The first issue of The New Yorker magazine appeared in February, 1925, and the cover depicted Eustace Tilley, a dandy with a monocle and top hat—a figure that has since become its trademark. With only two editors in its 62-year history, the influential weekly quickly gained a reputation as one of the most stable literary magazines in North America, seeking out and fostering a stable of talented writers, including J. D. Salinger, author of the 1951 novel of youthful awakening, Catcher in the Rye. The magazine has also published many lengthy articles that later became noteworthy books, among them Truman Capote’s 1966 epic reconstruction of brutal murders in Kansas, In Cold Blood. But last week The New Yorker itself was embroiled in controversy as its staff staged a stormy—and public—protest over the choice of a new editor.
The incident began on Jan. 12, when Samuel I.
Newhouse Jr. visited The New Yorker’s rambling offices on Manhattan’s West 43rd Street. Newhouse’s family owns a media empire of more than 20 publications that, in addition to The New Yorker, includes such well-known U.S. publications as Vogue and Vanity Fair. Last week, according to New Yorker insiders, Newhouse handed 79-year-old William Shawn, the magazine’s editor for 35 years, a one-page memo. Its contents: Shawn would agree to say that he had decided to retire. In addition he would announce that his successor would be Robert Gottlieb, 55, president and editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf, the family’s New York publishing house.
Newhouse’s action stunned the magazine’s tightly knit staff, which had assumed that Shawn’s chosen successor would be Charles McGrath, the magazine’s fiction editor and deputy editor. More than 100 of the magazine’s editorial employees gathered in a hallway one day after Newhouse delivered his letter. There, according to those present, Shawn told the meeting that his retirement was involuntary. Later six employees agreed to draft a letter to Gottlieb asking him to refuse Newhouse’s job offer. By day’s end, 154 employees and
writers, including the reclusive Salinger, had signed the letter, which had been duly checked for accuracy by the magazine’s fabled research department.
Newhouse and Gottlieb received hand-delivered copies of the letter late that evening, and Shawn loyalists briefed news organizations about the contents. Meanwhile Gottlieb, himself a respected editor who has worked with such established writers as novelists V. S. Naipaul and John le Carré, responded to the controversy by meeting
Shawn at Manhattan’s famed Algonquin Hotel. There, at Shawn’s reserved table in the Rose Room, Gottlieb handed over his reply—a letter stating that Gottlieb would not refuse the job. Said one staff writer: “Most of us knew there was no chance of a change, but we wanted to state our concerns in the strongest possible manner.” For his part, Newhouse said last week that his job was to “select a man who I think can carry on in the tradition of The New Yorker. If I had found that man within the magazine that would have been great, but I didn’t, and I did not compromise.”
The backlash against the palace rebellion began quickly. Some insiders said that Shawn had waited too long to name McGrath as his successor. And a number of authors and editors said that the magazine needed a vigorous new leader. Declared historian Barbara Tuchman: “It’s gotten very stodgy. And those writers go on forever.” Added Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's magazine: “It’s like the first day Mary Poppins arrives on the job; she makes them
take their medicine and Gottleib’s going to make them cut their articles.”
Indeed, when the Newhouses bought The New Yorker in 1985 for about $200 million, they immediately set out to shore up its sagging fortunes. Under president and publisher Steven Florio, the magazine has reversed a gradual decline in circulation—in part by advertising the magazine on televison. As a result The New Yorker’s circulation is now 575,000 copies per week (including 14,000 in Canada), up from 480,000 in
1985. Florio also began accepting such provocative advertising as the glossy nudes featured in ads for Calvin Klein’s Obsession perfume. Still, the magazine’s yearly advertising revenue dropped by 12 per cent in both 1986 and 1985.
Several industry observers say that Newhouse acted quickly to prevent the decline of a literary institution. The public protest, they added, only hardened Newhouse’s conviction that it was time for change. Some employees agreed. Said one staff member: “It was done badly—in private Gottlieb or Newhouse might have changed their minds. In public that would have been seen as backing down.” Gottlieb is scheduled to become editor on March 1, shortly after the man in the top hat makes his annual February appearance on the magazine’s cover. Despite that assumed continuity, the imminent arrival of a new editor indicates that changes are likely for a venerable magazine.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.