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Remembering longtime magazine editor William Whitworth


This is FRESH AIR. Terry doesn't usually host on Fridays, but for this next segment, she wanted to be here. So welcome, Terry. I'll leave it to you to explain why.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: OK, thanks, David. I want to take a few minutes to remember magazine editor William Whitworth. As The New York Times obituary pointed out, he was a magazine editor who was revered within that world but little known outside it. He was revered in my home, too. I'll get to that in a moment. Bill died last Friday at the age of 87. He worked at The New Yorker from 1966 to 1980, first as a writer and later as an editor. Although he was asked to replace William Shawn, the longtime editor who ran The New Yorker, Shawn was not yet ready to retire. Instead, Bill accepted the position of editor in chief at The Atlantic, where he stayed for nearly 20 years until he retired in 1999. Among the writers he brought to the magazine was my husband, Francis Davis, who became a contributing editor, writing about jazz and other subjects.

Bill started out as a jazz musician, a trumpet player, so Bill and Francis always had a lot to talk about beyond the piece they were working on. I met Bill through Francis and was lucky to get to know him a little at a couple of events, and the few times we all went out to a restaurant together. He was an NPR listener. I was surprised to read in the Times' obit that after Garrison Keillor wrote an article for The New Yorker about the Grand Ole Opry, Bill pushed him to do a Saturday night variety show patterned on the Opry, which led to "A Prairie Home Companion." Bill often listened to FRESH AIR. He'd email me when he especially liked an interview, or when we played a recording in between segments and he wanted to know who the musicians were, or when he felt it necessary to correct my grammar.

He was self-effacing and didn't like to talk about himself to the media. But when the great film critic Pauline Kael died in 2001, I'd hoped that Bill would be willing to talk about what it was like to edit her. I was grateful that he agreed. I want to play one of the stories he told. And as you listen, keep in mind that when William Shawn ran The New Yorker, he thought it best to avoid language relating to sex and certain body parts.


GROSS: You edited Pauline Kael for the last five or so years that you were at The New Yorker, from about '75 to 1980. Were there any conflicts editorially with her? I mean, Pauline Kael, I think, used much saltier language than The New Yorker was usually comfortable with.

WILLIAM WHITWORTH: She did. And that was a continuing problem that that put me, uncomfortably, between Pauline and William Shawn, both of whom I admired so deeply. I guess I have to set up the process, in a way. When we put her piece into type, then that proof would go out to a number of people, to me as the editor, to Shawn, to the fact checkers, to a sort of grammarian. And we'd all be working on the piece at the same time. And so part of that - and then those proofs would come back to me, and I would examine them with Pauline.

And one of the proofs, of course, would be from William Shawn. And his main concern often did seem to be that I not let any naughty words or naughty suggestions into the review. I do have here an example. This is a proof, a Shawn proof, on Pauline's review of a movie called "Goin' South," directed by Jack Nicholson and starring Jack Nicholson. Right at the beginning, she says, talking about Nicholson, he bats his eyelids, wiggles his eyebrows and gives us his rooster that fully intends to jump the hen smile.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WHITWORTH: Shawn circles that and says, fine in itself, but let's call this No. 1. This piece pushes her earthiness at us, as if she wants to see how far she can push us, too. It's the tone of the whole review. And you go on down several lines and I see circled No. 2. It says, as a director, he's so generous with views of his backside, you'd think he was taking pictures of a starlet. He likes this backside so much he's named for it, Henry Moon. So the problem there is the two backsides. And again, it's not that those are naughty words, it's the whole tone and sequence here that he's objecting to. And she did sometimes have a specific word that worried him.

Anyway, then No. 3. He's like a young kid pretending to be an old coot, chawing toothlessly and dancing with his bottom close to the earth. He circles with his bottom, and that's No. 3. Then No. 4. Throughout the entire picture, he talks as if he needs to blow his nose. This must be his idea of a funny voice. Even blow his nose is objectionable just because it's what Shawn calls earthy. And it's objectionable, you know, combined with these other references to his backside. No. 5, appears to accept this cackling, scratching, horny, mangy slob as a normal fella. Horny is No. 5. No. 6, Nicholson keeps working his mouth, with the tongue darting out and dangling lewdly. He's like a commercial for cunnilingus. What a porno team he and Black would make.


WHITWORTH: He circles that whole sentence. And let's see. All right, No. 6. Wasn't there anybody on the set in Durango, Mexico, who could tell Nicholson to give his rump a rest?


WHITWORTH: And then, finally, No. 7. The only performer who has a dynamic presence, as distinguished from acting crazy, is Veronica Cartwright. She has the kind of talent that Nicholson has when he isn't thinking with his butt. And Shawn says, let's see, the crudeness of this line just hurts. How fix? And what about two of these? Please see No. 6 in quick succession. Right after that, there's a sentence that he likes when she moves on to a new movie. And he says, a writer who's capable of this shouldn't be doing what she's been doing above.

Well, now, what did we do about those? I left the first one, rooster that fully intends to jump the hen. Then when we got down to he - it's as though he's taking pictures of a starlet; he likes this backside - with Pauline's agreement, I changed this backside to just the word it. And I noted on this proof 'cause it was going back to Shawn, here's one less backside, I said. And then down at the bottom, chawing toothlessly and dancing with his bottom, I took out, again with Pauline's approval, with his bottom. So it just reads dancing close to the earth. And I noted for Shawn another backside.

Then on the next page - let's see - the nose, blow his nose, I didn't try to do anything with that. I left horny alone. And then, of course, when we got to he's like a commercial for cunnilingus, I changed that to he's like a commercial for a porno movie. And in the next sentence, which was what a porno team he and Black would make, I just took out the - because he had - she had - oh, I'm sorry, I forgot to set up that above that she had mentioned Karen Black from another movie. And here - so here we take out the word porno and just say what a team he and Black would make.

And then over to No. 6, was there anybody who could tell Nicholson to give his rump a rest? We changed rump to it. Who could tell Nicholson to give it a rest? And I say to Shawn, another backside gone. And finally at the bottom, she has the kind of talent that Nicholson has when he isn't thinking with his butt, we changed to rump. And I said to Shawn, well, softened at least. So all that - that was all OK with him. And those were the types of little problems that we had to negotiate between the two of them.

GROSS: Well, William Shawn felt that the crudeness hurt. You know, it was so crude, it hurt. Did you feel that her language was crude in this? Did you feel that he was overreacting or that she was being too crude?

WHITWORTH: Well, actually, I think he had a good point here. And it was not - it's not just crudeness. It's whether the writing is - whether she's losing a little control of the writing and seeming to try too hard because she did try very hard every instance. She was trying to be funny and trying to have a lot of punch in something. And I really think from a stylistic standpoint, leaving aside whether this is crude or not, that the piece did read better after we softened those things. It allowed what we left in to be funnier than it was if she just seemed to keep harping on it.

GROSS: How did she take to this type of toning down?

WHITWORTH: Well, sometimes it absolutely infuriated her. And she just would just draw the line and say she wouldn't go any further. Of course, since mostly I was able to keep them in separate rooms, they could both explode to me and say what they were going to do and weren't going to do, as people will tend to do in situations like this. And I would just sort of ignore it and just keep trying to work at some soft resolution that wouldn't completely satisfy either one, but allow both of them to feel that they had stood up for what they believed.

GROSS: Well, Bill Whitworth, thank you so much for talking with us about Pauline Kael.

WHITWORTH: OK, Terry, thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Bill Whitworth was recorded in 2001. He died last Friday at the age of 87. He will be missed by many great writers. One of them, Ian Frazier, wrote, throughout publishing you could not find anybody more beloved. Back to you, David. You have a review coming up. What are you going to review?

BIANCULLI: I'm going to review the new MGM+ documentary "In Restless Dreams: The Music Of Paul Simon."

GROSS: I'll be listening.



NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.