William Shawn - Invisible Editor Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

William Shawn - Invisible Editor

2 Conversations

The shield of the History, Philosophy and Spirituality faculty of the h2g2 University.

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

... a rubicund, smiling, almost excessively polite little man — at a desk as big as Mussolini's in a huge, silent cavern of an office. To me it was astonishing that so much power should have come to rest on the shoulders of a man who was outwardly so meek...
— Norman Lewis

From 1952 to 1987, if you could find your way through the labyrinth that was the office of The New Yorker to the back, then penetrate the two layers of secretaries that protectively barred the door and finally tolerate the tropical heat of the spacious interior, then you would face one of the most unusual and enigmatic personalities of the American literary scene. You would have to be prepared with conversation because he would not talk much, but he would listen in a way that perhaps nobody else has ever listened to you before. After you finished, he would escort you out of his office with the most effusive politeness and return to the work you interrupted. He would have been William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker magazine: quiet, apparently submissive and immensely powerful.

The Life and Times of William Shawn

William Shawn was born William Chon on 31 August, 1907, the sixth and youngest child of Jackknife Ben, a purveyor of knives and jewellery in the Chicago stockyards, and his wife Anna. Not much is known about Shawn's childhood because he never spoke about it and, for the most part, everyone humoured him by not asking.

One dull day at the office, Brendan Gill went around collecting earliest memories. Shawn didn't supply an earliest memory, but rather a very vivid and telling one. On a family trip to the Dells, an area outside Chicago known for strange rock formations, Shawn's father insisted on trying the 'Lover's Leap', a daredevil jump from the edge of a cliff to a flat-topped pinnacle rising a few feet beyond the cliff edge. To be successful, he needed to jump far enough to land on the pinnacle but not too far, and not with so much force that he would fly over the opposite edge. Bill and his mother simultaneously burst into tears, and the young boy clutched his mother's skirts and wailed as his father successfully completed the jump. Gill suggests this as a possible source for Shawn's phobia of rocks, trees and almost anything else dangerously natural.

Bill attended the Harvard School for Boys in Chicago and played on the football team. Everyone in his family played some sort of instrument; young Bill's was the piano. He contracted scarlet fever as a young teenager and as a result his parents and older siblings all pampered and overprotected him. Though his older siblings were bullied into accepting 'real' jobs, Bill was allowed to pursue an artistic field. Probably to make it easier to acquire a job writing, William changed his name from 'Chon' to 'Shawn' in order to sound less Oriental (actually, the family was Jewish). He dropped out of the University of Michigan to do some reporting in Las Vegas, New Mexico. There's a rumour that his father sent him there to 'toughen him up', but Shawn's reticence led many people to make up the most outrageous tales about him.

Shawn met his wife Cecille while still in college and fell in love at first sight. He married her over three years later, on his 21st birthday. He chose that date so he would be old enough to acquire a marriage licence without parental permission, but the clerk took one look at the short, pale, rosy-cheeked young man and told him to get lost. So Shawn had to go home and get his mother anyway. The young couple honeymooned in Europe, where Shawn played the piano in a Paris café. Rumour has it that he had to grow a moustache to look 22 instead of 15.

Little Man in the Big City

The hardest working and most self-sacrificing man I have ever done business with.
— Harold Ross

During the Great Depression, the couple left to seek their fortune in New York City. Shawn was out of work more often than not, but Cecille was hired to do Talk reporting for The New Yorker. She gave over all her assignments to her husband, who was officially hired by the magazine in 1933. Rumour has it that Shawn's first assignment required travelling through the tube into New Jersey — in other words, entering a dark, confining tunnel under millions of gallons of sloshing water. The rumour continues that after successfully completing that assignment, Shawn never left the office again. Instead, he became an 'ideas' man, sitting in an office surrounded by newspapers, clipping ideas that might springboard a good Talk piece or profile, a task for which he was temperamentally suited. By 1935, he had been promoted to associate editor, and in 1939 he became Managing Editor for the fact department. Along the way, the Shawns produced three children: Wallace, Allen and Mary. Allen and Mary were premature twins and Mary suffered mental retardation. She was institutionalised early on, and the family visited her periodically.

In 1951, when Ross died, Shawn was his natural successor as Editor. For the next 35 years The New Yorker was his magazine in all but legal fact.

My years of working with Shawn were some of the happiest ones of all.
— Katherine White

Shawn: The Man

No Dandruff, Please

Shawn's life will doubtless remain an enigma forever. He worked harder than anybody else in the magazine's history did. He stayed at the office until the wee hours of the morning and then returned home with bundles of manuscripts under his arms. For his entire tenure as Editor, he read every word printed in the magazine, and usually more than once. Those who wrote about him knew him only from the office and the occasional office party in his home, and while it seems inconceivable that he had much of a life beyond The New Yorker, records indicate that he also managed to be a loving and fairly dedicated father. His children attended elite private schools and he attended all school functions. But The New Yorker was central to his existence. When Shawn took a vacation it just meant he worked at home, where there was less interruption. Writer Robert Lewis Taylor would tease poor Shawn upon his return from a 'vacation'. The script often ran something like this:

Taylor: Bill, you look great. You must have had a marvellous time!
Shawn: Yes, very nice, thank you.
Taylor: Played a lot of golf?
Shawn: Well, no, not golf exactly.
Taylor: Tennis, then?
Shawn: No, I don't play tennis...
Taylor: You must have got in some swimming then.
Shawn: Not exactly —
Taylor: Ah, so you went surfing?
Shawn: No, I didn't surf.
Taylor: So you enjoyed some mountain-climbing?

Among the tales left about Shawn, a large number concern his many fears. Offensive words shocked him, and he is supposed to have never uttered anything more profane than 'Oh God' in a whisper. The clinical made him squeamish, and he once rejected a poem because it contained the word 'dandruff'. Coming across the word 'cow-paddies' in an essay, he pencilled 'Oh dear' in the margin, and upon finding it repeated further down, scribbled in dismay, 'Not twice?' Other words he wouldn't print included 'balding', 'gadget', 'tycoon' and 'workaholic'. All things large and natural were frightening, and Shawn was reportedly dismayed to find a cow in the pasture of his rented summer home. He was also incapable of handling things most people grin and bear; he once offered a cabbie twice the fare just to drive a bit slower. As he disliked operating machinery (and automatic elevators particularly), the New Yorker kept an elevator operator on duty throughout his tenure. Though Shawn was offered several honorary degrees and awards, he could never bring himself to accept them in person, so much did he dislike crowds and a break of routine. One award, accepted on his behalf by Brendan Gill, came in the form of a heavy triangular sculpture. Shawn had it stored away in a back room. 'It is not only a prize,' he explained, 'It is also a weapon.' William Maxwell suggested that another Shawn pathology was pedantry: 'Inconsistency of spelling and hyphenation does make him unhappy, even morbid.' New Yorker lore has it that Shawn learned to drive a car only with great difficulty. 'It seems to me,' he is supposed to have explained, 'that if one is disengaging the gears one ought to let the clutch out, instead of pushing it in. 'In' represents engagement, and 'out' represents disengagement.'

There was no air conditioner in Shawn's office, but not only because he found them intimidating. Shawn seemed to work best in temperatures of about 85°F, and anything below 60 sent him scurrying for a coat and scarf. He usually wore a sweater under his jacket and in winter bundled himself in a heavy, lined, full-length coat, a long woollen scarf and a hat. Another one of his peculiarities was that he always, regardless of the weather, carried an umbrella.

Polite to Diminishing Returns

Shawn strove to be polite. In fact, he was completely incapable of criticising a writer's work. When editing, he would express effusive admiration for the writer's work and bend over backwards to be inoffensive with his suggestions for improvement. On occasions when Shawn had to reject something, the decision would 'demolish' him. Because of his formal demeanour, most of his associates called him nothing more personal than Mr Shawn.

On the telephone, Shawn was practically obsequious. Many an author recalls the first time he picked up the phone and heard, 'Hello. This is William Shawn of The New Yorker. Have I caught you at a convenient time?' Many people, used to aggressive and self-centred editors, would simply hang up, sure that it was a crank call. Shawn once made the mistake of asking if the writer he was trying to reach 'was there, by any chance?' The writer's uncle, who picked up the phone, was something of a pedant himself, and immediately ripped into Shawn for using 'by any chance', when obviously his nephew would only be there on purpose or against his will, but not accidentally. The Editor of The New Yorker apologised profusely for his word choice.

The only person in the office nearly as polite as Shawn was chairman Hawley Truax. The two in company was something to see; as someone once quipped, when Shawn and Hawley tried to go through a door, nobody got through. Going to lunch together was a protracted and agonising affair. Five difficult doors stood between the office and the Algonquin Hotel across the street: the elevator (entering and leaving), the revolving doors in the office-building lobby, the hotel front door and the restaurant door. The two would bow and bob, defer and demur, until finally Truax, as the elder of the two, would be forced to yield and step ahead.

Silence Heavy as Gold

Shawn was a spectacularly secretive man — not just concerning himself, but concerning everything told to him, no matter how insignificant. Brendan Gill swears Shawn once said to him, 'I hope I am not betraying a confidence, but I have been talking with Joe Liebling and he tells me that he has just finished drinking a full quart of orange juice.' As ludicrous as the anecdote sounds, it rings true. One cartoonist, after being hired by Shawn and James Geraghty (the art editor), was sworn to secrecy about his appointment. For two years, nobody but the three of them knew he was drawing for The New Yorker.

Shawn's secrecy led to another peculiar habit. Unlike his predecessor Harold Ross, who communicated predominantly by letter, Shawn never wrote anything down. He preferred to edit over the phone or in person. If verbal communication was impossible, he would send a brief telegram, but such an occasion was rare, and he usually requested that the telegram be burned. Though Shawn occasionally wrote for the magazine, only one article ever carried his byline, and even then it was just his initials. There is almost no paper record of Shawn's tenure as editor of The New Yorker. Furthermore, until a few scandals towards the end of his editorship made it necessary, he never granted interviews or spoke to the press.

Due to his reticence, meetings with Shawn were awkward in the extreme. Shawn barely spoke, except to praise a writer's work or discuss how to improve it further. After that, the visitor was on his own. One new addition to the magazine staff recalls that after a few moments of awkward silence, he saw beads of sweat rolling down Shawn's cheeks. Desperate, he scrambled around for something to say to fill the silence. Ved Mehta recalls babbling through his first meeting for the same reason. Shawn was an excellent listener, but talking was not one of his strong points.

Because Shawn himself was so quiet, the New Yorker offices became more subdued under his reign. Door slamming, for example, was no longer an acceptable final retort. Most writers were also loath to give their gentle editor a difficult time, and Shawn had few overt discipline problems. (Roger Angell does recall that some of the younger editors would forge his signature on acceptance slips and compete to imitate his 'moth-like voice' over the phone.) The intense privacy of the New Yorker writers under Ross became, if possible, intensified under Shawn. A staff writer could go days, weeks, months or even years without speaking a word to the man in the next cubicle.

Shawn's inhibition lifted only when he played jazz. Shawn at the piano was literally a different man. All his constraints fell away and he would even call his fellow musicians by their first names.

A Benevolent Dictator

Shawn is the most unassuming dictator in all history. Often one doesn't know it until very late at night!
— SN Behrman after a long editing session

William Shawn moved into the position of Editor from his position as Managing Editor. He never promoted anyone into his previous role. Rather, he kept all his former duties in addition to his new ones. This was no accident. Shawn knew how he wanted the magazine run, and the best person to ensure that his vision became reality was himself. A pattern soon emerged. 'As people would die or retire, Shawn would take on their jobs for himself... at a normal magazine there had to be 25 or 30 people doing what this little guy did1.' The lively art meetings of the Ross era, for example, dwindled to a weekly conference between Shawn and Geraghty. The only department that retained any sort of autonomy was the fiction department, staffed by the insidious young editors Angell mentions.

The note announcing Shawn's official succession set the tone for his reserved dictatorship. It read, 'William Shawn has accepted the position of editor of The New Yorker, effective today', and was signed by Raoul Fleischmann, the magazine's owner. It is probable that Shawn himself penned the note. It suggests that Fleischmann had entreated Shawn who, after some reflection, agreed to accept the position.

Much against Shawn's will, it became a tradition to post the Notes and Comments for the forthcoming issue on the bulletin board by the 18th-floor water cooler. Several times staff writers tried to protest against what they felt were inane or inappropriate editorials. Shawn would listen until the protestors talked themselves out, and would then proceed to ignore them. When Renata Adler followed up with a letter, Shawn quietly visited her in her cubicle and explained that he could not edit the magazine with staff members peering over his shoulder. They could feel free to protest in letters to the editor after the offensive Notes was published. Adler considered this absurd — they'd been trying to spare the magazine the embarrassment of publishing such a piece in the first place — but understood that Shawn brooked no disagreement with his decisions.

One of those disagreements affected Shawn's family life as well. Wallace Shawn had developed into an excellent writer, but his father refused to let him join the New Yorker staff, citing aversion to nepotism as his reason. Considering that Wallace actually could write, and considering that New Yorker staff as varied as fiction editor Roger Angell and journalist John Lardner were the immediate progeny of former staff members, the ban on Wallace seemed capricious to many. Wallace, for his part, went on to write sexually explicit plays calculated to offend his father, and now is a film actor.

Shawn sought to control every aspect of the magazine, and sometimes that meant controlling his writers as well. Unable to bully like Ross, he became master of the passive-aggressive manoeuvre. Writers who consistently refused to accept his editing were assured that they were the only ones, and made to feel like ingrates. He was known for offering people cigarettes from empty cartons or producing soda cans for use as ashtrays. When Si Newhouse was working to oust Shawn, Shawn showed Roger Angell a bundle of letters of support from almost every staff member except Angell2. When an editor disagreed with him over the merit of a work, rather than argue, Shawn would buy the piece and not run it. James Geraghty once called him a 'one-man cabal' to his face. Shawn smiled faintly.

Unique, Like Everybody Else

Though a dictator, Shawn was paternal towards his anointed writers. Each thought he was Shawn's favourite. At one party, George Steiner enraged a crowd of writers by saying that Shawn had a private phone line just for reaching him. Payment often seemed to be at Shawn's whim; after he left, almost every writer rushed to the payroll department to ensure that their 'special rate' would continue. Many writers did actually have customised contracts, but just as many were under a pleasant, but false, illusion.

Most writers were on drawing accounts, allowing them to spend money against future published pieces. More often, it allowed writers to get deeply in debt to the magazine. If and when the debt became impossibly large, Shawn might 'forgive' the debt and have the balance wiped clean.

Shawn's paternalism could get as paternal as his writers could get childish3. He was adept at gently leading strident or petulant writers to a more positive frame of mind. But sometimes the fatherly act went ridiculously far:

'That's a ruinous hyphen,' [Philip Hamburger] said... [Hamburger] was quite worked up over the hyphen. Shawn was calm and cool. 'Perhaps you had better sit outside my office and think it over,' he said. From time to time he would pop his head out. 'Have you changed your mind?' he asked. This continued from about ten at night until close to 2.30 the next morning4. Shawn finally said, sadly, 'All right. No hyphen. But you are wrong.'
— from Around Town by Ben Yagoda

Poet with a Pencil

If Shawn did not enjoy being challenged over editorial matters, it was because of a well-placed self-confidence in the matter. Shawn had a natural ear for the cadence and rhythm of good writing. SN Behrman declared that he could write anything with Shawn's help. JD Salinger dedicated one of his books to 'My editor, mentor and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, genius domus of The New Yorker.... most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors'. In fact, somewhere in the realm of 60 books were dedicated to Shawn during his years as editor. Part of this was due to his talent for listening:

When he listened... when he responded, it was clear that he had absorbed everything said — every fact, every allusion, every nuance. For 35 years, writers emerged from his office buoyed by the belief that at least one other human being in the world understood precisely what they were trying to get at.
— Calvin Trillin


The quickest reader and the most perceptive editor... but also in his later years the most contradictory and self-destructive.
— Roger Angell

Shawn's downfall was inevitable. His life was so closely intertwined with The New Yorker that he simply could not part from it. It is safe to assume that Shawn felt himself irreplaceable. He would begin to train a successor and then abandon him as unsuitable. The only candidate he repeatedly returned to was Jonathan Schell, a young writer who imitated Shawn's mannerisms enough to remind the editor of himself, but could not imitate his editing enough to remind the writers of Shawn. When Shawn would not willingly retire, Si Newhouse forcibly replaced him. Still, Shawn could not be parted from his magazine. For the next few years, when he wasn't editing for Simon and Schuster, he could be found almost daily at his usual table in the Algonquin Hotel, editing articles and stories brought to him by both writers and editors. At home, he would peruse the latest issue of The New Yorker, mentally editing it. This habit became too painful and he eventually cancelled his subscription. Writers continued to consult him about their manuscripts, at least partially to keep his spirits up, but Shawn slowly wasted away. He died five years after leaving the magazine, on 8 December, 1992.

1So reports Calvin Trillin.2Angell yelled at him, which made Shawn predictably apologetic.3In other words, very.4An offhand observation on the sort of office hours Shawn kept.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more