Editor, Regret-it-er
On March 3, the Wall Street Journal published this piece about William Shawn, the legendary editor of the old New Yorker.

An excerpt:

Few editors have achieved the iconic status of the late William Shawn, who ruled over The New Yorker for more than 35 years until shortly after the magazine's purchase in 1985 by S.I. Newhouse Jr. Many famous writers, including J.D. Salinger, Truman Capote and John Updike, saw their careers flourish under Shawn. One protégé compared him to Winston Churchill and even Mahatma Gandhi. Another, Renata Adler, wrote in 1999 that "The New Yorker since Mr. Shawn has been no one."

Through such encomiums, Ms. Adler and others did much to shape and tend the public persona of the secretive "Mr. Shawn" (as he was known to even his closest associates). "In Mr. Shawn I had found a literary guardian of impeccable taste, the soul of kindness and generosity," Ved Mehta wrote in his memoir. He was said to be so profoundly self-effacing that his mistress, Lillian Ross, recalled in her memoir of their time together how he would ask her "Am I really here?" Mr. Salinger, the most fervent acolyte of them all, declared Shawn to be the "most unreasonably modest of born great artist editors."

Arthur Gelb, longtime cultural czar and former managing editor of the New York Times, saw a different "Mr. Shawn," one he recounts in his recent memoir, "City Room." Mr. Gelb's memoir traces his 60-year career at the paper, when he witnessed many epic battles over such issues as the Pentagon Papers and the New York police corruption scandals. But the one that still rankles is the time back in the fall of 1966 when he went eyeball to eyeball with Shawn--and blinked. More than 37 years later, Mr. Gelb still seems to be rubbing his eyes.

"Little did we know what we were dealing with--we were innocents," he says with a shake of the head. "This great editor drove us to distraction."

One wintry afternoon at his office at the Times headquarters, Mr. Gelb sat fingering the frayed, yellowing proofs of the feature story on Shawn's New Yorker that he had assigned. It was one of his first initiatives as deputy metropolitan editor. The story was duly reported and edited, and a headline was composed to go with it. It never saw the light of day.

Word had been circulating that the venerable magazine was about to be bought by CBS. What greater journalistic coup, Mr. Gelb thought, than to commission a story on the enigmatic Mr. Shawn and his magazine. Eager to produce a thoughtful, in-depth New Yorker-like piece about The New Yorker, Mr. Gelb turned to one of his best reporters, Murray Schumach, and set him loose.

Almost immediately, a Damask Curtain descended. The fusty literary empire became impregnable. Writers were refusing to speak to Mr. Schumach; editors wouldn't give him the time of day. It soon became clear that the piece wasn't going to get done without Shawn's blessing, since no New Yorker staffer was willing to buck the boss. "Murray couldn't get to first base," Mr. Gelb recalls.

And Mr. Shawn wasn't going to cooperate without being allowed to read a draft--merely to check for "factual errors," he assured Mr. Gelb. In return, Mr. Schumach would be able to attend editorial meetings, interview Mr. Shawn--who was known to almost never grant interviews--and chat up his iconoclastic staff. (Mr. Schumach, now 91 and ailing, was unable to comment for this story.)

Mr. Gelb was being forced to make a pact with the devil. But he wanted the story. So reluctantly, realizing he was breaking with journalistic canons, he agreed. It seemed a small enough price to pay for the keys to the kingdom. The Damask Curtain lifted.

"It seemed too good to be true," Mr. Gelb says, adding ruefully: "It was."

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