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Ved Mehta has suffered through every imaginable version of the literary willies, but not even he foresaw that his old colleague Lillian Ross would upstage his reminiscences of New Yorker editor William Shawn by publishing a memoir of her own. Although Ross, as everyone now knows, was intimate with Shawn for years in a cosmopolitan "marriage," Mehta's memoir begins as the stronger tale of passion. Ross just tells us how much she loved Shawn. Mehta describes the breathless excitement of being seduced (edited) by "Mr." Shawn step-by-step. We read of their first meeting. Mehta asking for a date (the submission). The acceptance. Phone calls ("I began sitting anxiously by the phone waiting for Mr. Shawn's call, as if I were in love"). Their first fumblings on a couch (the editing process). First glimpse of the beloved naked (the page proofs). First night together (the magazine on the stands).
But this consummation is over after the first 30 pages. What's left to write about? William Shawn is just an editor and Ved Mehta is just a writer, which means they both spend their working life sitting on chairs writing and editing (invisibly!). How lively is this tale, even if the vehicle of publication is the holy New Yorker? Among the big pile of usually self-serving New Yorker memoirs, only that blind man James Thurber's The Years With Ross (Harold Ross, the New Yorker's first editor) is a joy to read. Thurber's editor is no invisible man. Ross swears, fornicates and loses money at backgammon. Mehta's Mr. Shawn just "invisibly" edits and answers phone calls. Mehta makes passing references to Shawn's famous idiosyncrasies -- i.e. carrying an ax in elevators -- but never actually witnesses Shawn hoisting his blade to escape being trapped in a stalled lift.
But Mehta mostly writes about himself anyway. He's a fussy man who's always "desolately working" on a piece. He'll go on for pages about a lawsuit that never happens. About access doors in his apartment in the Dakota that get sealed up. He'll go to parties, and almost meet Greta Garbo. Or almost get into a fight with Norman Mailer. "Luckily for me," Mehta writes, "Lady Jeanne [Mailer's then-girlfriend] intervened."
Lucky indeed. Mehta is addicted to the anticlimax. Incidentally, Mailer threatened fisticuffs in conjunction with his accusation that Mehta was faking blindness. Our memoirist, you see, is as blind as Thurber. Mehta has been sightless since he was 3. But his real fakery is writing as if he possesses 20/20 vision. "Mehta plays an extraordinary trick on his prospective readers," a Times reviewer said of his work in the 1960s. "He [writes] as if he had normal vision." This blind man is still up to his old tricks. He tells us that Shawn has a "steady and penetrating" gaze and rhapsodizes about Mrs. Shawn's smile. Other times Mehta acknowledges his blindness subtly. He "suspects" that a "nubby purple" bedcover is "not in keeping with the neutral colors in the apartment." There's skill in the use of the word "suspects," yet all of Mehta's adroitness with prose is wasted on nubby purple bedcovers. Better to describe the fight he didn't have with that hooligan Mailer.
A former student of Mehta's told me an illuminating anecdote. Allegedly, Mehta doesn't use a cane or a Seeing Eye dog. He gets around by the grace of students and colleagues who guide him by walking shoulder-touching-shoulder. There is a formal intimacy about this gesture, as well as a sense of equality -- you're not "tugging" the blind man around by his arm. This method allows you to steer Mehta to the right or left of approaching puddles, mud, dog poop, etc. -- while you yourself are left awkwardly immobile and end up walking through the muck yourself. Mehta writes most of this book with the same kind of irritating obstinacy. Only the last pages come alive, when Mehta describes the dry tragedy of Shawn being pushed from the New Yorker and the former editor's "invisible" and lonely death.
Mehta is surprisingly gentle on Shawn's successor, Robert Gottlieb, a man who drove the antiquated New Yorker into pointlessness. And he has little to say about Gottlieb's successor, Tina Brown, except a delightful anecdote about meeting her in her office and sitting behind her desk in her chair.
Chairs. That's where every memoir of an editor ends up -- even one from the New Yorker -- unless, of course, you're sharing that editor's bed. -- Salon