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'The New Yorker' - Mr Shawn's 'New Yorker' (1951 - 1987)

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The New Yorker
A Guided Tour Through The New Yorker | Ross's Little Magazine (1925 - 1951) | Mr Shawn's New Yorker (1951 - 1987) | A Condé Nast Publication (1987 - present) | Harold Ross - The History | Harold Ross - The Man | Katherine S White - Rewriter of Noon | EB White - Most Companionable of Writers | James Thurber - Raconteur Extraordinaire | Wolcott Gibbs - Surgeon with Words | William Shawn - Invisible Editor

In the back of the New Yorker offices in a very warm room sat a very short, very quiet and very bald man. From 1951 to 1987, this man was the spider who sat quietly in the midst of the vast web that was The New Yorker, overseeing and directing everything that took place. His employees called him 'Mr Shawn'.

Shawn differed from the first editor, Harold Ross, in many ways. He handled almost every aspect of the magazine personally or through a steady managing editor who did not need to be a genius. He was quieter and more respectful of his writers. While many thought Ross miscast as editor of The New Yorker because of his loud brashness, Shawn seemed miscast because of his resemblance to a quiet country gentleman. He didn't exhibit any of the vices typical of ever-stressed editors:

'I've never heard of an editor who doesn't drink,' Frank said, 'What does he do — smoke cigarettes and sip coffee all day long?'
'He doesn't smoke and drinks very little coffee.'
'Blimey!' he said, 'He must be a bore.'

— Ved Mehta in Mr. Shawn's New Yorker

Shawn also favoured longer and more factual pieces, often addressing serious social themes and touching closer to politics than Ross ever allowed. It was because of these articles that Shawn's New Yorker was often accused of being 'too long and boring'. Yet most New Yorker readers feel that it was under Shawn that the magazine flourished most. Indeed, the period from the 1950s to the 1970s is considered the magazine's 'golden age', when readership, reputation, advertising and profits were all at their highest in the magazine's independent history.

Following Rossian Tradition

Like Ross, Shawn refused to run advertisements featuring scantily-clad models or ads for lingerie, feminine hygiene products, travel ads for apartheid Africa and, after the Surgeon-General's warning, for cigarettes. He ran no photography and generally disallowed profanity in New Yorker articles. He also refused to tamper with the cosmetics of the New Yorker offices; when writer Ved Mehta asked him why the halls were dingy and the offices Spartan1, William Shawn replied:

The 'New Yorker' has a long-standing tradition of squalor with which I am loath to interfere.

Office parties also followed in the Ross tradition; after one such party had included too much flirting for his prudish taste, Ross forbade any more get-togethers from taking place in the office. Back then Shawn had a jazz group that threw musical parties several times a year, and most of the invitees were from The New Yorker's staff — in fact, the magazine footed the liquor bill. Staff social gatherings therefore continued to take place in the Shawn residence.

Shawn revered Ross as a genius in disguise. To make it clear that he could never replace the deceased editor, he had Ross's offices dismantled, razed and remodelled into a maze of tiny cubicles. He established his own offices at the other end of the building. They were larger, more tastefully decorated — carpeted, unlike Ross's linoleum — and had several radiators (Shawn felt chilled in temperatures below 80°F).

Editorial Style

Shawn differed drastically from Ross in his editorial style. Ross would bawl at writers and bully them into accepting his corrections to their work; Shawn revered good writing, and seemed loath to tamper with it at all. Brendan Gill called Shawn's editorial method 'negative brute force'. He said it composed of:

Silences, hesitations, sidelong glances of his very blue eyes, tentative baton-like strokes in the air of his dark-green Venus drawing pencil.

Brendan described the gentle yet determined way Shawn imposed his will upon the writers who worked for him:

Questioning a comma, he will shake his head and say in his soft voice that he realizes perfectly well what a lot of time and thought have gone into the comma... but isn't there the possibility... that the sentence could be made to read infinitesimally more clearly if, say, instead of a comma a semicolon were to be inserted at just that point?

According to Brendan, this 'softly, softly' approach towards getting his own way worked more often in Shawn's favour than not. Brendan described how, during such meetings, the writer is not only touched by Shawn's concern but is also:

...aghast with admiration at the skill of (Shawn's) circumlocutions, and determined at all costs to prevent Shawn from suffering the humiliation of having his proposed semicolon rejected2.

The editorial process was taken very seriously by the New Yorker staff, and a single piece might undergo weeks or more of correcting and polishing before it was considered fit to print.

Smothered Under Pillows

Shawn's regard for his writers and their writing was tangible. Many writers became so attached to Shawn that they asked him to edit all their writing, not just what was published in The New Yorker. Writers who left for other magazines for financial reasons were soon back, muttering about bad editing and lack of respect for perfection. 'I write only for you!' many writers declared to Shawn, causing the quiet little man to blush right down to his collar.

Not everyone liked Shawn's style, though. One writer complained that he felt:

...smothered under pillows of kindness.

Others were frustrated by the length of time it took to get a piece into print.

The Cycle of Silence

The magazine's staff burgeoned under Shawn, creating a peculiar difficulty of too much of a good thing. Writers would write and polish articles for the magazine. The piece would then disappear into the bank, possibly not to reappear for months. Many writers believed that if Shawn were suddenly incapacitated, the magazine could be published every week for several years from the contents of the bank alone.

Even once scheduled for publication, Shawn might pull the piece at the very last moment and not reschedule it for another month or two. Most articles were not paid for until printed, but writers could spend magazine money against the publication of future pieces. Some writers, chained by their drawing accounts, felt compelled to write continuously in the desperate hope of achieving publication, simply in order to keep themselves out of debt. Others gradually despaired of ever getting anything printed, and drifted away from the magazine.

Whatever the cause, it was endemic to New Yorker writers that after a while they dropped off in their work and often failed to publish anything for years.

Though the wait until publication could be interminable, writers were better-paid under Shawn than under Ross. Shawn considered the true writer a rare and precious species and sought to bind them to the magazine with promise of tantalising remuneration. Despite this, writing for The New Yorker still paid less than for any publication of comparable prestige.

Sorry, Thanks

With the magazine's influence and prestige, every writer dreamed of publishing a piece in its pages. Both notable authors and ambitious schoolchildren submitted stories to The New Yorker. To separate the chaff from the grain, the rejection office developed a customised way to return submissions. A simple form letter accompanied every rejected story, but better stories had 'Sorry' written in by hand. Even better stories had 'Sorry, thanks' written in, while stories even better than that received a 'Sorry, thanks, try us again.'

More Building

The new writers all required new offices, and in the 1950s Hawley Truax oversaw the last mass-construction project at The New Yorker.

Walls came down and went up, men's rooms became ladies' rooms and ladies' rooms men's rooms, and stairways were pierced from floor to floor.3

Shawn requested the stairways particularly. Until then, the writers had used the fire escape to travel between the 19th and 20th floors. One day, while chatting on the escape, Gill casually kicked the guardrail, which promptly collapsed. Phobia-laden Shawn, listening in the doorway, turned white.

New offices were stuck in any area wide enough to accommodate one, dividing the already maze-like office into a veritable labyrinth. Hawley Truax presided gleefully over the renovations, and he was quick to admit that some rooms could only be found by subtracting the square-footage of known offices from the square-footage of the entire floor. It was rumoured that one office could only be accessed by scaling the face of the building and climbing through the window.

Truax also created a wide corridor that split off the main corridor at a 30-degree angle, greatly reducing the collisions common among the narrow, twisting hallways. At the same time, the 'Avenue de l'Opera' created two sharp angles — one on the inside of the junction between the 'Avenue' and the regular corridor, and one deeply angled corner in an adjacent office. The first angle kept Milton Greenstein, the company attorney, awake at night, worrying that a rushing office-boy might split his head open while rounding the bend. The other simply seemed like an inefficient use of space. 'Not a waste at all,' Truax explained, 'It's a perfect place to put a wet umbrella.'

Chief Mortician Shawn

In April 1965, Tom Wolfe published a two-part article attacking The New Yorker in the Herald Tribune. The first part was entitled 'Tiny Mummies! The Land of the Walking Dead' and described The New Yorker as a morgue and a mere relic of Ross's magazine, which Shawn carefully preserved. The second was called 'Lost in the Whichy Thicket' and made fun of New Yorker writing as convoluted and choked with subordinate clauses. Along the way Wolfe tossed in dozens of false stories and facts, such as that Shawn was the second intended victim of Leopold and Loeb4, which was supposed to account for his retiring and phobic nature.

Before the articles were published, Shawn sent a letter to the Tribune's editor, requesting that they not run. His letter was released to the press and the articles ran on schedule. Numerous New Yorker writers wrote in to protest, but the Tribune published only the worst five. Finally, Gerald Jonas and Renata Adler compiled a list of all the falsified facts and submitted them for publication in the Columbia Journalism Review. Wolfe threatened to sue, and publication of the article was postponed for months.

The Morgue

While most agreed that Wolfe had gone too far, he had made a valid point. Certainly, the New Yorker offices were not known for their lively social scene. Shawn's quiet, secretive style only exacerbated the antisocial atmosphere remnant of Ross's time. Renata Adler recalls that Brendan Gill was the only writer who introduced new staff members to each other and attempted to be friendly. Gill recalls that when he joined The New Yorker, St Claire McKelway was the only sociable one on staff.

Reporter William Wertenbaker, following the rejection of a series of pieces, left for a job at Newsweek. Two years later he went to meet a friend at The New Yorker for lunch. Walking down the 18th floor corridor he bumped into Shawn, who was pleased to see him and asked where he'd been — working on a long article? When Wertenbaker said he'd been working at Newsweek for the past two years, Shawn was dumbfounded.

Unions and Principles

While New Yorker writers tolerated low pay in return for prominence and the ability to publish elsewhere, salaried employees in the editorial, typing and fact-checking departments received none of these extra benefits. In 1976, the issue of low pay came to a head when 22 editorial employees tried to form a union to demand higher pay. Shawn was horrified, viewing an outside union as a threat to the informal, democratic atmosphere of the office. In addition, The New Yorker employed many promising young writers in amorphous, untitled jobs while waiting for them to 'hit their stride' and write something publishable. Under a union, every job would need a title. The peculiar mechanisms of The New Yorker would be unable to function.

When the uproar against the business offices only grew, Shawn finally penned a seven-page letter explaining how salaries were decided at The New Yorker. He explained that every fall salaries were reviewed, and he, the editor, took recommendations from his executive editor, approved them and then submitted them to the business offices. The business offices never once questioned these recommendations, and instituted the salary raises exactly. At the same time, if the magazine was ever experiencing a monetary crunch the business office would relay the information to the editor who would keep it in mind when reviewing the salaries. However, the business office never refused any increase because of financial reasons. The system worked, Shawn explained, because of the mutual trust between the editors and the publishers.

He also pointed out that the quality of the magazine was based on the total independence of the editorial division from the business division. Unlike most publications, flogged to produce maximum profit at minimum cost to provide income to a corporation, the New Yorker business department allowed the New Yorker editorial department to do whatever it pleased in the interest of producing the finest magazine. Unionising would unravel the trust between the two departments, bringing the business department into the affairs of the editorial and extinguishing the unique phenomenon that was The New Yorker.

According to Ved Mehta, William Shawn's appeal to principles worked. According to Renata Adler, it was editor Bill Whitworth who successfully negotiated with the workers. In any event, the workers proposed that a committee of their members meet regularly with Shawn to review their salaries. Shawn agreed (grudgingly), and the crisis was diffused.

The Government Weighs In

In 1977 The New Yorker faced another challenge. Government regulation now required that pension plans be submitted for approval, and the New Yorker plan failed the audit. Under the New Yorker plan, a small percentage of the magazine's yearly profit was set aside to be paid out when a writer or artist retired. The government objected because the writers were independent contractors and therefore not eligible for company benefits.

The magazine responded by paying the writers the money immediately, but it was taxable and easily frittered away on daily expenses. Finally, in 1981 New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan persuaded Congress to pass a special bill that applied only to The New Yorker's system. This bill allowed all 64 New Yorker writers who were on the pension plan before auditing to remain on it until they retired; nobody else was allowed to join. This arrangement ended when the 64 writers were no longer with the magazine.

Onward, Outward and Upward

The New Yorker reached its greatest heights under Shawn, and enjoyed a reputation as the most influential magazine in American history. It perfected the new 'literary journalism' style now taken for granted while reporting on events around the world with an unusual honesty and lack of agenda. During the Vietnam War, The New Yorker was said to be the only magazine that did not tell the reader what to think or attempt to conform to what people already thought. The magazine became renowned for journalistic integrity and innovative reporting.

Toward the 1970s, the magazine slowly shifted towards the political left. Jonathan Schell, Shawn's protégé, began writing for the Notes and Comments section. His editorials touched upon political situations, gradually ending the magazine's years of non-partisanship. Before Schell, Shawn would refer to Notes and Comments as 'the voice of the magazine'. Once Schell began writing, Shawn called the section 'the conscience of the magazine'. Many staff members objected to the strong stances of Comment, but Shawn didn't run his magazine by committee.

Editorial Aspersions

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a series of scandals erupted over articles that appeared in The New Yorker. Alastair Reid admitted in front of a Yale journalism class to concocting a tavern and several scenes for his 'Letters from a Spanish Village' column. Soon after, Shawn failed to pull a profile by Penelope Gilliatt even after the checkers noted that it might be partially plagiarised. Meanwhile, John McPhee published a piece about an anonymous restaurant outside New York and compared it favourably to Lutèce, an upscale New York restaurant, in the matter of fresh fish. The result was general outrage and two lawsuits — to insult Lutèce's fresh fish was considered libel. Shawn made the grievous error of defending his writers, drawing out the incidents and besmirching the magazine's sterling reputation.


The New Yorker had extremely conservative financial habits. It never advertised on television or anywhere it felt a natural New Yorker audience would not be found. It never tried to raise circulation by covering 'hot' topics or including reader surveys or any other 'gimmicks'. Raoul Fleischmann and then his son Peter Fleischmann, who operated the business aspect of the magazine, agreed with Shawn that the magazine had to stay true to its character even at the sacrifice of circulation. This principle was never put to test, though. Circulation rose steadily, and in 1976 it was 495,000.

The 1960s were bumper years for the magazine in terms of advertising. Advertisements were rejected for pre-Christmas issues simply because the binding could hold only 252 pages. The ad salesmen nearly forgot how to solicit ads because the phones rang off the hook. The magazine hit its peak in 1966 with an annual total of 6,143 advertising pages.

Even in bad years, finances were rarely out of order for The New Yorker. The business office had no ambitions of greatness; they hoarded cash, had no debt and never invested elsewhere. This changed when George Green became president of the company. In 1978 he purchased interests in a communications corporation; in 1981 he invested in Horticulture magazine and in 1983, Cook's magazine. None of these investments was successful.

The Beginning of the End

Green also persuaded Peter Fleischmann to appoint outside directors to the board: William Eiseman, senior vice-president of the magazine's bank (Morgan Guaranty), and Philip Messinger, a private investor. Messinger found his position frustrating; the company was run like a family business, and nobody seemed able to explain exactly how the writers and artists were paid, how their contributions were assigned value or what kind of contract Shawn had. Messinger held 13% of the company stock, the largest holding short of the 32% Fleischmann held. He combined his stock with that of several investors and they sold a 17% block to publisher S.I.5 Newhouse in January 1985. Newhouse commissioned Donald Marron, head of Paine Webber, to secretly accumulate shares of The New Yorker on his behalf while publicly declaring that he had no intentions of buying the magazine. Newhouse ran the Advance Publications Corporation, a communications conglomerate that owned 29 newspapers, the Parade Sunday supplement distributed in 314 newspapers, nine magazines, Random House publishing company and its imprints, some television and radio stations and a cable-TV company. The New Yorker was at risk of takeover.


The New Yorker was ripe for picking anyway. Peter Fleischmann suffered from cancer of the larynx, underwent laryngectomy and spoke through an electronic device. He had two bad wounds from World War II, had broken his neck in a car accident once and had diverticulitis6. His son had no business sense and was a general disappointment to him. Shawn was pushing 80 and hadn't yet settled on a successor. It was inevitable that Fleischmann would want to sell the magazine, and Newhouse's offer of $200 a share was irresistible.

Si Newhouse had begun his empire by buying the Condé Nast magazine company. Condé Nast magazines were lifestyle magazines, targeted at specific audiences, and continuously changing their content and layout to reflect the latest trends. It seemed inconceivable that The New Yorker could join the Condé Nast family and retain its sophistication. Certainly Shawn would be dismissed immediately. Shawn began convening meetings with what was called 'the Committee', to discuss ways to prevent the takeover or at least arrange their own friendly takeover. Then Newhouse met with Shawn and reassured him that he did not intend to buy the magazine. Shawn — desperately, foolishly, grasping at straws — chose to believe him. Shawn also claimed that Fleischmann had promised not to sell the magazine. Yet the Committee continued to convene, and Shawn and his top editors talked themselves into a false sense of security.

The Purchase

Friday, 8 March, 1985, Si Newhouse officially purchased The New Yorker. The editorial department was distraught. Newhouse had paid an extravagant amount for the magazine and would expect a return on his investment. His drive for profits would force the editorial department to make compromises for the sake of commercial success. Newhouse promised Shawn he had bought The New Yorker in the same spirit he'd buy a Rembrandt, flatly contradicting Marron, who had told Renata Adler that he and Newhouse had great plans for The New Yorker 'in the television era'. Fleischmann and his friends found the editorial response irritating:

You've got an extraordinarily spoiled group of writers and editors, and it has been brought to their attention that they work for somebody.

There was truth to this accusation. Most writers believed they worked for Shawn, and considered the business offices vaguely unimportant.

On the day of the sale, the Committee presented Newhouse with a legal contract which imposed upon him certain obligations to the staff. Newhouse signed without thinking twice; he was the owner of the magazine, and there was nobody to hold him to the contract. Shawn chose to believe Newhouse's promises. He simply could not accept that after 33 years he might lose control of the magazine.


Lose control he did. The business offices no longer answered to the editor. They ran Calvin Klein advertisements featuring nude models, inserted horizontal ads for the first time and ran 'advertorials' (one was 36 pages long) in the New Yorker typeface.

They also launched a promotional campaign using previously avoided methods, such as direct mailing and TV advertisements during prime-time shows like Miami Vice. Both Ross and Shawn had not advertised anywhere they felt a natural New Yorker reader would not look. The new management just wanted to jack up the circulation.

Shawn's 'Retirement'

He was one of the greatest editors in the history of American letters. But I guess, if there had to be a successor, it should be Bob.
— Renata Adler

When Ross died, Shawn, as 'Genius' and fact editor, was next in line. Shawn had no such second-in-command. Throughout the latter days of Shawn's editorship there was much back-and-forth politicking and squabbling over the matter of succession, including an attempted coup7. After the acquisition, it became a moot point, because Newhouse had his own plans for the magazine. When Shawn refused to leave the matter of succession to Advance Publications, Newhouse forced him to retire and replaced him with Robert Gottlieb, editor-in-chief and president of AA Knopf Publishing.

The news of this manoeuvre enraged most New Yorker staff members, including William Shawn. They felt that a complete outsider would not be able to continue the magazine in its current spirit. They were also indignant at Newhouse's treatment of Shawn. A group penned a letter to Gottlieb asking him to turn down the position, and all but a handful of staff members signed it — even the reclusive JD Salinger. Gottlieb was insulted, but didn't comply. Newhouse dismissed the 'emotional reaction' as:

...part of the New Yorker culture. It is an intense magazine. People are strongly involved in it.

But he moved Shawn's retirement date up by nearly a month.


13 February, 1987, after 54 years at The New Yorker and 35 years as its editor, Shawn retired from the magazine. He was 80 years old.

He was not, however, gone. Shawn installed himself at the Algonquin, where he edited manuscripts brought to him by unhappy writers and newly promoted, inept, editors. Shortly after, he obtained an editing job at Simon & Schuster, but many of his writers still continued to send their writing to him for editing. He continued in this role until he died, 8 December, 1992, exactly 41 years after Ross.

1They generally contained a battered metal table, a chair, a second-hand typewriter and sometimes a couch.2Taken from Here at The New Yorker by Brendan Gill.3From 'Here at the New Yorker' by Brendan Gill.4Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold kidnapped and murdered Bobby Frank just for the fun of it in 1924.5Short for Samuel Irving. He was also known as Si, (pronounced 'sigh').6It's intestinal and it's uncomfortable.7One of the chosen successors was Chip McGrath, but after being officially chosen, his training was neglected. Frustrated, McGrath contemplated phoning Shawn and telling him he was fed up; he would tell Shawn to look out the window, and then he would throw an old dummy out that had been lying around the office to zoom past Shawn's nose. Considering Shawn's advanced age, it's probably best that he decided against it.

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