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'Here But Not Here: A Love Story' by Lillian Ross

An Affair To Remember

Sunday, June 21, 1998

By Sylvia Sachs

 
 

Here But Not Here: A Love Story

By Lillian Ross

Random House
$25.00

   
 

Dozens of books have been written about the New Yorker and the colorful people who have written for it since the magazine began in 1925.

Devotees love these books for giving them not only a peek inside the once-fabled West 43rd Street offices, but glimpses of the lives of James Thurber, E.B. White, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and founding editor Harold Ross, some of the big names from the magazine's early days.

Starting in the 1950s, a gray figure loomed in the background of stories about the magazine; he was William Shawn, the editor who succeeded Ross in 1952 and stayed until 1985. Shawn was always por trayed as a self-effacing eminence grise who was greatly loved and admired for his ability to work with writers.

Now comes "Here But Not Here," a memoir by Lillian Ross, a staff writer at the magazine since 1945 and known for her excellent long articles and profiles of entertainment figures. What we voyeurs from Peoria and Pittsburgh did not know from those gossipy books was Ross'40-year liaison with Shawn that began the year she joined the staff and lasted until Shawn's death in 1992.

However, Shawn was married and the father of three children, to whom he was devoted. He and his wife, Cecile, eventually agreed to maintain the pretense of a marriage. Shawn told Ross he felt detached from his home life - "he was there, but not there."

Shawn confessed to feeling the same way as an editor; he knew his work was vital to the magazine, but it left him no time to express himself. He only felt alive when he was with Ross, Shawn told her.

"By midsummer of 1950 I felt desperately that I had to extricate myself from the muddle," Ross writes. "I asked for and received an assignment to go to Hollywood and write a profile of John Huston, who had become a friend of mine and who had invited me to come out and watch him make a movie based on Stephen Crane's `The Red Badge of Courage.'"

Ross remained in Hollywood for a year and a half and then spent three months in Europe. Returning to New York, Ross re veals that she and Shawn realized the separation had been a failure and their intimate life together began. Shawn managed two households, with his wife and family and with Ross, in Manhattan apartments about 10 blocks apart.

When Ross adopted Erik, a Norwegian baby, in 1965, Shawn helped her raise him and loved him as he did his own children, she claims. When Erik was a child, his mother brought him to the office, where he was the pet of the staff.

No anecdotes about a baby in the office belonging to the editor and one of the staffers ever came to the attention of the public. In fact, word of the affair - in which the couple could regularly be seen at jazz clubs, restaurants, theaters or strolling the streets hand in hand - never surfaced in print.

As the book's subtitle, "My Life With William Shawn and The New Yorker," indicates, this is a memoir of their day-to-day life at work and at home with many expressions of their love for each other. Their arrangement appeared to be tranquil and mostly idyllic.

After Shawn was forced to retire in 1985, when the magazine was sold, he and Ross shared an office happily, she says, while Ross wrote a children's book and a screenplay. In April of 1992, Shawn was at his wife's apartment for the Easter holiday when he began showing signs of his final illness.

He never was well enough to go back to his residence with Ross, but they managed a few dinners in restaurants and continued their 40-year habit of speaking on the phone every morning and every night.

On the morning of Dec. 8, 1992, when Ross called Shawn's private number at his wife's apartment, Cecile answered for the first time. And Ross knew Shawn had died:

"He's gone," she said as soon as she heard my voice. "He's gone," she repeated. And when Erik and Ross raced to this apartment for the first time and were let in, Ross on an impulse hugged Cecile. "He died in my arms," Cecile said.

The title of the book, "Here But Not Here," is surely a play on Shawn's often repeated saying that he felt "there, but not there."

In 1993, Lillian Ross returned to the magazine at the request of Tina Brown, the current editor, whom William Shawn had given his approval.

Sylvia Sachs is coordinator of the Post-Gazette Book and Author Dinners and

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