Weekend Edition: Page Six Comes to the Times
THE author’s beautiful live-in girlfriend is asleep upstairs, the author himself is relaxing in his workroom, having just returned from a recording session in New York City. His life looks pretty good. So begins the article carried in Friday’s publication—and I leave it to readers to guess which publication we are talking about—titled, “A Life Lived in Fear, But Not Half Bad.”
The “author” in the article is Allen Shawn, a composer and professor at Bennington College who just wrote a book about his phobias.
The gist of the piece is that despite a turbulent upbringing and his fears of “open spaces, closed spaces, highways, subways, elevators, planes, tunnels,” Mr. Shawn is leading a good life: after all, as the reporter says right there in the first paragraph, the man has a “beautiful live-in girlfriend.”
What else could a guy want?
Now, who, you might ask, has any interest in Allen Shawn? Well, superannuated old-timers such as yours truly are interested because his father was William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker during its long, post-Thurber slide into near-irrelevance.
(James Thurber, for you YouTube kids, wrote probably the best short story ever crafted: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty“. Google it some time.)
The senior Shawn, as the article later mentions, was a bizarre family figure who took phone calls from his mistress at home in a closet, and whose best moments appear to have been reserved for editing manuscripts, as opposed to hanging with his sons, Allen and Wallace.
Which leads to a second demographic that might be interested in Allen Shawn: twenty-somethings who recognize Allen’s brother, Wallace, a serious play-write (“The Designated Mourner”) and actor (“My Dinner with Andre”) in his own right.
But they would not recognize Wallace because of the serious stuff.
No, they would recognize him from his gigs as the nerdy Mr. Hall in the actually quite funny “Clueless,” and the sort-of-amusing villain in likewise funny “The Princess Bride.”
Yet with all this fodder—odd, famous father; famous and literate brother; plus Allen Shawn’s own career as a composer and author—the reporter seems obsessed with the pulchritude of Mr. Shawn’s “beautiful live-in girlfriend”:
A follow-up question: How did a guy who is afraid of his shadow end up with a beautiful girlfriend — who from the pictures around the house is a good deal younger? “Oy, yoy, yoy,” Mr. Shawn says, using an expression that his late father, the longtime editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, who did not exactly advertise that he was Jewish, is unlikely to have uttered publicly. “You didn’t mention short. Um, I really can’t account for it…. ” Two paragraphs later, the reporter tells us more about another physical characteristic of a talented female writer than about that writer’s own career while mentioning Mr. Shawn’s previous marriage:
Mr. Shawn’s former wife, to whom he was married for 25 years and with whom he has a daughter and a son, is the writer Jamaica Kincaid, who at six feet tall towered over him…. This focus on the physical attributes of women would be par for the course if this were, in fact, Vogue, whose cover stories are generally given over to Tom Cruise or whatever Hollywood star is trying to resurrect his or her image via precisely crafted puff pieces that month.
But this is The New York Times that’s telling us about a “beautiful live-in girlfriend” and a six-foot Amazonian ex-wife.
Maybe it’s a lazy editor, or maybe in fact we’re seeing the final dissolution of the printed word at the hands of the Internet—now that the Wall Street Journal (as reported here last week in “Sergey and Larry Hit the Panic Button”) is moving to “scratch ‘n sniff” advertising…and the New York Times is trying to spice up “All the News That’s Fit to Print” with Page Six material
Thurber himself would be turning in his grave.
Jeff Matthews I Am Not Making This Up
© 2007 Jeff Matthews
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