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The Talk of the Town

Some magazine staff members began to suspect that Shawn might even be the child’s father, a rumor that would not be debunked until Ross revealed years later that she adopted because she had had a hysterectomy. Over the years, as Shawn continued to edit the magazine and Ross continued to write -- in 1963, she published her first and only novel, Vertical and Horizontal, dedicating it to Shawn -- the couple began to invite gossip by becoming less guarded about being seen together in public. “Not only would you see them on the street occasionally,” says Ian Frazier, a former writer for the magazine, “but people said they saw them in nightclubs and restaurants together. Nobody knew for sure what was happening because Shawn wasn’t talking and Lillian wasn’t talking and nobody was catching them in bed together.”

Maybe not, but in April 1965, Tom Wolfe hinted at the affair in “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!,” the first installment of a two-part series he wrote for New York, the New York Herald Tribune’s Sunday magazine. Most of Shawn’s admirers were livid over Wolfe’s depiction of Shawn, which contained documentation of his shyness and his many phobias (it was here that Wolfe first mentioned the hatchet in the briefcase) as well as the view that Shawn was nothing more than “the museum curator, the mummifier, the preserver-in-amber, the smiling embalmer . . . for Harold Ross’s New Yorker.” It was an audacious piece, but many close to Shawn were even more concerned about Wolfe’s veiled references to Lillian Ross. “Nobody seems to know Shawn except for a few ‘inties’ -- intimates -- at the New Yorker, like Lillian Ross,” wrote Wolfe, who went on to point out that at the office, Shawn “calls up Lillian Ross all the time,” and outside the office, “he and Lillian Ross will drift off up to this delicatessen near Rockefeller Plaza for a very quiet, unpretentious couple of corned beef sandwiches.”

Before “Tiny Mummies!” appeared, Shawn did everything he could to stop publication, according to Wolfe. In a letter to Jock Whitney, the owner of the Herald Tribune, Shawn said Wolfe’s article was “a vicious, murderous attack on me and the magazine I work for.” No doubt Shawn was afraid of what Wolfe might say about him and Ross in the piece’s second part, for Wolfe’s veiled clues had certainly gotten the attention of some readers, among them Cecille Shawn. “He makes it sound as though Bill and Lillian are having an affair,” Cecille said to Naomi Bliven at the time.

“To this day, I’m not sure what on earth Shawn was so upset about,” says Tom Wolfe. “The revelations were rather innocuous. But somebody -- I was always told it was Lillian Ross -- organized a campaign which included letters and telegrams being sent to Jock Whitney. As I recall, I was accused of yellow journalism.”

Throughout the sixties, The New Yorker was the most successful magazine in the United States. Some years, it sold well over 6,000 pages of advertising. During the seventies, however, the magazine’s popularity began to decline slightly, but by the first half of the eighties, when advertising sales and circulation had dropped even more, the magazine still cleared $5 million a year in profits. Indeed, during all the years Shawn was editor, going back as far as 1952, The New Yorker never had a year in which it lost money -- a feat few editors can claim. Then, in 1985, Advance Publications, the Newhouse family’s media company, acquired The New Yorker for $170 million. “When Newhouse bought the magazine, Ross was apoplectic,” says one insider. “The notion of anyone else owning the magazine made her crazy.”

Things only got worse. In January 1987, Newhouse fired Shawn and replaced him with Robert Gottlieb, the editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, then also owned by Newhouse. To protest Shawn’s firing, a petition encouraging Gottlieb to turn down the job was submitted to him; that petition was signed by 170 writers, artists, and editors affiliated with The New Yorker, including J. D. Salinger. It did no good. Gottlieb accepted the job, and after having worked at the magazine for 54 years, Shawn was given three weeks to clear out his office, an insult that prompted many staff members to resign.

One was Lillian Ross. “When Shawn was forced out, Ross sort of went nuts,” says an insider. “She was the one behind the petition, as a way to protect her man. She also tried to get people to quit, and those people who wouldn’t walk away from their jobs she stopped speaking to. To Ross, Gottlieb was the Devil’s agent and Newhouse was the Devil.” To add insult to injury, a year later Gigi Mahon included the following anecdote at the end of her book The Last Days of the New Yorker: “A New Yorker free-lancer sat next to Newhouse at a dinner. Midway through the meal, Newhouse turned to him and said, ‘Do you think Mr. Shawn is getting it on with Lillian Ross?’ “

During the last five years of his life, Shawn was, as Mehta puts it, “a shattered man,” mostly because “he thought he would be kept on as an editor emeritus with an office and a secretary.” Obviously, he had never dreamed he would be dismissed so abruptly, with no chance for the dignified retirement he felt he deserved. In those five years, he worked sporadically as an unpaid consulting editor for Farrar Straus Giroux, but because he had few projects to work on and because the work was in the book business, not the magazine business, he was unfulfilled. Shawn told some friends he was working on a novel, but he spent most days, as he had done for years, dividing his time between Cecille and Lillian. Frustrated and discouraged, he died at the age of 85 of a heart attack in his bed in his Fifth Avenue apartment on December 6, 1992. In accordance with his wishes, he was cremated with no memorial service. At the cremation, his son Allen read John Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Also present at the service were Cecille, Wallace, and Jamaica Kincaid -- but nobody else.

Earlier that fall, just months before Shawn’s death, Newhouse made another abrupt change at The New Yorker. After the magazine had struggled for five years under Gottlieb, Newhouse replaced him with Tina Brown, the editor of Vanity Fair, another Newhouse magazine. Over the next several years, Brown changed almost every aspect of The New Yorker, but then, in 1993, a mysterious development occurred. “One day,” says Thomas Kunkel, Harold Ross’s biographer, “when the magazine came in the mail, I was looking at the table of contents and there it was -- Lillian Ross’s byline. I thought, Tina has done it. She can be a powerful and shrewd woman, and she’s somehow convinced Lillian to come back to the magazine.”