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Here But Not Here: My Life with William…

Here But Not Here: My Life with William Shawn and The New Yorker

by Lillian Ross

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I'm a sucker for anything about the New Yorker. The parts of this I found most interesting were her descriptions of how she became a writer and learned her craft. At one point she goes to Hollywood to put distance between her and Shawn, and writes a book about the making of a movie. I liked finding out how she struggled with how to portray the players in the drama of getting that done, and how she eventually decided to just record and let the events tell the story. Other writers criticized her for not putting her opinions into her stories, but she found a method that worked for her.

Ross was a wonderful editor, sensitive to all his writers, and put aside his own writings to help them. She appreciated him first as a great editor and kindred spirit at work, then he approached her romantically and she resisted for a long time. But finally she accepted the inevitable and they began a long affair that his wife knew about. He nursed his sorrow at being "there but not there" with his wife as he and Ross built a life together. If I sound judgmental, I'm not. It sounds like they all made the best of a difficult situation.

The parts about her life with Shawn were ultimately a dull hagiography. Apparently he and Lillian never had a quarrel or harsh words. He said things to her like "We must arrest our love in midflight. And we fix it forever as it is today, a point of pure light that will reach into eternity." I'm glad she found that romantic because it's rather incomprehensible to me. It sounds like they had a wonderful relationship and a good life together, but that doesn't make for a very interesting book. ( )
  piemouth | Jun 10, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375501193, Hardcover)

As John Cheever's stories from the New Yorker magazine demonstrate, in the upper-crust Northeast in midcentury, when divorce simply wasn't done, adultery was not exactly unheard of. But Lillian Ross's exposé of her own decades of adultery with her sainted boss, New Yorker editor William Shawn, still comes as a shock. It's doubly shocking because he was uniquely revered and had an upright if not asexual reputation and because members of the New Yorker family seldom spill the beans.

Gossip connoisseurs will gorge on Ross's tasty tidbits. As a child in Chicago, Bill Shawn narrowly escaped murder by renowned thrill killers Leopold and Loeb, who left Bill's house and kidnapped Bobby Franks instead. Bobby died and Bill became a famously shy victim of phobias--blood, violence, heights, confinement, or darkness could make him, in his own self-imploding way, go postal. When Bill's mom hired a nurse to save him from scarlet fever, the nurse "decided he needed, in addition to nursing, some sexual education. 'To my astonishment, she provided both, but I don't think it did me any harm,' Bill told me."

He was then a child of 12. It does not occur to Ross that sex might have long-term effects of any consequence. She feels zero guilt that she set up a love nest in Marlene Dietrich's old apartment 10 blocks from Shawn's family, and adopted a child, and had a phone put in by Shawn's bed, and spent Christmases with him, leaving Thanksgivings free for Shawn to spend with his wife and biological children. "Bill assured me that Cecille was going along with our arrangements. From time to time, I would think: Maybe she loves him so much she wants him to have what keeps him alive." Meow!

Mrs. Shawn, as Ved Mehta notes in his 1998 book, Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker, was a reporter who supported her husband when they got to New York, and even got him his fateful job at the magazine, prior to devoting herself to their family. Ross got assignments from Shawn that made her famous, but she notes, "We never experienced even a moment of 'conflict of interest' problems, for the simple reason that we never had any conflict of interest.... If I wanted to see Bill in his office, I called his secretary, like everyone else."

"I have always been less inclined than most people I know to indulge in self-analysis," writes Ross. She may be a renowned reporter, but her own mind is one subject that entirely escapes her notice.

Annoyed that romantic emotions were spoiling her mood when her career took off in 1950 ("I felt I should have been having a lot of fun. Instead, I was being emotionally distracted and drained"), Ross did what any disgruntled journalist would do. She spent a year and a half at company expense in Hollywood, playing tennis with Charlie and Oona Chaplin, bonding with Bogart and Bacall, and writing the classic book Picture about her dear friend John Huston's movie The Red Badge of Courage. Ross became an A-list partygoer, the first major showbiz reporter with highbrow credentials, and Huston and company handed her a story much better than the movie in question. "I thought I was the luckiest reporter in the history of journalism," writes Ross, who may be right. And no wonder she was such a hit: cute, connected, willing to listen to egomaniacs and let subjects read her drafts before publication, Ross was, like the showbiz-titan pals of Carrie Fisher that are celebrated in her Hollywood roman à clef Delusions of Grandma, "ruthless and glad."

But Ross's impersonal journalism method works better with big, showy subjects such as Huston or Ernest Hemingway. Faced with the elusive Mr. Shawn, who practically had the power to cloud men's minds so that they could not see him, she fails to illuminate his heart for the reader, despite all the fascinating facts at her command. And does she know how classically, rascally masculine a lot of Shawn's lines sound? Many of them boil down to "My staff doesn't understand me."

Ross notes that William Shawn's brother Mike wrote the Doublemint ad jingle "Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun." William clearly doubled Lillian's fun. But with Mr. Shawn, doubleness wasn't the half of it. --Tim Appelo

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:50 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

New Yorker writer Lillian Ross tells a love story of the passionate life she shared for forty years with William Shawn, The New Yorker's famous editor. Shawn was married, yet Ross and Shawn created a home together a dozen blocks south of the Shawns' apartment, raised a child, and lived with discretion. Their lives intertwined from the 1950s until Shawn's death, in 1992. Ross describes now they met and the intense connection between them; how Shawn worked with some of the best writers of the period; how, to escape their developing liaison, Ross moved to Hollywood, and there wrote the famous pieces that became Picture, the classic story of the making of a movie - John Huston's The Red Badge of Courdge - only to return to New York and to the relationship.… (more)

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