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The Talk of the Town

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For decades, Shawn’s reputation for editorial integrity and moral rectitude were unassailable. To true believers, Lillian Ross’s new book is an unforgivable breach of trust.

He was born William Chon in Chicago in 1907. His father, whose nickname was Jackknife Ben, owned a successful business that sold cutlery products to the city’s vast meatpacking industry. Because the Chons were well-off, they were able to send William to Chicago’s exclusive Harvard School for Boys, where in 1924, at 16, he was two grades ahead of Bobby Franks when Franks was abducted by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two 19-year-old sons of wealthy Chicago families. After they had raped him, the teenagers murdered the boy by bludgeoning him with a small tool and then pouring acid over his body. During the trial, which became known at the time as “The Trial of the Century,” evidence was presented that showed Leopold and Loeb had made a list of potential victims. The first name on the list was William, which led some to speculate that the teenagers’ first choice was little Billy Chon, a boy so meek and passive that he would have made an easy target for abduction. The Chons lived only a couple of doors down from the Frankses, and Bobby’s brother Jack was a close friend of William’s, so Leopold and Loeb could easily have been pursuing William when they picked Franks instead. Even the mere rumor that he had been the possible target of two of the most famous murderers of the twentieth century must have had a profound effect on the way William lived the rest of his life.

Chon attended the University of Michigan but dropped out when he was 20. He worked for six months at $30 a week for a newspaper in Las Vegas, New Mexico, called the Daily Optic (“I thought I’d like the climate,” he later said) before he returned to Chicago and got a job with the International Illustrated News. Immediately, he rekindled a romance with Cecille Lyon, which had begun before he moved to New Mexico, and they married on September 1, 1928. By 1932, Chon had changed his name to Shawn -- Chon sounded “too Chinese” -- and he and Cecille had moved to New York. There, Cecille, also a journalist, got freelance work with The New Yorker, founded eight years earlier by Harold Ross. Actually, Cecille turned over much of the work to William, and within a year, he was hired as a reporter for the “Talk of the Town” section.

At The New Yorker, Shawn blossomed, becoming an associate editor in 1935 and managing editor in 1939. He performed so well during the forties that it became apparent he was destined to be the successor to Ross, who was suffering from various health problems. At the same time, Shawn’s family life flourished, though it was not without tragedy. The couple had five children in six years, according to Mehta, but only three survived. Wallace was born in 1943, Allen in 1948. The third surviving child, Mary, Allen’s twin sister, was born retarded, and was institutionalized for the rest of her life.

It was during this period, in 1945, that a journalist was hired at the magazine who would increasingly become an object of Shawn’s attention. Born in Syracuse, New York, twenty years his junior, Lillian Ross (no relation to Harold) was hired as a “Talk of the Town” reporter to fill in for the men who were away fighting in World War II. Actually, Shawn was not taken with her at first. “Ross worked for PM, a magazine with a decidedly leftish slant,” says a former New Yorker editor. “I don’t think Lillian was a card-carrying Communist, though she was very frumpy, your idea of one of those people. Anyway, Peggy Weidman, the wife of Jerome Weidman, who wrote I Can Get It for You Wholesale, had gotten the idea that Lillian would be perfect for The New Yorker, so she called Bill Shawn. When Shawn met Lillian, he called Peggy and said, ‘I don’t think this is going to work out because she’s too much of a Communist. She’s not the right person for our magazine.’ So Peggy said, ‘Oh, Bill, she’ll get there and she’ll make a good living and she’ll forget all that other stuff.’” Shawn took Weidman’s advice and hired Ross, who became a presence at the magazine almost at once. Then something unexpected happened. Shawn found himself drawn to Ross, and Ross became captivated by Shawn, this soft-spoken, mild-mannered man who by then had already developed a set of phobias that would become legendary in the publishing business.

“Mr. Shawn wouldn’t live above the second floor, because he was afraid of heights,” says Mary D. Kierstead, who later became Shawn’s secretary before being made an editor in the magazine’s fiction department. “At the theater, he had to sit way back in the orchestra, because he wouldn’t sit down near the stage, in case of a fire. There were also things he didn’t like, like air-conditioning, and he was always dressed too warmly. Then there was the business with the tunnels. He didn’t like to go through tunnels. And elevators -- at the New Yorker offices, the elevators were automated, but one was kept with a human just to take Mr. Shawn up and down because he had a phobia about being stuck in an elevator.” In fact, according to Tom Wolfe, who would one day write a famous profile of Shawn, “the gossip was he carried a hatchet in his briefcase in case he got stuck in an elevator. That’s just how powerful his elevator phobia was.”

In 1949, Ross distinguished herself by publishing “Symbol of All We Possess,” a provocative article about the Miss America Pageant, and “El Único Matador,” a long profile of Brooklyn-born bullfighter Sidney Franklin. One admirer, James Thurber, called her “the girl with the built-in tape recorder.” It was while she was reporting the latter piece that she interviewed Ernest Hemingway, who agreed to allow her to follow him around for two days in New York in late 1949 and write about it. The piece Ross wrote, “Portrait of Hemingway,” which appeared in The New Yorker on May 13, 1950, became an instant publishing sensation. Ross thought the article was a flattering profile of Hemingway, but many readers saw it as a “hit” piece highly critical of the flamboyant, over-the-top character Hemingway had made himself into. Hemingway agreed with Ross -- he loved the article -- and over the next decade, the two remained good friends, exchanging some 80 letters.


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