Issue 222, Fall 2017
For the first two decades of its existence (1953–73), The Paris Review was a transatlantic operation. It was printed in Europe. It was distributed mainly in America. And it was edited in both places, by George Plimpton—who moved back to New York in 1956—and by a series of Paris editors, who also oversaw the physical production of the magazine. These Paris editors were a distinguished group: over the years they included Robert Silvers, Nelson Aldrich, and Frederick Seidel, among others. But the person who held the job longest, and left the biggest stamp on the Review, was Maxine Groffsky, who worked in the rue de Tournon office from 1965 until it closed in January 1974.
Although Groffsky went on to become a well-known literary agent, until now she has never spoken in depth about her time at the Review. When the editors and I proposed this interview, she was skeptical. Once she agreed, however, she prepared herself, rereading her correspondence in the Paris Review archive at the Morgan Library and visiting the office to pore over old issues. I spoke with her twice, in August and September of last year, at the dining table of the sunny, art-filled apartment high above Washington Square she shares with her husband, Win Knowlton.
In person, Groffsky was vivacious and warm and, as regards this text, exacting. The transcripts of our meetings went through several months of revision in her hands. They also grew by many pages, as Groffsky patiently wrote and rewrote in response to follow-up questions and as new memories surfaced about this relatively unknown—but very fertile—period in the Review’s history.
First, how did you come to be Paris editor of The Paris Review?
Through the downtown art world and Random House publishers—but it’s a long story.
That’s why we’re here.
Swell. Just before graduating from Barnard College in 1958, I had a blind date who took me to a party in a loft. It was Elaine de Kooning’s studio and the party was for James Schuyler and the publication of his novel Alfred and Guinevere. I met a painter there who told me about a jazz club, the Five Spot, that was opening a place in the Hamptons just for the summer. I didn’t know anything about the Hamptons or jazz, and I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew that I didn’t want to work in the city that summer. So I went downtown to a joint on the Bowery to see Joe Termini, co-owner of the Five Spot, asked to be one of the waitresses for the season in the country, and was hired.
The place in the Hamptons was in a white clapboard house on the Montauk Highway in Water Mill. Frank O’Hara and Bill de Kooning were at the opening-night party, along with the poets and artists who had convinced Termini to try such a drastic change of locale. The Hamptons weren’t ready for the Five Spot—the old-money, country-club set wasn’t interested in jazz, and summer-rental swingers hadn’t yet appeared. Even the painters couldn’t drink enough to make the place profitable, but it stayed open until Labor Day. When the season was over, I returned to the city with a boyfriend, Larry Rivers, and a new life south of Fourteenth Street.
I took secretarial jobs during the day and went to New York University at night and by the end of the semester knew that graduate school and academe were not for me. Whenever I was midtown, I stopped in to visit Joan Geismar, a friend from Barnard who worked at Random House in the old Villard Mansion on Madison Avenue—it’s part of the Palace Hotel now. Joan was the lowest person on the editorial totem pole, but she had her own office—built expressly for her job—in a corner of the impressive marble foyer. She logged in, read, and sent back the unsolicited manuscripts. Thousands a year. Joan was leaving Random House, and I thought it would be a good place to work. She was to pick her successor, so I had a perfunctory interview with her boss, Albert Erskine. “Can you type?” “So-so.” “Can you take shorthand?” “No.” “Welcome to Random House.”
Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, the young cofounders of the firm in 1925, were still at the helm and set the convivial atmosphere. Bennett was a celebrity—a regular panelist on the popular TV show What’s My Line? Donald was quieter, a lovely gent who brought in baskets of tomatoes from his garden and left them on the reception desk for all comers. Albert, editor in chief and the most handsome, distinguished man in publishing, was William Faulkner’s editor.
Were there any women editors?
At that time, young women were hired as secretaries or copy editors but were not promoted to editor. Only one woman was a full-fledged editor—Lee Wright, two generations older and a tough cookie. She was in charge of crime fiction. Lee used the executive bathroom next to my office while the copy editors went down to the Ladies in the basement. One day, Lee was passing by and I asked if I could use the executive bathroom. She replied, “I don’t see why the fuck not!” And so we did, all of us.
Did you want to be an editor yourself?
I wasn’t particularly ambitious or thinking about a career. When I left work at five and headed to my studio apartment—not much bigger than my office—it was into another world. There were painters and openings and parties in lofts with live jazz, and readings by the New York School and Beat poets—and Merce Cunningham, the Living Theatre, and John Cage concerts. One night I appeared onstage at the Village Gate in an evening of avant-garde Japanese music and poetry. The featured event was “Of a Grapefruit in the World of Park,” a poem written, narrated, and staged by Yoko Ono. I was asked by the composer of “Sonans Objectivis” to wear a bathing suit while I performed his piece. The New York Times reviewer loved the music but found me “an incongruous visual note.” Nonetheless, the next day there was a star pasted on my office door.