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

February 10, 1988|CHARLES TRUEHEART | The Washington Post

NEW YORK — 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.

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