Ernest Hemingway, Robert Kennedy, and Charlie Chaplin—all dead—have something else in common: All were friends with Lillian Ross, The New Yorker staff writer. But Ross, in her 70s, is lively as ever, having produced three books in four years: Here but Not Here, about her secret love affair with The New Yorker's editor in chief, William Shawn; The Fun of It (a collection of Talk of the Town stories); and now, out this week, Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism.
Reporting Back is about Ross' particular brand of journalism as it has appeared in The New Yorker in that very particular Talk-of-the-Town tone. She revisits all of her best pieces, including ones about presidents (Hoover, Kennedy, Clinton); ones about celebrities (Angelica Huston, Robin Williams, the Redgraves); her Hemingway profile (in which he goes to a clothing store, gets his waistline measured, and tells the clerk to punch his firm stomach); and a piece about Norman Mailer (whose mother, according to Ross, makes a great pot roast).
In terms of meat, though, 1998's Here but Not Here is the sexier book, detailing a love story that began all business. William Shawn (who "loved sexy women," Ross writes, "especially Europeans") hired Ross to be a reporter for The New Yorker in 1945. Five years later, Bill (that was what she called him) and Lillian were in his office editing something when he "suddenly blurted out that he was in love."
Even though he was married, Lillian goes on to say, almost every night "Bill would leave his home, stand across the street from the fifth-floor apartment where I lived at the time, and stare up at my lighted window. Then he would call me from a pay phone to say he was standing there."
Later, and (weirdly) with the permission of his wife, the greatest editor in the history of American magazines installed a private telephone in their bedroom just so he and Lillian could begin and end their waking hours whispering to each other. Their romance lasted 40-some years.
Ross maintains that she never got special favors while she was doing her now-timeless reportorial work. Anything like that would have tipped off the rest of The New Yorker staff, who knew nothing until after Shawn died—though S.I. Newhouse, who bought the magazine in the '80s, had something of a clue. He once asked of the writers: "Do you think Mr. Shawn is getting it on with Lillian Ross?"