be independently verified," recalled William F. Buckley, Jr., in a National Review article in which he reminisced about his relationship with Shawn.

It was while serving as managing editor that Shawn began cultivating extremely close professional ties with a number of distinguished writers whose work appeared regularly in the pages of the New Yorker. After the Second World War, he greatly expanded this group and made some of them staff writers, paying each one a salary and providing office space as well.

Named Editor of the New Yorker

In 1952, shortly after Ross's death, Shawn was named to succeed him as editor of the New Yorker. It was a post he held for the next 35 years, a remarkably long tenure in a business known for its frequent and sometimes turbulent comings and goings. Over time, his stature eclipsed that of his former boss, and the New Yorker reigned as the nation's preeminent magazine of literary and social commentary, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s.

Under Ross's direction, the New Yorker had provided its readers-mainly sophisticated, upper-middle-class residents of New York and its suburbs-with witty, occasionally caustic, observations on modern life through a mix of cartoons, straight reporting, and short fiction, most of it produced by a number of trend-setting writers. Shawn broadened and deepened this vision, ultimately changing the magazine "from a smarty-pants parish tip sheet into a journal that altered our experience instead of just posturing in front of it," according to New York Times book critic John Leonard. While the humor remained, especially in the much-admired cartoons, serious fiction and reflective journalism assumed a more prominent role.

With Shawn at the helm, the New Yorker tackled a variety of controversial issues, including the environment, racial prejudice, poverty, war, and nuclear proliferation. As Philip Hamburger (himself a longtime contributor to the magazine) observed in a New Leader article, "He reached out to writers everywhere. No idea seemed alien to this man." In fact, many now-classic titles debuted in their entirety or were excerpted in the pages of the New Yorker.

Attracted Stellar Contributors

Many important works appeared in the New Yorker during Shawn's tenure as editor. They include: Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt's report on the trial of the famous Nazi war criminal; Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's warning about the use of chemical pesticides and their impact on the environment; In Cold Blood, Truman Capote's ground-breaking blend of fact and fiction that chronicled the vicious killings of a Kansas family; and several essays on race by James Baldwin that were eventually collected in his book The Fire Next Time. Also appearing regularly in the New Yorker were film reviews by Pauline Kael, baseball articles by Roger Angell, and short fiction by John Updike, J. D. Salinger, and John Cheever, and many others.

For the most part, the writers Shawn collaborated with adored him and gave him credit for sharpening their focus and otherwise improving their skills. He was a meticulous editor with an intuitive understanding of writing and sympathy for the way writers were inclined to think and work. He reportedly read every single word that appeared in the New Yorker at least three times-in the manuscript stage, in galleys, and in page proofs. Ever so tactfully, he then led writers through a reading of their own texts, subtly emphasizing what he felt needed to be reworked or clarified in some way. "His style was to cause the author to acquiesce in the change, rather than to dictate the change," explained Buckley.

New Yorker Sold to Media Empire

In 1985, the New Yorker was sold to Advance Publishing, part of a huge, family-owned media conglomerate headed by S. I. Newhouse. The literary world was soon abuzz with speculation about the fate of the magazine's 77-year-old editor and who might succeed him. Several names periodically surfaced as candidates for the post, but Shawn showed little inclination to retire, and Newhouse made no move to get rid of him.

The New Yorker continued along despite mounting criticism that it had grown stodgy and that its busy urban audience had neither the time nor the desire to read the extremely long and often demanding articles and stories that typically filled its pages. This was reflected in its declining circulation numbers and a drop in advertising revenues during the mid-1980s. But such business concerns held no interest for Shawn, who was totally absorbed in editorial matters. In fact, according to Joseph Nocera in the New Republic, Shawn pointed out shortly after Newhouse bought the New Yorker that he had "never published anything in order to sell magazines, to cause a sensation, to be controversial, to be popular or fashionable, to be 'successful."'

Forced Resignation

The end came in early 1987, when Newhouse forced a reluctant Shawn to quit and announced that his replacement would be Robert Gottlieb, the president and editor-in-chief at another Newhouse company, the New York-based book publisher Alfred A. Knopf. The news immediately sparked an angry revolt among more than 150 members of the New Yorker staff. They not only objected to what they regarded as Newhouse's shabby treatment of Shawn but also his refusal to appoint an insider to the job. (Gottlieb had never worked for the magazine.)

Their complaints fell on deaf ears, however, and Shawn quietly left his office for the last time on February 13, 1987. In a poignant farewell letter to his colleagues, he briefly reflected on his legacy, stating that out of love and a desire to discover and print the truth "we have built something quite wonderful together." He then resumed his own long-neglected writing and also accepted a position as an editor for the publisher Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, where he remained until his death from a heart attack on December 8, 1992 in New York City, at the age of 85.

Like his departure from the New Yorker several years earlier, Shawn's passing did not completely erase his presence from the magazine he had served so devotedly. He lives on in its pages and elsewhere, if only in the work of those writers he once nurtured. "Whatever we were when we came into his orbit, we became something more under his influence," asserted Gardner Botsford in a tribute piece to Shawn published in the New Yorker. "He sharpened our thinking, brought us sternly back from our vacant musings, oiled our transitions, and turned us into professionals of a greater competence than we would ever have achieved on our own." By fulfilling such an important role, declared an anonymous commentator in the pages of the same magazine, Shawn "became, while scarcely ever writing a word over his own name, one of the commanding figures of twentieth-century American letters."

Further Reading

Mehta, Ved, Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing, Overlook Press, 1998.

Atlantic Monthly, April 1998.

National Review, January 18, 1993.

New Leader, July 13, 1992.

New Republic, January 25, 1993.

Newsweek, March 14, 1983; January 26, 1987; December 21, 1992.

New York, January 26, 1987.

New Yorker, December 21, 1992; December 28, 1992/January 4, 1993; February 20, 1995.

New York Times, July 14, 1987; December 9, 1992.

Time, January 26, 1987; December 21, 1992. □

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