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Alan Jacobs

The Editor and the Exile

How the New Yorker's William Shawn gave a home to the brilliant autobiographer Ved Mehta.

1. Insofar as Ved Mehta's latest memoir has been noticed at all, it has been as an insider's story of the most tumultuous period in the history of the New Yorker—the magazine that may well be the most important and influential venture in the history of American periodical publishing. It has also been recognized as a tribute to the editorial genius of William Shawn, the New Yorker's second editor, whose firing in 1987 seemed to many to mark the end of a brilliant era of American writing. Indeed, Mehta's detailed account of what it was like to work with "Mr. Shawn"—which he did for more than 30 years—seems more honestly loving than Lillian Ross's recent memoir of Shawn, Here but Not Here, in which she announces that she conducted a decades-long affair with him and claims to have provoked in this famously shy man paroxysms of wildness and prodigies of animal sensuality. Ross's is a truly repellent book, in the worst tell-all style, self-dramatizing and self-congratulatory: "The True Story of Tristan and Isolde, Told by Herself," one is tempted to call it.

Mehta's less florid and more informative chronicle is, to my taste, far more interesting than Ross's. But I am clearly in the minority on this point: unlike most Americans, I have always found chronicles of illicit sexual escapades less enticing than descriptions of people doing work that they love. Lillian Ross has her finger on the people's pulse: though she worked as a writer and editor on the New Yorker for many years, she can scarcely be bothered to note that in her eagerness to describe yet another moment of ecstasy she and Shawn experienced: the work that Shawn did so well appears only as a torment from which Ross's love alone could rescue him. Mehta, on the other hand, retains some sense of dignity, and of the difference between the public and private realms.

But the story of William Shawn's New Yorker is neither the only nor the most important story here. Though far too few people know it, Ved ...

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