William Shawn (August 31, 1907 – December 8, 1992) was an American magazine editor who edited The New Yorker from 1952 until 1987. Shawn broadened the vision of the The New Yorker to include paramount fiction writing, thoughtful social commentary and international controversy. Under his guidance, the publication emerged as a leading literary magazine of its time. Shawn’s career with the The New Yorker spanned more than 50 years. There, he worked tirelessly to shape the leading magazine’s distinctive style and content, persuade public opinion, and significantly influence writers across the United States in positive ways.
Throughout his career, Shawn maintained a commitment to truth and clarity unrivaled by any editor of the time. Allowing his writers and artists significant creative freedom, Shawn earned not only respect but also a genuine affection from both colleagues and readers across the nation.
William Shawn was born in Chicago in 1907, the youngest of six children. Born to Benjamin W. Chon and Anna Brasky Chon, he enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle on the city’s South Side after his father became the owner of a successful jewelry and cutlery store. As a child, William was serious and shy; this demeanor would define him throughout his life and subsequent career. Throughout his childhood, he pursued the piano, eventually emerging as a capable jazz pianist. William chose to change the spelling of his last name after an older brother had done the same.
Shawn attended a Chicago-area private high school where he graduated in 1925. Following graduation, he attended the University of Michigan where he lasted only two years. From Michigan, Shawn moved to Las Vegas, Nevada where he began working as an editor for the Optic, the area’s local newspaper. He remained with the Optic for nearly six months before returning home to Chicago where he began working with the International Illustrated News.
In September 1928, Shawn married fellow journalist Cecille Lyon. The couple honeymooned in Europe where they remained for nearly a year, returning to the United States just before the stock market crash of 1929. Throughout the early years of the Great Depression Shawn worked as a free-lance writer. In 1932 Shawn and his young wife moved to New York City where he hoped to pursue a career as a songwriter.
Soon after their arrival, Cecille began working on various free-lance assignments from the The New Yorker. Shawn joined the magazine in 1933, officially hired as a reporter for the publication’s “Talk of the Town” section. Within two years, Shawn had been promoted to associate editor. He would remain with the magazine for more than 50 years before accepting a position as editor for the publisher Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, where he remained until his death in 1992.
In 1939, Shawn was named managing editor of the The New Yorker where he began working closely with editor and founder, Harold Ross. Shawn was also responsible for overseeing the magazine's coverage of World War II. In 1946, he persuaded Ross to run John Hersey's story about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as the entire contents of one The New Yorker issue.
During his work as managing editor, Shawn maintained close professional ties with various distinguished writers whose work began appearing regularly in the The New Yorker. Known for his mild manner and soft-spokenness, Shawn was well-liked by his colleagues and was affectionately called “Mr. Shawn.” Though Shawn revealed little about his personal life to colleagues, he was known to be mildly eccentric, and significantly phobic of crowds, elevators, and air conditioning. Following the death of Harold Ross in 1951, Shawn was named editor of the The New Yorker, a position he held for the next thirty-five years. Under his leadership, the The New Yorker emerged as the nation’s preeminent literary magazine.
Shawn's quiet style was a marked contrast to Ross's noisy manner. Shawn remained secretive, aloof, and cryptic about his plans for the magazine and its contents. He often bought articles that did not run for years, if ever. Members of the staff were given offices and salaries, even if they produced little for the magazine. However, Shawn allowed writers vast amounts of space to cover their subjects, and nearly all of them spoke of him reverently. Author J. D. Salinger, in particular, adored him, dedicating his book "Franny and Zooey" to Shawn.
Shawn’s editorial leadership broadened Ross’s former vision of the The New Yorker, including in the publication articles of serious fiction, reflective journalism, and controversy. Shawn tackled issues regarding the environment, racial prejudices, poverty, war, and nuclear arms. Such works included Hannah Arendt’s "Eichmann in Jerusalem," a report on the trial of the infamous Nazi war criminal. Other works included Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring" which outlined the effects of chemical pesticides on the environment. Shawn also ran Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, James Baldwin’s essays on race, and short fiction selections from literary greats John Updike, J. D. Salinger, and John Cheever.
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 Shawn's successor grew. Due to Shawn’s lengthy career as editor, the usual criticism of the magazine—that it had become stale and dull—was growing more pointed. Advance chairman S. I. Newhouse eventually forced Shawn’s retirement in February 1987, replacing Shawn with Robert Gottlieb, the editor-in-chief of the book publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Shawn was given office space in the Brill Building by Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels, a longtime admirer, and soon took an editorship at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a largely honorary post that he held until his death. He died at the age of 85 in New York City in 1992.
Shawn’s career with the The New Yorker spanned more than 50 years. There, he worked tirelessly to shape the leading magazine’s distinctive style and content, persuade public opinion, and significantly influence writers across the United States. Under Shawn’s navigation and restless attention to detail, the The New Yorker emerged as a leading literary publication containing witty cartoons, premier fiction, and thorough social commentary.
Throughout his career, Shawn maintained a commitment to truth and clarity unrivaled by any editor of the time. Allowing his writers and artists significant creative freedoms, and directing with the gentle manner of a truly endearing leader, Shawn earned a genuine adoration from both colleagues and readers across the nation. In 1988 he received the George Polk Career Award in honor of his numerous accomplishments. His son, Wallace Shawn, became a character actor and controversial playwright.
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