In 1933, William Shawn joined the staff of what Harold Ross, THE NEW YORKER’s founder, originally conceived of as a humor magazine for the upper crust. Upon Ross’s death in 1952, Shawn became only the second editor-in-chief the magazine had ever known and began the process of transforming the magazine into a highly sophisticated, highly serious weekly devoted to the kind of literary journalism that reflected his own interests and personality.
In 1945, while he was managing editor, Shawn hired Lillian Ross (who is not related to Harold Ross). For the next forty-two years he would act as her editor. He also fell in love with her, and the couple set up a household together that would last until Shawn died in 1992 and serve as an alternative world for him.
Throughout their forty years together, Shawn was married and the father of three children. His was a bifurcated life, in which he divided his time between his legitimate home—where he was, as he told Ross “there, but not there”—and an apartment he shared with Ross. The two locations were ten blocks apart. It was an odd and complicated arrangement that seemed to suit this odd and complicated man.
Shawn was a gifted and much beloved editor who was able to give his writers the kind of respect and attention they craved. “Nobody else can do what you can do,” he would tell them. They would invariably respond, “I write for you.” One of Shawn’s greatest achievements was...
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