The Way We Were
April 8, 2013 | by Clare Fentress
It’s a busy time here at The Paris Review. Tomorrow is our annual gala, the Spring Revel, and in two weeks, we move our little office from the Tribeca loft that has been our home for the past eight years to a new space in Chelsea. Boxes are piled high; loose books and papers are strewn about; scissors and tape will not stay in the same place.
Last week, we were clearing a bookshelf of its contents and came across a batch of small, white booklets. The Paris Review: Twenty Year Index, Issues 1–56, they were titled; they appeared to be lists of everything that had been published during the magazine’s first twenty-three years, and were put aside for recycling. Flipping through them later, we realized that the booklets also contained an introduction by George Plimpton, a founder of the magazine and its editor for the first fifty years of its history.
A minihistory of the Review, full of forgotten anecdotes and remembrances, the introduction is particularly poignant as we prepare for these two (for us) significant events. George recalls early offices of the magazine, angering Ernest Hemingway with brash interview questions, the many volunteers who flocked to the Review and gave a fledgling publication a boost. He writes of raucous Revels past: “The Revels were memorable affairs, with so much effort spent by staff members in entertaining the guests that very often the fund-raising aspects of the events were forgotten. The extravaganza on Welfare Island (although 750 people turned up) actually lost money—and primarily because a piano was left out in a glade and was ruined in a post-party rain squall.”
Here’s to a Revel that’s just as fun, but minus the rain.
An Index is simply a statistical compilation which does not suggest the quality of the material listed, or the critical standards that guided its selection. It can only record the appearance, not the gist, of William Styron’s introductory “letter” which set forth the magazine’s principles in the first pages of the first issue—a letter addressed to John P. C. Train, the managing editor, who in questioning Styron’s manifesto elicited a reply which turned out to be lively and pertinent and a considerable improvement on the original document.
An Index can list the people who have worked for the magazine, but it cannot acknowledge their individual contributions. Their number has been vast. The Paris Review has traditionally published a masthead longer by far than Fortune magazine’s. Indeed, so many volunteers turned up to help in the early days that the managing editor referred to the females by the collective name of “Apotheker” (Joan Apotheker … Mary Apo …)—from the German for “druggist,” which he apparently thought appropriate. Their male counterparts were referred to as “Musinskys”—named after the first of their breed who came to work for a Paris summer.
Nor can an Index give any sense of the ambience where these staffs worked—first the board room in the basement of Les Editions de la Table Ronde, then the small room upstairs with the French windows which the editors could open and drop down to the rue Garancière when the concierge locked the office doors in the evenings; the loft in the offices of Editions Stock in the rue Casimir-Delavigne where Robert Silvers moved the magazine; the room in the auto-rental agency in the rue Vernet on the Right Bank near the Champs Elysées; and then finally the office off the Gallimard company on the rue Tournon back on the Left Bank where Maxine Groffsky ran things from 1966 to the winter of 1973 when the magazine, largely because of the financial burdens involved in publishing abroad, moved to New York—to the little ground-floor office on the East River with the lion-trainer’s chair hanging from the ceiling.
An Index does not remember the hangouts—Peter Matthiessen’s lovely studio in the rue Percival with the little balcony that looked out over the Montparnasse railroad yards, the Chaplain bar where the music students from the Université came in late in the evening and played the piano, the bar in the Hotel Montana where William Pène de Bois lived in the studio on the top floor, and the Café Tournon and the red Irish setter and “Madame” up behind the caisse and the time Max Steel came in and ordered “un coca-cola chaud” in a loud voice and drank what was produced from the steam impression machine in the odd hope that a French customer—Steele disliked the French—would be tempted to try ordering the same drink.
True, the Index lists the Art of Fiction interviews—the author questioned, and the names of the interviewers … but it does not provide the background which led to the selection of the interview form (which was quite novel in 1953), or the determination of the interviewers (perhaps the last thing Thomas Mann ever heard on his deathbed was a Paris Review interviewer at his door … “But I have an appointment … interview … Paris Review …”); or the vicissitudes of interviewing a famous, if touchy, writer (Ernest Hemingway almost threw his interviewer in the little bay at Cohima in Cuba when asked a question about his craft that upset him … namely the significance of the white bird that flies out of the gondola in Across the River and Into the Trees); or a description of the editorial meeting at which a fine interview with William Faulkner was turned down after acrimonious debate because it carried with it the stipulation that the interviewer’s husband’s short stories (“any one of these three,” she had said) would have to be printed in the same issue.
It would require a history to provide material of this sort—and perhaps one day someone will work on such a chronicle … and recall the early talks (between Harold L. Humes and Peter Matthiessen) which led to the magazine’s founding, the fund-raising and promoting campaigns to keep it going, the innovations such as the portfolios established by William Pène de Bois which were a considerable departure from the normal literary magazine format, the various contributions made by a succession of Paris editors—Robert Silvers, Nelson Aldrich, Patrick Bowles, Fred Seidel, Lawrence Bensky, and Maxine Groffsky.
Such a listing would have to say something about the Paris Review Editions which was attached to Doubleday and Company for three years … publishing books which included two—by Joy Williams and Louis Zukofsky—which were nominated for National Book Awards. It would acknowledge the wise counsels of Walter Bradbury of Doubleday, and it might remember the efforts to have the title of Harry Mathews’ somewhat difficult book TLOOTH skywritten over New York for $350 to promote its publication—those mammoth mysterious letters drifting over Far Rockaway—which the people of the promotion department of Doubleday thought was an extravagance; nor did they authorize a somewhat less ambitious display over the city of Duluth, which was not only cheaper but rhymed.
Somewhat ruefully a history would list the embarrassments—the printing error, for example, which combined poems by Christopher Logue and Patrick Bowles into an odd and lengthy amalgam—the Logue sonnet settled in media Bowles (John Train felt that both poems had been improved by their unnatural coupling).
A history would have something about the Customs censor down on Varick Street, Mr. Demcy, with his airbrush in his desk drawer, who did most of work on Danish nudist magazines, but was also responsible for seeing that nothing too salacious crept in the country within the covers of a Paris Review. Since the Customs regulations were much tougher then than the U.S. Mail’s, Mr. Demcy read each issue with extraordinary care. Once, having let in a shipment without a reading (a longshoremen’s strike was pending and the editors had pleaded with him to let the issue off the docks quickly) Mr. Demcy subsequently discovered that a story by Alec Trocchi had a single dirty word in it; furious, he tried to have U.S. Marshals find and bond the shipment, and it was necessary to hide it in apartments and collars around Greenwich Village until Mr. Demcy’s superiors in Washington peered at the word and felt that it was appropriate to the context of the story and of little danger to a citizen who might come across it.
A history might describe the successions of “Revels” (an appellation suggested by Fred Seidel)—fund-raising media events in New York, dancing mostly, of which the first three were held in the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, one in a vast Westside discotheque named the Cheetah, one in an abandoned church amongst a grove of trees on Welfare Island in the East River, and yet another on a side-wheeler excursion steamer moored at the South Street Seaport. The Revels were memorable affairs, with so much effort spent by staff members in entertaining the guests that very often the fund-raising aspects of the events were forgotten. The extravaganza on Welfare Island (although 750 people turned up) actually lost money—and primarily because a piano was left out in a glade and was ruined in a post-party rain squall.
But the measure of The Paris Review is none of this—anymore than to suppose that the contribution of its predecessors in Paris (The Transatlantic Review, transition, Blast, et al.) would rest on a description of the mechanics of the vagaries of their operations. The Index will serve to assist those interested in the true function of the magazine—which has been to seek and select creative work at a time when critical writing seemed to hold such strong sway … giving over its pages almost entirely to the poets, artists, and fiction writers for whom an opportunity to publish had diminished considerably.