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Mr. Shawn's Lost Tribe

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Adler's book, breaking her fifteen-year silence, follows Lillian Ross's memoir, Here but Not Here, a gauzy account of her New Yorker career and her 40 years as Mr. Shawn's shadow wife, and Ved Mehta's equally romantic account of his 28 years of working with Mr. Shawn, his editor-mentor-father figure. Ben Yagoda's About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, a history of the magazine based on its archives, and John Seabrook's Nobrow, a wicked deconstruction of the Tina Brown era, appear next month, in time for the magazine's seventy-fifth anniversary.

It is hard to write a book about your own office, which all of these books, except for Yagoda's (and he wishes it had been his office), are -- or hard to write a book about your own office and have other people care. Over the years, though, readers seem to have developed a vicarious relationship with The New Yorker not only as a magazine and cultural force but as a specific place -- an interesting, eccentric, and charmed way of life. All of these books, then, are, wittingly or unwittingly, revisionist accounts. Adler says of the Ross and Mehta memoirs that even though they both set out to venerate Mr. Shawn, they end up making him look like a naïf and a fool; likewise, that is something of the effect of her book, too -- in the land of the passive, the most passive is king. Even the Yagoda book, based as it is on archives of the magazine that were jettisoned (and, Adler claims, grievously mishandled and, in many aspects, destroyed) when the magazine moved under the Robert Gottlieb regime into new offices, suggests a lost world. Finally, the Seabrook account makes it clear that The New Yorker under Brown became another type of enterprise from the one that so many people for so long had dreamed of being a part of.

Perhaps the biggest revision, though, judging from the reception of the Ross and Mehta memoirs, is the evidence that very few people -- save for other New Yorker alums fighting for the last word, and the media community, which has smelled blood in the water -- are very interested anymore in life at The New Yorker, old or new.

"Finally, you want to scream. Why can't they give it up? Mr. Shawn is -- and I'm picking this up from books that praise him -- phobic, fetishistic, passive, depressed, manipulative, controlling. And spooky. Didn't anyone notice?"

When I checked just before Christmas, a little more than a year after the publication of Ross's heavily publicized book, Amazon listed it as out of stock and declined to take orders. (It currently lists it on back order without a reprint date.) The book's editor, Kate Medina, at Random House, seemed pointedly not to return calls (and I made many) about the book. The book's disappearance seemed so extreme that I thought perhaps it had fallen victim to the ongoing internecine wars over the memory of The New Yorker.

"Has there been a lawsuit?" I asked a Random House publicity person.

"No, the book just did poorly."

"But I can't even order it."

"We don't have any available. We took a lot of returns."

"Well, where are the returns?"

"Pulped."

"Pulped?"

"Gone. Pulped. Period."

It seemed to give him pleasure to say pulped.

It is not hard to see why Ross's book, or any of these books, might not find a wide audience. In Nobrow, Seabrook argues that The New Yorker's identity got lost in the blurring of highbrow and lowbrow culture (i.e., pop culture subsumed those distinctions, hence The New Yorker's lost its claim as the arbiter of middle-high culture, is roughly his argument). But there is, really, a much broader and more visceral generational disconnect. The New Yorker has aged quickly and badly. Reminiscences of the old New Yorker seem not only quaint but vaguely ridiculous or even farcical -- from Mr. Shawn's comically obtuse marital arrangements (real or imagined) to Mr. Shawn's dining several nights a week at La Caravelle to Mr. Shawn's Swaine Adeney Brigg umbrellas to Mr. Shawn's institutionalized daughter who can't be mentioned to money matters that can't be discussed to upsetting words that can't be used to the relentless gentility of life lived exclusively on the East Side. It is not only the magazine but that world that is gone.

I mean, yikes.

Mr. Shawn -- finally, you want to scream at this Mr. Shawn business. Why can't they give it up? He is -- and I'm picking this up from books that praise him -- phobic, fetishistic, passive, depressed, manipulative, controlling. And spooky. Didn't anyone notice? Or is this another time-warp thing -- before we had emotional insight? Anyway, judging by these books, it seems clear: At the office, Shawn was a weak father of weak children. Adler rather chillingly points out that, in fact, the writers who did well, who got published, who held their own in The New Yorker's no-exit editing process, were not the good children but the un-New Yorker-like ones who stood up for themselves (writers with a "forceful disposition," she calls them).

It is an eerie thing about Adler's book that she begins it as a defense of Shawn, and then you watch as that defense dissolves. The portrait is of a man who compelled many people's affection, trust, and deep admiration, but who, on the facts, was a weirdo who may have systematically undermined the people he most supported. And finally, in Adler's telling, there is the inescapable conclusion that The New Yorker was sold -- lost -- precisely because Shawn was too innocent or precious or self-destructive or, well, gone, to grasp the most fundamental notions about who owns what.

And yet what I am drawn to about Adler is a mystique that is quite clearly New Yorker mystique. I can't decide if she is a victim of The New Yorker or the kind of writer only made possible by The New Yorker. Not unself-consciously, I start to think of meeting Adler -- lunch on the East Side, frequent phone calls, very small but very interesting revelations, the girlish braid down her back -- as a New Yorker story. The particularly New Yorker-ish part of the story is that she and all the others who were part of The New Yorker's accomplishments and dysfunctions are so obviously homeless now.

"I never would have been able to work without The New Yorker," Adler says, not to defend it but to describe a level of dependency.

I say, reasonably, "That seems untrue. Look at everything else you've done -- the Times, the Watergate committee, novels, law school." What's more, she has never seemed to shy away from stepping into large controversies (she famously demolished her colleague Pauline Kael in an essay in The New York Review of Books; she makes a frontal attack on The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik in Gone).

Obviously, though, she doesn't believe in her worldly skills. She has no commercial confidence.

But again, I am thinking of this as simple skill transference -- you take your talents to another buyer -- which clearly misses the point about The New Yorker. It did not exist in the business world, or did not exist for the people who worked there in any ordinary business context.

Indeed, there is a sense from each of these books that The New Yorker had a special business exemption (it was once officially exempted from certain pension rules because of the intercession of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New Yorker writer as well as a United States senator). Each book repeatedly states the fact that The New Yorker made money right up until the Newhouses took over as proof of the old New Yorker's special qualities rather than as a reflection of the last moment before the market for upscale advertising became increasingly competitive (in other words, the Fleischmanns sold at the top of the market, suckering the Newhouses into a less-than-brilliant deal).


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