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The Talk of the Town


It was around this time that Ross moved to California. Ostensibly, she went there to write a series of articles about the filming of The Red Badge of Courage, most of which was shot on John Huston’s 480-acre ranch in the San Fernando Valley. As luck would have it, while Huston was making the picture, Louis B. Mayer, MGM’s studio chief, and Dore Schary, the head of production, became embroiled in a fight over control of the studio, which provided Ross with a dramatic backdrop for her story. (Eventually, Mayer was fired.) “They were aware of me, but somehow or other I was there and I wasn’t there,” Ross later said about being allowed to sit in on numerous confidential meetings at the studio.

Ross’s five-part series appeared in The New Yorker during 1951 and on into 1952, the year Shawn took over as editor-in-chief. She collected the pieces into a book, under the title Picture, which was immediately seen as a tour-de-force. Ross’s trip to California had allowed her to produce her best work yet, but years later she confirmed that while she had traveled out West to work, she had also used her stay there “to escape her developing liaison” with Shawn.

Still, Ross could not help returning to New York in 1952, when, according to a recent report in the New York Observer citing a passage from Ross’s book, “a lengthy period of unspoken passion . . . culminated in a sudden dash one afternoon to the Plaza Hotel for confirmation.” After that, Ross and Shawn set out on their affair, which ended up lasting longer than most marriages.

‘What people don’t know,” says one well-known writer who worked at the magazine during the early seventies, “is that The New Yorker has always been a hotbed of wife-swapping. It was a den of goddamn iniquity. I mean, people were leaping in and out of bed with each other. It was like Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. X and Y would be married and P and Q would be married, and the next thing you knew, X would be married to Q and Y would be married to P.” For example, Katherine Angell, the mother of Roger Angell, who himself would become a legendary New Yorker editor and writer, was married to Ernest Angell before she divorced him to marry E. B. White, with whom she had a son, Joel White. Years later, Lis Shabecoff, a member of the magazine’s fact-checking department, was married to Richard Harris, an editor whose writers included Kennedy Fraser; before long, Harris had divorced Shabecoff to marry Fraser, who, even after she had married Harris, still had her stories fact-checked by Shabecoff. “There was so much of this inner-office romance going on, it makes one wonder how they got a magazine out every week,” the former employee continues. “It also reminds one of that famous Dorothy Parker quote when someone asked her why she had not gotten a story in on deadline and she said snootily, as only Dorothy Parker could, ‘Because I was too fucking busy and vice versa.’”

It was in this atmosphere of heated Victorianism that Ross and Shawn’s romance flourished. “After they started having an affair, Lillian did less and less work for the magazine,” says Naomi Bliven, a New Yorker writer, “and I think Bill saw to this because he didn’t want to seem to favor her.” Indeed, the relationship was what was important to them, which was why Ross took an apartment on East 85th Street -- so she could be a short walk away from Shawn. In time, Shawn had a private telephone line put into the apartment he continued to share with his wife; that way, Lillian could call him at home without creating too much fuss. At the office, Ross and Shawn saw each other every day. They regularly spent time together after hours, sometimes going out to dinner. Eventually, at night, Shawn ended up at home with Cecille and his children. Finally, late in the evening, Ross and Shawn would talk to each other at length on Shawn’s private line.

Naturally, people who knew about the affair began to ask the obvious question: Did Cecille know? “She did and she didn’t know,” says a longtime friend. “I think she said once to Phil Hamburger or somebody that she and Bill always had dinner together and that they had never spent a night apart. But that just wasn’t true.” (Cecille Shawn did not respond to a written request for an interview.) Others believe that she had to know but that, despite this, Shawn was still able to maintain his double life. “I don’t think he was an angel and I don’t think Mr. Shawn was a devil,” says Daniel Menaker, a former editor at The New Yorker who is now an editor at Random House, “but he was one of the most manipulative people I’ve ever known -- far and away.” His ability to manipulate the very structure of his life let him live essentially as “a bigamist in all but legality,” says one observer.

There would be other developments. In the winter of 1959, as Mehta reports in his book, Lillian Ross telephoned him to seek advice on adopting a baby. “I saw a picture of a small, Buddha-like man with a soft-gentle face and delicate features, a little like Mr. Shawn,” Ross told Mehta. “That’s exactly the kind of baby I want. I thought because you’re from that part of the world” -- India -- “you could help me.” Mehta tried, but Ross ended up adopting a baby, whom she gave her surname, from Norway. Even though Shawn was married and had three children of his own, Ross and Shawn, as Ross would later concede, “created a home in which they raised a child.” Ross and Shawn did not keep Eric a secret, however. “They changed the linoleum on the floor of Lillian’s office to a kind of pale gray or light blue,” says a former New Yorker editor, “to make it more like a baby’s room. When she had sitter problems, Lillian would often bring Eric into the office. As I recall, girls from the typing pool took turns helping Lillian out with the baby.”

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