Knowing Mr. Shawn: A Strange and Gifted Man

RICHARD REEVES

December 16, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

Los Angeles. -- My wife has no patience with people who telephone at dinner time and often pre-empts their ''Hello'' with a curt message of her own. When the phone rang during our Thanksgiving Day dinner in 1983, she went even further than usual, saying: ''Who is this and why are you calling now? Don't you know . . . ?

''Oh, Mr. Shawn,'' I heard as I carved the turkey in the dining room. ''I'll get him.''

Pointing toward the phone in the kitchen as she came back into the dining room, Catherine said as quietly as she could: ''It's the little tyrant!''

''Happy Thanksgiving,'' I said. William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, apologized for calling on the holiday, then told me that he wanted to serialize my book on Pakistan, ''Passage to Peshawar," in the magazine and offered me the largest amount of money I had ever been paid for anything.

''Well, how could I know?'' Catherine said when the call was over. How indeed? Mr. Shawn was a strange and gifted man who did a great deal for me and for hundreds of other writers of my time whose greatest ambition was to read their own name at the bottom of one of the long gray columns that ran through bright advertisements for things we could not afford or did not want.

William Shawn died last Tuesday at the age of 85. He was at home on Upper Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. We once lived in the building next door. There was only one good restaurant in the neighborhood then, the Summer Garden. We would sometimes see Mr. and Mrs. Shawn there -- and pretend that we did not know each other.

I was terrified of the man, and had trouble speaking when I was in his office, leaning forward almost to the floor to hear his whispered words. You had to get them exactly right, because he never said ''yes'' or ''no.'' Everything was in code. The blessed words, ''We might be interested in that,'' meant you had carte blanche to roam the world for months or years and the New Yorker would pay you a dollar a word for whatever you wrote -- whether your words were published in the magazine or not.

''That's very interesting, but I'm not sure it's right for the New Yorker,'' meant forget it, kid. Two turndowns I remember when I was writing an occasional ''Letter from California'' were more direct than usual.

I wanted to write a letter on the mutual envy of Los Angeles and New York writers: the Californians making big money writing movies never made, living to see their name on the Letters to the Editors page of the Los Angeles Times; the New Yorkers seeing their names everywhere except on checks, wanting desperately to sell out but not knowing where to go to do that.

''That's very interesting, but it may be too incestuous, I think,'' said Mr. Shawn.

Then I wanted to write about the sons of the great winemakers of France coming to Davis, Calif., to study viticulture and oenology at the University of California.

''They do? That's very interesting, but the New Yorker does not write about alcohol.''

I'd walk out of there shaking, but over the years Mr. Shawn did say to me that the New Yorker might be interested in many things, earthquakes and Chicanos, interracial marriage in Cincinnati, and ship-breaking at a place called Gaddani on the Arabian Sea. And there was my name at the bottom.

Times changed and, not willingly, Mr. Shawn was replaced after 35 years as editor by new owners, turning the magazine over, in turn, to a couple of pretty formidable editors, Robert Gottlieb and, now, Tina Brown.

But it will be hard to match the impact of Mr. Shawn, who was known not at all outside the magazine. Magazines at their best are the extension of one intelligence; that's the only way the great ones make sense. William Shawn, although he never spoke of it in his little voice, at least not to me, had a sense of outrage. He knew right from wrong and he made it possible for the rest of us to shout it out.

The little type in his New Yorker made a difference, obvious to me these days because I am writing a book about John F. Kennedy, one of many Americans whose ideas about race and the environment were changed by articles published in the New Yorker: ''The Fire Next Time,'' by James Baldwin, and ''Silent Spring,'' by Rachel Carson.

I was choked by sadness when I picked up the newspaper last Wednesday morning and saw Mr. Shawn looking at me. But I was proud, too, to have known the man a little, to be a small part of the magazine he made.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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