Here but Not Here
In its heyday, the 1960’s and 1970’s, The New Yorker was arguably the most influential magazine in America, and the man who made it so, William Shawn, was arguably the most influential magazine editor the country has ever known. In 1933, Shawn joined the staff of what Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s founder, originally conceived of as a humor magazine for the upper crust. By 1939, when he became managing director, Shawn had already begun to transform the magazine into a highly sophisticated, highly serious weekly devoted to the kind of literary journalism that reflected his own interests and personality. Upon Ross’s death in 1952, Shawn became only the second editor-in-chief the magazine had ever known, and the transformation was complete.
The other principal player in Here but Not Here, Lillian Ross (who is not related to Harold Ross), was one of four women who were hired in 1945 as replacements for male reporters who were serving in World War II. Shawn interviewed her, hired her, and acted as her editor for the next forty-two years. He also fell in love with her. In 1952, Ross and Shawn became lovers, a few years later setting up a household together that would last until Shawn died in 1992. Theirs was a remarkable love affair, not merely because it endured for forty years, and not merely because they also worked together until 1987 as editor and writer, but mainly because it constituted virtually an alternative life for Shawn.
Throughout their years together, Shawn, the father of three children, was married to another woman. Ever the gentleman, Shawn not only told his wife about his relationship with Ross but also permitted her to make the choice about whether or not they should divorce. Cecille Shawn chose to remain in the marriage, and so did William Shawn. He thus began his bifurcated life, dividing his time between his legitimate home—where he was, as he told Ross “there, but not there”—and an apartment he shared with Ross from 1958 onward. The two locations were ten blocks apart.
It was an odd and complicated arrangement that seemed to suit this odd and complicated man. As Ross says of him, “Bill had the ability to draw an uncrossable line between his secret self and most other people while simultaneously responding to people in a close, mindful, and sympathetic way.” He seems to have managed his dual existence with remarkable agility, aided by an uncommon charm that provoked everlasting allegiance in most of the people who crossed his path. Most evenings, after dropping Ross off at one apartment, he would return to his family for dinner, only to walk the half mile back to Ross’s in time to watch the 11 p.m. news with her. Before the night was out, he invariably returned to his family to spend the rest of the night, but he would swing by in a taxi to pick up Ross on the way to work the next morning. At The New Yorker, most of the couple’s coworkers knew about the relationship, but—at least in Ross’s account—they did not seem to find it remarkable.
Yet it was remarkable, especially in the early years of the relationship. It became more so in 1966, when Ross, unable to have biological offspring with Shawn, went to Norway to adopt a child. She returned with a son, Erik, whom Shawn seems to have nurtured as much as she did, teaching Erik how to play baseball, playing the piano for him, buying him a puppy. Thereafter, when Shawn went to the office in the morning, his retinue would often include not only Ross but also Erik and the dog.
One can only speculate about the jealousies this cozy arrangement must have inspired. 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, and they would invariably respond, “I write for you.” Yet while they might have envied what was clearly a very special relationship between Ross and Shawn, it seems possible that their devotion to him could have damped many resentments. They loved Shawn and wanted him to be happy. What is more, Shawn’s attention to Ross did not seem to diminish his regard for them. Cecille Shawn may have felt something like this herself. One of Shawn’s greatest achievements was his being able to be all things to all people.
Yet Here but Not Here makes it clear that Shawn paid an enormous price for his generosity of spirit. He was famously phobic, frightened of travel and tight places, unable to ride in elevators without discomfort. Over the years, he would frequently ask Ross odd questions: “Why am I more ghost than man?” and “Do you know who I am?”; he also asked her, “Please do not let me forget my own life.” He gave so much of himself to others that it seemed he had...
(The entire section is 1966 words.)