The Letter

William Shawn began work at The New Yorker in 1933, was appointed managing editor in 1939 and, quite shortly after the death of founding editor Harold Ross, became the magazine’s editor in 1951.

In 1985, 34 years later, Shawn was still the editor, but Peter Fleischmann, the son of founding partner Raoul Fleischmann, owned only 25% of shares in The New Yorker. Paine Webber owned the next largest share, and the Newhouse family’s Advance Publications already owned around 17% of the publication. Advance wanted, and got, the rest, for a price something like 20 times current revenues, according to the Times.

The employees, however, were not happy with their new owner. “We were not asked for our approval, and we did not give our approval,” Shawn told the staff at the time of the sale.

The idea of a third editor for The New Yorker had been discussed prior to the sale. Shawn turned 78 in 1985; this was not an abstract concern. Shawn and much of his staff believed that Advance chairman Samuel “Si” Irving Newhouse, Jr. had given the beloved Shawn a say in the naming of the magazine’s next editor.

The pervasive assumption was that the successor would be picked from within. Charles McGrath, Shawn’s deputy editor, was Shawn’s top candidate, at least most recently. “Newhouse initially seemed to go along with the plan,” reported New York. In any event, according to Ben Yagoda’s About Town, Newhouse had drawn up an “Agreement and Plan of Merger,” which stated that Advance would consult “a group of staff members” before picking an editor.

If you are familiar with the takeover promises extracted by the Bancrofts from Rupert Murdoch prior to his purchase of The Wall Street Journal, then you know how much weight such agreements carry. “No such group was ever formed,” wrote Yagoda. Newhouse appointed Alfred A. Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb editor of The New Yorker, and informed Shawn on January 12, 1987. “Si didn’t give a shit, and why should he?” Daniel Menaker told me recently. He was Fiction editor at the time. “He owned the magazine!”

Gottlieb’s appointment enraged the staff, who were again not asked for their approval. It didn’t much matter that Gottlieb’s publishing career was the stuff of well-deserved legend; he’d edited Joseph Heller, Michael Crichton, Robert Caro, John Gardner, and so on. The reaction was, well, fairly New Yorker-ish. A very proper letter (“scrutinized and corrected by the magazine’s fact checkers and proofreaders,” wrote the Times) was sent to Gottlieb, beseeching him to decline the job. Containing four pages of signatures, the letter made clear that the staff’s anger was not so much with Gottlieb himself (“Many of us know you personally and professionally, and admire your splendid record at Knopf”) as the “sadness and outrage over the manner in which a new editor has been imposed upon us.” Many staffers wrote to the new boss (“sort of off the record,” as a former editor put it) and explained that to him.

This was not the act of a fringe contingent. The letter — which, until now, has never been published in its entirety — is signed by 154 staffers, including J.D. Salinger, Calvin Trillin, John McPhee, Jamaica Kincaid, Saul Steinberg and Janet Malcolm. There are a few notable abstentions, including John Updike and Charles McGrath, who would soon be named Gottlieb’s deputy. At the bottom, it reads “cc: S. I. Newhouse.”

This petulant, useless act triggered quite a bit of press coverage, both national — 4490 words in the Los Angeles Times (“BREACH OF TRADITION; NEW YORKER SHAKE-UP IS TALK OF TOWN”), 3,590 words in the Chicago Tribune (“TROUBLE IN WRITERS’ PARADISE; A TORRENT OF WORDS OVER THE NEW YORKER”) — and local. The New York Times’ Edwin McDowell filed three stories in as many days. The magazine hadn’t drawn such attention since 1965, when Tom Wolfe depicted Shawn in the New York Herald Tribune’s Sunday supplement New York magazine as a “museum curator, the mummifier, the preserver-in-amber, the smiling embalmer … for Harold Ross’s New Yorker.”

Roger Angell — at ninety, the only New Yorker staffer to have worked for every editor, including Ross — said that, to some degree, the media reaction to Wolfe’s lacerating two-part story (“Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” and “Lost in the Whichy Thicket,” respectively) ought to have been expected: “We’d asked for it, or Shawn had asked for it, because we had become so private and whispering and closed away.”

The scrutiny that greeted the magazine after word of the letter leaked to the Times should have been expected, too. “It was the strangest thing that ever happened in the history of the magazine,” said Angell, who, like most of his colleagues, seemed mildly humiliated by his role in its composition; he was “sort of the recording secretary.” That day, a half-dozen staffers had stood around him, dictating. “It’s still strange to send a letter to somebody saying ‘don’t come.’ It’s like something happened in a nursery! It’s so strange, so child-like, the whole thing in retrospect. It was heartfelt! We didn’t want Shawn to go — nobody wanted Shawn to go, I don’t think.” With hindsight, Angell said, “Shawn had stayed too long.”

Menaker, a 26-year veteran of the magazine, described his decision to sign the letter this way: “It wasn’t so much objecting to Bob as it was a foolishly altruistic notion that Newhouse should have done what he said he would do.”

Nearly a decade ago, Gottlieb told his Paris Review interlocutor, The New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar, that the letter was no big deal. “I knew that the same thing would have happened to anyone. I didn’t even read the names of the people who signed the letter, many of whom were good friends of mine.” Gottlieb’s colleagues, including his dear friends McGrath and Angell — the latter of whom laughed at the notion — do not believe this. According to McGrath, one signatory was more painful than the rest: Janet Malcolm, whose The Journalist and the Murderer would run in Gottlieb’s New Yorker over two weeks in March, 1989. “Of all the names,” said McGrath, “I think that one really wounded him because Janet is a very close friend.” (Mr. Gottlieb declined to be interviewed on the record for this story.)

I wrote to Malcolm and told her this. I asked one question: Why did you sign the letter? “Dear Mr. Green,” she replied, “I sent your letter to Bob Gottlieb for his comment, and the correspondence that followed may be helpful to you in the writing of your article.” She continued, helpfully:

Bob wrote:

“Was I hurt by your signing The Letter? Do I remember? I really only remember that the letter barely affected me, except for the hilarity of their sending over the wrong one.”

I wrote back:

“I never knew anything about a wrong letter being sent over. Fascinating! I, too, recall, that the letter barely affected you. That was the idea. It was an empty gesture understood by all or at least by all with any sense to be just that. “

I’d like to add two things to my comment: One is that the gesture was made to make the beleaguered and embittered Mr. Shawn feel better, not to make Bob feel bad. The second is that it was a pleasure and privilege to write for the magazine when Bob was its editor.

Best wishes,
Janet Malcolm

Bill McKibben and Jonathan Schell quit the magazine in solidarity with Shawn. Their departure was contemporaneously framed as the exit of “the conscience of the magazine,” as staff writer Mark Singer put it. McGrath vigorously dismissed the idea: “That’s the Shawn mythology. He kind of created that thing himself; I think he believed it. He was very bitter. He felt betrayed. He thought everybody should have quit and, in fact, only two people did…. It’s just not true, and Bob is, in his own way, a highly moral and ethical person.”

I reached McKibben recently; he was in Australia, doing work for the climate change group 350, of which he is the president. Shawn, he emailed, “was the greatest editor in American letters, and a friend, and I’m prone to getting annoyed with the rich and powerful.”

Lillian Ross left, too, for presumably different reasons, only to return once Gottlieb had been deposed. “She was probably the greatest of the Gottlieb badmouthers,” said McGrath. “She was convinced, and Shawn was convinced, that Bob had just vulgarized the magazine beyond recognition. It just wasn’t true. You just had to pick up the magazine. I remember having lunch with Shawn after the changeover. He told me, ‘Of course, I never read it anymore. But on page 321…’”

The staff otherwise remained remarkably static. Gottlieb, who seems to possess the marvelous quality of not being at all vengeful, fired no one.

The dominant view of Gottlieb’s editorship, which lasted fewer than six years, is sunny. “I think most people at the magazine found Bob easier to get along with, and easier to work with, than the remote and mysterious William Shawn,” McGrath said. “It is true that some of the writers found Bob’s manner difficult to adjust to after Shawn, but basically it was a cheerful place. It was a lot of fun to work there. There was a sense of common purpose, in a way more than there was in the Shawn era.”

Menaker agrees with this view — “emphatically” — but believes it’s beside the point; Gottlieb should never have been appointed. “I don’t think he was the right choice for the job,” he said, and asked me Gottlieb’s age at the time of the appointment. Nearly fifty-six, I said. “Too far along. It’s odd that Newhouse replaced a superannuated editor with a verging-on-superannuated editor. That’s too old. It’s increasingly difficult to pay attention to minutiae and politicking.” (It’s worth mentioning, I think, that Menaker is critical of Shawn, too. He told New York his old boss was “one of the most manipulative people I’ve ever known — far and away.”)

“When you do a fucking weekly magazine, I mean, the need for attention — I don’t know how Shawn did it, and I think he also, obviously, didn’t do it for the last five or 10 years,” Menaker said. “I remember seeing Bob’s proofs on stories, or even non-fiction that I was editing, and they would start out being pretty attentive. And then by the fourth or fifth galley, they would sort of subside, and his comments would subside. And he’s not the most patient person in the world, anyway, but I think the descent into micro-detail — of the kind that The New Yorker has been sort of famous for — was a descent that he didn’t want to or couldn’t take.” This, he said, was owed to Gottlieb’s age: “Very smart, very alert, seemingly ageless, but I now know through personal history of being a pretty attentive person myself that it’s very hard to maintain the illusion that the concert records column is of any importance and needs to be scrutinized after a certain point in your life.”

Gottlieb had relatively narrow interests; put crudely, his passions were books and ballet. “Bob had no interest in politics, and it just bored him,” McGrath said. In this way, he said, Gottlieb was not unlike his predecessor. “In a funny way, he and Shawn were the least worldly. There were great swaths of life that Bob was simply uninterested in — sports, certain kinds of pop culture. Just about anything that takes place outdoors.”

Angell agreed with this, but believed it was good for the magazine: “We were less political. Shawn believed that some current events might be the end of civilization as we knew it, and if The New Yorker failed, that would be the end of civilization as we knew it. The air of our own significance was there and I think Bob lowered that feeling significantly, and much to our benefit.”

The work for which Gottlieb was most contemporaneously criticized — Jane Stern’s “Buddies” (September 1987) and Robert Stone’s “Helping” (June 1987) — holds up quite well. The first was derided as kitsch, the latter as profane. Stern’s story is particularly scorned. It was, admittedly, out of place at a magazine that was still largely Shawn’s, but today Stern’s chronicle of the Scottish Terrier convention is just delightfully weird:

Stone’s contribution was his first appearance in the magazine. Twenty-six years later it doesn’t seem so scandalous for a National Book Award winner to say fuck every now and then.

There was also unambiguously great work: pretty much everything by Alma Guillermoprieto and Julian Barnes; John Hersey’s coverage of the seventh world congress of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War; and particularly Ian Frazier’s “Great Plains,” a brilliant exploration of the American West published across three issues in 1989.

The footprint of magazine editors — particularly New Yorker editors — is the writers they leave behind. This is true, certainly, of the much-derided Tina Brown, who strengthened the front and back of “the book” with Anthony Lane, Jeffrey Toobin, Alex Ross, Seymour Hersh, Jane Mayer. It’s true, too, of Gottlieb, albeit in a quieter way. Barnes wrote the wonderful “Letter from London”; the ferociously talented Guillermoprieto sent dispatches from Mexico and South America; and Susan Orlean made her first appearance in Talk of the Town in 1987 — a gorgeous, delicate piece about clothing-folders.

Orlean was an early Gottlieb-era hire. “She came in off the street,” said McGrath, her Talk of the Town editor (though, she noted, Gottlieb was often her second reader). “She came into my office and, in the space of a twenty-minute conversation, she had about a hundred ideas for stories, and about eighty of them were good.”

Orlean laughed about this. “By the standards of The New Yorker I was being brought in off the street. I had a book contract; I was writing for Rolling Stone and The Boston Globe, so that’s hilarious. That’s so classic of The New Yorker to feel that if you weren’t at The New Yorker you were essentially homeless and living hand-to-mouth on crap.”

“When I got there the mood was not very nice,” she said. Orlean was unusual among New Yorker writers, most of whom, she said, had spent their careers at the magazine and hadn’t written for other publications. “It’s a little bit like, I wasn’t a virgin, and more typically people came to The New Yorker as virgins. They came into their adulthood there.” The place was cliquey, she said, but that has since dissipated, in no small part because Gottlieb brought in so many writers who “weren’t born in the manger.” At this point, “that aristocratic, inbred feel — that if you weren’t there from birth you didn’t deserve to be there — has really dissolved.”

Orlean had worked with good editors before, but she found The New Yorker a different animal. “I’d never been in a situation where the quality of the work was all that mattered. The dispensing of all the stupid conventions of magazine writing that I was very familiar with was just totally different. You didn’t do the kind of clichéd nut graf. To this day, there’s a very typical sort of way you go about a magazine piece or a profile — you just didn’t do that at The New Yorker.

“Another convention that got thrown by the wayside is, I would spend all this time working on these flourishes for my closing and feel very proud of myself for having that great summary paragraph at the end, and closing out with an overview of the way everything works. And the first story I turned in, Chip basically chopped the last paragraph off. Well, Chip told me, you already ended the piece. It was completely liberating.”

“Folding,” which came from one of Orlean’s original pitches, was about the Fifth Avenue Benetton clothing store. It ran in the May 25, 1987 edition. Orlean would write dozens of pieces during the next five years.

But Gottlieb’s real strength was the fiction. “There was a real spike in new contributors when Bob came,” said Menaker. “I think that has to do with the fact that, as a book publisher, he had very strong literary tastes but also kind of popular, demotic taste. Under Shawn, Fiction had become implicative, restrained and somewhat wan, but Bob liked louder voices.” (To this day, Gottlieb’s friends are astonished by how much he reads. Not long ago, Gottlieb read the entire Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.) Among the writers who made their first Fiction appearance in The New Yorker on his watch: Richard Ford (March, 1987), Salman Rushdie (June, 1987), Michael Chabon (September, 1987), William Gaddis (October, 1987), Ann Cummins (April, 1988), Ann Packer (June, 1988), Michael Cunningham (July, 1988), Lorrie Moore (July, 1989), Margaret Atwood (March, 1990), Haruki Murakami (September, 1990), Allegra Goodman (April, 1991), Abraham Verghese (October, 1991), Antonya Nelson (December, 1991), Martin Amis (June, 1992).

George Saunders doesn’t make that list, but only on a technicality. By the summer of 1992, when he sent in “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz,” he’d already submitted four “pretty weird” stories and it was only his stubborn refusal to make small changes that kept one out of the magazine. In 1984, while he was working as a groundsman in an Amarillo, Texas apartment complex, Saunders was asked if he would change the ending of “A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room.”

“I was a callow youth,” Saunders said. “Of course, when I sent it to Northwest Review, I changed the ending.”

He was in Watertown, New York in August of 1992 when he got the acceptance call for “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz,” purchased by Gottlieb. “I was working for an engineering company, so we had to go up to Fort Drum and do environmental sampling out in the swamp. The answer was coming any day now, so every day I’d work like fourteen hours and I’d go back to the Microtel and ask the desk clerk if there’d been a message. And one night he said ‘Yeah! Here’s it is’ and it was The New Yorker saying ‘We’re taking it.’”

The editing with Menaker took one brutal month. “Dan had a way of forcing reconsideration of every phrase, every punctuation mark, every emotion. It was just The New Yorker way. Of course, at the time it was incredibly painful…. They seemed to be anti-contraction in those days. There was quite a bit of talk about ‘house style,’ which, you know, I’d never really heard of before. Also a lot of talk about swearing, fuck especially. It wasn’t like you couldn’t do it, but it seemed like they tried to minimize the number of contractions in the story and minimize the use of the f-word.”

The story was ready for publication when Gottlieb was fired. Saunders said his “gut feeling” was that there “was a lot of negotiating with some of the traditionally-minded people at the magazine. A sense of, ‘What is this new magazine going to tolerate?’ Because the story is kind of a sci-fi romp, you know.” Ultimately, the story appeared in Tina Brown’s inaugural issue, was read by millions and caught the eye of Esther Newberg, who became Saunders’ agent. Things have worked out okay.

In December, 1991, David Remnick, The Washington Post’s Moscow correspondent of three years, was watching everything — Communism, the regime, the Soviet empire — come apart: “The Soviet Union’s last day on Earth was Christmas night.” He’d covered the story for the Post quite closely — sometimes filing two or three stories a day — but “there are some things you couldn’t even get in the newspaper.” Remnick decided to write a piece about the last days of Gorbachev.

He queried The New Yorker — via telex or phone call, he’s not sure — and was told they wouldn’t assign it, but were he to write it, “we’d happy to look at it.” Which he did, quickly, and filed it on a Friday morning in January of 1992. That night, Remnick, home with his wife and baby, got a call from Gottlieb. He had read the piece, the editor told Remnick, and said they’d like to publish it soon.

There was one note: “I think the first 800 words are bilge. Get rid of them. Get faster to where the story is.” (Once, under orders from Gottlieb, Chaim Potok struck 300 pages from The Chosen.) After it was handed off to Remnick’s editor, Pat Crow, the piece was put through the wringer. “I had never been through editing like that or fact-checking like that,” said Remnick. “Letter from Moscow” ran March 23, 1992.

Eventually Crow introduced Remnick to Gottlieb. “In walked this guy wearing what could only be described as the clothing that would have been worn by a kind of Columbia undergraduate in the fifties. Kind of a plaid, shortsleeve shirt and khakis that Target might have been ashamed to sell,” Remnick said. Gottlieb sat down on the floor in Crow’s office, looked up at the map, trying to decide which far-flung locale Remnick ought to go to next. “I was so exhausted from where I’d been; I was hoping he’d look at Italy or France but his eyes kept going towards places like Mongolia,” Remnick said.

“And he talked talked talked talked talked, and he gave me a tour of his office, which at that time was dominated not by the handbag collection — of which there were certainly plenty of them — but by his sandpaintings.” (Gottlieb had a famously large women’s handbag collection.) “Lots of clowns and Elvis,” Remnick said. “He’d covered every inch of the wall. And on the door were clippings from The National Enquirer.”

Remnick spent the rest of 1992 at a fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he wrote Lenin’s Tomb. In the summer he got a call from Tina Brown, for whom, he said, “I’d written a grand total of one story at Vanity Fair, and had never met her in my life, asking me to lunch.” The entire lunch, he recalled, Brown “talked about The New Yorker and I had no idea why. But I found out over the summer. She clearly knew this was happening.”

Gottlieb’s firing, on June 30, took the editor and his staff by surprise. “I thought I’d become an old fart at The New Yorker,” Martha Kaplan, Gottlieb’s managing editor, who had come with him from Knopf, told me. She quit soon after. “They didn’t know how good they had it,” she said.

Brown demanded the summer to think about her plans for the magazine. Gottlieb gamely stayed on for three months; Brown returned “from a week’s vacation at a Wyoming dude ranch” and installed herself in her own temporary office.

For Gottlieb, being fired — like Malcolm’s signature to the letter — had a personal aspect to it. He and Newhouse were friends. “I think Bob felt betrayed,” said McGrath. “But that’s how Newhouse has historically always worked. You never know — till the assassin comes in the dead of night and knocks on the door.” Newhouse, in a statement released to the press, said Gottlieb had resigned over ‘’conceptual differences.”

The staff was stunned, and again angry with Newhouse, who they believed had once again gone back on his word. This time, however, the staff kept its mouth shut. There was one exception: Garrison Keillor, who’d flourished under Gottlieb, told the Chicago Sun-Times that he didn’t know Brown but Vanity Fair was “a trash pit.”

“People had learned their lesson,” said McGrath. “When Tina came, they just held their breath and waited to see what happened.”

“In retrospect,” said McGrath, “I think he didn’t change enough. Even at the time, there were writers who we were urging him to dump, and he wouldn’t do it, and it’s partly because he had this great faith in his own abilities as an editor, and in the editorial process of the magazine itself. Bob was this great optimist. He kind of thought he could fix anything, and any writer could be redeemed.”

Another theory about Gottlieb’s tenure concerns the letter. “I’ve often wondered whether the letter, and the whole scene when he came in, was not such a strange event that it may have altered what kind of editor he was,” said Angell. “He might have been more radical, more useful even. I don’t know how he would have done differently, without that initial reception. Maybe he was careful after that.”

Menaker — who has a memoir coming out later this year, a portion of which is about his time at The New Yorker — told me Angell was not alone in this belief. “A number of people have told me that, even though Bob’s response to the letter was brief, concise and, in a way conciliatory but also firm, nevertheless he was very affected by that letter. The thought is, that he might have been more adventurous, more mold-breaking, had it not been for that letter.”

“What that more adventurous stuff might have been, I don’t know,” he said.

“In retrospect, we all should have not signed,” said Angell.

I don’t think it matters. That Gottlieb consistently put out a very good (if perhaps not great) magazine, in a medium with which he didn’t have much experience, amid intermittent rumors he’d be fired, is no small thing. The big picture is important.

Orlean believes the magazine owes Gottlieb, her fellow outsider in a deeply insular place, a debt of gratitude. “I’m not sure The New Yorker would be here today if Bob hadn’t been there to provide an interim government,” she said. “Had you dropped Tina Brown in after Shawn, the whole place would have exploded. You would have had pretty much everyone leave and it would have been a mess.”

“I give him enormous credit,” said Remnick, who — in a lovely turnabout — now publishes Gottlieb. “William Shawn was an astonishing editor. But the way it all ended was dramatic, depleting, sad for everybody and destabilizing. And to walk into a magazine where the staff has written you a letter saying ‘Don’t come,’ and to do the job that needed to be done, is pretty astonishing.”

Elon Green is a contributing editor to Longform.