A Friend Writes: The Old New Yorker

No one who wrote about William Shawn’s New Yorker—the magazine that Shawn edited from 1952, when he was named to succeed its original editor, Harold Ross, until 1987, when he was replaced by Robert Gottlieb, the maga¬zine now always referred to as “the old New Yorker’—ever failed to give offense. Sometimes, of course, offense was intended. When you have a reputation for being easily scandalized, people will be glad to find ways of helping you live up to it. In 1965, Tom Wolfe wrote an article about the New Yorker for the New York Herald Tri-bune’s Sunday magazine. On the eve of its publication, Shawn, hav¬ing failed after repeated phone calls to dissuade the paper’s editor from running the piece, sent a pleading letter to the Herald Tri¬bune’s publisher, John Hay Whitney: “I know exactly what Wolfe’s article is—a vicious, murderous attack on me and the magazine I work for. … In one stroke of the pen it puts the Herald Tribune right down in the gutter with the Graphic, the Enquirer, and Confidential. For your sake and for mine, and, in the long run, even for the sake of Wolfe and his editor, Clay Felker (God help me for caring about them), I urge you to stop the distribution of that article.” Who could resist that kind of encouragement? The Herald Tribune ran the piece. It may not have done much for Jock Whitney—the paper folded not long after—but the Herald Tribune’s Sunday maga¬zine became New York magazine, Clay Felker became its editor, what became of Tom Wolfe everyone knows, and in 1966, the year after the offending article appeared, the New Yorker sold 6,143 pages of advertising, the highest number in its history. A little scandal is good for business.
Wolfe had every hope of doing harm; but even people who think they are doing the magazine a favor have been given reason to wish they hadn’t bothered. No book did more to promote the image of the old New Yorker as a club every writer longed to join than James Thurber’s The Years with Ross (1959). After it appeared, Thurber complained to Edmund Wilson that not a single person at the New Yorker offered a word of praise. Kenneth Tynan scolded Thurber for giving an insufficiently respectful picture of Harold Ross, the maga¬zine’s founding editor—who had died in 1951, seven years before Ty¬nan joined the staff. Thurber’s oldest and closest friend at the magazine, E. B. White, stopped speaking to him.
Brendan Gill’s Here at “The New Yorker” (1975) tried the device of casting its author as a playful Eustace Tilley, examining his col¬leagues as though they were so many delightfully idiosyncratic but¬terflies. It was not, perhaps, a tactic calculated to please the butterflies; but Gill was only trying to do to New Yorker writers what New Yorker writers had done hundreds of times to the subjects of “Talk of the Town” pieces and “Profiles.” Few writers appreciated finding themselves on the other side of the monocle. It took E. J. Kahn, represented in the book by a single harmless and ancient an¬ecdote, ten years before he could bring himself to speak to Gill again. Gill’s paragraphs on Katharine White, the magazine’s long¬time fiction editor, described her as a handsome and self-confident woman who deserved the credit for transforming the New Yorker into a serious literary magazine, and whose gracious but formidable editorial presence was considerably strengthened by her marriage to the indispensable E. B. White—which is pretty much the descrip¬tion found in every other account of Katharine White. When the book came out, she considered suing Gill for libel. Talked out of that by her lawyer and her family, she contented herself with com¬piling a long list of all the inaccuracies in Here at “The New Yorker”;
but the book, she confided to a friend, had come “near to killing me.”
It is fair to say that most of these reactions flowed not from per¬sonal pride, but from pride in the magazine. Writers and editors don’t like seeing their idiosyncrasies in print any more than anyone else does, and it obviously does no good to point out to them that putting other people’s idiosyncrasies into print is how most writers and editors make their livings. The wasp does not excuse the exter¬minator because they’re both in the same business. But besides the perfectly natural distaste for reading about themselves and their friends as characters in someone else’s amusing story, people who worked at the New Yorker had a much stronger distaste for anything that suggested an incomplete respect for the dignity and integrity of the magazine.
This is a peculiarity in journalism. For most journalists not at the top of the masthead, loyalty to the craft ranks higher than loyalty to the publication. Even people who work at the New York Times, a publication whose opinion of itself is very exalted indeed, don’t (with obvious exceptions) mind seeing it ridiculed a little; no one, in fact, can ridicule the Times with keener scorn than a Times person off hours. But at the old New Yorker, loyalty to the craft was identi¬cal with loyalty to the magazine. The New Yorker was identified with journalism in its most unadulterated state: the arts of writing and editing were practiced with every regard for the perfection of style, clarity, and accuracy, and with none for the two great ulterior mo¬tives of American journalism—selling copies and selling ads.
The firm and enforced separation between the editorial and business sides of the New Yorker forms the centerpiece of every de¬scription of the magazine, and of every account of its success. “Don’t shoot! Editorial!” the writer John McNulty used to shout as he emerged from the elevator on the editorial floor of the magazine’s offices on West Forty-third Street. For writers and editors were dis¬couraged from fraternizing with people who worked on the business side—first by Ross, who feuded for years with the magazine’s princi¬pal financial backer, Raoul Fleischmann, and then by Shawn. And business employees were not welcomed on the editorial floors. No doubt (as McNulty’s joke suggests) there was something a little silly about the decorums that some New Yorker editors and writers felt they had to observe in order to protect the product from contamina¬tion. But the principle behind the decorums is not silly; and to write for a commercial publication that has a long record of commitment to editorial integrity—and to get paid quite decently for doing so— is indeed to belong to a club any writer might envy.

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