Lillian Ross writes a memoir of remarkable grace, courage ON BOOKS

June 21, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

I set out prepared to detest Lillian Ross's recital of her almost lifelong adulterous liaison with William Shawn. The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani, flame-keeper of Gotham's literary fraternity proprieties, had damned the book as "a tasteless, self-dramatizing memoir that presents itself as a valentine ... even as it undermines the very qualities of discretion and taste its subject championed in life. ... Her reminiscences in this volume tend to vacillate between the perfunctory and the defensive, the cloying and the cliched." Janet Malcolm, of the New Yorker family, had been quoted in print as having confessed writing an acid, bitter parody of the book, which she then circulated among New Yorker staffers and beyond.

I was wrong. Kakutani is dead wrong. And Malcolm's deed - not Ross's - is the only act of tastelessness.

The book is a moving, modest work that sings with the soft melody of honesty and stands firm in the dignity that is courage. It is "Here But Not Here: My Life with William Shawn and The New Yorker," by Lillian Ross (Random House, 240 pages, $25).

Lillian Ross was one of the first women to be a regular on the New Yorker writing staff, joining the magazine in 1945. She has written 11 books, many of them drawing on her magazine work.

Pictures of her from the 1950s suggest she was far from glamorous or haunting or mysterious. But she was a superb, and growing, writer. Soon after joining the magazine in 1945 she was doing splendid and important reporting for it, growing close to Ernest Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin, other now legendary figures. She tells those stories well, and cleanly.

Her profile-series of the making of the movie, "The Red Badge of Courage," was instantly an enormous success. As a book,"Picture," it was critically acclaimed for its path-breaking use of fiction technique in nonfiction writing. She went on getting better.

Consummate importance

William Shawn was editor of The New Yorker from 1952 until he was fired by S.I. Newhouse in 1987, when he was almost 80 years old. Before that, he was managing editor for 13 years under Harold Ross, who died, having publicly groomed Shawn for the job. Under both men, the New Yorker was the most important single font and forum of serious writing in this language.

Harold Ross, no relation to Lillian (let the Freudians do trampoline turns on that!), was a toweringly great editor, fashioning forms of journalism and of fiction that changed forever how both arts are practiced. Under Shawn, the magazine became different - differently great, moving forward, leading, defining.

To weigh the accomplishments of one of those men against the other is purposeless - and impossible. Say they were of identical greatness and few will quibble. Shawn's devotion to excellence was celebrated by a vast array of the greatest writers of the second half of the 20th Century.

Born in 1907 and married in 1928, the day after his 21st birthday, Shawn and his wife, Cecille, had three children. From the early 1950s until he died in 1992, he and Lillian Ross were companions, colleagues and lovers - with the knowledge of Shawn's wife. Ross adopted a baby son, and Shawn helped bring him up.

When they first were drawn to each other - indeed, fell in love ` they both fought it. After a last dutiful attempt to separate, with Ross on a half-year trip to Europe in 1953, they rejoined. "I now know that I belonged with Bill no matter what the circumstances," she writes, "and that I would belong with him all my life. ... I never felt like 'the other woman.' Bill would say to me 'You are my wife.' He said it; without question that made it so."

However you or I may feel about the whole arrangement and its implications and inferences, there can be no doubt that Ross's feelings for Shawn were - and remain - devotional. For all the weirdness of the duplicities and surreptitiousness, the two were healthily realistic about their relationship. Whether there is proper purpose in writing about that dual life can be debated. I find the book valuable and moving.

Staying put

"Bill never lied," Ross writes. "He was no philanderer. He was no scoundrel. He was Bill. I made a conscious decision to stay with him, but my feelings seesawed up and down. ... We were so happy together that we put thoughts about problems on hold. My love for this man permeated my entire being."

In tone, she makes their relationship seem subordinating of her. Sometimes she appears almost subservient, deferring to Shawn every way: "Bill has always decorated our rooms, and I defer to him completely in matters of taste."

As Ross describes him, Shawn was a man of immense appetite %% for irony, grace, theatricality, who adored jazz and celebrated Benny Hill and other unapologetically vulgar burlesque forms while establishing and enforcing some of the most disciplined and civil standards of contemporary literary fiction and nonfiction.

Privately, she reports, he was a man of profound self-doubt, a would-be poet and artist who expressed frequent frustration with his job, task, role in life. He felt inescapably burdened by his obligations to writers - many of whom routinely insisted they wrote "only" for Shawn. His sense of the destiny of the magazine and its role was dauntless - and it tyrannized him.

Through it all, he was earning the literal awe and frequent adoration of some of the most discerning and demanding writers and critics and editors of his era.

The book concludes with the end of Shawn's life, with a peaceful, loving coda, a celebration by Ross not so much of Shawn, already so fulsomely celebrated, but of love itself. There is sweetness there, and beauty. And dignity.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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