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A City Built of Clay

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From left: Felker with Gail Sheehy; going to David Frost's annual garden party in London in 1990.  

We were sitting in Clay’s office one afternoon grousing about and begrudging all the outrageously worshipful rose petals and laurel wreaths other publications were heaping upon The New Yorker. The damned thing was easier to praise than to read … right? Right … They’re really heaping all this praise on the dead body of Harold Ross and the way the magazine used to be when he ran it in the old days … right? Right … That was when we had an inspiration. What about the man who runs it now, the Sandman who puts everybody to sleep these days? William Shawn was his name. Ross had handpicked Shawn to succeed him, which he did, in 1952. That was it! We’d do a profile of William Shawn. That would be rich, wouldn’t it? The “profile” was a genre The New Yorker itself had dreamed up and named. Nobody had ever written much of anything about William Shawn. From what we soon learned about him, it wasn’t hard to guess why. Shawn was a very apprehensive little man, a regular homunculus, and a claustrophobe. The thought of getting on an elevator petrified him. So did the idea of appearing in public, let alone speaking in public. So did the idea of being photographed, never mind submitting to an interview. There was only one known photograph of William Shawn as an adult. He had commissioned and paid for it himself and executed total … and very wary … control over who could use it.

The more Clay and I talked about it the funnier the idea became. This presumed-to-be Dr. Johnson of Urbanity, Wit, Sophistication, Glamour, and Excitement in New York was a gnome who apparently had no life outside his office on West 43rd Street and a building on Fifth Avenue, where he lived quietly quietly quietly quietly with his wife and child in an apartment on the second floor … and therefore easily accessible without enclosing anybody’s body in the windowless metal coffin called “elevator.” He was as close to a hermit as a man could be and still hold a day job.

There, in sum, you have the Editor Shawn I presented in a two-part profile headed “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead.” I didn’t accuse him of doing anything other than being himself. But you’ve heard of “bloody murder?” That was what greeted my playful profile—screams and howls of bloody murder such as you’ve never heard in your life! Shawn himself wrote a letter to the owner of the Trib, Jock Whitney, and had it hand-delivered. He called my “Tiny Mummies” more than libelous, at the same time making it clear it was that, too. No, it was worse. It was “murderous.” And they were the ones who had wanted to play

Bloody murder! Somebody at The New Yorker—the asphalt jungle drums said it was one of the magazine’s oldest and best writers, Lillian Ross—marshaled the troops, drafting every writer who had written, was writing, or sure would like to write for The New Yorker. Godalmighty there were a lot of them! Famous, too! J. D. Salinger, who was even more of a recluse than Shawn and had barely uttered or written a public word in seven years, popped up out of his hole in rural New Hampshire like The Groundhog and sent Whitney a telegram accusing him, our former Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, of having destroyed his own and the Trib’s reputation, forever, with a single “poisonous” article. Among the angriest sure-would-like-to-bes (a yearning we would learn of later) was one of the two most prestigious political columnists in the country, Joseph Alsop. Alsop said I was part of the Ho Chi Minh–loving America-hating madness now sweeping a generation of young Americans into the arms of the totalitarian Left. Guess what newspaper was Alsop’s home office … the Trib! The British writer Muriel Spark at least added some balance by calling me a Joe McCarthy–style bully. So what about the other of the two most prestigious political columnists in America, namely, Walter Lippmann? You won’t believe this—but he checked in too! Lest he be seen as shading his meaning in any fashion, Walter Lippmann wrote, “Tom Wolfe is an incompetent ass.” You won’t believe this either but his home office was … the Trib too! That was how bad it got.

Our little magazine was suddenly lit up lurid with publicity. Time, Newsweek, the press all over America—they couldn’t get enough of this “murderous” Manhattan magazine feud. A lot of the coverage was negative, but le tout America now knew that here was a magazine called New York that had become a major player.


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