New Yorker Survives Transition : Tranquillity Returns One Year After New Editor’s Arrival

The Washington Post

For most of the past 12 months, since the tempest of William Shawn’s unceremonious removal as editor of the New Yorker after 35 years and his protested succession by Robert Gottlieb, this deeply eccentric publication has been facing a familiar and difficult predicament.

Governments, businesses, religions and families all ask themselves the same questions: Can an institution whose strength seems to flow from the person of its leader survive his inevitable passing? And if so, at what cost?

The New Yorker’s welcome of Gottlieb, only its third editor in 62 years, was famously inauspicious. Before his first day on the job, Gottlieb was handed a letter signed by 154 members of the staff, many of them esteemed names in American arts and letters, asking him to stay away. He showed up anyway, as the letter writers no doubt expected.


Since then, the New Yorker’s writers and editors and artists--and, more indirectly and importantly, its nearly 600,000 paying readers--have been orienting themselves to the new editor’s catholic tastes (for ballet, for the arcana of popular commercial culture) and pronounced distastes (for formality, for the received wisdom). Gottlieb, a man of overweening confidence and instinctive command, is at 56 still very much in his prime.

The upheaval of the magazine’s editorial transition comes--not coincidentally--at an uncertain time in its corporate life. Less than three years ago, the New Yorker, long the private preserve of the Fleischmann family, was acquired by the magazine division of Samuel I. Newhouse’s family communications company. Under the roof of this corporate powerhouse are book publishing’s redoubtable Random House and its imprint Alfred A. Knopf, which Gottlieb ran for 19 years, and the profitable Conde Nast magazine group with its successful revival of another relic, Vanity Fair, by editor Tina Brown. Newhouse is a man with a high tolerance for quality so long as it makes money for his company.

Most who have been at the magazine for a while date the beginning of Shawn’s decline to the magazine’s sale and the “distractions” that followed the installation of an aggressive new publisher (now chairman) named Steven Florio, 35 years old at the time.

New Marketing Strategy

Florio introduced the New Yorker to contemporary marketing practices and circulation targets considered essential to polish the magazine’s dowdy image on Madison Avenue. Too many of its readers, by conventional demographic standards, were old and getting older. Old people don’t buy what the advertisers sell.

Such considerations had seldom concerned the 79-year-old editor who circulated a short and emotional note of farewell last Feb. 12. Shawn’s departure was at the center of a public hurricane, as magazine staff members decried Newhouse’s treatment of Shawn and declared Gottlieb’s appointment unacceptable.

Today, with calm restored and privacy reclaimed, people at the New Yorker are a tad bashful about their passionate display of loyalty to Shawn. “We thought it was preposterous to think an outsider could tend the garden in which this delicate flower bloomed,” remarked E. J. Kahn, who has written for the magazine for more than 50 years. Mark Singer, a staff writer since 1974, says it more plainly: “We looked like spoiled children. We were sort of temporarily dislocated and didn’t quite grasp what we were doing. It was a family tragedy.”


The new chairman, for his part, talks like a man with the worst behind him: “Now they know that Florio and Gottlieb are not going to destroy the place.” But it may be even more true that the place was more resilient than anyone imagined.

The magazine keeps coming out, and it probably looks to most readers and to the naked eye little different from the New Yorker Shawn was publishing in his last years there.

After the unpleasantness of the transition, when the ugly family feud became for a time the talk of the town, many at the New Yorker are wary of the press. In the magazine’s utilitarian offices, most conversations slalom on and off the record.

One Year Anniversary

With the February issue, Gottlieb--who never worked at a magazine before coming to the New Yorker--has now overseen a full year of issues. What’s different about them? Where is his imprint?

To begin with, Gottlieb published a dispatch from Afghanistan by one of his Knopf authors, novelist Doris Lessing--a piece that Shawn, not two months before, had turned down. It was only the first of a series of editorial decisions that seemed designed to be provocative, and that served as declarations of the new order and interments of the old.

In late spring, Gottlieb began publishing the work of some new Talk of the Town writers, the core of the anonymous “we” who generate the editorial posture and cultural attitude of the magazine. The newcomers shared these unsigned columns with such formidable returning alumni as John McPhee and John Updike.

The names of new, younger critics--Mimi Kramer on theater, Terrence Rafferty on fiction--began last spring to mingle with the august bylines in the back pages of the magazine--among them Arlene Croce (dance), Whitney Balliett (jazz), Andrew Porter (music), Pauline Kael (film). Since the first of the year, the Atlantic’s Holly Brubach has begun to write about fashion and free-lancer Mark Moses about popular music.

In August, eyebrows were detonated by an unsigned and exceptionally long Notes and Comment denunciation of Judge Robert Bork’s appointment to the Supreme Court, staking out the magazine’s position weeks and months ahead of the journalistic pack on that issue.

The piece was written by Renata Adler, known for her controversial pieces in the New Yorker on the Westmoreland and Sharon libel trials, and among the journalists most likely to excite passionate reactions these days. Excite them it did, especially as Gottlieb followed up with Washington writer Lincoln Caplan’s unsparing critique of the U.S. solicitor general’s office under the Reagan Administration.

Even as the new editor was delivering this serious judicial one-two, he was acting out his wackiest inclinations. In one of his first moves, he had assigned a story to Jane and Michael Stern, popular culture mavens and former Gottlieb authors (“Elvisworld”). As Our Far-Flung Correspondents, in September the Sterns reported from Indiana on a convention of “Wee Scots,” as collectors of Scottish terrier memorabilia call themselves. When you ask New Yorker people to describe a classic Gottlieb piece, they say, with a roll of the eyes, “Wee Scots.”

A New Look

More startling--though still, by the standards of any other magazine, piddling--have been the visual changes. Covers are no longer, in the words of the alumnus, “the basket of flowers on your front porch.” They have become, like your laundry, bolder, brighter and cleaner. Lee Lorenz, the magazine’s art director for 15 years, says Gottlieb wants “idea covers” and “visual excitement.”

Cartoons, a signature of the magazine, are more numerous under Gottlieb, and Lorenz says he is being urged to go out and find new artists. One of his editors says the Gottlieb trademark is more “pure silliness” and fewer “jokes with guys in suits.”

What generated the greatest internal--and external--shock and indignation was Gottlieb’s surprise publication of three black-and-white photographs in the last issue of 1987. The objections to these photos, accompanying a piece about “Bug Art,” had less to do with broken precedents than with bad execution--the pictures were badly sized, poorly reproduced, captionless and unedifying.

Power of Writing

Photographs have been rare because at the New Yorker, the writing was supposed to be “so clear that it made people see things,” in the words of Deputy Editor Charles McGrath. “If you needed a photographer the writer had failed.” All hands now agree that photography, in limited and constructive doses, may be an appropriate innovation in the magazine’s pages.

But the bug incident makes people worry. Gottlieb kept his plans a secret until the last minute, seeking no one’s advice or approval. Lorenz says he wasn’t consulted, and that Gottlieb’s decision was a “mistake.” One of his colleagues tactfully calls the editor “a man who doesn’t want to have taboos.”

Gottlieb arrived famous. He is the man who discovered Joseph Heller and forever changed the English language when he changed the name of Heller’s “Catch-18” to “Catch-22” to avoid clashing with a then-new Leon Uris novel, “Mila Eighteen.” He went on to edit prodigious numbers of books, working with Naipaul, Cheever, Updike, Tuchman, Drabble, Kazin, Le Carre and so on.

He was also thought to have unusual personal magnetism. He would cast his wise and baleful eyes upon you and speak humbly words intended to make you believe in him, confiding or seeming to confide, making a gift of his insight. A former acolyte of Gottlieb, long since estranged, says, “I feel like I’ve been deprogrammed from a cult.”

If such charisma is analogous to the very different hold that Shawn exerted on his writers and editors, it manifests itself differently. As has been widely noted, Gottlieb wears sport shirts open at the neck, khakis and athletic shoes to the office. In contrast to his wan and reclusive predecessor, Gottlieb is ubiquitous, bustling about the corridors, popping a question, cracking a joke.

An editor says that he’s heard complaints from staffers that “Gottlieb is always in my face,” but his accessibility is noted by almost everyone who remembers making an appointment days ahead of time to consult Shawn. Early on, Gottlieb took down the maze of partitions that separated Shawn’s corner sanctum from the rest of the magazine, and no secretary bars his open door.

Many at the New Yorker were surprised--and some, dismayed--that Gottlieb didn’t clean the house of its dead weight. His best calculation, by most accounts, was to put significant confidence and responsibility in Deputy Editor McGrath, who had been pointed toward the editor’s chair when Gottlieb skated in. The transition was “happier than I could have imagined,” says McGrath, who has become a kind of internal ombudsman in the new regime. “It turns out he was telling the truth when he said he had no agenda.”

Yet there are persistent questions about his editorial intentions. Two writers of Notes and Comment under Shawn--Jonathan Schell and Bill McKibben--have left the magazine (there were few other defections), and their absence is noted in the uneven tone and gravity of those columns.

Schell was the magazine’s principal voice against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and author of the nuclear-age lament “The Fate of the Earth.” He was, in Singer’s view, “the conscience of the magazine,” whereas today, “I don’t see much evidence of its conscience in its pages.”

Open to New Writers

More broadly, New Yorker fact writers (as the reporters are sometimes called) worry about Gottlieb’s attitude toward their craft. “Here is a magazine whose central strength since World War II has been journalism,” says one, “being edited by a man who doesn’t care about journalism.”

Though Gottlieb often speaks disparagingly of journalists as a species, he has published some exceptional reporters in the New Yorker for the first time--David Rieff on Miami, Jonathan Kozol on the homeless, William Finnegan on South Africa, William Greider on the Federal Reserve, Raymond Bonner on Peru. And the reporters he inherited hardly have been shut out: James Lardner on the Betamax case, Robert Shaplen on the Philippines, Susan Sheehan on New Guinea and Elizabeth Drew, several times, on politics and government.

Still, now that the Gottlieb shtick has become more familiar to those around the office, even the things that once were welcomed--his directness, his informality--are analyzed and not fully trusted.

Such talk, as Gottlieb must understand, comes with the territory he inherited. To pass the time, they used to put Shawn on the couch too. The old man’s eccentricities were at least as pronounced. They were just very different ones, symbolic of an age and sensibility no less than Gottlieb’s are today.

“Rather than God being traded for the Devil,” goes one knowing line about the transition, “they’ve traded one set of psychoses for another.”

Fussy Devotion

But really now. Does any magazine warrant such reverent scrutiny, such fussy devotion, such gnashing of teeth?

For reasons not quite knowable, the New Yorker’s readers feel a special relationship to the magazine--a mixture of habit, of membership, of kinship, even of personal obligation.

To keep such readers and such standards in a world that beckons compromise, and to celebrate its 75th anniversary at the turn of the century, who knows what Faustian bargains the New Yorker may have to strike?