William Shawn

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William Shawn
William Chon

(1907-08-31)August 31, 1907
DiedDecember 8, 1992(1992-12-08) (aged 85)
Alma materUniversity of Michigan
OccupationMagazine editor
Cecille Lyon
(m. after 1928)
Children3, including Wallace and Allen Shawn

William Shawn (August 31, 1907 – December 8, 1992) was an American magazine editor who edited The New Yorker from 1952 until 1987.

Early life and education[edit]

Shawn was born William Chon in Chicago, the son of Benjamin T. Chon,[1] a well-to-do cutlery merchant, and Anna Bransky Chon. He was the youngest of five. His older siblings were Harold (1892-1967), Melba (1894-1964), Nelson (1898-1974), and Myron (1902-1987). His family were non-observant Jews of Eastern European origin.[2] William dropped out of the University of Michigan after two years (1925-1927)[3] and began working.


Early years[edit]

Shawn traveled to Las Vegas, New Mexico,[4] where he worked at the local newspaper, The Optic. He returned to Chicago and worked as a journalist. Around 1930 he changed the spelling of his last name to Shawn. In 1932, he and his wife, Cecille, moved to New York City, where he tried to start a career as a composer.[2]

At The New Yorker[edit]

Soon after their arrival in New York City, Cecille took a fact checking job at The New Yorker magazine, and her husband began working there in 1933.[2] He stayed at the magazine for 53 years.

As assistant editor[edit]

Shawn rose to assistant editor of The New Yorker and oversaw the magazine's coverage of World War II. In 1946, he persuaded the magazine's founder and editor, Harold Ross, to run John Hersey's story about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as the entire contents of one issue. He left for a few months shortly after that to write on his own, but soon returned.[citation needed]

As editor[edit]

A few weeks after Ross died in December 1951, Shawn was named editor.[1] His quiet style was a marked contrast to Ross's noisy manner. Whereas Ross constantly wrote letters to his contributors, Shawn hated to share anything, especially on paper. His shyness was office (and New York) legend, as were his claustrophobia and fear of elevators; many of his colleagues maintain that he carried a hatchet in his briefcase, in case he became trapped.

Shawn would buy articles and then not run them for years, if ever. Staff members were given offices and salaries even if they produced little for the magazine; Joseph Mitchell, whose work had appeared regularly during the 1950s and early 1960s, continued to come to his office from 1965 until his death in 1996 without ever publishing another word. Shawn gave writers vast space to cover their subjects, and nearly all of them (including Dwight Macdonald, Hannah Arendt, and England's Kenneth Tynan) spoke reverently of him. J. D. Salinger adored him, and dedicated Franny and Zooey to Shawn.[5]

Later years[edit]

When Advance Publications bought the magazine in 1985, the new owners promised that the magazine's editorship would not change hands until Shawn chose to retire. But speculation about his successor, a longtime topic of publishing-world chatter, grew.

Shawn had been editor for a very long time, and the usual criticism of the magazine—that it had become stale and dull—was growing more pointed. In retrospect, the journalist Joseph Nocera described him as "legendary, if wildly overrated."[6] Advance chairman S.I. Newhouse forced Shawn out in February 1987,[2] and—after reportedly telling Shawn that he would honor his request to name his deputy Charles McGrath to succeed him—replaced Shawn with Robert Gottlieb, the editor-in-chief at the well-regarded book publisher Alfred A. Knopf.[1]

Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels, a longtime admirer, gave Shawn office space in the Brill Building, and he soon took an editorship at Farrar, Straus and Giroux,[1] a largely honorary post that he held until his death in 1992.

Awards and achievements[edit]

In 1988, Shawn received the George Polk Career Award in recognition of his lifelong achievements.[7]

Personal life[edit]

Shawn married Cecille Lyon (1906–2005) in 1928, and the couple had three children: writer and actor Wallace Shawn and twins Allen Shawn and Mary Shawn. Mary, who was eventually diagnosed with autism, was sent away from the family when she was eight years old to attend a special school, and later institutionalized.[8] Allen became a composer. In 2007, he published a memoir, Wish I Could Be There, centering on his phobias.[8] In 2010, he published a memoir, Twin, about his childhood and his relationship with his sister.[9]

In 1996, William Shawn's longtime New Yorker colleague Lillian Ross revealed in a memoir that she and Shawn had had an affair from 1950 until his death, with Cecille Shawn's knowledge. Ross claimed that Shawn was active in the upbringing of Ross's adopted son, Erik. The publication of the memoir was controversial, in part because Shawn deeply valued his privacy.[10]

Influences and legacy[edit]

  • In 1998, Indian author Ved Mehta, who had worked with Shawn at The New Yorker for almost three decades, published a biography of Shawn, Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing.[11]

In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Rosenheim, Andrew (December 10, 1992). "Obituary: William Shawn". The Independent. Independent Digital News & Media Ltd. Retrieved December 8, 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d "William Shawn Facts". Encyclopedia of World Biography. The Gale Group, Inc. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved January 19, 2016.
  3. ^ "William Shawn, 1925-27". Alumni Association of the University of Michigan. Retrieved December 8, 2020.
  4. ^ Gill, Brendan (1975). Here at the New Yorker. New York: Random House. p. 150.
  5. ^ Salinger, J.D. (1961). "Dedication". Franny and Zooey. New York: Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316769549.
  6. ^ Nocera, Joe (June 2, 2007). "Murdoch's Promises and Desires". The New York Times. Retrieved December 8, 2020.
  7. ^ "Past Winners". Long Island University. Retrieved December 8, 2020.
  8. ^ a b Kakutani, Michiko (2007-01-30). "Allen Shawn - Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life - Books - Review". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-04-30.
  9. ^ Shawn, Allen (2010). Twin: A Memoir. ISBN 9780670022373.
  10. ^ O'Hagan, Andrew. "Not Enough Delilahs". London Review of Books. Retrieved 10 June 2020.
  11. ^ Mehta, Ved (1998). Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker. Overlook. ISBN 978-0879518769.
Preceded by
Harold Ross
Editor of The New Yorker
Succeeded by
Robert Gottlieb