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Shawn, William

Shawn, William

(b. 31 August 1907 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 8 December 1992 in New York City), the editor of the New Yorker magazine for more than three decades in the post—World War II period.

Shawn was one of four children (one of whom died in childhood) born to Benjamin (“Jackknife Ben”) Chon, owner of a profitable silver, diamond, and cutlery shop in Chicago’s meatpacking district. His mother was Anna Bransky, a homemaker. In 1925 Shawn graduated from the Harvard School for Boys, a prestigious Chicago preparatory school. He attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but left before graduating and worked as a reporter for the Daily Optic in Las Vegas, New Mexico. On returning to Chicago he wrote captions and headlines for a photo syndicate. On the day after his twenty-first birthday he married Cecilie Lyon, also a journalist. They had three children.

While in Chicago, Shawn followed the lead of his brother Nelson, a songwriter, in changing his surname to “Shawn.” Like Nelson, he had musical aspirations, and in 1932 Shawn moved to New York City, hoping to establish himself as a composer. To earn money he began helping his wife out with freelance fact-gathering assignments she had taken from the New Yorker, a weekly magazine. The editors were impressed with the thoroughness and quality of Shawn’s work and in 1933 he was hired as a full-time reporter for “Talk of the Town,” a collection of short pieces at the front of the magazine.

The New Yorker had been started in 1925 by Harold Ross primarily as a comic magazine, and its early volumes were filled with pieces by such humorists as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, E. B. White, Frank Sullivan, and Ring Lardner. But by the time of Shawn’s arrival its scope was broadening to include serious works of journalism and fiction. Shawn’s interest and aptitude was in the former. Although he wrote several short pieces for the magazine (only one of them, a fantasy imagining what would happen if New York City was struck by a frighteningly powerful bomb, was signed with the initials “W. S.”), it quickly became apparent that his metier was editing. In 1935 Ross promoted him to the responsibility of devising and coordinating possible subjects for articles. The position had no official title, but Shawn was so good at it that the New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling dubbed him “the information man.”

In 1939 Shawn became the managing editor and took charge of all journalism in the magazine. As an editor his greatest strength was (and continued to be) the intense and intelligent interest he took in every writer’s work; many of his authors remarked over the years how inspirational they found this attentiveness to be. S. N. Behrman, a longtime New Yorker contributor as well as a playwright, once remarked of Shawn, “He is a most remarkable incubator. I feel that with his help I could write any piece—or almost any piece.”

The timing of Shawn’s appointment was propitious, for 1939 marked the start of the European conflict that would become World War II. Under Shawn’s direction, correspondents such as A. J. Liebling, E. J. Kahn, Jr., John Lardner, Walter Bernstein, Janet Flanner, Mollie Panter-Downes, and John Hersey sent in dispatches from all corners of the globe. Overall, the magazine’s coverage of the war was thorough and distinguished and finally convinced the public at large that the New Yorker was more than just a humor magazine. {Infantry Journal stated in 1944, “One magazine of general circulation stands high above all others in the accuracy of what it prints about the war—the New Yorker”)

The culmination of the New Yorker’s World War II journalism was Hersey’s “Hiroshima.” The article was an editorial triumph for Shawn, who had sent Hersey to Japan to write about the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb. When Hersey produced a manuscript of more than 30,000 words, Shawn felt that its power demanded that it be published in one issue, even though the issue would have room for no other articles or stories. He convinced Ross to go along with this plan and “Hiroshima” essentially was the New Yorker for 31 August 1946. Published three months afterward as a book, it remained in print into the twenty-first century. In 1999 New York University released a ranking of the top 100 works of journalism of the twentieth century; “Hiroshima” topped the list.

Harold Ross died late in 1951 and early the next year Raoul Fleischmann, the publisher of the New Yorker, named Shawn editor. In the first decade of his tenure such writers as Dwight Macdonald, John Updike, and Truman Capote each started a long association with the New Yorker, and the magazine also published notable work by J. D. Salinger, Edmund Wilson, Lillian Ross, John Cheever, Saul Steinberg, and Mary McCarthy. But Shawn instituted no notable changes in format, editorial policy, or design, and in general the New Yorker of the 1950s was genteel and placid.

That changed in the early 1960s. Most notably, in an eight-month span between June 1962 and February 1963 the New Yorker printed three highly charged social documents: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” about the threat of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) to the environment; James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” about race relations in the United States; and Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” about the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. All three were later published as books (Baldwin’s under the title The Fire Next Time), and all three helped establish the reputation of the New Yorker as a periodical not only of belles lettres but of political journalism and social commentary. In 1965 the magazine caused even more of a stir with the publication of the full text of Capote’s In Cold Blood, a “nonfiction novel” about the gruesome murder of a family in Kansas.

Shawn was a quiet man whose eccentricities, phobias, and almost painful shyness became legendary. Increasingly his life was wrapped up in the New Yorker and its writers. He did not speak in public, he gave few interviews, and from the 1960s onward he never set foot outside the New York City metropolitan area. But he was also a man of strong convictions. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he—and the magazine—became aligned with two crusades: to preserve the environment and to end the war in Vietnam. In addition to Jonathan Schell’s long, passionate anti-Vietnam editorials in “Talk of the Town,” the New Yorker published Charles Reich’s essay in praise of hippiedom, “The Greening of America,” and Richard Harris’s withering attacks on the Nixon administration. In 1970 in large part because these and other articles offended some conservative longtime readers, the magazine saw its first drop in circulation since the Great Depression.

Shawn was always adamant about not editing the New Yorker for its readers, its shareholders, or anyone other than himself, its other editors, and its authors, and so there was no question of his adjusting its contents to stem the tide of subscriber defections. But with Richard Nixon’s resignation and the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, the magazine underwent a more organic political disengagement. In the middle and late 1970s it not only recovered its financial footing but experienced a creative revival, publishing such notable articles as Susan Sheehan’s “A Welfare Mother” and C. D. B. Bryan’s “Friendly Fire,” as well as outstanding work from a remarkable roster of writers and artists, including Donald Barthelme, Ann Beattie, Jorge Luis Borges, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Calvin Trillin, John McPhee, Roger Angeli, Kenneth Tynan, Garrison Keillor, Ian Frazier, Pauline Kael, Roz Chast, Jack Ziegler, and Edward Koren.

The 1980s were a difficult time for Shawn. Several New Yorker articles were found to have factual errors, which led to minor scandals, and an increasing number of critics chided the magazine for what they saw as its dullness, preciousness, and irrelevance. Meanwhile Shawn, who celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday and began his fiftieth year with the magazine in 1982, showed a marked resistance in addressing the issue of his eventual successor. These and other factors left the New Yorker vulnerable to a takeover, and in 1985 the communications magnate S. I. Newhouse purchased the magazine from shareholders. Two years later Newhouse dismissed Shawn and replaced him with Robert Gottlieb. Following his dismissal, he served informally as editorial consultant with the company Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Shawn died of a heart attack in his New York City apartment at Fifth Avenue and Ninety-sixth Street.

Along with Harold Ross, Henry Luce, and a handful of others, William Shawn would be included on any list of the outstanding American magazine editors of the twentieth century. He stands apart from the others in the way his own professional and personal identity merged with that of the publication he oversaw. Although his published works consisted of one signed article and the introduction to four books, the collected issues of the New Yorker in the thirty-five years of his editorship stand as Shawn’s literary achievement.

The New Yorker Records at the New York Public Library contain a substantial number of letters and memoranda written by Shawn, as well as original copies of manuscripts edited by him and typescripts of unsigned obituaries and editorials. Three memoirs by longtime New Yorker staff writers give varying perspectives on what it was like to know and work with Shawn: Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing (1998), by Ved Mehta; Here But Not Here: A Love Story (1998), by Lillian Ross; and Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker (1999), by Renata Adler. About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000), by Ben Yagoda, is a cultural and critical history of the magazine. An obituary is in the New York Times (9 Dec. 1992).

Ben Yagoda

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