Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Happy 100th Birthday, William Shawn

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , , ,

Emily asked me to write this post yesterday. By chance, a few hours earlier, I had been watching a recent movie about a magazine editor. You know which one I mean: The Devil Wears Prada, with the delightful Meryl Streep portraying Miranda Priestly, the undelightful editor of Runway. She’s tyrannical, perverse, charming, disdainful, and petulant—a fine movie villain, all the more potent for our knowledge that, as is not the case with Darth Vader, something very much like her is actually out there.

The movie (can’t speak for the book) largely accepts Priestly’s view of the world. Stanley Tucci’s Nigel intones some fol-de-rol about the superiority of fashion over art. Indeed, there’s only one force external to Priestly in the entire world that the movie posits as unquestionably superior to the values of Miranda Priestly: The New Yorker. (We know this because it is the ambition of Anne Hathaway’s beleaguered assistant, Andy, to work there. She is putting up with Miranda Priestly to work there.)

William Shawn was the anti-Miranda Priestly. I can’t think of anybody who tried harder to make The New Yorker a magazine to provide solace and comfort in a world too often dominated by the values of, ah, Runway—than William Shawn.

William Shawn was born one hundred years ago today. His name was Chon then.

I sometimes find Shawn a difficult literary-historical figure to like. (You know you’re in trouble when they hire Bob Balaban to play you.) Obviously intelligent and discerning, Shawn was also reportedly highly phobic and fussy. He was the kind of person, I suspect, who used excessive diffidence as a means to get his way. In accounts of him, he comes off as prudish and secretive as well. I point out these traits because—I mean, what goes into a great magazine editor? Who are the great magazine editors-in-chief in this country, anyway? The New Yorker aside for a moment, it’s a fun parlor game. Clay Felker? Kurt Andersen? I.F. Stone? Harold Hayes? Hugh Hefner? Ben Sonnenberg? George Plimpton? (We can expand the field a bit to include Henry Luce.)

It’s interesting to me that in among all these outsize figures is this small, mousy fusspot, and he just might be the best of the bunch. You have a picture in your head of what constitutes a brilliant magazine editor, and Shawn’s there to prove that it might be totally wrong.

The most economical way to express Shawn’s expansive cast of mind is to present a simple list, the Profile subjects for a single year. Here’s 1975. There are 34 other years like it.

Erskine Hamilton Childers, president of Ireland
Henri Langlois, film historian and collector
Jim Hall, jazz guitarist
Shirley Verrett, opera singer
Nam June Paik, a pioneer in video art
Rev. Edward Thomas Hougen, Orange, Mass. (pop. 6,188)
Betty Parsons, N.Y. art dealer
Cary Grant, movie actor
Michel Guerard, French chef
John Crosby, founder, Santa Fe Opera
Jess Stacy, jazz pianist
Philip Barry, popular playwright
House of Baedeker, German travel-book publishers
Carmen Santana (fictitious name), a welfare mother
Robert Freitas, official, baseball minor leagues
I.I. Rabi, physicist (two parts)
Harvey Phillips, virtuoso tubist
Clarence “Ducky” Nash, voice of Donald Duck

To the least parochial editor who ever lived, on his hundredth birthday, here’s to you.

(January magazine also has a tribute to Shawn today.)

—Martin Schneider

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree