Remembering William Whitworth’s Editorial Eye

William Whitworth, who worked as a writer and editor at The New Yorker for fourteen years and then served as editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Monthly from 198src to 1999, died last Friday in Arkansas, the state where he was born. He was a brilliant and intuitive editor who could see around corners and beyond writers’

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William Whitworth, who worked as a writer and editor at The New Yorker for fourteen years and then served as editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Monthly from 198src to 1999, died last Friday in Arkansas, the state where he was born. He was a brilliant and intuitive editor who could see around corners and beyond writers’ horizons and deep into thorny manuscripts. Everyone who worked with him will also tell you that he was a prince of a fellow. Throughout publishing you could not find anybody more beloved.

In New York, editors who come from Little Rock are rare, even more so ones who attended the University of Oklahoma and played trumpet in the Sooners’ marching band. Bill (as colleagues and friends called him) also had his own jazz orchestra. He played for so many dances and parties that he covered his tuition and expenses and came out of college in the black. Once, he and his friend from Little Rock Central High School Charles Patrick (Pat) Crow made a trip to St. Louis to see Dizzy Gillespie. After their third night in the front row, Gillespie noticed them, asked them to stay after, and got to know them. Whitworth invited him to perform in Little Rock; Gillespie accepted and stayed with him and his mother. Later, Gillespie sometimes stayed in Whitworth’s apartment in New York. Whitworth’s love of jazz enhanced his editing skills and gave him refuge and resilience and a different way to think.

After college, he got a job at the Arkansas Gazette, where he covered small and large stories, including the integration struggles of the early sixties. He later said that the editors at the Gazette taught him how to write a news story. His friend and Gazette colleague Charles (Buddy) Portis, on his way to becoming one of the greatest American writers, went to New York and worked at the Herald Tribune. When the Tribune made Portis its London correspondent, he suggested Whitworth as his replacement in New York. Whitworth moved to the city, and after a few years of covering news and writing features for the Tribune he got job offers from both The New Yorker and the Times. (Following a somewhat similar route, Pat Crow also ended up at The New Yorker.) In that era, the magazine was run by William Shawn. Like Whitworth, Shawn was a musician (piano). As a magazine editor, he edged into mystical genius territory. Whitworth admired and loved Shawn, and found him endlessly fascinating. Outside of family, Shawn was the most important person in Whitworth’s life.

For all Shawn’s diffidence and quietness, he sometimes did off-the-wall things. Whitworth saved a few galley proofs with notable Shawn comments on them, in Shawn’s small, clear handwriting. Pauline Kael, the movie reviewer, was writing like someone possessed in the mid-seventies, and Whitworth edited her. Shawn saw all proofs. Once Kael wrote that a particular actress was so sexy that she was like [unprintable simile]. When the proof came back to Whitworth, Shawn had underlined the simile and written in the margin, “Why does she do this? Why? Why?” Decades later, Bill showed me that saved galley page with Shawn’s query, and it made him laugh all over again.

I first knew about Whitworth because of his writing. The summer I graduated from college (fifty-one years ago), I read a short New Yorker interview with Jonathan Winters, the Ohio-born comedian. With inventive spelling, the piece captured how Winters pronounced words in various rural accents—you know, guys who talk lahk ’iss, hold ’er mouth lahk ’iss. An Ohioan myself, I admired how the interviewer had got Winters down. The piece was in The Talk of the Town, an unsigned department back then. I knew somebody who wrote for the department, and I found out who had written the piece. It made me want to write for The New Yorker—and even think I could. Shawn later hired me as a Talk reporter, and I read all the Whitworth pieces in the magazine’s library. He did profiles of Colonel Sanders, the fried-chicken figurehead, and Roger Miller, the country singer-songwriter, and Joe Franklin, the wacky, local late-night talk-show host, and Dave, the autograph hound, whose always-at-top-volume dialogue Whitworth conveyed entirely in capital letters. He did a for-the-heck-of-it, “no news hook” piece about a pig farm in Pennsylvania, illustrated with a photo (one of the first-ever editorial photos in the magazine) of a piglet dressed in a baby bonnet and reclining in somebody’s arms. He described a group of piglets hopping around for joy and said that if they’d been on a hard surface, their hooves would have sounded “like a roomful of expert typists.” His many pieces have never been collected and published as a book, and they should be.

Eventually he accepted Shawn’s offer of a full-time editing position and worked on pieces like the multipart excerpts from Robert Caro’s book “The Power Broker,” about Robert Moses. In 1979, Whitworth edited my first signed reporting piece, and we became friends. When people started wondering when Shawn would retire, Whitworth seemed the natural choice to succeed him. The magazine’s then chairman, Peter Fleischmann, said he would give Whitworth the job. Again, he had an embarrassment of offers. At about the same time, Mort Zuckerman, a real-estate developer who had bought The Atlantic, asked him to take over that magazine. The office politics were complicated; partly to avoid being used as a lever to force Shawn out, Whitworth took the Atlantic job and moved to Boston.

At The Atlantic, he edited a dozen of my pieces, or more. He meant the world to me. Other writers he worked with say the same. He had a manner of suspending himself attentively which brought out the essential, best version of yourself. He was thin, with high temples and a high forehead, and a mischievous, anticipatory expression in his eyes. After Mort Zuckerman sold The Atlantic, the new owner brought in a new editor, and Bill moved back to Little Rock. I knew and liked his son, Matt, who worked in a Chelsea art gallery. Matt moved to Minneapolis, and he passed away two years ago; Bill’s wife, Carolyn, had died many years before. Bill edited manuscripts in his semi-retirement and applied his intense diligence to one unwieldy book after another. The pages piled up in orderly stacks in the office in his suburban house. He came back to New York for a book party for one of his editees, and that’s where I met his daughter, Katherine Stewart, a writer and editor who lives in Little Rock and who took care of him during his final health problems.

Over the years, I drove out to visit him in Little Rock from my house in New Jersey three or four times, and flew out once. I stayed with him, and we went out to Mexican restaurants and watched music videos on his wide-screen TV and listened to jazz recordings in his living room. Once, he put on an LP with a solo by Louis Armstrong. When it was over, Bill sat for a few minutes, quietly transported, and then said, “Miles Davis once said that, before Louis Armstrong, all American music was corny.” The statement may not be strictly true, and Miles Davis may not have said it, but nonetheless it changed my perception. Stephen Foster and John Philip Sousa will never sound the same to me again.

After one visit, I was about to leave, having gone out through the garage and put my suitcase in my car, which was in the driveway. The garage door was open, and we were standing next to his car. I said goodbye, and Bill said, “I’m afraid I’ll never see you again.” I said he would see me again, and in fact I did return to Little Rock the next year or the year after. But, when he said that, I suddenly felt such love for him. You can be so close to someone and not really understand how close you are. I have done what many eulogists do and have made this too much about me, but the number of his admirers is legion. The fortunate writers he edited during his career were each another aspect of him. I am only one of hundreds who loved Bill. ♦

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