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Mr. Shawn's Lost Tribe

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"I've always wondered: How did you people at The New Yorker actually make a living?" (It seems, in fact, a little vulgar to bring up the subject -- if you had to ask, you'd never have worked at The New Yorker.)

Her eyes open wide. "I don't know," she says with sudden intense interest, seeming to look to me for the answer.

"I mean," I press, "there's often months and years between pieces for lots of New Yorker writers -- what was the economic basis here?"

"I sometimes have thought," she considers, "that Mr. Shawn must have paid people differently, depending on whether they needed it or not. Do you think that's possible? There were writers, of course, who had private incomes."

Private incomes -- sheesh!

"Do you have a private income?"

"A very small one."

"Something else I'm dying to ask: How is it that you know so many people? Powerful, connected, rich, influential people?" From the playwright S. N. Behrman, who introduced her to Mr. Shawn, to Edmund Wilson, who was her teacher (and whose son, Reuel Kimball Wilson, she was engaged to) to John Doar, who brought her to Washington, to Arthur Gelb, who brought her to the Times, to Brooke Astor and Jackie Onassis to Richard Avedon constantly taking her picture to other names she asks me not to mention, she seems to have known everyone (who was anyone). And yet, she is the least likely social climber you might imagine (and I know something about social climbers).

I am trying to conjure a world in which being a good writer makes you a must-have dinner guest. I am trying to rationalize too the odd or ironic way in which The New Yorker, once comfortable with the rich and powerful (New Yorker people were automatically let into that class), became, in its ensuing incarnation, awestruck by the rich and powerful -- of course, a different sort of rich and powerful.

"That is a good question. I would have to think about it. Can we put it aside and come back to it?"

If The New Yorker is gone, is that good or bad? I finally ask her. What has replaced it, Adler argues, is mostly bad, and what isn't bad is different enough to be another magazine and enterprise altogether. But whether the end itself is good or bad, or perhaps inevitable or natural, is another question.

Which we will take up when she comes to dinner.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com.


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