Magazine article The Spectator

His Other Wife

Magazine article The Spectator

His Other Wife

Article excerpt


by Lillian Ross

Faber, L12.99, pp. 240

In February 1945, a few months before the end of the war, William Shawn, then managing editor of the New Yorker, invited Lillian Ross to join the magazine. A smiling, curly-haired natural reporter, who as a schoolgirl had wandered in and out of newspaper offices making friends with columnists and reviewers, she had been writing pieces for various papers and magazines. When she arrived, Harold Ross, the legendary founder and first editor, was still in his office correcting commas and inspiring devotion among his writers. In 1952, Ross died on the operating table, Shawn was appointed editor and Lillian Ross settled down to a contented and versatile career as contributor to every section of the magazine, writing profiles and interviews that caused a considerable stir.

What caused remarkably little stir, however, was the fact that she and Shawn soon became lovers, married in all but name, as she describes in Here But Not Here. They breakfasted, lunched and dined together, spoke to each other on a private line first thing each morning and last thing each night, and they spent occasional weekends at the Plaza Hotel, ordering room service. It was, as she writes, an `enduring love', a perfectly normal partnership set in 'a selfcontained corridor of freedom'.

Except of course that it wasn't quite normal. For one thing Shawn was married and, every night, just before the last news on television, he went home to his wife and sons. For another, Shawn himself was not an ordinary man. As Lillian Ross says, he wasn't capable of `imagining the ordinary'.

As preoccupied with the placing of every comma as his predecessor, Shawn was also claustrophobic, terrified of heights, lifts, planes, traffic jams, snow and the threat of frost. He disliked cigarettes, drinking and speeding. He sat lopsided in taxis and was a `great hat-lifter' even to babies. He longed for `gaiety and innocence and joy' and sexy European women and for wild sexual adventures. He loved being made to laugh and had a gift for making funny writers funnier, and he had a passion for jazz. As Lillian Ross puts it, `he liked Kierkegaard and Proust and Musil, but he worshipped Duke Ellington'. He also had a terror of dying. A tormented man, he `had the desires of a poet, but the duties of a caretaker, and a muse, of poetics'. He kept his distance by concentrating on others and often told her that he felt he didn't 'exist' and begged her, `Do not let me forget my own life.'

Together Shawn and Lillian Ross rented an apartment a few blocks from his home, and in time they adopted a Norwegian baby whom they called Eric. …

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