No Stranger to Excess



Terry Southern, as pictured on the cover of Yours in Haste and Adoration.

A letter from Terry Southern to Fayette Hickox, dated June 29, 1978, and sent to the offices of The Paris Review. Southern, a novelist and screenplay writer, contributed often to the Review; he died in 1995, and our humor prize is named after him. Hickox—who is, as Southern was apparently unaware, a man—was George Plimpton’s assistant and a former managing editor of the magazine. Gene Andrewski, referred to below, was a former managing editor, too, and Maxine Groffsky ran the Review’s offices in Paris from 1966 until it moved to New York in 1973. (The letter’s original spelling and punctuation have been retained.)

This letter appears in Yours in Haste and Adoration: Selected Letters of Terry Southern, edited by Nile Southern and Brooke Allen, out now from Antibookclub. 

Dear Ms. Hickox:

Many thanks for yours of the 5th instant.

I can only assume that the ‘George’ you refer to is George Plimpton—since your letter bears the infamous escutcheon—‘carrion-vulture in hard hat clutching quill torn from its body and dripping with its own venomous spleen!’ (Arrgh! Ugh! Eech!) of a publication with which he is closely associated. (See ‘Suzy Says’ 9/17/59.) If this is indeed the case, then in regard to your enclosed ‘letter’ from ‘Margaret Phillips Ward,’ I am very much afraid, my dear, that our Mr. Plimpton is merely toying with you—as is, of course, ever his wont with lovely women, regardless of station. He knows (and only too well!) who, and what, Meg Ward is! Thus, his quips and queries regarding her story, “Mrs. Ashley’s Legacy,” concerning, as it does, “a delicate aging Madonna,” are in the most dubious taste conceivable. For your own edification, however, and out of common decency, you should be told the true facts. For many years, one of our senior staffers (like several of our staffers), a certain Gene Andrewski, functioned as a top operative in Paris with both the KGB and the CIA, using the Review Office and literary activities as his ‘cover.’ I first became aware of the whole cloak and dagger business at the Review when, as I was entering the offices one afternoon, I caught a fleeting glimpse of two figures, in trench coats, atop one of our large editorial desks, writhing in what was clearly an impassioned sexual embrace—‘going at it,’ in point of fact, like a pair of maddened wart hogs. Their conduct in itself was not unusual. The Review offices were certainly no stranger to excess in every form—indeed, the great din and clatter, the flailing and threshing, the ceaseless torrent of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ emanating from Review offices, and audible to passersby and in adjacent shops, was a vrai scandale and a source of the deepest chagrin to many of us. Great God, when I think back on the number of éclairs, Napoleons, frou-frous and other delicacies variées sent crashing to the floor of the neighboring pâtisserie, from the hands of the startled customer or patronne, in response to the blood-curdling ecstatic shriek of Maxine Groffsky: “LE VOILA! CA Y EST! AIEE-EEE!!” which all too frequently resounded from one end of rue du Rennes to the other … I should have perceived, however (and doubtless would have, had not my senses been dulled to torpor by P. Matthiessen—if, indeed, that is his name—and his damnable wog-hemp!), that this ‘coupling’ was no casual “bit of the old in-and-out,” as our editor-in-chief called it, but more. Their garb—trench coats (collars turned up, belted, buttoned—partially buttoned) was, of course, the real clue. In my naiveté, however, I assumed that some of the more impressionable members of our crowd had fallen under the influence (hopefully brief) of the multi-national group known simply as ‘Les Amis,’ or more fully as ‘Les Amis du Toile Caoutchoutique’ [The Friends of Rubber Cloth] a rather odd lot, in my view, whose tastes and practices involving ‘rubberized-canvas’ were enjoying a certain vogue among the Quality Lit crowd.

Presumably you have by now surmised that one of the two locked in tumultuous embrace was the aforementioned Gene Andrewski. To reveal the identity of the other would serve no useful purpose—though should you have a genuine interest in that question, you might wish to refer to the “Suzy Says” columns of 7/23/62, 8/6/62, 2/12/63 and 4/13/71.

En tous cas, George Plimpton—whether by design or by derangement is not for me to say—entered a period of disorientation so acute that he began confusing the identities of various top staffers, but most particularly those of Gene Andrewski and Marion Capron.