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Mr. Shawn's Lost Tribe

The language and rituals and customs of the old 'New Yorker' are fast being forgotten. Renata Adler, with her first book in fifteen years, is the Last of the Mohicans.


There is a point in renata Adler's new book, Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, where she talks about being in possession -- "because the world is in some ways so small and life is so complicated" -- of the wedding ring given by Edmund Wilson to Mary McCarthy (inscribed MM EW). She also tells of going to California to become engaged, in fact leaving The New Yorker with William Shawn's blessing -- "You only become engaged once in your life." What she does not say is that it was Wilson's and McCarthy's son to whom she was engaged.

Now, it is quite possible that she told me this off the record -- although I do not think so. But she goes on and off the record in mid-sentence or mid-thought so often that it is awfully difficult to keep a precise accounting of what is being said in what context, on the record or off the record, friend to friend (although we have just become friends), or in some further more difficult category that seems subject to my own judgment and discretion. Indeed, a week or so after we first meet, she is asking my advice about The New York Times Magazine, which wants to do a profile of her. The problem is . . . and she begins to outline aspects of her life that she does not want the Times to discuss, until I remember my own job.

In a sense, I think, she is not so much hiding as she is editing -- you can see this approach in her own work, weird crypticness versus great lucidity; what is held back versus what is starkly exposed. It is New Yorker writing. Her shyness and reclusiveness and evident media discomfort is from the New Yorker stylebook, too (she writes of "an aversion to personal publicity for editors and writers" at The New Yorker). It is great New Yorker affect -- a particular Mr. Shawn affect -- shunning the finality and vulgarity of public utterances while you tell all on the telephone or at the dinner table. And, of course, there are also the myriad other complexities and doubts and contradictions and fears and second thoughts that go with being a New Yorker writer of the old school that I find her drawing me, not unpleasurably, into.

When I came to New York in the early seventies, Adler was the young writer everybody talked about. She was The New Yorker's "It" girl. A sort of brainy Candace Bushnell, a bohemian Mia Farrow-ish Platonic ideal. Richard Avedon photographed her. She was a wildly sought-after dinner-party guest.

She'd been hired at The New Yorker right out of school and was said to be Mr. Shawn's favorite (indeed, to do much at The New Yorker as a woman, you needed to be Mr. Shawn's favorite). She reported from Vietnam, from Selma, from the Middle East. Still in her twenties, she become the film critic for the New York Times, replacing the ancien régime critic Bosley Crowther, just at the moment when film became the most serious of intellectual, artistic, and political pursuits. (A Hollywood studio took a newspaper ad denouncing her cutting reviews; Strom Thurmond attacked her on the Senate floor for her review of John Wayne's The Green Berets). Then, fourteen months later, she quit. Quitting the Times made her seem even more writerly, intellectual, fierce. She went back to The New Yorker (she had never quite left -- a common condition among New Yorker writers trying to strike out on their own; Mr. Shawn held your office for you).

Mr. Shawn sent her to report on the civil war in Biafra. Then she went to Washington. The House Watergate committee hired her, more or less secretly, to write committee chairman Peter Rodino's words -- to keep Rodino, a famous idiot, from looking like an idiot (her role was kept secret from Rodino himself). She wrote her first novel, Speedboat, which, arguably, invented the genre of urban-chic minimalist angst. Then she up and went to Yale Law School, in restless pursuit of . . . something. There was another novel, Pitch Dark, an autobiographical tale -- about a young woman running from her relationship with a married man -- that came tantalizingly close (but no cigar) to revealing the details of her life among the powerful and influential, which landed her on the cover of this magazine; then came her book Reckless Disregard, about the big twin libel lawsuits of the early eighties, Westmoreland suing CBS, Sharon suing Time; and then, practically speaking, nothing.

In the late eighties, living in Connecticut, she became a single mother adopting a baby, but wrote nothing -- or published almost nothing. It was a very New Yorker way of writing (or not writing), to burn with the greatest intensity and then to stop. "The ethic of silence," Adler calls it. "There began to be the feeling," she says, "that it was vulgar, perhaps morally wrong to write." You let the months between pieces run into years. Or you wrote, and Mr. Shawn bought your work and just didn't publish it; or you wrote, and Mr. Shawn gently suggested that you might think it through a little more. Indeed, you stopped publishing in part because Mr. Shawn was so ambivalent about so many things -- including publishing -- and you didn't want to make life more difficult for him. (Adler recounts a conversation with J. D. Salinger, who attributed his reluctance to publish to a reluctance to submit writing about sex to Mr. Shawn, who would have found it distasteful. "A doctrinal circle of pure inhibition seemed to have closed," writes Adler.)

Still, of course, even not publishing you were a New Yorker writer, perhaps even more so. You were a member of the most elite club of writers in America. At your desk at The New Yorker's offices on West 43rd Street, you occupied the real estate that every writer wanted to occupy (weird real estate at that; at every point where writers and editors might congregate, Adler describes, Mr. Shawn would erect more offices, so staff members could only pass single-file). Every other writer in America had to sell out in some way, but not New Yorker writers, who were paid, closeted, protected, and encouraged to think pure New Yorker-ish thoughts. You just had no voice (even if you did publish, in all but the rarest cases, New Yorker writers tended to end up having New Yorker- writer voices).

And then, suddenly, when the Newhouse family bought the magazine from the Fleischmann family, you had not only no voice but no New Yorker. Or not THE New Yorker, Mr. Shawn's New Yorker.

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