Blair Fuller was an editor emeritus of The Paris Review and the author of two novels, A Far Place and Zebina’s Mountain, as well as Art in the Blood: Seven Generations of American Artists in the Fuller Family. Born in New York to a family of artists, architects, and publishers, he became an editor at The Paris Review shortly after it was founded. He moved to California in the early sixties, where he taught in Stanford’s Creative Writing Program and went on to cofound the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He died on July 23, at the age of eighty-four.
Blair went out of his way to welcome the current staff of the Review and to support the new tack of the magazine. He read each issue cover to cover and was quick with both praise and criticism: “The Levé piece is my favorite. I feel badly that he ended his life. An interesting and original man … I wish Beattie could be trimmed a bit. Bolaño never did grip me. Otherwise a fine issue.” His first response to the Daily was typically forthright: “What a terrible idea!” Eventually he softened and even sent several reminiscences (he called them “memories”) as possible contributions to the blog. In June, he sent us these two snapshots from the early days (and nights) of the Review.
IN PARIS IN THE LATE 1940s, Harold “Doc” Humes had published a magazine, The Paris News-Post, which was intended to tell the Americans who were arriving in large numbers to work for the European recovery effort what they should see, do, and buy in France. Few, however, bought the News.
In 1951, Peter Matthiessen, who had just moved to Paris and was working on his first novel, Race Rock, suggested to Doc that they start a literary magazine to replace the faltering News. The little magazines and other publishing ventures that had flourished in 1920s Paris—Transition, for example, and The Black Sun Press—were still much talked about. Why not give the arts a try?
Doc returned to the States while the Review was still incubating. A polymath who could explain anything—and who sometimes seemed to want to explain everything—Doc had published two novels by 1960, The Underground City and Men Die. He had also been involved in several entrepreneurial ventures. At this time, he was the principal in a project to build very cheap houses with a material made of discarded newspapers, chemically treated to be as stiff and workable as wood. In Doc’s imagination the poor of the earth would be sheltered from the elements at a minimal cost.
The News quietly folded and from its remains Peter set to work organizing The Paris Review. He first recruited writers to its cause: William Styron was on hand. Most importantly, he persuaded his primary schoolmate, George Plimpton, to become the Review’s editor, as well as children’s book writer and illustrator William Pène du Bois to design the magazine and become its art editor. A short story of mine appeared in the second issue: the magazine was underway.
* * *
IN THE AUTUMN OF 1960 Nina and I taxied uptown to the old brick apartment building furthest east on Seventy-second Street, believing we were going to one of George Plimpton’s parties. We went often to his parties. In those days I was doing a lot of reading, sorting, and whatever else needed doing for The Paris Review and trying to feel enthusiasm, rather than frightened doubt, about the novel I was writing. My first novel, A Far Place, had had some success three years before, in 1957—enough for me to want to write more of them.
We rang George’s bell, but no buzzer sounded to let us through to the stairwell. Then I saw that the inner door was not tightly shut and pushed it open. Curiously, we could see as we went up the stairs that George’s apartment’s door was also slightly ajar. Standing outside I called, “George! George!” There was no response.
Fearing the worst, I went to George’s bedroom but found no George, dead or alive, and no signs of mayhem. Someone came in the apartment’s door. It had to be George, I thought, but it was not. It was Harold “Doc” Humes.
I said to him, “If you think you’re coming to a party, Doc, I’m afraid not.”
“I don’t know anything about a party,” said Doc, “I left some papers here and I came by to pick them up.” In George’s apartment, Doc was opening and closing drawers and cupboards looking for his papers, and I thought to ask him how Norman Mailer’s mayoralty campaign was going. Doc stopped rummaging.
“You don’t know?” Doc said. “It’s in the afternoon papers. Last night Norman stabbed Adele.”
Violence was often in Norman’s work—sexual violence, political violence, tough-guy stuff—but I had never thought that he would do bodily harm to anyone. He wanted to thumb wrestle or arm wrestle. He challenged people to staring contests—who would blink first? He was always argumentative. As I stood there taking in the idea of the stabbing, I remembered the New Year’s Eve party at Bill and Rose Styron’s Connecticut house at which Norman had said something insulting to Peter Matthiessen. The two of them wrestled briefly in the snow outside until Bill, I believe, broke it up.
Norman had stabbed Adele twice with a penknife after a party to celebrate a friend’s birthday. The party had been intended to draw attention and support to Norman’s campaign. It was a big party, of two hundred or more, filled with lowlifes Norman had invited off the street, as well as people with names and money. He had tried hard to get Eleanor Roosevelt to attend.
The tabloid dailies gave the stabbing the largest possible headlines. One of Norman’s thrusts had come close to killing Adele, missing her aorta by a quarter of an inch.
The stabbing would not have returned to my own mind had I not, more than fifty years after the event, had dinner one evening with my cousin Douglas Burden. He told me that in mid-November, 1960, he had gone to Doc’s apartment for dinner with a small group of people, including George and Norman. As dinner ended, Doug began to feel strange, as did others in the group. Doc then told them that he had given them doses of LSD without their knowledge. Doc said that he had become a believer in the therapeutic effects of LSD; Timothy Leary had convinced him of it.
Doug felt frightened by the unstoppable jumble of images rushing through his mind. As the effects of the drug deepened, it became clear to him that he and Norman in particular were having bad trips. Some time that night, a clearly angry Norman left the group and the Humes’ apartment, presumably to go to his and Adele’s own apartment on the same block. Doug said that he learned late the next day that Norman had stabbed Adele before that morning’s dawn. As he saw it, Adele had been one of LSD’s first casualties.
I listened, surprised and interested, by Doug’s story. Could LSD truly have played a role? None of the accounts—and there are a number of them—tell of LSD use. When I reached Anna Lou Humes, Doc’s ex-wife, she remembered the evening Doug had talked about. She said that, yes, LSD had been distributed to everyone in the group at the end of dinner—except to herself. She denied—vehemently—that Doc had surreptitiously slipped the drug into the company’s drinks. She remembered Norman having a bad trip and leaving the apartment angry, but she said that he had not stabbed Adele until several days later.
Some six weeks after George’s death, in 2003, a memorial service was held in New York’s Presbyterian Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest cathedral ever built in the United States. Norman came into St. John walking with great difficulty. Forearm crutches helped him along, but his tall and beautiful sixth wife, Norris Church, walking at his side, leaned down several times to help or advise him. Norman spoke. With George, both Norris and Norman had been doing public readings of a script George had put together from the letters exchanged between Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Norris read Zelda, of course, Norman was Hemingway, and George, Scott Fitzgerald.
Like other writers of fiction, Norman had been mentally impersonating others all of his life. In his novels he became an army lieutenant rather than a private in the infantry (as he had been from 1943 to 1945), then a man who lost all his memories, then a Hollywood striver, and so on. He wanted to think and feel like the people he was writing about.
By conscious or unconscious design, George had given Norman the role he had wanted. Onstage, in these readings, Norman was Hemingway in the years when Hemingway had been most sure of himself, the champion years during which Hemingway told Fitzgerald that Zelda was a crazy and that he, Fitzgerald, had an adequately large penis to satisfy women. I never saw a performance by the trio, but I feel certain that Norman loved his role.
At the conclusion of the service I watched Norman and Norris wait until the crowd had thinned, then leave. Soon after I walked out—slowly, I suppose, myself.
Read Blair Fuller on a night with J. D. Salinger here.