Remembering Mr. Shawn’s “New Yorker”
In Up at Oxford (1993), the seventh volume in his autobiographical series Continents of Exile, Ved Mehta brought the account of his life up to the conclusion of his Oxford University education. Remembering Mr. Shawn’s “New Yorker” brings him to the United States, ostensibly to study for a Ph.D. in history at Harvard University. Disillusioned when the atmosphere at Harvard does not prove to be as collegial as Oxford’s, Mehta settles in Manhattan to write for The New Yorker. He is aided in his decision by William Shawn, on the staff of the sophisticated weekly magazine since 1933 and its editor since 1952. Shawn is not merely the young writer’s editor but also his mentor and, eventually, father figure. This portion of Continents of Exile examines Mehta’s continuing estrangement from his native India, his love affair with New York, and his becoming a full-time writer. Remembering Mr. Shawn’s “New Yorker” is less about Mehta, however, and more about Shawn as man and editor, about his highly successful but finally beleaguered magazine.
Many writers have recounted how coming to New York in their youth has profoundly affected their lives, but Mehta’s account of learning to cope with Manhattan is a little different. Blind since he was four, Mehta was also learning to fend for himself for the first time after spending all of his life in academic institutions where such mundane matters as preparing meals and doing laundry were taken care of by others. He makes dealing with these concerns while finding out how to navigate his way through the glamorous city seem romantic.
Most of Mehta’s account of his life during this period centers on Shawn and The New Yorker. In their first meeting, Mehta was impressed by how intensely the editor listened to him, and he comments that “he seemed to absorb words as a musician absorbs music.” Even more impressive was his generosity, as he acted as if the relatively inexperienced young man was “a writer of consequence writing a piece of great literature.” The writer feels that his editor treated him as an equal, not as a blind writer or an Indian writer, as all other editors had done. The result of this treatment was Mehta’s development of his individual voice, a distinctive writing style “that was a fusion of my various selves.”
Ironically, the young writer new to Manhattan came to see Shawn as innocent and vulnerable because of his seeming lack of concern for anything outside his work. Shawn’s vulnerability included a fear of heights and enclosed spaces. When the elevators in his office building became automated, a manually operated one with an attendant was kept for Shawn’s use because of his inability to ride one alone. The seemingly stuffy Shawn surprised some by playing show tunes of the 1920’s and 1930’s on the piano at the occasional parties at his apartment.
Mehta presents Shawn as devoted to his outgoing wife, Cecille, their sons, Wallace and Allen, and Allen’s twin sister, Mary, who suffered a brain injury at birth. (Wallace Shawn is a well- known actor and playwright, and Allen Shawn is a composer.) Mehta is merely amused by the request of Lillian Ross, a longtime New Yorker writer, for help in adopting a baby from India because she once saw a holy man who resembled Shawn. Mehta mentions Ross’s “intimate relationship” with Shawn without elaborating, but her memoir of her longtime affair with her editor, Here but Not Here, was published at the same time as Mehta’s book. Readers aware of Shawn’s adultery may have difficulty with Mehta’s admiration for the long hours the editor spent at his office because his work came before his family. The reticent Mehta acknowledges that his editor responded to attractive women “like an excited teen-ager.”
In an effort to understand Shawn’s character, Mehta provides a brief history of the editor’s family. Shawn’s father, Ben Chon, began his rise to fortune as a knife vendor in the Chicago stockyards, with his popularizing of the jackknife earning him the nickname “Jackknife Ben.” Mehta interprets Shawn’s lack of flamboyance, his aversion to blood and gore, and “his hatred of any kind of commercialism” as reactions against his father. Shawn, Cecille, and their sons mostly ignored the family’s Jewish heritage, celebrating both Christmas and Easter. Wallace Shawn explains that Ben Chon grew up during a period when Jews were determined to become assimilated into America.
(The entire section is 1864 words.)