Ms. Adler, The New Yorker and Me

A few months ago, I reviewed in these pages a book of memoirs by Michael Korda, in which I turn up as a good guy. Now, Renata Adler has written a book- Gone: The Last Days of ‘The New Yorker’ -in which I’m one of the bad guys. Renata’s editor is Michael Korda, and her agent (and Michael’s agent) is Lynn Nesbit, who’s a close friend of mine. And some years ago, I edited a novel of Renata’s at Knopf. Oh, yes, I worked with Renata when I was editor of The New Yorker , too. Small world, isn’t it?

Renata’s book (and I’m in first-name mode because this is all very personal) centers on the moment when I replaced William Shawn as the editor of the magazine. S.I. (Si) Newhouse Jr. had bought The New Yorker several years earlier, promising to consult (though with whom?) on the matter of the succession. The manner in which the change actually came about was both abrupt and unclear, and people at the magazine were violently (and naturally) distressed. Under these highly charged circumstances, just about everyone behaved at his or her worst: Shawn obfuscated, Si kept silent, and the rest of us said and did things we would rather not recall. Renata, however, has now chosen to recall, or misrecall, them-a dozen years after the event, when one would have hoped they could be seen in perspective. But polemecists are rarely interested in perspective, and in the course of her current tirade, Renata takes few prisoners and sees few people in three dimensions. One person who, oddly enough, gets off rather lightly is Si, the man who, after all, made the fateful decision. Perhaps one must take into account that he remains a powerful figure in Renata’s world-and besides, his wife, Victoria, was at Bryn Mawr with Renata, who, during the Troubles, bravely admitted to her assembled co-workers, “She is my friend.”

Gone sets out its thesis right away: The New Yorker ceased being The New Yorker the day William Shawn left it, early in 1987. “As I write this, The New Yorker is dead,” she announces. That, of course, is a matter of opinion, and mine is hardly likely to echo Renata’s. But it would have been interesting to watch her incisive critical mind analyze the contents of the magazine under the three very different editors who followed Mr. Shawn: me, Tina Brown and David Remnick. That never happens; there is only generalized assertion of an absolute. In fact, since Renata was rarely around the magazine during these years, she all too often substitutes generalization and hearsay for firsthand knowledge. On one crucial point in the preface, for instance, she is seriously wrong. The magazine, she tells us, began “from almost the moment Mr. Shawn left it, for the first time since its earliest years, to lose money.” I remember the numbers clearly: In the last year of Mr. Shawn’s stewardship, the magazine lost $12 million. Toward the end of 1992, the losses were down to between $3 million and $4 million, and heading toward breakeven (later, they were to escalate). But the specific numbers aren’t what matter here; I cite them only to demonstrate how an experienced but agenda-driven reporter like Renata allows herself to accept without evidence-and repeat as gospel-anything that supports her thesis.

Renata begins with reminiscence (bright young woman gets job at magazine) then quickly goes on the offensive. She writes, “I had hoped to finish this book without addressing either Ved Mehta’s Remembering Mr. Shawn’s ‘New Yorker’ or Lillian Ross’ Here but Not Here. ” Somehow her hopes are dashed. She confides that both writers-though Lillian “to a greater extent”-have been her friends, then closes in: Friend Ved’s book she dismisses with a sideswipe of disdain-it’s merely “self-serving and unpleasant”; closer friend Lillian is savaged. The battleground is Shawn. He’s no longer here, so his admirers can no longer vie for his immediate favor; instead, they quarrel over whose view of him is to prevail. “Mr. Mehta’s Shawn is something of an unctuous, pious, humorless creep, whose distinction lies in his esteem for Mr. Mehta’s work. Ms. Ross’ Shawn is an unctuous, pompous, humorless creep, whose greatness is revealed in his feeling for her-and his dislike and disdain for everybody else.” In fact, Renata’s reading of Lillian’s book is that it is “an astonishing and fierce, unremitting, though apparently inadvertent, attack on Mr. Shawn, his magazine, and virtually everything he stood for and believed.”

But what is Renata’s view of him? Equally harsh. She indicts Shawn for what she perceives to be the failings of The New Yorker during his later years: “A moral certitude, an absence of self-doubt-especially in political matters-that became a minor flaw and then a major flaw.” And “What had been a place of originality and integrity began to publish, and defend, instances of false reporting and plagiarism. What had been a place of civility, tact, understatement, became a place of vulgarity, meanness, invasions of privacy.” And “Mr. Shawn, it seemed obvious to some of us, never had the slightest intention of naming or making way for a successor.” Three editors she rightly nominates as plausible successors-Gardner Botsford, William Whitworth and John Bennet-“were driven out, cast as villains, or simply passed over in the periodic charade by which Mr. Shawn attempted to persuade others, and perhaps himself, that he had any intention of permitting the magazine to survive him.” Finally, she blames Shawn for what she calls the magazine’s “ethic of silence.… There began to be feeling that it was vulgar, perhaps morally wrong to write.” When pieces were not scheduled, or were scheduled and then shelved, “It was unthinkable to inquire about this.” She does notice, though, that “blunt people, and particularly screamers, got their way,” and astutely she recognizes that “Certainly a source of [Shawn's] power was the determination of non-bullies to protect his delicacy of feeling.” (We call this kind of behavior passive aggression.) What she doesn’t recognize is that she has echoed-in fact, being much cleverer, surpassed-Lillian with her an “astonishing and fierce,” though hardly inadvertent, attack on a man she claims to love and revere.

What’s it all about-the rage, the resentment, the revenge? Renata gives us a clue: “I had in my mind, by now, what I thought of as an iconography or theology of The New Yorker . Mr. Shawn was the father; Lillian Ross, the mother. The son was Jonathan Schell; the spirit was J. D. Salinger.” Theology, possibly, but that “father” is in lower case. To a large extent this book is an explosion of pain and anger from someone caught up in the dynamic of a highly dysfunctional family-what must have hurt most is that there was no place in it for a daughter. Jonathan Schell had been the best friend and roommate of Shawn’s son Wallace, and when Jonathan came to the magazine, he quickly became Shawn’s closest associate, apart from Lillian. In Renata’s account, family dysfunction and political dysfunction are linked: “[T]he magazine began to churn out volumes of what, even then, was politically correct propaganda and heavy preaching. Mr. Shawn and, to a lesser degree, Ms. Ross were spending more and more of their time with Mr. Schell.” Jonathan’s real crime, clearly, is that he had so much influence-influence that Renata demonstrates she had always hoped to attain.

She offers unsolicited advice, sees herself as a “hired gun,” spanks her fellow writers, even protests to Shawn about material he is planning to run. In 1965-Renata is a young woman, at the magazine only two years-she goes to his office to denounce the publication of In Cold Blood . “I said I thought that the pieces violated certain fundamental principles of the magazine. They were lurid, I thought, and sensationalistic. Their structure was of only prurient interest,” etc., etc. “Mr. Shawn listened.… He did not appear to agree or disagree, or even to wish I would go away.” (The man was a saint!) Undeterred, months later she and several colleagues once again set out to protect The New Yorker from William Shawn by protesting another piece he was about to run. When Shawn made it clear that he couldn’t permit this kind of interference, they were “taken aback.” How could he object, when “the whole purpose had been to spare the magazine the embarrassment” that publishing the piece would bring? But this time Renata learned her lesson-“We never again, in his presence, criticized anything in the magazine.” On the other hand, out of his presence, “One evening, Bill Whitworth, Jane Kramer, and I had gone to see Gardner Botsford at his house in Turtle Bay-to ask him to consider becoming Shawn’s successor.” If she can’t be the Daughter Apparent, she can try to stage-manage the succession.

Her book reflects a dangerous arrogance. Whatever Renata says or does is, by definition, right. When she launches her notorious attack on Pauline Kael in The New York Review of Books , it presumably doesn’t occur to her-or matter to her-that most of us don’t trash our colleagues publicly, or that she might be embarrassing both the magazine and Shawn. (“Even Mr. Shawn took it hard …” she acknowledges-or boasts.) Earlier, she had panned a collection of John Hersey’s pieces, including “Hiroshima,” a landmark in The New Yorker ‘s history. Too bad: “They did not seem to me to hold up very well.” Nor does she have much positive to say about most of her living former colleagues, or about the many writers David, Tina and I have brought to the magazine. (Her friend Lillian, however, has only the highest regard for Tina: “[S]urprising as it may seem on the surface,” Lillian wrote, “William Shawn and Tina Brown, the current editor, are indeed similar,” a notion that Renata quite properly guts; whatever Shawn’s failings, she protests, “He did not deserve this.” In fairness to Lillian, it should be pointed out that she produced this abominable passage while working at reinstating herself at Tina’s New Yorker .)

But if there are no imaginable similarities between William Shawn and Tina Brown, there are surprising ones between Renata Adler and Lillian Ross-in their private lives (single parents of adopted sons, sporadic output), and in their methods, too. As we have seen, like Lillian, Renata undermines Shawn while ostensibly championing him. She exposes the vulgarity and mawkishness of Lillian’s “revelations” about her long liaison with Shawn-the most original passage in Gone reflects Renata’s intuition that Lillian is really addressing Shawn’s children with these revelations; his sons “and any other competitors for his love, respect, and time.” And of course she deplores Lillian’s assault on Shawn’s privacy. But then comes a six-page scene describing her own farewell to Shawn at the end of his editorship. “‘First of all,’ I rather muttered, ‘it goes without saying, I love you and I hope to keep seeing you for the rest of our lives.’ He had interrupted, saying ‘I love you’ quite firmly. When I said the words about seeing each other, he said, again firmly, ‘We will keep seeing each other.’ Then we were both in tears.” They’re in tears again later on, and finally, as she’s leaving: “From behind his desk, he said again, in a tone of surprising firmness and, considering the distance, gentleness, ‘I love you.’ I said again that I loved him. We shared a sense, I think, that since the day I first walked in and through the years, we were by temperament, style, understanding-through Hannah [Arendt], Wally, Lillian, Mrs. Shawn, those birthday parties-family.” We can imagine how Shawn would have enjoyed having these private moments dished up for us. No matter. Like Lillian, Renata is staking her claim-to being “family” (a daughter at last). Not only that: She and Shawn share temperament, style, understanding. So much for the competition!

But where Renata really trumps Lillian’s ace is in the matter of inaccuracy. She gores Lillian’s claims to plausibility, but her own book is riddled with errors, of varying degrees of importance and disingenuousness. (Not surprising: She was not known at The New Yorker for relishing the checking process, and there are no pesky fact-checkers in book publishing.) To begin with, many names are wrong-Phyllis Maginley for Phyllis McGinley; Wen Weshler for Ren (Lawrence) Weschler; Conrad Richler for Mordecai Richler (or could she be thinking of Conrad Richter?). Most peculiarly, the publisher of The New Yorker , Peter Fleischmann, is misidentified as Stephen Fleischmann, his son. This is the carelessness of someone who believes she doesn’t need to check or be checked.

As for misstatements of fact, I’ll stick to what I know about at first hand. I never fired the jazz writer Whitney Balliett, and neither, thank goodness, did anyone else. I didn’t, “within weeks,” name Adam Gopnik “culture editor” of the magazine-that required Tina, half a dozen years later. Shawn could not possibly have said he met me once when I was a child-my childhood was spent far from such glamorous encounters; he may have been referring to my wife, whose father was the New Yorker writer Niccolò Tucci. Renata couldn’t have seen in my Knopf office “an immense white porcelain she-wolf with dugs”; perhaps her eye had been caught by an un-immense and genderless styrofoam borzoi (the Knopf emblem)-the dugs were in the eye of the beholder. And if, during the traumatic and hectic time immediately following my arrival at the magazine, I made even a few of the fatuous and self-regarding remarks she credits me with, I apologize to one and all. I’m not really stupid enough, though, ever to have said-or to have thought-“People love me. I’ve already weaned them from Mr. Shawn.”

But at least Renata throws me a few halfhearted compliments, topped by this one: “With time” my “style and manner at the magazine improved.” The person who is shown no mercy is the writer Adam Gopnik, who had come with me to The New Yorker from Knopf, and who is relentlessly portrayed as an ingratiating, manipulating self-advancer. But even if this is an accurate portrayal, why should a Sherman tank like Renata be wasting its firepower on a gerbil? Why mock Adam’s physical characteristics? Indeed, why the unmistakably personal edge to the assault? I believe it’s once more a matter of family dysfunction: For decades, Richard Avedon has been among Renata’s closest friends; then, some years back, he more or less adopted the Gopniks. Sibling rivalry strikes again! Following her practice of quoting (or misquoting) private conversations with people she has allowed to believe are her friends-“I kissed him on the cheek”-Renata has Adam saying many foolish and embarrassing things. I can only hope she’s accurate when she quotes him as saying, “It’s always been my dream to go to The New Yorker . You don’t think, do you, that the staff will think I’m Bob’s catamite?” (That’s called protecting your ass.) Let me put everyone’s mind at ease: If I had ever wanted a catamite, it wouldn’t have been Adam.

Gone is part wacky, part unpleasant. Renata hauls up for airing countless slights and grudges; some of them have been festering for more than 30 years. Having trashed various New Yorker writers-the late Edith Oliver, the living John Newhouse-she proceeds to trash their editors. (She fancies herself an editor, by the way; one of her old grudges is that the magazine’s fiction department firmly vetoed the notion that she might join it.) She reveals: “Twice, at publications other than The New Yorker , I actually thought of going to the printer, armed with a rifle perhaps, and lying down, rather as political demonstrators used to do, and saying, They shall not print, in my name, this version of a piece.” Mystifyingly, she takes issue with my habit of keeping my office door open: “Adult conversation, any real conversation,” she asserts, “takes place behind closed doors.” It all adds up: Closed doors, grudges, back-stabbings are standard components of a courtier society. No wonder they play so large a part in Renata’s mental vocabulary.

As it happens, Renata suggests that there were courtiers at the magazine in my day. Doesn’t she grasp that while under Shawn the magazine may have been some strange kind of family, it was also an extreme and destructive example of an office behaving like a royal court? There was le roi soleil ; there was la reine -Mrs. Shawn, at home raising les enfants ; there was la maîtresse en titre , Lillian, swanning around and exerting influence; there was the favorite, Jonathan, resented by numberless courtiers; there was the exhausting jostling for position and trying to interpret the actions and words of le roi ; and there was, inevitably, the resentful and clever chronicler-the Saint-Simon manqué-waiting to jump in with her self-aggrandizing account of everyone else.

But Renata Adler is no Saint-Simon. This book lacks the energy and bite even of her earlier work, let alone his; her intelligence has been undermined by her resentments and warped by her agenda. At least, though, Gone is friendly ! I’m happy to report that not only are Lillian and Ved and half her other victims either friends or ex-friends, but that, as she tells us, for the duration of my stay at The New Yorker “Mr. Gottlieb and I remained friends.” Thank you for your friendship, Renata.