It is a startling coincidence to have, in one season, the appearance of not one but two memoirs about William Shawn, the former editor of the New Yorker Ved Mehta's Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing and Lillian Ross's Here but Not Here: A Love Story (Random House, $22.50, 0375501193) but perhaps more interesting is that, while each is an elegy for Shawn, the two books couldn't be more different.
The differences make Mehta's and Ross's memoirs complementary; indeed, alone, each is only a partial picture of Shawn, the New Yorker's editor-in-chief for more than three decades. In his book, Mehta, a staff writer at the magazine from 1961-1994, depicts the platonic but intense affection between a writer and his editor. In her book, Ms. Ross, also a longtime New Yorker staff writer, delivers without apology the confessional tale of her over 40-year- long affair with the married Shawn. Mehta's memoir which is as gorgeously written as his magazine pieces and his previous 20 books (Remembering is the eighth in an autobiographical series entitled Continents of Exile) is a lament not only for Shawn but for a bygone era of chivalrous good intentions and courtly behavior in the literary world, an era of editorial paternalism and excellent manners. Shawn's New Yorker which lasted from 1952-1987, when Shawn, at the age of 77, was asked by the new owner of the magazine to resign was less a business than a family, peopled by the likes of J.D. Salinger, John Updike, Renata Adler, A.J. Liebling, St. Clair McKelway, and Maeve Brennan, writers to whom Shawndemonstrated fatherly allegiance. Not only did Shawn respond like a "Talmudic scholar," to his writers' work, says Mehta, he frequently ministered to their more personal needs including, in some cases, forgiving them their messy debts and hospitalizing them when mental illness or alcoholism overtook them. In Here but Not Here, Ms. Ross, covers similar historic ground, but laments more directly the loss of Shawn as a person. Ross's purpose is to make the reader see the real Shawn hopelessly in love, plagued by phobias, blocked in his own writing, and overwhelmed by his own invisibility as an editor and a human being. "Responsible as he was, toward the magazine and the lives of all the creative people involved with it," Ross writes, "attuned as he made himself to all their frailties and disappointments and successes and joys," Shawn "could do nothing to help himself. He wanted someone to know and believe there was more to him; he was desperate to feel alive." In late 20th-century America, when the line between the public and the private has become utterly blurred, Mehta's is the decidedly public memoir of Shawn and Ross's the utterly personal. Ross's book complicates and completes Mehta's reverent portraiture, but raises the question: How is one to reconcile the two William Shawns Mehta's Algonquin-frequenting, dignified father figure, and Ross's obsessive lover, who would leave his editorial desk at night and stand across the street from Ross's fifth floor apartment, staring up for hours at her lighted window? In the end, these memoirs are twin halves not only of Shawn, but of an era in American culture the early to mid 1960s a time of public good taste and, behind the scenes, some very private secrets. Reviewed by Julie Checkoway.