Issue 186, Fall 2008
Fifty-five years ago in paris, a group of young Americans started The Paris Review. This is how they remembered that time in interviews for a new oral biograpy of George Plimpton, who edited the magazine for its first half century.
DOC HUMES TO GAY TALESE
I went to Paris because Paris is where you go when you want to think. I wanted to hide out and think, and maybe learn. Paris is the university of the West, and anybody who doesn’t understand that doesn’t need to go. I went to Paris because I was ignorant; I went as a matriculator, not a pilgrim.
We were all in the right place at the right time: postwar Paris. We felt just as important as Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway and all the expatriates did after World War I. Some people were very productive, some people were not; some people were relatively rich—they had the GI Bill, plus a little money from home, maybe more than a little—some were flat-out poor. Myself, I could do things. I could access Paris. If I wanted to go to the theater, I could go to the theater, whereas many people would sit around and say, Gee, I wish I could eat out at a restaurant instead of eating over this Bunsen burner, you know? But we all felt like family. There was some division; the Montparnasse crowd was a little different from the Saint-Germain-des-Prés crowd, and there were some people who actually lived on the Right Bank—we couldn’t understand them at all. They actually lived over there.
We were living like kings. In Paris, on the black market in the mid-1950s, you could exchange a dollar for six hundred francs. My hotel room cost three hundred francs. For a hundred and eighty francs, you could get a steak pommes frites with a bottle of Beaujolais. Paris was filled with GIs who were living on their seventy-five-dollars-a-month GI Bill money. I had GI Bill money, plus my Rhodes stipend, which was converted into dollars. So I would go cash in my Rhodes money and head off to the Left Bank. But it was astonishing how well you could live in Paris even on seventy-five dollars a month.
I went to Paris after I graduated from Yale in the class of 1950. I was an English major, and by senior year my favorite professor was a brilliant guy named Norman Holmes Pearson. Pearson recruited a lot of people for the CIA, including me. My main reason for signing on was that I could insist on being sent to Paris when I graduated. I’d met Patsy Southgate there in the junior-year-abroad program, from ’48 to ’49, so Paris was very romantic for us; and by 1950 I was beginning to publish short stories, and I wanted to write my first novel. So here was the CIA offering to send me to Paris for its own reasons. I should mention, back then, that the CIA was brand new, and they were not yet into political assassinations or the other ugly stuff that came later. I had no politics. I was a Yalie greenhorn as far as politics went. The cold war had hardly started at the time, but Paris was a hot spot of anti-Americanism, which Communists were happy to exploit to benefit the Soviet Union. So there was the appeal to my patriotism, to work for my country against the Communist menace. Mainly I was interested in being a writer.
Sometime in the winter of 1951–1952, in the cafés, I ran into Harold L. Humes, who was running a magazine called The Paris News Post—a restaurant and theater guide, like the old Cue magazine. He wanted me to get fiction for it, which I would not have done except that I needed more cover for my nefarious activities, the worst of which was the unpleasant task of checking on certain Americans in Paris to see what they were up to. My cover, officially, was my first novel, but my contact man (who met me in the Jeu de Paume, of all places) had said, “Anything else you can do while you’re here?” I could now say, “Well, yes, I’m an editor on a magazine.”
When I first saw Doc Humes, he had just arrived in Paris, in 1949. I was doing my graduate work there, but doing the required café sitting as well, and there was this guy walking down the boulevard Saint-Germain in this incredible outfit. It was summertime, so it was hot—Paris gets hot—and he had on this black wool suit, a homburg hat, a white shirt, and a black tie, and he carried a cane with a silver handle. Everyone was saying, Who’s that guy? We had no idea, but he was obviously crazy. It was hot as hell out, and he had this beatific smile on his face. This darling, cute face: he looked like a little boy in a grown-up suit.
Doc sometimes wouldn’t say anything, he would be really quiet, and then in the middle of a conversation he would come blasting out with this torrent of argument. It wasn’t that he particularly cared about what he was arguing about; I thought it was just his way of keeping himself in shape. He would go into some crazy monologue or start screaming about something so he could go home and write about something else. It would relax him. Doc had his own language, combining hip talk with some expressions of his own. He would start speaking about something that had happened two months ago or would continue a conversation from three weeks ago. A lot of people were confused by him.
After my first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, was published in 1951, I received a prize called the Prix de Rome, which entitled me to spend a year at the American Academy in Rome. This seemed like a fine thing for me to do since I had delivered myself of a novel and was footloose and fancy-free. Lie Down in Darkness was a modest best seller, so I had made a bit of money, enough for a bachelor. So I headed, as one did at the age of twenty-six, for Europe. I first went to England, and then to Denmark of all places, and figured this was a good way to get to Rome. It was a long journey but a pleasant one, and in the spring of ’52 I ended up in Paris for eight months. I think it was Blair Fuller, whom I had met in New York, who told me to look up a good friend of his, Peter Matthiessen. So in the course of events, not long after I arrived in Paris, I met Peter. But first I met Doc Humes, who heard that I was in Paris, sought me out in my hotel on the Right Bank, and said, You can’t live on the Right Bank. You’ve got to live on the Left Bank.
The rumor around the cafés was that they had no money and no sign of any coming in. Then they began to talk about this figure named George Plimpton. Plimpton was going to come over from Cambridge, and he had tons of money. He was really well connected; he knew everybody. He knew Sadruddin Khan. The money was going to pour in, and they were going to have this big publication. He was supposed to have all this money, “the Plimp,” but it turned out he didn’t. Still, he faced up to the problem of budget better than the others did.
I discovered Terry Southern in the pages of Doc’s Paris News Post; it was a story called “The Sun and the Still-born Stars,” and I thought it was too good for Doc’s magazine. I also realized that The Paris News Post was a flimsy vehicle. Doc’s staff was ready to mutiny. All three of the guys Doc had working there were furious with him. I too wanted to kill him half the time, although I remained very fond of him. But I saw that his magazine was going absolutely nowhere, so I said, Doc, I’m not interested in doing this. If we’re going to publish fiction, let’s publish a real magazine. He agreed, almost overnight, and The Paris News Post came to an end. So we had this idea, and I worked with Doc for a month or so, and I realized, and Patsy realized, that it wasn’t going to work. Doc was too erratic to manage it, and too opinionated. He liked to hold forth; his whole life was about holding forth.
My call to George in Cambridge had been a stab in the dark. If that call hadn’t worked, the Review might have died on the vine. But the call did work; as soon as George came over to Paris and signed on, he began collecting poems from Donald Hall for the first issue, and we all began talking about funding.
George, when he arrived in Paris, in ’52, I believe, lived down the street. The concierges all knew each other, of course, and knew everything happening on the block; that was the Napoleonic function of concierges, to keep control over the population. One day, my concierge told me, If your friend wants to get his mail, he should give something to his concierge. It seems that his concierge was withholding it pending a douceur. George started tipping her, and all was well.
GEORGE PLIMPTON TO HIS PARENTS FRANCIS AND PAULINE
I’ve decided to stay over here in Paris and run this magazine. I think I’d be a fool not to. Here’s the quick background: It’s to be called The Paris Review and is one of the literary quarterly genre; 3,000–5,000 copies are to be printed and distributed in England, the U.S., and France. We are to be printed by La Table Ronde, one of the best publishing houses in France and with a famous quarterly printed bi-monthly of the same name. La Table Ronde is interested in publishing us in that their name (the review and the house) is introduced into American literary circles. We in turn (far more advantageous to us really) through them have knowledge of the particulars of magazine publishing born of seventy years of successful enterprise in this field. This should put us immediately out of the realm of the fly-by-night literary magazines that blossom and die with mushroom rapidity here in Paris. The editors are John Train, president of the Lampoon after me; Peter Matthiessen, winner of the Atlantic First last year; Harold Humes, William Pène du Bois, a successful book illustrator (his famous bears appeared in Life two years ago; his latest work is Peggy Ashcroft’s The Young Visitors); William Styron, the Prix de Rome Literature Prize winner for his novel Lie Down in Darkness.
I arrived in Paris in the early summer of 1951 to get a doctorate at the Sorbonne after getting an M.A. at Harvard. But by the time George came to town, I had abandoned my studies and had already discussed starting a magazine with Rosamond and Georges Bernier. I had a distinct entrepreneurial bent, even then; indeed, I started a car credit company for GIs in Europe. But I liked magazine work, having done it at Groton and at The Harvard Lampoon. So I had discussions with the Berniers about starting a New Yorker sort of magazine: a commercial publication, not a “little magazine.” Little magazines, by their very nature, cannot make money. They discover authors. Very few people want to read undiscovered authors. They want to read reliably good authors they’ve already read. Anyway, we made some progress on that project, but then the gang appeared—George, Peter Matthiessen, and Doc Humes, who had been running The Paris News Post—and we sort of coalesced.
DOC HUMES TO GAY TALESE
I really didn’t like [George] at first, mistaking the apparent snobbishness and studied front for gratuitous thoughtlessness rather than recognizing the necessary camouflage of an almost tenderly vulnerable man. I know a lot about [him] now that I didn’t when I first met him, and he is a complex, lonely, rather brave human being.
George refused to be perturbed by money matters. There was a day when a letter arrived, saying, I write on behalf of the Banque de Paris. We have need of your help because we had been asked by Horizon magazine to make a payment to Mr. Eugene Walter for an article he wrote in that journal; but, by mistake, we have sent him five hundred dollars too much, so we seek your help in recovering the five hundred dollars that was sent in error. George then wrote: In reply to your letter, I’ve been asking myself just who you are referring to. In the café the other day, I saw on the street one of the denizens of the quartier who I recognized as Eugene Womble. I greeted him, as I always do, Ça gaz, Womble? Womble did seem distinctly more prosperous than usual; so while I can’t be absolutely sure, I think he may be your man. The bank wrote him back saying something like, Merci pour un bon moment dans notre journée.
George once said to me, You know, the great thing about Paris in the fifties was you could go anywhere; you could get into any level of society you wanted; so long as you had a black tie and evening clothes, you could go anywhere. He loved that.
GEORGE PLIMPTON TO HIS PARENTS
My window looks out on a bleak host of smoking chimneys. I’m on the fifth floor, a very small room, but warm and with a little potbellied stove. Still, Paris is cold and today I [am wearing] my hideous Army underwear. I spend most of my day at the office on the Rue Garancière, reading proofs, meeting artists, writers, and other editors, and arguing, of course; arguments seem to be the basis on which these magazines start. Don’t worry, Mother. I’m not going to seed here. This whole project, at least from here, is too enthralling to consider going to seed.
I was playing in a jazz band at the time, and one evening we were invited to a party at this huge château. We began playing, and there were all of these society people, and they expected us to play dance music. Instead, we began to play our great Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker music, and our own free-improvised music, and managed to clear out the entire garden. I was so upset that I went behind a hedge to calm myself down by taking a little smoke—when suddenly from behind, I saw George Plimpton peeking through the hedge, taking in the whole scene. I said, George, what are you doing here? I’m a guest, he said, but I’m doing a little reportage.
George sometimes said things that sounded simple enough but followed you around afterward. One that comes to mind now was about Sadri Kahn and it was the result of a slight altercation. George had asked me for the second or third time to some event with Sadri, and I had refused, saying I thought it would be just boring, and George said—sharply—that he would imagine it would be rather hard to be bored by an evening with somebody who was in line to be the absolute leader of millions of Muslims, and from my point of view, that was puzzling. However, George did manage to make me see that he didn’t live in the same world I did. And maybe not in the world most writers live in. I mean that whereas in general writers are trying to keep the door shut so we can get on with counting our bedbugs or whatever we hold dear at the moment, George saw everything out there as one huge old swimming hole to plunge seriously into and come up with a fish in his mouth.
GEORGE PLIMPTON, DIARY
Elected editor, chairman, president, what-have-you to magazine. Position of no authority except position of whip, hardly one which I can do well. Decisions I don’t mind. That’s what I wanted. If Humes, Matthiessen, and du Bois had agreed to that we’d have no trouble on the magazine, though perhaps hurt feelings. . . . A composite accumulation of agreements through vote in a magazine results in its death. . . . Therefore there must be an absolute boss if one agrees that the magazine is more important than feelings. Example is argument about cover. I know The Paris Review is a sensible and safe title. It may not sell a million copies but it’s safe. It has snob appeal. Paris—God what that connotes everywhere, and its life and its literatures, and its eccentrics. But not quite enough for them. Merde, Phusct, Venture, MS, Manuscript, Counterpoint, Baccarat, all these evocative names which symbolize countless magazines with similar names which have failed in one respect for that very reason—zero, Blast, Transition (although that a fine one), Wake, etc. I said I’d never read a literary magazine of any sort with a one name supposedly striking title which hadn’t folded within a year or so. “Time, Life, Fortune?” asked du Bois. Well, he may be right but we shall see. The title can certainly ruin it. We’re all thinking about it. I hope if there’s a better one and a safer one than The Paris Review I can open my mind to it.
In my flat on rue Perceval, we tried to thrash out the name of the magazine-to-be—“we” being George, Humes, Styron, du Bois, perhaps Train, and me. This was also, I think, the first meeting in which we agreed on our editorial philosophy and content, which excluded literary criticism in favor of fiction and poetry—or agreed, anyway, to the point where we could start to put it together.
A magazine seemed to all of us like a good thing to do; that was a given. Not so given was exactly what sort of magazine it would be. Matthiessen favored a magazine to be called “Baccarat”—hyperliterary. I claim to have come up with the name The Paris Review and lobbied for that because it seemed very logical.
GEORGE PLIMPTON, DIARY
Meeting of editorial board here in the afternoon. Went much better. Humes a bit difficult but argument always led to an understanding far deeper than a snap agreed judgment would have given us. Title agreed upon: The Paris Review. Closing date agreed upon. 15 July. Issues per year decided. Six. Cover agreed upon. Humes broke one glass.
At another meeting we were talking about what we wanted to do with the contents of the magazine. Because I was a short-story writer, my whole thing was to push new, young, talented fiction writers. And I had this idea about interviewing established writers, and I didn’t realize how successful that would be, but it did seem to work. I wanted Irwin Shaw, who was living in Paris then, but George had two well-connected literary friends, Francis Haskell and P. N. Furbank, friends of E. M. Forster at Cambridge, and they did an interview with Forster. That was the first interview, for issue number one, very impressive indeed.
George was very good at getting people to talk about themselves. Writers like to talk about themselves anyway, but I think George was really interested in what they had to say, even in the boring bits. He stayed optimistic that something interesting was bound to turn up and, sooner or later, it usually did.
GEORGE PLIMPTON TO HIS PARENTS
What we are doing that’s new is presenting a literary quarterly in which the emphasis is more on fiction than on criticism, the bane of present quarterlies. Also we are brightening up the issue with art work. An “Art Portfolio” by a young American artist in Paris is to appear in each issue. The first is by Tom Keogh who has an excellent reputation both here and in America. Appearing with it in the first issue are: the Newdigate prize poem from Oxford by Donald Hall, an essay on the technique of the novel in dialogue form by EM Forster, some unpublished poems by the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, four short stories, and a section of a novel to be published next year by Simon & Schuster.
Peter asked me to write an introduction to the first issue, setting a general tone, which was that this was going to be a literary magazine rather than a magazine of heavy-duty literary theorizing like The Hudson Review. It wasn’t going to be political, either, like the Partisan Review. We just wanted to make this a creative magazine. Matthiessen and I worked that out—George too, I think.
GEORGE PLIMPTON, DIARY
Bill Styron’s preface arrived today from the American Academy in Rome. It is short, to the point. Peter thinks it suffers from overwriting. That is Bill’s style, Jamesian, in which occasionally the structure is so ornate that one is kept in suspense until the finish—like German which must await the qualifying verb at the end of the sentence. But regardless, Bill’s preface is what sets the issue up. It is now all in.
Tom Guinzburg, who was businesslike, was supposed to be the first managing editor, but then he became paralyzed with love for Francine du Plessix, now Gray, and was unable to proceed. He was lifted gently from behind the desk, and I was promoted from nonfiction editor. My tenure was not uncontroversial. An early story by Terry Southern had a traffic cop addressing a doctor, whose car he’d stopped. The doctor began to protest, so the cop says to the doctor, “OK, Doc, don’t get your shit hot.” I pointed out that this would create trouble in Boston, where the post office was exceedingly prudish, so after heated debate we compromised on “don’t get your crap hot.” The same story stirred another question: one fellow hits another, who falls to the ground, knocked out. In the tale, his feet and legs are “vibrating,” which I thought highly improbable. George and I went on my standard stroll down the Seine and then up to the Panthéon and down to the Jardin des Plantes—a zoo as well as a botanical garden—and we happened to be discussing this exact issue of the vibrating legs when we passed by the vulture cage. To my amazement, there was a vulture lying on his back in the cage, clearly dying, and his feet were indeed vibrating. George looked at me significantly, and I nodded in submission. The other vultures were staring at him with proprietary interest, waiting for him to stop kicking, undoubtedly before gobbling him up. We went around to the little cabin where the keeper was, and I said, One of your vultures is dying. He replied dismissively, That’s the other service. You have to wait until two o’clock. Having no intention of doing so, we resumed our walk. I assume nothing good befell that poor bird.
Billy designed the magazine. He always said that all the editors had been dithering about it forever, until he finally lost patience and took all the material, did the layout, had it printed and gave it to them, and they were astonished that they had a magazine out.
Billy Pène du Bois is the reason there is something called The Paris Review, I’m convinced. Because even though the first issue didn’t have much content, it looked great, and it looked great because Billy Pène du Bois worked over the stone with the printer for days. I remember it was coming down to a deadline, and he made it look beautiful. This was no amateur. He spoke French, and he had six or eight children’s books in circulation and was one of the great illustrators. He had great style. The Paris Review looked great. That’s what everyone talked about.
Doc went back to the States before the first issue was printed and shipped, so he never knew that the editors decided to remove his name from the masthead. I can imagine that the rest of the guys were furious with him because he didn’t do enough work and didn’t pony up the five hundred bucks that they did, even though he ponied up the original magazine. I don’t know what other real grievances there were. But they couldn’t deal with it. Doc was probably always mentally ill, and always manic-depressive, and always a talker like you’ve never seen, and they didn’t know what to make of him. George was better able to deal with that. He was less competitive. Or he was just better natured.
My supreme moment as managing editor was when George had to return to the States to seek funds, leaving me to get out the first issue and ship some of it to the States. I negotiated a deal with U.S. Lines, swapping passage on a ship for a free ad—standard stuff in the magazine business. Then I had to get the magazine boxed for shipment. The agency asked whether it should be in one big carton or in smaller ones. I said I had no idea, and I asked them for the ins and outs of the matter. They said the smaller ones were easier to transport, but one big one would be reusable, being heavy and substantial. I said, Let’s do it with one big one. Alas, I had not calculated how heavy that would be. As a consequence, several thousand copies of The Paris Review were plopped down by crane onto the New York docks in an immense, immovable carton. The dockworkers refused to touch it, so we had to assemble a kind of ant army of volunteers to break up the crate on the dock and carry the copies into a warehouse. That was when Doc Humes turned up. He got hold of a rubber stamp and stamped them all harold humes, new york representative. He was miffed that his role consulting on the inception of the magazine, even though he didn’t appear in the office, had not been acknowledged on the masthead.
FRANCIS PLIMPTON TO GEORGE PLIMPTON
The latest issue of the Review turned up a day or two ago. I have only had a chance to glance at it, finding the first piece not to my liking, by reason of a certain exhibitionist quality of substandard taste. I recognize an incorrigible tendency in the young toward épater la bourgeoisie, but I must say that I think it is a tendency, which, if it affords any gratification to anyone, affords it only to the author.
GEORGE PLIMPTON TO HIS PARENTS
Here is another Paris Review, the fifth. I’m not sure as usual that you’re not going to be shocked by most of the content. It is hard to say why such stories are being written or why editors find them the best being done—best, that is, in terms of literary quality. William Styron in his interview discusses the matter at some length. He has an answer to give; no solution though, and that probably is as it should be. The contents, you’ll be glad to hear, are hardly reflections of my own character, which remains merry enough and full of hope and enthusiasm.
There was always a problem about money. George had a very valuable conception approaching the Paris Herald, as it was then called—it’s now the International Herald Tribune—about scrapping the stock page, which was only one page in those days, and replacing it with a literary page, which we would design and edit for a huge amount of money. As you might imagine, this idea met with very little favor at the Paris Herald. More fruitful were the hawkers we employed to peddle the magazine in the streets. In French, such people are called camelots. Our best camelot was named Abrami. He was a poet, and he would walk in front of the Deux Magots and the Flore handing out to the drinkers on the sidewalk copies open to some interesting illustration, preferably off-color; then he’d come back and retrieve them or collect payment, if possible. He was particularly effective. You had to catch up with him at frequent intervals, because if he collected too much money from the customers, you risked having him go into hiding and on to a spending spree. So you had to keep up with him. It was like emptying a cormorant every few fish. Of course, we are talking about units of a few dozen from time to time, not hundreds of thousands. Unfortunately, Abrami became enamored of a girl student, and by way of attracting her attention, he shaved his hair, like Van Gogh cutting off his ear, which gave him a particularly hideous appearance and reduced his capabilities as a camelot. We also sold the magazine in kiosks and bookstores and daily came up against the Hachette Company, which fancied it had a monopoly on that activity. We had these big sit-downs, à la Mafia, in which they said we had to get out of the hawking business, and we said, No, it was a free country, and so on.
GEORGE PLIMPTON TO HIS PARENTS
I am still not quite sure of my plans for the future. I quite realize I must come back and fairly quickly. I must admit that I don’t like to live in Paris in tiny breathless hotels. I can never tire of working on this magazine, though. Unlike the others I have a sense of mission about it. There is no-one else here now. If I left without getting a good replacement the whole business would collapse like a house of cards. I owe that neither to myself nor to those like yourself, grandma, and others who have helped; nor to the subscribers, or authors who so believe in this enterprise. We have been in serious financial difficulty for the past two months. It is mostly the fault of the New York people who have been, for one reason or another, unable to catch hold and do the things that must be done. Their office is running at a loss, which is incredible, considering they have no expenses to speak of other than distributing [a product] which is supplied them by us. There is nothing I can do about it by letter, though I’ve tried. I must return to do it myself, probably at the close of the summer. In the meantime I must find a replacement—someone like John Cowles for example, or Blair Fuller, responsible people who would have not too hard a job to do now that the operation here has finally been pretty well streamlined. Perhaps then the magazine can run without my having to spend so much time on it; but I hope you’ll understand that I must work very hard to set it right. Of course, this might go on indefinitely, but I promise you I don’t intend to let it. Some recent events suggest that the magazine may be put on a firm financial footing, and that of course must be the basis for any permanence I feel we must have before I throw over the traces.
I was in the army, at shape headquarters just outside Paris, working in the library. One of the nice things about the headquarters was that you had every Wednesday afternoon off. You got on the bus and before long you were at the Arc de Triomphe. I had some friends in New York, Cecil Hemley and Arthur Cohen, whom I’d known at the University of Chicago, and they had a publishing venture called Noonday Press. When I saw them before I went abroad, they said, Why don’t you represent us in Paris, and see if you can find some French books for us? On Wednesday afternoons I would visit French publishers. This was in 1954, the last year that I was in the army. The Paris Review had been started the year before, and I’d been reading it in the barracks. One afternoon I went around to the rue Garancière where La Table Ronde, a small publishing house, had allotted The Paris Review a very small office. I walked in the door and there was George. I said, I’m with Noonday Press and I’m looking for books. We talked about some of the writers in the Review, Terry Southern and others, who might be of interest for Noonday, and I’d found a French writer who interested him. I had the impression of someone who was immensely alert, yet relaxed at the same time. Then at the end of the day, George said, I’m going around to a friend’s. Why don’t you come with me? which seemed wonderfully welcoming and generous. So we walked over to the Île Saint-Louis to see Pati Hill, a young woman who had been a fashion model and was now publishing fiction in The Paris Review. She had a charming flat overlooking the Seine with white walls and mustard velvet couches. There were various people about drinking tall glasses of wine, among them John Train, at that time the managing editor of the Review. I knew something about him because he had an essay in the first issue. In a certain way, it set the tone of the Review, because he pointedly seemed to avoid such matters as the bitter controversy between Sartre and Camus that was dividing Paris intellectuals at the time. The Review, so the essay implied, was going to concentrate on the best young fiction writers and poets that the editors could find, and that would be that.
GEORGE PLIPTON TO HIS PARENTS
A splendid Managing Editor has turned up—one Bob Silvers—a discharge from the Army, a good business man, perfectly willing to sacrifice a couple of years running the Review—in fact it’s his dream in life. It’s a stroke of great luck for us. He’s intelligent, very interested, and is that new infusion of blood so necessary to combat apathy, laziness, and downright disinterest that seems to have struck everybody in the concern save your indefatigable son. So after spending a short time as his tutor, overseeing him bring out an issue or two I ought to be able to come home. I will be coming towards the end of October, [but] will have to make one more trip back to Paris. Then my full-time activity with the Review should be over. It is beginning to look as though it would be possible for me to leave the enterprise without its tumbling flat to the ground.
Bob Silvers was there with us. We were all just amazed at his history. I think he graduated from college when he was in his teens or something extraordinary. I always thought that he never flaunted his brilliance. He was cozy and fun, and to this day, I think he’s one of the most attractive, bright people I ever met.
At Pati Hill’s party, I told John Train I was getting out of the army soon and thought I would stay in Paris and go to the Sorbonne on the GI Bill, which paid more than enough to live in Paris at the time. When we met a little later at his flat, John said, Why don’t we start a publishing house together? We might begin, he said, with a book of letters and writings by James Joyce’s brother Stanislaus in Trieste, with whom he’d been in touch. Then he said, By the way, at the same time, you could have my job as managing editor at The Paris Review. I have the work of getting the paper out pretty well organized, so there’s not a lot to do, but you’ll have to keep an eye on things. I’ve talked to George about this. I saw George later at the Café le Tournon and he said he was glad I was joining the paper, and we went to the office around the corner and there I saw a wire basket that said managing editor. Across the basket were two strings, and there was a sign on the strings saying, don’t put anything in this basket. George said, Well, you see, there’s the basket of the managing editor, but it has these strings on it. He rather ceremoniously took off the strings. Then we rummaged around and found a number of things in drawers, which we put in the basket—bills from the printer, a note on bookshops where we might sell the Review, a list of people we might approach to get more advertising, and so on. So we put the things in this basket, and, thanks to John Train, I became managing editor.
George relished telling the story of his quest for a Hemingway interview for the magazine. He said it began in the spring of ’53 when a bunch of reprobate Harvard Porcellian types, as he described them, were in town for the wedding of Joan Dillon, whose father was U.S. ambassador to France, to Jimmy Moseley. The enormous reception took place at the embassy, just off the Place de la Concorde, I think. George said they were behaving “terribly”: people were drunk, throwing tables out of windows; there couldn’t have been more ghastly behavior. Douglas Dillon had more or less hidden away from the whole thing. Meanwhile, George, with a bottle of Dillon’s finest Bordeaux, goes in through the front door of the Ritz, not far from the party. He’s walking down a long corridor to the bar at the rear of the hotel, which is now called the Hemingway Bar but was then, I believe, the Little Bar. He looked up, he said, and he saw this apparition. For the first and almost the last time in my life, he said, I saw someone actually reading The Paris Review. It was the first issue. And then I saw that the apparition in front of me, with the gray beard and the unmistakable profile, was none other than Ernest Hemingway. I became immediately sober.
GEORGE PLIMPTON TO HIS PARENTS
I came down [to Madrid] ostensibly to interview Ernest Hemingway. He is not well, sadly, and I’m not sure he feels up to an interview. I’ve had lunch and drinks with him, and yesterday with his helpful advice I was able to stay in a bullring on a bull breeding farm outside of Madrid and successfully pass with the cape a fighting calf the size of a small spaniel. Bullfighting, I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear, is not a profession for me. At one point during my fight my right foot got under the cow’s hoof and the cow stood on it for an appreciably long time while she looked for me with her horns.
I saw him in Madrid in ’54, maybe. Peter Gimbel, my husband at the time, and I were there because we were going to see the San Isidro bullfights, you know, that bullfighting thing in Madrid in May—like Pamplona, but much more sedate. George was looking for Hemingway, and because Peter’s father had been friends with Hemingway, we went each day to the bullfights with him. When George heard that, he sort of hung around. And he did find Hemingway, obviously. We used to go in the morning to the Palace Hotel opposite the Ritz in Madrid, and Hemingway would be there, this mountain of pink pajamas in the bed. It was very dramatic to me, who was just this person from the Connecticut suburbs. The bullfighter Ordóñez came in with Ava Gardner. They’d never met, she and Hemingway, and they just reclined together on the bed and talked. She hopped onto his bed; he beneath the covers and she beside him on top of them—murmuring, laughing. The language! So obscene! They had a fine time. George must have come with us, and then we all went for a big lunch after the three martinis in Hemingway’s bed. Then, on to the bulls.
GEORGE PLIMPTON TO HIS PARENTS
I had a very splendid time down there [in Madrid]. I didn’t get much of the interview done, simply because Hemingway doesn’t much like to talk about writing and I didn’t press him, not [wanting] to talk about writing when there’s a man around who’d rather tell you about elephants and the shooting thereof, big game fishing, and who has much to say about the Mau Mau and the hyena. Spain is a country I loved, and of course I had the best guide in the world to show it to me. Not that he did, but I saw him enough to feel I understood one large facet of it.
George described to me being down in Pamplona with Sadri Khan, who had been at Harvard with him, and there, sometime after the running of the bulls, George put it to Sadri that The Paris Review needed a publisher, and Sadri said he would do it, which meant that he was going to pay the bills. It was a marvelous moment a few weeks later when Sadri arrived at the offices of The Paris Review, a very well-dressed, smiling, very diplomatic, very courtly young man. I don’t know just what arrangement George worked out with Sadri after he left for New York, but from then on we had money in the bank to pay the bills. Sadri’s decision to back us was a crucial point in the life of The Paris Review, and this was all George’s doing. Here we had found for a publisher the son of one of the richest men in the world; indeed, Sadri was a candidate at that time to be his successor. But these crises continued all of George’s life. He would find a new publisher, a record producer or an heiress, and he’d tell you, I’ve just found so-and-so and he’s going to take it. But then their businesses didn’t go on as they wanted or they grew bored, and they would quit. George never seemed disheartened. I’d see him again and he’d say, Well, I found another one!
I left Paris when I got mobilized and had to go back to the States. After a while I got out, but because I had started this company in Paris, I went back and forth often. In fact, I was pretty responsible for the office that the Review occupied after the one on the rue Garancière. It was on the rue Vernet, parallel to the Champs-Élysées where our credit company was. The man who owned the building was a part of the enterprise and found the room for them. Oddly enough, I also found an office for the Review in New York, on First Avenue near where I was then living. It was fifty bucks a month, not a bad price. That was in 1955 when George had moved back to New York himself, leaving Bob Silvers managing things at the Paris office.
The second night I was at the Review, George and I went over to the printer, a dark, oily shed of a place, smelling of very cheap wine, which the pressmen drank rather steadily. We had on the press a long story by Pati Hill. The pressmen spoke not a word of English, by the way, so the words no one, for example, looked like “noone.” Proofreading these long galleys, full of these errors, George would cry, Golly, another one! and the typesetter would say, Quel ennui, votre journal. Not the most congenial atmosphere, and later, when the issue was printed, we were horrified how many noones we had missed. About this time, too, I was introduced to the Common Book. It was a legacy of George’s Lampoon days. It was a big, ledgerlike volume where we would enter messages, jokes, or anything that occurred to us. George spent quite a lot of time writing in it, but its big champion was John Train. I remember reading a letter that Train had pasted in the book, from the manager of the American Library in Paris, a small library on the Right Bank that had some of the latest English novels and biographies. The letter said, Dear Mr. Train, I’m writing you because Miss Jane Wilson has given your name as her reference, and she has not returned five books to the American Library. We ask that you contact Miss Wilson and have her return these long-overdue books as soon as possible. Beside this was pasted Train’s reply, saying, Dear Sir, I’m sorry to be writing you in my own hand, but the machine on which I usually compose these letters was last seen in the hands of Miss Jane Wilson. Yours faithfully, John P. C. Train.
After I came back to the States in ’53, I never lost the thread of The Paris Review; I stayed in touch. I think George still thought of me as an editor, and I did work on certain stories. But I’d read somewhere that the natural life span of a little magazine was about eight years, so sometime in the late fifties or early sixties, I suggested to George that it was time to fold our tent. He had been saying, Nobody works on this thing except for me, and I never would have gotten into this if it weren’t for you. I said, If you really feel that way—that you’re doing all the work and nobody’s helping you—then shut it down. It has had a very noble career already; it’s made its mark; we’ve published some very good stuff. I don’t see why we’re agonizing over it. It’s lived longer than most little magazines anyway. This shot down his little argument. He needed the magazine. The Paris Review was the armature for everything he did.
JOAN DE MOUCHY
I met George in Paris in April 1953, a month or so before my unfortunate marriage to Jimmy Moseley. A year and a bit later I would be divorced and back home with an infant daughter and not much of a clue as to what I wanted to do. A few months later, Peter Duchin, a childhood friend, turned up in Paris with Bob Silvers, and during dinner Bob asked if I would like to come work at The Paris Review. I said, Sure, why not? The office was on rue Vernet, just off the Champs-Élysées. There were some odd characters in that office.
TEDDY VAN ZUYLEN
Silvers and Duchin lived on a barge that was tied up somewhere near the Place de l’Alma, if I remember correctly. It was probably the most uncomfortable setup you’ve ever seen in your life. I don’t know how people could live there—even one person was difficult, but two seemed absolutely miserable. Peter had an allowance, which he squandered on women, probably, taking them to nice hotels; I don’t know if he had very much money left over to go to restaurants. In any case, my apartment in Paris became kind of a refectory. When people were hungry, they would come to my place and have dinner. By 1954 to ’55, George, of course, was back in New York, but when he was in Paris, he’d come to dinner as well. We had a very good chef, so it was kind of nice. I thought, What the hell? I have to give them back something. We’re part of a gang here. Everybody contributes what they have. Bob didn’t have any money, either, but don’t forget, this was very much a bohemian era of our lives, and we didn’t care in those days how we lived. The charm was that there were other barges very close by, so there was a communal barge life, in a way. In those days we were looking desperately to be as unidentifiable, in a social sense, as possible. So living on a barge was great.
I came to Paris in the fall of 1957, right out of college, to go to Sciences Po [Institut des Sciences Politiques]—a foolhardy thing to do for someone who knew very little French. However, relief appeared that Thanksgiving when Joan Moseley, as she was then, invited me to dinner at her apartment. A few other Americans were there, among them Bob Silvers, who said he was soon going back to the States to work for Harper’s and needed someone to take his place on the Review. I don’t think he’d finished his sentence before I raised my hand, and to my great delight he took me on, at least provisionally. I actually had some experience editing a literary magazine, a mildly incendiary thing called i.e., the Cambridge Review, which I’d helped put out at Harvard. I also got the best possible tutorial in magazine publishing from Bob, who, as Joan used to say, had the patience of Job when it came to explaining anything, and not just the niceties of keeping the Dutch printer happy. He did keep postponing his return to the States, though. At that point he’d been in Paris, happy, extremely well connected, for seven years. One more, he told me, and he might have stayed forever.
JOAN DE MOUCHY
My most vivid memory of Nellie Aldrich’s term at the Review was the day that Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso appeared at rue Vernet and proceeded to bugger on the office floor in an attempt to get me to leave. I was alone working late when they showed up, obviously quite drugged. They chorused together, saying, Oh, we want Ezra Pound’s text. I said, We don’t have Ezra Pound’s text. Oh, we know you have Ezra Pound’s text. We don’t have Ezra Pound’s text. This went on for a while. Then they looked at each other and said, Let’s do it. So, with lots of lurching, gurgling, and mumbling, they undid their trousers and proceeded to get on with it on the office floor. I remember that just before they had gotten totally into it, Nellie called up to check in. I could not describe my predicament but said, Will you please come over to the office and tell them that we don’t have Ezra Pound’s text? Nellie gasped, Oh, my God, I have black tie on! That won’t help at all! Ultimately, I passed the telephone to Corso, who Nelson knew from Harvard, God knows how, and he told them, We don’t have Ezra Pound’s text, very firmly. But they were still so drugged and cross with me that they kept on buggering. I decided not to move, because I knew that if I left, they’d rip the whole office apart, and I was going to have to clean it up. So I just sat at my desk licking stamps for future mailing-drive envelopes and pretended to ignore them.
Looking back on it, I feel that the Review actually reached a turning point long before it was moved to New York. It was when George decided to have a contest around 1956. He talked Sadri Khan into putting up a thousand dollars in the name of his father—so it was called the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction. It seemed just laughable, but it turned out that George had done a very, very intelligent thing. Till then, the magazine had published mostly unknown writers of the sort that would remain mostly unknown. Now, with this contest, all that would change. He had gotten three excellent people as judges of the contest—Saul Bellow, Hiram Haydn, and Brendan Gill of The New Yorker. He also wrote a letter, which I never saw, to all the agents and so forth, announcing the contest and the “big name” judges. Then, sometime in the middle of the winter, we got a letter from George saying, Well, we have winners of the contest and the judges have chosen all the wrong people. I’m not kidding. That’s just what he said. They made all the wrong choices. One story was by a very good short story writer named Gina Berriault; another was by a guy who taught poetry at San Francisco State named John Langdon, and as far as I know, it’s the only short story he ever wrote. The third one was by a black writer whose name I’ve forgotten, but I thought that story was interesting, too. So what was George complaining about? Well, it turns out that while those guys got the prizes, George saw the real gold in at least four other writers who had submitted stuff that hadn’t won anything. There was a wonderful story by Richard Yates called “A Wrestler with Sharks.” Jack Kerouac had sent a chapter of On the Road, really the most lively, attractive chapter in that whole book. Evan S. Connell had submitted a part of Mrs. Bridge, and Nadine Gordimer, future Nobel Prize winner, had a story. We did publish the winners, of course, but George had every reason to be proudest of publishing the losers. He was a damn good editor, you know; he’d spotted those people.