Clips courtesy the 2012 documentary Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself. (The title card that reads “TWO MONTHS LATER” is less confusing when the documentary is viewed in full.)
To mark the passing of Hugh Hefner, we take a moment to remember when George Plimpton, a founding editor of The Paris Review, appeared on the television show Playboy After Dark in 1968 and was deemed “very successful with the ladies” by Hef himself.
In early fall of 1989 my friends Craig, Mick, and I tried to summon a demon—Astaroth, the crowned prince of Hell, if I’m remembering right—to the driveway of Craig’s suburban home. Months earlier I’d found a book on summoning spells hidden in a box in my attic, underneath a bunch of Lovecraft anthologies and old Hanukkah decorations.
We’d planned the evening a few days before: once Craig’s parents left for dinner at the country club, I’d draw a magic circle beneath the basketball pole, Mick was on candle duty, and Craig would read, in Latin, the requisite incantations. The translated Latin was a series of threats and commands, invoking Jesus Christ and various angels, along with reminders that the magic circle was impenetrable, that as long as we were within its boundaries Astaroth held no sway. That we were all good Jewish boys didn’t seem to matter—we held Jesus in high regard, the way Pistons fans must have felt about Michael Jordan; even though he wasn’t one of ours, you still had to respect the guy’s game. Read More
The Paris Review could have been named Weathercock—and other early memories from an editor emeritus.
A new collection of William Styron’s nonfiction, My Generation, includes this reminiscence on the origins of The Paris Review; this piece first appeared in 1959, as Styron’s introduction to The Best Short Stories from The Paris Review.
Memory is, of course, a traitor, and it is wise not to trust any memoir which lends the impression of total recall. The following account of the founding of The Paris Review comprises my own recollection of the event, highly colored by prejudice, and must not be considered any more the gospel than those frequent narratives of the twenties, which tell you the color of the shoes that Gertrude Stein wore at a certain hour on such and such a day…
The Paris Review was born in Montparnasse in the spring of 1952. It was, as one looks back on it through nostalgia’s deceptive haze, an especially warm and lovely and extravagant spring. Even in Paris, springs like that don’t come too often. Everything seemed to be in premature leaf and bud, and by the middle of March there was a general great stirring. The pigeons were aloft, wheeling against a sky that stayed blue for days, tomcats prowled stealthily along rooftop balustrades, and by the first of April the girls already were sauntering on the boulevard in scanty cotton dresses, past the Dome and the Rotonde and their vegetating loungers who, two weeks early that year, heliotrope faces turned skyward, were able to begin to shed winter’s anemic cast. All sorts of things were afoot—parties, daytime excursions to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, picnics along the banks of the Marne, where, after a lunch of bread and saucissons and Brie and Evian water (the liver was a touch troubled, following a winter sourly closeted with too much wine), you could lie for hours in the grass by the quiet riverside and listen to the birds and the lazy stir and fidget of grasshoppers and understand, finally, that France could be pardoned her most snooty and magisterial pride, mistress as she was of such sweet distracting springs. Read More
The early eighties were strange times for the National Book Award. At the turn of the decade, the award’s custodians decided to modernize its image. As Craig Fehrman described the scenario in the New York Times a few years ago, “If publishers were going to spend upward of $100,000 a year running the prizes—not to mention the costs of transporting and feting authors—they wanted something that would give them a better return on their investment.”
And so the National Book Awards—which were, at the time, frankly even more literary than they are today—were dissolved. In their stead came The American Book Awards, a wan bid for populist affection, as implied by that patriotic new name. (That capital T in The is essential.) “It will be run almost exactly the way the Academy Awards are run,” a spokesman told reporters, as if the fickle literary set were hankering for an injection of Hollywood glamour. Or Broadway glamour—a theater producer designed the set for the event, which was to be televised. An “academy” of more than two thousand publishing pros took part in the voting.
In 1979, awards were given in seven categories. In 1980, they were given in thirty-four, including typographical design, current-interest nonfiction, religion and inspiration, and—my personal favorite—general reference. In essence, the American Book Awards are to the National Book Awards as New Coke is to Coca-Cola Classic, i.e., a complete fucking disaster, one that all parties involved would prefer to forget. Read More
I’ve heard that during the middle of writing The Civil War you bought all the dip pens left in the United States.
My favorite pen-point manufacturer had all but gone out of business—Esterbrook. I was running out and fairly desperate. On Forty-fourth Street just east of the Algonquin Hotel, on the other side of the street, there used to be an old stationery shop, all dusty and everything, and I went in there on the chance he might have some. He looked in a drawer. He had what I wanted—Probate 313. I bought several gross of those things, so I’ve got enough pen points to last me out my life and more. Another problem is blotters. When I was a kid and when I was writing back in the forties on into the fifties, you could go into any insurance office and they had stacks of giveaway blotters for advertising.
What precisely is a blotter?
This is a blotter [pointing] and if you haven’t got one you’re up the creek. You use the blotter to keep the ink from being wet on the page. You put the blotter on top and blot the page. I was talking about blotters in an interview, what a hard time I had finding them, and I got a letter from a woman in Mississippi. She said, I have quite a lot of blotters I’ll be glad to send you. So I got blotters galore. Ink is another problem. I got a phone call from a man in Richmond, Virginia who had a good supply of ink in quart bottles. I got three quarts from him, so I’m in good shape on that.
Do you reckon you’re the last writer to be using dip pens in the United States?
There’s probably some other nut somewhere out there doing it.
—Shelby Foote, the Art of Fiction No. 158, 1999
Shelby Foote was born on November 17, 1916, and died in 2005, six years after this interview was published. Though he was a prolific novelist, he remains best known for his three-volume history of the Civil War.
His is one of my favorite Writers at Work interviews, and not coincidentally it’s probably one of the longest—Foote’s three (!) interlocutors find him in a loquacious and expansive mood, such that almost whenever he opens his mouth he seems to speak in wry, eloquent, discursive paragraphs. He declaims on everything from pajamas to the Ku Klux Klan, and he appears to have known more or less every writer of relevance; his anecdotes include the likes of Faulkner, Hemingway, O’Hara, Kubrick, and Walker Percy, among others.
He also relishes the role of gentle, aging eccentric, as evidenced in the passage above. I’ve just spent an embarrassingly long while trying to find the name of the defunct stationery shop he references—no luck. I can report, though, that the Esterbrook Probate 313 is readily available for all your dipping needs, even as blotter paper seems now entirely relegated to the realm of LSD paraphernalia.
The Esterbrook Pen Manufacturing Company, founded by Richard Esterbrook in 1858, was once the oldest and largest manufacturer of steel pens in the United States. A midcentury brochure (“INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT ESTERBROOK STEEL PENS”) notes that the company once turned out more than two hundred million pens a year, “used in every civilized country in the world.” The factory went under in 1972.
“You have to communicate sensation,” Foote said of the writer’s mission,
the belief in what life is, what it’s about, and you do it through learning how to handle a pen. That’s the reason why I have always felt comfortable with the pen in my hand and extremely uncomfortable having some piece of machinery between me and the paper—even a typewriter let alone a word computer, which just gives me the horrors.
For her new series, “Vanishing Drive-ins,” the photographer Stefanie Klavens scoured the nation for extant drive-in theaters—there are fewer than four hundred now, she says, down from more than four thousand in the fifties—and photographed them with plenty of saturation and long exposure times. The result is a jarring (albeit beautiful) exercise in anachronism: late-model cars are swathed in the cheery neon of the fifties and sixties, suggesting a concept of Americana at once indelible and fleeting. Klavens explains the demise of the drive-in:
Over time, changing real-estate values began to have an effect on the drive-in. Land became too valuable for a summer-only business. Widespread adoption of daylight saving time in the mid-1960s subtracted an hour from outdoor evening screening time. The decline was further hastened by the advent of VCRs and home video rentals.