The New Yorker

  • by March 30, 2006

There's an exquisitely telling document on the letters page of this week's New Yorker. A quiet little missive about the magazine's legendary editor, William Shawn, written by his two sons, it's an unintentional howler, a rollicking substantiation of Tom Wolfe's famous essay, ''Tiny Mummies: The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead!'' And so far, the letter hasn't been remarked upon in the press.

In response to a movie review about the movie ''Capote,'' Shawn's sons, Allen and Wallace, write, ''we would like to ...note...that in surface detail and in substance, the William Shawn depicted in 'Capote' is invented out of whole cloth by the filmmakers. ... The real-life William Shawn did not believe that articles or their authors should be publicized. He resisted even putting a table of contents into the magazine itself to trumpet what each issue contained. He never organized a reading for Capote or any other writer, and never addressed one, as he never spoke in public. He didn't... publish any photos by [Richard] Avedon, as he didn't think there should be photographs in The New Yorker. ...

"The real Shawn never went to Kansas to visit with Capote, and in fact he never had the experience of flying on an airplane.''

If ''Tiny Mummies'' acted like a carpet bomb that blew the lid off the inbred and ossified folkways of the otherwise revered publication, this letter certainly finishes the job. What century did Shawn live in? I was surprised that the Brothers Shawn, in their antique quaintness, didn't substitute the words ''daguerreotype'' for photographs, and ''flying machine'' for airplane. And I especially liked the use of ''trumpet'' in the context of publishing a Table of Contents page. What a repugnant thing of easy virtue such a listing would seem!

Yes, the introduction of a T of C was left to that noted British strumpet, Tina Brown. The New Yorker staff remains a mystery without a masthead, but other innovations wrought by Brown, that Diana-obsessed Belle Watling of the publishing game, include the aforementioned letters page--aka ''The Mail,'--and (gasp!) photographs, sometimes in multi-page portfolio form, full-page-color illustrations, and a contributor's page. Although the contributors' page does not trumpet, either. An example from this week's issue is hilariously deadly and uninformative. It reads, ''James Surowiecki (The Financial Page, p.33) writes about business and finance for the magazine.''

As the new Shawn, David Remnick followed Brown (whose flirtation with Hollywood did hit a new low by allowing Roseanne to guest-edit an issue.)

Whereas the Remnick years have made The New Yorker a consistently solid and, more importantly, often culturally relevant, read.

In the ''Shouts and Murmurs'' column, Paul Rudnick's piece ''My Billy'' is a scaldingly delicious parody of the current mania for diagnosing children with various versions of ADHD.

(It also features a color illustration by Jules Feiffer. Woo hoo!)

''Billy is a dandelion child,'' Rudnick writes, ''a term used for unusually bright and active children whose special powers will someday change the world.... Dandelion children are so evolved that the rest of us literally can't understand them, and not just because they enjoy tugging panty hose over their heads and announcing, 'Look at me, Mommy. I'm a testicle!'''

Picking up on a theme, there's a profile of Sean Penn, with his own kind of ADD, by John Lahr, and it made news when he referred to Ann Coulter's ''funny areas.'' Penn talks at length about his father, Leo, who was blacklisted as a Hollywood actor and later became a TV director. (That's where the political passion comes from. The rage, apparently, comes from his mother, an alcoholic actress who left her calling to raise three sons.) Penn tells Lahr about how much he hates the neo-conservative Coulter, whom he calls a "pure snake-oil salesman--she doesn't believe a word she says.'' Coulter wrote disparagingly about his father Leo in her book Treason. Apparently, he has a Barbie-like doll of her that he likes to deface. "We violate her," Penn says. "There are cigarette burns in some funny areas. "

The issue also includes the always-worthy Jerome Groopman, one of the few doctors who not only writes stylishly, but also without condescension. He's great at profiling rare cases and their treatment. This piece, about the controversial question of whether patients' families should be able to be in the room when their loved ones are being resuscitated, covers a less intriguing subject. What is interesting is that doctors complain that ''family presence'' is an increasing distraction, and that TV shows like "ER" and "Rescue 911," which tend to show ''miracle cases,'' are fueling the public's misconceptions about CPR. Actually, CPR is mostly unsuccessful, and in the rare cases when the patient survives, it's often with brain damage or debilitating neurological conditions.

We'll concede that the jury is still out on Remnick's attempt at interactivity, the mostly unfunny cartoon caption contest on the last page that can be entered and voted on over the Internet. This week's winner reads, ''Well, that was abominable.'' Mr. Shawn himself could not have said it better--if he spoke in public.

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