Tuesday, August 31, 2010

William Shawn: New Yorker-in-Chief

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He did the job the longest, and there are many who said he did it the best...

Unlike his rumbustious predecessor Harold Ross, though, William Shawn was subtle to the point of distraction. Yet in his turn he was responsible for some of the finest magazine writing ever, at a time in history when magazine writing was coming into its own. On his watch - which extended from Ross' death in December 1951 until he was forced out in favour of Robert Gottlieb in February 1987 - a magazine as fine as The New Yorker became that much finer.

As the magazine's assistant editor he persuaded Ross to devote an entire issue to John Hersey's coverage of the bombing of Hiroshima, for instance, an unthinkable act nowadays; he also turned the captioning of cartoons into an art form. He was such a stickler for spelling and punctuation that just thinking of it makes me want to weep. Unlike me, he was the best friend the umlaut ever häd.

Born on this day in 1907, William Shawn died in December 1992; apart from his accomplishments with a blue pencil, Shawn spawned three children - including the actor-playwright Wallace Shawn, the composer Allen Shawn (who's married to the writer Jamaica Kincaid), and Allen's autistic twin sister Mary, who is institutionalized).
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