The Talk of the Town

One day in 1975, Z, an editor who had been working at The New Yorker for a decade, was walking down the sidewalk on the Upper East Side, a neighborhood where, like herself, many of The New Yorker’s staff members lived, when she encountered William Shawn, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, and Lillian Ross, one of the magazine’s most respected reporters. It was a memorable sight, for they were an unusual couple. “Shawn was soft and old-maidish and really strange-looking,” says a former New Yorker employee. “He had teeny little hands and tiny little feet. He was small – about five feet five. He was a little man with rosy cheeks.” With his bald head, bad eyes (he wore black plastic-rimmed glasses), and hushed, paper-thin voice, Shawn was as delicate and demure as Ross was extroverted and tough. She was so robust in her manner and solidly built in her physique, which she kept in shape by playing tennis on the Central Park courts and by power-walking around the Park’s reservoir, that she would one day be described in print as a “fireplug.”

When Z passed Ross and Shawn on the sidewalk that day, a typical exchange ensued.

“Hello, Mr. Shawn, Miss Ross,” Z said.

“Hello,” Shawn said quietly, his whole face blushing.

“Hello,” Ross said loudly, her voice as commanding as a traffic cop’s.

And that was that. Z continued on her way, as did Ross and Shawn. Not a handful of words were exchanged because, unless it was absolutely necessary, junior members of the New Yorker staff did not engage in conversation with Shawn. A “Hello, how are you?” was it. Especially when Shawn was seen in public with Ross.

“For years, it never occurred to me that there was a romance going on between them,” says Z. “Finally, around this time, a light had gone off in my head, and when I realized what was really going on, it enlarged for me the very idea of what love could be. Suddenly I realized here were two mousy little middle-aged people who were about to be old, and theirs was a great romance.”

Now, all these years later, Ross has written about her “great romance” with Shawn, in a memoir scheduled to be published this summer by Random House. As word of the book has spread through publishing circles over the past several weeks, old-time New Yorker staff members, many of whom worshiped Shawn, have become horrified at the prospect of the public’s soon being able to read about an affair some of them kept secret for years. These Shawn loyalists regard Ross’s memoir as the ultimate act of betrayal. They are shocked she wrote it. They are not shocked, however, to learn that the person rumored to have been most influential in encouraging Ross to write it is Tina Brown, The New Yorker’s current editor.

There was, of course, one problem with their “great romance.” During the whole time Shawn was involved with Ross, a relationship Ross now says went on for 40 years, he remained married to his wife, Cecille, a caring, intelligent woman who was the mother of their sons, Wallace, now a well-known actor and playwright, and Allen, a composer married to Jamaica Kincaid, a former New Yorker writer. Indeed, at the time of Shawn’s death in 1992, he and Cecille had been married for 63 years, and theirs was by no means a marriage of convenience. “I’ve hardly known a more romantic couple than the Shawns,” says Ved Mehta, whose work Shawn edited and published for 33 years. (Mehta has documented this collaboration in Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker, which will be published in May by Overlook Press.) “When they sat on the sofa in their living room, even in their sixties and seventies, they always held hands,” Mehta recalls. “When he walked through the door every night, it was as if a conquering hero had come home. The intimacy in that relationship was unwavering right until the very end.”

Still, for almost two thirds of the time he was married to Cecille, Shawn and Ross had what one knowledgeable source calls “a shadow marriage.” During most of the years that Shawn lived with Cecille at Fifth Avenue and 96th Street, Ross kept an apartment eleven blocks away, on 85th Street near Madison. When Ross adopted her son, Eric Ross, Shawn played the part of the child’s surrogate father. “Mr. Shawn’s inner circle knew the relationship was going on, but it was kept secret,” says Mehta, himself a member of that inner circle. “After all, he was the most private man I’ve known, except maybe for J. D. Salinger.”

Not surprisingly, friends of Shawn’s were dismayed when, earlier this year, Random House made the startling announcement in its summer 1998 catalogue that Lillian Ross had written a tell-all memoir about her affair with Shawn. “All enduring love between couples,” the catalogue quoted from Ross’s book, Here But Not Here, due to be published in June, “no matter how startling or unconventional, tends to feel intrinsically normal to the two people immersed in it, so I would have to say that I had an intrinsically normal life for over four decades with William Shawn.” Some friends of Shawn’s are so disturbed by the mere idea of the book – no one has read it, since Random House has not yet produced galleys and may not provide them at all – that they refuse to talk about it. “Move on to something else,” says Elizabeth Drew, a former political reporter for The New Yorker, when she’s asked about Ross’s memoir. (Ross herself, through her publisher, also declined to be interviewed for this article.) Others are just now coming to terms with what the book’s pending publication means. “Of course, I’m surprised by it,” says Mehta, “although there is a tradition for this kind of writing. Think of Picasso’s mistress.”

That description of Ross, as someone’s “mistress,” is quite a departure from the ones she has become accustomed to during her long, prestigious career. After all, her “Portrait of Hemingway” stands as one of the best profiles ever written, and in the years following the publication in 1952 of Picture, her account of the making of John Huston’s film adaptation of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, some writers, notably Norman Mailer, credited her with the invention of the nonfiction novel, the mainstay of New Journalism. To Shawn’s friends, Here But Not Here sounds tacky, tasteless. They believe Ross has violated one of her own ground rules of journalism – “Do not write about anyone who does not want to be written about,” Ross stated in the introduction to Reporting, an anthology of her work – for during his lifetime, Shawn could not have been more resolute about his desire not to be written about by anyone in any way at any time.

Shawn loyalists are even more disturbed by the rumor that Ross was encouraged to write Here But Not Here by Tina Brown, who, when contacted at The New Yorker, was unavailable for comment. Many devotees of Shawn’s believe Brown has systematically destroyed the magazine Shawn worked so hard to build. According to their theory, she resents being unfavorably compared with Shawn, and encouraged Ross to write the book as a way of besmirching his name – bringing him down a notch, as it were, and raising herself in the bargain.

For decades, Shawn’s reputation for editorial integrity and moral rectitude were unassailable. To true believers, Lillian Ross’s new book is an unforgivable breach of trust.

He was born William Chon in Chicago in 1907. His father, whose nickname was Jackknife Ben, owned a successful business that sold cutlery products to the city’s vast meatpacking industry. Because the Chons were well-off, they were able to send William to Chicago’s exclusive Harvard School for Boys, where in 1924, at 16, he was two grades ahead of Bobby Franks when Franks was abducted by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two 19-year-old sons of wealthy Chicago families. After they had raped him, the teenagers murdered the boy by bludgeoning him with a small tool and then pouring acid over his body. During the trial, which became known at the time as “The Trial of the Century,” evidence was presented that showed Leopold and Loeb had made a list of potential victims. The first name on the list was William, which led some to speculate that the teenagers’ first choice was little Billy Chon, a boy so meek and passive that he would have made an easy target for abduction. The Chons lived only a couple of doors down from the Frankses, and Bobby’s brother Jack was a close friend of William’s, so Leopold and Loeb could easily have been pursuing William when they picked Franks instead. Even the mere rumor that he had been the possible target of two of the most famous murderers of the twentieth century must have had a profound effect on the way William lived the rest of his life.

Chon attended the University of Michigan but dropped out when he was 20. He worked for six months at $30 a week for a newspaper in Las Vegas, New Mexico, called the Daily Optic (“I thought I’d like the climate,” he later said) before he returned to Chicago and got a job with the International Illustrated News. Immediately, he rekindled a romance with Cecille Lyon, which had begun before he moved to New Mexico, and they married on September 1, 1928. By 1932, Chon had changed his name to Shawn – Chon sounded “too Chinese” – and he and Cecille had moved to New York. There, Cecille, also a journalist, got freelance work with The New Yorker, founded eight years earlier by Harold Ross. Actually, Cecille turned over much of the work to William, and within a year, he was hired as a reporter for the “Talk of the Town” section.

At The New Yorker, Shawn blossomed, becoming an associate editor in 1935 and managing editor in 1939. He performed so well during the forties that it became apparent he was destined to be the successor to Ross, who was suffering from various health problems. At the same time, Shawn’s family life flourished, though it was not without tragedy. The couple had five children in six years, according to Mehta, but only three survived. Wallace was born in 1943, Allen in 1948. The third surviving child, Mary, Allen’s twin sister, was born retarded, and was institutionalized for the rest of her life.

It was during this period, in 1945, that a journalist was hired at the magazine who would increasingly become an object of Shawn’s attention. Born in Syracuse, New York, twenty years his junior, Lillian Ross (no relation to Harold) was hired as a “Talk of the Town” reporter to fill in for the men who were away fighting in World War II. Actually, Shawn was not taken with her at first. “Ross worked for PM, a magazine with a decidedly leftish slant,” says a former New Yorker editor. “I don’t think Lillian was a card-carrying Communist, though she was very frumpy, your idea of one of those people. Anyway, Peggy Weidman, the wife of Jerome Weidman, who wrote I Can Get It for You Wholesale, had gotten the idea that Lillian would be perfect for The New Yorker, so she called Bill Shawn. When Shawn met Lillian, he called Peggy and said, ‘I don’t think this is going to work out because she’s too much of a Communist. She’s not the right person for our magazine.’ So Peggy said, ‘Oh, Bill, she’ll get there and she’ll make a good living and she’ll forget all that other stuff.’” Shawn took Weidman’s advice and hired Ross, who became a presence at the magazine almost at once. Then something unexpected happened. Shawn found himself drawn to Ross, and Ross became captivated by Shawn, this soft-spoken, mild-mannered man who by then had already developed a set of phobias that would become legendary in the publishing business.

“Mr. Shawn wouldn’t live above the second floor, because he was afraid of heights,” says Mary D. Kierstead, who later became Shawn’s secretary before being made an editor in the magazine’s fiction department. “At the theater, he had to sit way back in the orchestra, because he wouldn’t sit down near the stage, in case of a fire. There were also things he didn’t like, like air-conditioning, and he was always dressed too warmly. Then there was the business with the tunnels. He didn’t like to go through tunnels. And elevators – at the New Yorker offices, the elevators were automated, but one was kept with a human just to take Mr. Shawn up and down because he had a phobia about being stuck in an elevator.” In fact, according to Tom Wolfe, who would one day write a famous profile of Shawn, “the gossip was he carried a hatchet in his briefcase in case he got stuck in an elevator. That’s just how powerful his elevator phobia was.”

In 1949, Ross distinguished herself by publishing “Symbol of All We Possess,” a provocative article about the Miss America Pageant, and “El Único Matador,” a long profile of Brooklyn-born bullfighter Sidney Franklin. One admirer, James Thurber, called her “the girl with the built-in tape recorder.” It was while she was reporting the latter piece that she interviewed Ernest Hemingway, who agreed to allow her to follow him around for two days in New York in late 1949 and write about it. The piece Ross wrote, “Portrait of Hemingway,” which appeared in The New Yorker on May 13, 1950, became an instant publishing sensation. Ross thought the article was a flattering profile of Hemingway, but many readers saw it as a “hit” piece highly critical of the flamboyant, over-the-top character Hemingway had made himself into. Hemingway agreed with Ross – he loved the article – and over the next decade, the two remained good friends, exchanging some 80 letters.

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.”

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.”

Of course, that’s exactly what happened. Brown was a fan of Ross’s Picture, so it made sense that she would want Ross to write about contemporary Hollywood figures like Tommy Lee Jones and Robin Williams, two actors Ross would eventually profile for the magazine. With this end in mind, Brown pursued Ross, even while Shawn was alive. The two women talked, and enough rapport developed that Shawn himself was considering having lunch with Brown – a move that would have been seen by many as an endorsement of her editorship. But before the lunch could take place – and how heads would have turned that day at 44! – Shawn died suddenly.

Ross was one of the 27 writers who contributed testimonials to a splashy tribute Brown ran on Shawn in The New Yorker following his death. Not long afterward, Ross again began contributing to the magazine on a regular basis, eventually producing one of her most memorable pieces, “The Shit Kickers of Madison Avenue,” a “found” story in which she describes a group of teenage girls chatting among themselves in a restaurant one afternoon on Madison Avenue.

“By 1995, Tina and Lillian were so close that when I attended a sit-down dinner at Tina and Harry’s apartment to commemorate the publication of Norman Mailer’s book on Lee Harvey Oswald,” Ian Frazier remembers, “I sat next to Lillian. At one point in the evening, she told me that Shawn had gotten angry at me after he was fired because I signed a contract to work for Gottlieb when I had never signed a contract to work for him. I was bothered by this since Lillian – and obviously Shawn – didn’t understand that I had not signed a contract to work for Shawn because I saw no reason to. I trusted him.”

What mystified many friends of Ross’s and Shawn’s was why Ross would go back to work for Newhouse when she had been so vocal in her opposition to almost everything he stood for at the time he bought The New Yorker. But she did. And not only that: After rejoining the magazine, Ross went on record to say that Brown had the “right idea” about The New Yorker, even though almost all of the alterations she was making went against what Shawn would have wanted. “It’s simple,” says one insider. “Lillian goes where the power is. For years, she was attracted to Bill because of his power. It makes sense she would be attracted to Tina. Lillian is a chameleon in that way. There is no core to her.”

It was through this friendship that Brown was able to talk to Ross about writing Here But Not Here, which Brown wanted to excerpt in last fall’s “Love” issue until staff members convinced her that running part of Ross’s book would be in bad taste. Brown acquiesced, but Random House proceeded with its own plans to publish – despite efforts by some at the publishing house, according to one insider, to at least delay the book in order to protect the feelings of Shawn’s 92-year-old widow.

“It’s shocking Lillian would publish the book now, when there are people who can be harmed, but it does make sense that she would write the book,” says Ian Frazier. “After all, Lillian’s long suit is writing about great men” – Hemingway, Huston, Charlie Chaplin – “and now she’s written about Shawn, whom she knew best of all.”

The Talk of the Town