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The Talk of the Town

Legendary "New Yorker" editor William Shawn zealously guarded his privacy. Now, as Lillian Ross, one of his most illustrious protégées, prepares a memoir of their 40-year affair, it’s clear he had plenty to keep secret.


One day in 1975, Z, an editor who had been working at The New Yorker for a decade, was walking down the sidewalk on the Upper East Side, a neighborhood where, like herself, many of The New Yorker’s staff members lived, when she encountered William Shawn, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, and Lillian Ross, one of the magazine’s most respected reporters. It was a memorable sight, for they were an unusual couple. “Shawn was soft and old-maidish and really strange-looking,” says a former New Yorker employee. “He had teeny little hands and tiny little feet. He was small -- about five feet five. He was a little man with rosy cheeks.” With his bald head, bad eyes (he wore black plastic-rimmed glasses), and hushed, paper-thin voice, Shawn was as delicate and demure as Ross was extroverted and tough. She was so robust in her manner and solidly built in her physique, which she kept in shape by playing tennis on the Central Park courts and by power-walking around the Park’s reservoir, that she would one day be described in print as a “fireplug.”

When Z passed Ross and Shawn on the sidewalk that day, a typical exchange ensued.

“Hello, Mr. Shawn, Miss Ross,” Z said.

“Hello,” Shawn said quietly, his whole face blushing.

“Hello,” Ross said loudly, her voice as commanding as a traffic cop’s.

And that was that. Z continued on her way, as did Ross and Shawn. Not a handful of words were exchanged because, unless it was absolutely necessary, junior members of the New Yorker staff did not engage in conversation with Shawn. A “Hello, how are you?” was it. Especially when Shawn was seen in public with Ross.

“For years, it never occurred to me that there was a romance going on between them,” says Z. “Finally, around this time, a light had gone off in my head, and when I realized what was really going on, it enlarged for me the very idea of what love could be. Suddenly I realized here were two mousy little middle-aged people who were about to be old, and theirs was a great romance.”

Now, all these years later, Ross has written about her “great romance” with Shawn, in a memoir scheduled to be published this summer by Random House. As word of the book has spread through publishing circles over the past several weeks, old-time New Yorker staff members, many of whom worshiped Shawn, have become horrified at the prospect of the public’s soon being able to read about an affair some of them kept secret for years. These Shawn loyalists regard Ross’s memoir as the ultimate act of betrayal. They are shocked she wrote it. They are not shocked, however, to learn that the person rumored to have been most influential in encouraging Ross to write it is Tina Brown, The New Yorker’s current editor.

There was, of course, one problem with their “great romance.” During the whole time Shawn was involved with Ross, a relationship Ross now says went on for 40 years, he remained married to his wife, Cecille, a caring, intelligent woman who was the mother of their sons, Wallace, now a well-known actor and playwright, and Allen, a composer married to Jamaica Kincaid, a former New Yorker writer. Indeed, at the time of Shawn’s death in 1992, he and Cecille had been married for 63 years, and theirs was by no means a marriage of convenience. “I’ve hardly known a more romantic couple than the Shawns,” says Ved Mehta, whose work Shawn edited and published for 33 years. (Mehta has documented this collaboration in Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker, which will be published in May by Overlook Press.) “When they sat on the sofa in their living room, even in their sixties and seventies, they always held hands,” Mehta recalls. “When he walked through the door every night, it was as if a conquering hero had come home. The intimacy in that relationship was unwavering right until the very end.”

Still, for almost two thirds of the time he was married to Cecille, Shawn and Ross had what one knowledgeable source calls “a shadow marriage.” During most of the years that Shawn lived with Cecille at Fifth Avenue and 96th Street, Ross kept an apartment eleven blocks away, on 85th Street near Madison. When Ross adopted her son, Eric Ross, Shawn played the part of the child’s surrogate father. “Mr. Shawn’s inner circle knew the relationship was going on, but it was kept secret,” says Mehta, himself a member of that inner circle. “After all, he was the most private man I’ve known, except maybe for J. D. Salinger.”

Not surprisingly, friends of Shawn’s were dismayed when, earlier this year, Random House made the startling announcement in its summer 1998 catalogue that Lillian Ross had written a tell-all memoir about her affair with Shawn. “All enduring love between couples,” the catalogue quoted from Ross’s book, Here But Not Here, due to be published in June, “no matter how startling or unconventional, tends to feel intrinsically normal to the two people immersed in it, so I would have to say that I had an intrinsically normal life for over four decades with William Shawn.” Some friends of Shawn’s are so disturbed by the mere idea of the book -- no one has read it, since Random House has not yet produced galleys and may not provide them at all -- that they refuse to talk about it. “Move on to something else,” says Elizabeth Drew, a former political reporter for The New Yorker, when she’s asked about Ross’s memoir. (Ross herself, through her publisher, also declined to be interviewed for this article.) Others are just now coming to terms with what the book’s pending publication means. “Of course, I’m surprised by it,” says Mehta, “although there is a tradition for this kind of writing. Think of Picasso’s mistress.”

That description of Ross, as someone’s “mistress,” is quite a departure from the ones she has become accustomed to during her long, prestigious career. After all, her “Portrait of Hemingway” stands as one of the best profiles ever written, and in the years following the publication in 1952 of Picture, her account of the making of John Huston’s film adaptation of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, some writers, notably Norman Mailer, credited her with the invention of the nonfiction novel, the mainstay of New Journalism. To Shawn’s friends, Here But Not Here sounds tacky, tasteless. They believe Ross has violated one of her own ground rules of journalism -- “Do not write about anyone who does not want to be written about,” Ross stated in the introduction to Reporting, an anthology of her work -- for during his lifetime, Shawn could not have been more resolute about his desire not to be written about by anyone in any way at any time.

Shawn loyalists are even more disturbed by the rumor that Ross was encouraged to write Here But Not Here by Tina Brown, who, when contacted at The New Yorker, was unavailable for comment. Many devotees of Shawn’s believe Brown has systematically destroyed the magazine Shawn worked so hard to build. According to their theory, she resents being unfavorably compared with Shawn, and encouraged Ross to write the book as a way of besmirching his name -- bringing him down a notch, as it were, and raising herself in the bargain.

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