Today’s Wall Street Journal contains a memorable sketch of the late William Shawn, longtime editor of The New Yorker. In 1966, Lucette Lagnado reports, New York Times reporter Murray Schumach turned out a long profile of Shawn and his magazine:
It was 5,500 words–far longer than the typical newspaper story. It contained some generous praise of Shawn, noting, for instance, the “perfection” of his editing. But there were also pointed criticisms: Some articles were much too long; the Talk of the Town section lacked its old bite; and there was a sense that even the renowned fiction was no longer cutting-edge. It was what a good newspaper piece is supposed to be–neither black nor white, neither a hatchet job nor a puff piece.
But Arthur Gelb, then deputy metropolitan editor of the Times, had, under pressure, agreed to give Shawn right of approval.
Shawn hated it. Though hate doesn’t begin to capture the maelstrom of emotions that poured into the 11-page memo he sent to the Times in November 1966 after seeing the draft. He opens by damning the piece with faint praise, calling it “well-intentioned,” possessing “merits of its own.” He then he proceeds to demolish it–idea by idea, paragraph by paragraph, almost sentence by sentence. The article is “misleading,” he declares. It “misses the point.” It isn’t so much what the reporter has written as what he has “not written.” He has “missed the magazine,” described “parts of its body (an arm and a leg perhaps)” but “left out the mind and the soul.” And that represents only the first few lines of an opening paragraph that runs 2-1/2 pages.
But Shawn was just getting started. He devotes a page to summarizing the contents of his four most recent issues, listing the names of his renowned writers–Hannah Arendt, Janet Flanner, Alistair Cooke, Calvin Trillin. Then, the man described as timid and self-effacing asserts that these four issues surpass what is being done “in any other magazine in the world” and adds, parenthetically, “And they did not come about by accident.”
The rest of the memo is a catalog of 37 alleged errors, delicately referred to as “some points of fact.” They are more revealing of Mr. Shawn’s obsessive, controlling persona than of any significant flaws in the Times piece. The weighty issue of The New Yorker’s “philosophy” is at the top of his agenda. Mr. Schumach wrote benignly that the magazine “has a clear idea of its philosophy on editorial matters,” and he goes on to quote Shawn’s own succinct explanation of its essence: “We do not go beyond consulting our own judgment and tastes and what interests and pleases us,” Shawn stated, adding that “The word ‘reader’ does not come up.
Although negotiations between Gelb and Shawn (nicknamed “The Iron Mouse” by staffers) dragged on for months, the Times was licked before it started. Arguing with Shawn, Gelb recalls, “was like arguing with butter.” The story never made it into print. Surrender your dollar and read the whole saga.