Tuesday, July 5, 2016

How to make a classic

William Shawn, a shy newspaperman from Chicago, worked in the early 1930s for Ross as an “idea man.” Ben Yagoda writes in About Town, an excellent history of the magazine, that on Shawn’s first two days on the job he conceived ideas for ten Talk pieces, including the “Jac Mac Famous School of Acrobatics”; pigeon farms on Manhattan rooftops; a rat exterminator on Riker’s Island; and George Selkirk, the talented, if not quite immortal, outfielder whose destiny it was to replace Babe Ruth in right for the Yankees. Shawn made his mark as an editor by directing the magazine’s coverage of the Second World War. Ross came to think of him as indispensable. As he wrote to Kay Boyle, in 1949, “I can’t do anything with Shawn away, for the future is in his head.” When Ross died in December 1951, Raoul Fleischmann, the magazine’s owner, appointed Shawn. He remained in the job for the next 35 years.

In his attention to detail and his urge to clarity, Shawn resembled Ross. Yagoda relates how Shawn sent a memo to Matthew Josephson telling him that his profile of William Knudsen, a leader of the automobile industry, was “a stunning piece of historical reporting.” Then he wrote that he was appending “a few questions.” There were 178.

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