What Would Mr. Shawn Think?

This week’s New Yorker has a long review of Tina Brown’s new book, The Vanity Fair Diaries, and earlier this week I posted some of the review’s insights into how Tina edited magazines. She edited Vanity Fair from 1983 to 1992 and then Conde Nast’s Si Newhouse moved her to the New Yorker, which she edited from 1992 to 1998.

My post didn’t include the opening graf of Nathan Heller’s review:

One night in April, 1983, an Englishwoman, twenty-nine, stepped off a plane at J.F.K. and hailed a cab. She had come to the United States for business, though she would have been hard pressed to say what kind. She already missed her husband and the clatter of his typing back at home. As the cab headed toward Manhattan, Dr. Ruth’s show blared on the radio. You “tek it in the mouth und move it slowly, slowly up und down,” the good doctor advised. The woman in the cab was Tina Brown, and this was her initiation into the world of media in New York.

Then came this in the third graf of Heller’s review:
When she took over, less than a year after being blown into New York by Dr. Ruth, the magazine was tens of millions of dollars in the red, with a circulation of about two hundred and fifty thousand.

When I read and reread that, I thought wow, the New Yorker just led a piece about its former editor with a blow job anecdote. As a longtime editor, my first reaction was that Nathan Heller must have been really desperate to come up with that lede as an attempt to keep readers reading. A second reaction was that maybe it wasn’t a writer’s desperation but today’s New Yorker going out of its way to ridicule a former editor.

I asked several other editors how they saw the blow job lede. One said, “I’d call that a really contrived lede. Dr. Ruth as her introduction to New York media?

Another editor: “Definitely made me do a double take. It seemed like it had to be intentional, and it felt clumsy.”

A veteran writer: “Two words come to mind: Easy. Cheap. Every previous New Yorker editor would be mildly nauseated. Whoever let that dismal joke find its way into the pages of a not insignificant magazine is guilty of, at least, sleeping on the watch.


  1. Stephen Marmon says

    “This is not for us,” would have been his answer.

  2. Barney Collier says

    Dear Jack,

    Talk of the Town

    Mr. Shawn suffered liftophobia and automatic elevators spooked him.
    A single manned, manual elevator was kept in the New Yorker building for his use.

    One day the operator was off duty and Mr. Shawn reluctantly called one of the five other “brainless, soulless” automatic cars.

    Mr. Shawn found himself among staff people who were talking late 20th century trash in lewd and lascivious terms and Mr. Shawn, with uncharacteristic franticness, pushed buttons until he stopped the car at the nearest floor and said something like, “Please let me out! It’s too thick in here.”

    From what I heard about Mr. Shawn is that with pained reluctance he would say to the respected writer:

    “To make your already great effort entirely perfect perhaps you’d like to mend the few imperfections.”

    And he’d put it in the writer’s hands.

    He would have been painfully ashamed of himself for his magazine and publisher if he’d missed an imperfection so flatulently obvious.


  3. Jack, I have the book and that’s exactly the way Tina Brown opens it.

  4. Lisa DePaulo says

    I thought it was a great lede to the review. I also thought it was one of the best anecdotes in her book.

  5. Barnard Collier says

    Dear Lisa De Paulo,

    If that was one of the best anecdotes in the book about a woman as multifaceted and talented as Tina Brown, her editor must have been snoozing, too.


Speak Your Mind