The Fiction of the State: The Paris Review and the Invisible World of American Letters [Part 1]
The ULA presents this special two-part Monday Report, which is Exclusive in this form. For an introduction & brief background, please click here.
The Paris Review has a new editor. Philip Gourevitch, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner for his book, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda,” and a writer for The New Yorker, has taken the position that was held by George Plimpton until his death. Gourevitch replaces Brigid Hughes, whose brief tenure ended in considerable acrimony, with The Paris Review board announcing that her contract would not be renewed. Dismissed from the Board was her supporter, novelist and long-time Paris Review advisory editor, Elizabeth Gaffney, whose novel, “Metropolis,” published by Random House, then appeared to mixed reviews. A sort of “Gangs of New York” meets “Little Women,” it sank like a stone. One wonders if Gaffney teaches her writing students how to write bad sentences about stupid things. It’s hard to imagine that Random House would have given Gaffney a contract for this mess of a book had she not been on the board of The Paris Review at the time.
Gourevitch has promised to revitalize the publication, continuing its tradition of publishing fiction, poetry and interviews with writers, but he also intends to emphasize non-fiction as well. With Robert Silvers of The New York Review of Books on the Board of The Paris Review, and now with a major New Yorker writer at the helm, the ever-diminishing concentric circle of the New York world of letters has diminished further in its insularity. But why should anyone care about a small literary magazine with a limited subscription base, and how does it manage to pay someone like Gourevitch? Why does The New York Times give so much coverage to the magazine, when there are other publications of equal merit that labor on in relative obscurity? It is because The Paris Review is special. Everyone knows that. But they don’t all know exactly why. Once, I didn’t either, but as fate it would have it, the truth would force itself on me without my making any effort to find it out. It all simply fell into my lap.
Frederic Bastiat wrote that the state was the greatest fiction, in which everyone tries to live off of everyone else. In the world of American letters (which is basically still New York) this resonates with particular force, as Maria Koenig Matthiessen would find out. Before she married novelist Peter Matthiessen and she was still married to advertising genius, Julian Koenig, (himself a master of fiction, which is what his industry purveys,) Maria would constantly complain to me that she was bored and that she had once been “in the swim” in the literary world of London. Stuck in Bridgehampton, she was “out of it,” as she put it in her crisp British accent. With her relationship with Peter Matthiessen, she left the boring and superficial world behind her for one of intellectual and artistic authenticity and stimulation. Or so she thought.
Maria and I would often meet on the train to New York, I, traipsing in to meet with agents, editors and others in the book world, in pursuit of a literary career, she to her “Japanese tea ceremony” lessons, as she explained it to me, which in actuality, were her trysts with Peter Matthiessen. Matthiessen was ruggedly handsome, a mythic literary figure, who, according to legend, had “founded” The Paris Review in the early Fifties but who had given up his glamorous life as an expatriate literary lion, to become a fisherman on eastern Long Island.
I also had migrated to the Hamptons after living in Ethiopia (I had taught at the law school of the Haile Sellassie I University), and had given up my life as a law professor to write. Because of the horrors of the Vietnam War, I got sucked into politics, working for the nomination of anti-war candidate George McGovern. At the home of wealthy liberal activist and French scholar, Domna Stanton, where I had gone to attend a planning session for the McGovern campaign, I met George Plimpton for the first time. I have a photograph of that session, that show all of us sitting around a table, with me between Plimpton and actress Tammy Grimes. Plimpton was the editor of The Paris Review, a charming and attractive man who exuded warmth and good humor. He became famous trying his hand at pro football and boxing with Archie Moore. His books were best sellers. I told him how I had met his father, Francis Plimpton, at a similar gathering at Marietta Tree’s town house, to support the senate campaign of Adlai Stevenson III. We hit it off and he volunteered to work for me, carrying petitions for the McGovern delegates running in the First Congressional District on Long Island. He was against the Vietnam War and was for McGovern and I needed all the help I could get. Getting the McGovern slate on the ballot, which included me as a delegate, and withstanding the inevitable challenges from the regular Democratic organization, which viewed us as dangerous insurgents, was going to be no easy task.
Plimpton did a great job. His petitions were perfect. He arrived at my house in Bridgehampton one afternoon, pulling up in his station wagon and waving them like a delighted child. “Great, George,” I said. “This is a huge help.” He was genuinely happy. But after the Eagelton affair (it was revealed McGovern’s choice for vice president, Thomas Eagleton, had received shock treatments for depressison and resigned from the ticket) and McGovern’s disastrous defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon, I took my family and escaped to Barbados, to teach at the University of the West Indies. While there, I wrote an Op Ed piece called “Hailu and the Very Old Lion,” about an Ethiopian laborer who had moved all my furniture himself, and who had stood in front of Haile Sellassie’s pet lion as it sat on a stone fence, and laughed at it. I said the lion was old and toothless, like the Emperor himself, implying that he would not remain in power much longer, now that famine had come to Ethiopia. Charlotte Curtis, one of the last of the greats at The New York Times, accepted it and the Times published it in April of 1974, while I was still in Barbados.
To my amazement and delight, I was contacted by George Braziller, of the eponymous publishing house, and by Ned Chase, (father of Chevy) who was editor in chief at Putnam’s, and asked by both of them do a book. My agent was the gentlemanly John Schaffner, whose eccentric family reminded everyone of the Sitwells. His wife, Perdita, had, it turned out, been secretary to James Jesus Angleton, literary scholar and chief of counterintelligence at the CIA. (His deputy was the novelist, William Hood.) Ned Chase took me to the legendary Billy’s, watering hole to the literary world, and told me he was going to give me a five book contract and that I was the “voice of your generation.” I floated back to the train and came home with the news. Braziller came to my house and sipped iced tea as he went through my book proposal, “Eagles Among the Lions.” He seemed genuinely pleased, even if he did drop the manuscript. I watched with horror as the pages slipped to the floor, but he quickly gathered them up with a broad smile, shook my hand vigorously and departed. This was it. I was in. Or so I thought.
A friend in the Hamptons who had read the Op Ed piece told me I should meet Peter Matthiessen, who wrote about the same sort of things. She got me together with him and a few other writers, but he was aloof and didn’t say anything to me. I shrugged it off and concentrated on doing a book proposal for Braziller and Chase.
My proposal described how, while traveling in the north of Ethiopia, I had witnessed American troops in combat in Axum, where I had gone to see the famous obelisks. At the airport, American troops in combat fatigues swarmed all over the place, with American helicopters landing and taking off. I could make out the voice of an American pilot through the static on the airport radio saying, “I’ve gotta come in for more ammunition. I can’t fly around here without more ammunition.”
What I had witnessed was Nixon’s secret war in Ethiopia to defend Hails Sellassie from the Tigre Liberation Front and the Eritrean Liberation Front, as they both sought to overthrow the backward, feudal regime and to secede. Most of my students at the university were in the revolution, but the Americans were still behind Haile Sellassie, an important ally in the Cold War. The Horn of Africa was of considerable strategic importance, with Cold Warriors such as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, believing the outcome of the struggle with the Soviet Union would be decided in the Ogaden. The insurgents were largely pro-Soviet, and if Ethiopia fell to the U.S.S.R., it would have a dagger at the heart of Saudi Arabia, just across the Red Sea. There had already been an uprising led by young Saudi air force officers against the Saudi royal family that American forces stationed at important bases in Ethiopia had put down, as an Air Force officer told me in confidence one night after a few too many beers.
Then, John Schaffner phoned to tell me that something strange had happened. George Braziller had rushed into his office, waving the proposal. He threw it at Schaffner, shouting, “I can’t do this,” and bolted out the door. Ned Chase then phoned him to tell him the deal was off, giving no reason. I paid a visit to Chase at his office to find out what had happened. He was extremely nervous and fidgeted with papers on his desk. “I can’t find the proposal,” he explained. “I think I’ve lost it. Anyway, it’s too late to do anything. I’m sorry.”
It hit me like a blow to the solar plexus. Schaffner was perplexed and found it unfathomable. He said that nothing like it had ever happened to him before in his career as an agent. “I don’t know what it is,” he said to me. “It’s highly unusual.” I had gambled a lot on my writing career, and now it lay in ruins. But then, Congress voted to impeach Nixon and the revolution came to Ethiopia on the night the Americans were staging a fashion show in Addis Ababa. Such was their obliviousness. Or their denial. Someone had photographed Haile Sellassie throwing meat to his pet lion, while millions of Ethiopians were starving to death. It was the “tipping point” of the revolution. As the country went through the torture of Nixon’s downfall, Senator Fulbright uncovered a secret agreement between Nixon and Haile Sellassie, in which America pledged to come to his rescue if he were threatened by an internal insurgency. It was completely beyond the scope of Nixon’s authority. But when did that ever matter to him? He had already authorized the mass, illegal spying by the CIA on Americans as the anti-war protests grew in size and force. Years later, Angus McKenzie would posthumously reveal in his book, “Secrets,” with knowledge obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, how the CIA had penetrated counterculture anti-war publications and shut them down. But Nixon was forced to resign, and his plans for a new Vietnam in Ethiopia were scratched, as was the infamous Huston plan, which would have effectively turned America into a police state. John Erlichman acknowledged as much. He asked me what I was doing during the Vietnam war. I told him I was working for McGovern. He looked straight at me and said, “You did the absolutely right thing.” Nixon’s righthand man, Erlichman had done time in prison, and was a sick and broken man when I met him in Atlanta. He died not long after I met him.
But with a revolutionary government in place in Addis Ababa, America abruptly did a turn around and began supporting the Eritrean secessionists, backing a new group, the Ethiopian Peoples Liberation Front, the EPLF, to displace the Marxist ELF. Professor Tesfatsion Medhane, an Eritrean who teaches at the University of Bremen, has documented this in his numerous publications. He was also my Amharic teacher and one of my students when I was teaching at the Haile Sellassie I University. And with my book safely out of the way, Thomas Kenneally surfaced with his “To Asmara,” a book extolling the great virtues of the Eritreans as they struggled for their independence from tyrannical Ethiopia. (Eritrea is today a totalitarian state, while Ethiopia is, more or less, a democracy.) When asked about this switch in American policy, Henry Kissinger famously remarked, “America has no permanent allies, only permanent interests.” America also seemed to have a convenient way of manipulating the American publishing industry.
Fast forward a few years later, at a Christmas party at the home of Swedish artist Hans Hokanson and his wife, Barbara. With a tall Christmas tree lit with real candles, a huge roast pig, endless amounts of glug and a crowd of artists and writers, including James Rosenquist, the New Yorker cartoonist Steinberg, and Peter Matthiessen, the place was throbbing to Jimmy Cliff. From across the room, I saw Matthiessen glaring at me. Barbara Hokanson made her way towards me, stopping in front of where I was sitting. She leaned over and in a whisper, said, “Peter wants me to tell you that you should feel lucky that he doesn’t let you get close to him, because he could really hurt you.” I looked up and saw Matthiessen, still glaring at me malevolently. “Why would he want to hurt me?” I asked, but Barbara had already turned and walked away. I shrugged off the incident, but filed it away in my subconscious.
After she started living with Matthiessen, Maria invited me to have lunch with her at Bobby Van’s to meet James Jones, who joined us. Matthiessen was there, as well. Jones, who was gracious and cordial, was drinking grapefruit juice, on the wagon because of a heart condition. Throughout the lunch, Matthiessen sat silently, occasionally giving me a strange glance. Maria was her usual gregarious self. I kept thinking how stunning she had looked at the Benson Gallery that summer, when she appeared barefoot, her hair wild, and she announced to me that she had left Julian and moved in with Peter. After she married Mathiessen, we met on the train. She seemed different, somewhat subdued. Rather gratuitously, she said, “Everything is a hoax.” “Everything?” I asked, incredulously. “Everything,” she answered.
My memory was jogged when, sometime later, still in the Seventies, the New York Times disclosed, without citing sources, that Matthiessen had been in the CIA and that his literary activities had been a cover for his intelligence work. “Was that the hoax?” I wondered. Did his comment to Barbara Hokanson that he could really hurt me have anything to do with his institutional affiliation? Matthiessen told friends that he had left the Agency in the Fifties, but did one ever really leave it? I had been active in the anti-war movement. In the days of Richard Nixon, that could spell trouble. There was the coup in Chile and the murder of Allende. After Nixon’s fall, the national security state perpetuated itself under Henry Kissinger, who stayed on under Gerald Ford as secretary of state. William Colby still headed the CIA. Nothing had really changed.
I pondered Matthiessen’s literary output. “Partisans” struck me as superficial and cynical and not particularly well written. “At Play In The Fields of the Lord,” I found to be a wooden and tedious book. “Far Tortuga,” written in a West Indian dialect, was impossible to get through and condescending, yet it ended up on the New York Times bestseller list. “The Snow Leopard,” I found to be pompous and utterly pretentious, but it, too, found its way onto the list. But his publisher was Farrar, Strauss and Giroux and Peter Matthiessen was a great writer, the mantra went, and the item in The New York Times faded from memory. His nature writing assignments took him to exotic places around the globe, he took up the cause, first of Caesar Chavez and then of the American Indians, and became a Buddhist monk.
It was after the publication in 1985 by Grove Press of “The Pied Piper,” my biography of Allard Lowenstein, that I found myself sitting next to Matthiessen’s ex-wife, Patsy Southgate at a dinner party at the home of Gaby Lieber Rodgers, ex-wife of Jerry Lieber, half of the rock and roll team of Lieber and Stoller. Barney Rosset and I had been duly vilified by Hendrik Hertzberg in The New York Review of Books, Ronald Radosh in The New York Times Book Review, and Myra McPherson, Ben Bradlee’s pit bull, in the Styles section of The Washington Post because I had outed Lowensteein, a civil rights and anti-war activist who had served one term in Congress and had been assassinated by Dennis Sweeney in 1980, as a CIA operative and a closet gay. McPherson, after belting down three martinis in the restaurant of the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, said, “Richard, you can’t say these things. I am going to have to trash you. You should have put this in a novel.” Martin Garbus, one of America’s leading civil liberties lawyers and attorney for Grove Press, asserted that the reviews had been “planted” by those who wanted Lowenstein’s CIA background kept secret and were not real reviews.
Patsy Southgate had been one of the most beautiful women of her generation. A Smith student, she was a fine writer and French translator who became engaged to Peter Matthiessen, who was at Yale. After a few vodkas and glasses of wine, she opened up to me and started talking about the CIA, something people did after the publication of “The Pied Piper.” She told me how Matthiessen had been recruited to the CIA at Yale to serve as an intelligence officer. After she and Matthiessen were married, they first went to CIA orientation and then to Paris, where Matthiessen’s assignment was to “found a literary magazine.” But founding a magazine was not within Matthiessen’s ken, so he befriended expatriate Harold Humes, who had attended MIT and who was starting a new literary publication that would feature interviews with writers, fiction and reviews of restaurants and clubs. Matthiessen provided funding from Sadruddin Aga Khan, the son of the Aga Khan, who had been John Train’s roommate at Harvard, and who agreed to serve as the magazine’s publisher. Train became managing editor. Then Matthiessen got rid of Humes and brought in his old friend from New York, George Plimpton, who had been studying English literature at King’s College, Cambridge, to replace him. Plimpton, who had gone to Groton and Harvard, was the son of Francis Plimpton, founder of the white shoe law firm of Debevoise, Plimpton (His partner was Eli Whitney Debevoise) who also served as counsel to the Democratic Party.
Humes was furious. After the first edition came out, he boarded the ship carrying the magazines, found them in the hold, and with a stamp he had made up, stamped them all “Harold Humes, Editor.” Humes, who never found out why he had lost his magazine, later went mad. Southgate, who disapproved of what Matthiessen was doing, gave him an ultimatum. She told him that he either left the Agency, or she would leave him. He didn’t, so she did. Matthiessen’s personal behavior didn’t endear him to her, either. She, as well as friends from Southgates’s and Matthiessen’s Paris days, took note of his dark side, and his occasional gratuitous acts of cruelty, that astonished them. Carol Southern, who was married to Terry Southern and knew Matthiesssen and Southgate in Paris, relates how Matthiessen made Southgate carry a case of wine up the stairs to their apartment while she was pregnant. On another occasion, while out driving, he deliberately drove over a turtle as it was trying to across the road. He was also stingy, as Maria Matthiessen would find out. Having given up what she described as her “cushy deal” married to Julian Koenig, who with Fred Papert, had founded Koenig, Papert, the hottest advertising firm in New York in the Sixties and early Seventies, with her posh house on Ocean Road in Bridgehampton, her lavish parties and a full-time West Indian housekeeper, she had to deal with Matthiessen’s austere lifestyle in his cottage in Sagaponack, as he doled out the pennies. Eventually, she was forced to take a job working as a gofer for Carol Phillips, who had founded Clinique and who had been married to Benny Goodman.
Meanwhile, Freddy Plimpton divorced George, took up yoga and became a full-time resident of the Hamptons. It happened suddenly, with George at a loss for why she dumped him. Was it for Patsy Southgate reasons? Freddy wasn’t saying. She was a stunningly attractive woman with enormous sex appeal but unlike Plimpton, was totally averse to the socialite mentality that consumed him. It was as though he could never reconcile his liberal political beliefs and his membership in the Racquet Club. Like many upper class liberal Democrats, he seemed to lack an integrated personality. He could rail against inequality and then participate in it without the slightest embarrassment, failing miserably to conflate his aristocratic predilections with his longing to be a bona fide member of the left.
After a period in which he was in a funk, he married Sarah, an heiress to a Minnesota mining fortune, who resembled Plimpton’s mother, at least physically. They also had in common that they were both from Cold Spring Harbor. Plimpton’s mother was one of the last of the great American grandes dames, a non-conformist whose social position was so secure, she was at complete ease in any situation. In this respect, she was the exact opposite of Francis Plimpton, a stiff and dour man with little or no sense of humor. At Marietta Tree’s legendary town house, where I met him, I found myself in a debate with him over Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence for Rhodesia, which violated the rights of the black majority. To my astonishment, Francis Plimpton, a supposedly liberal Democrat, who had served as an ambassador to the United Nations, supported the white racist Ian Smith and opposed the embargo placed on Rhodesia. I, on the other hand, had been commissioned by the U.C.LA. Law Review to write an article on the illegality of the UDI, which I did, with complete conviction. After I submitted it and it was accepted, I was notified by the new editor in chief that it was being lifted from type set and would not be published. America was violating the embargo because it needed the chrome for military reasons in Vietnam. But the U.C.L.A. Law Review? I had been asked to teach at U.C.L.A. Law School when I was in Ethiopia. Surely they were not part of the national security state. In any event, I got it published by the N.Y.U. Journal of International Law and Politics.
There was no arguing with Francis Plimpton, so I switched the topic to his daughter’s psychological novel she told me she was working on. But George’s mother was another matter entirely. At a party in honor of James Merrill at his glamorous duplex apartment on the Upper East Side overlooking the Hudson, she objected to the fact that there was “nothing to nosh on” with the drinks. “George, don’t you have any peanuts, at least?” she scolded him. He sheepishly confessed that he didn’t have any. At that, she grabbed my arm and we raced to the elevator, down and out onto the street. Storming along looking for a store, she finally spotted a bodega and we entered. The Puerto Rican proprietor was bewildered by her sense of urgency about the peanuts, scurrying around until he located two jars of Planters. Back in the apartment, she tore into the kitchen and reappeared with a bunch of small dishes and poured the peanuts into them, placing the dishes on tables in various locations. Helping herself to a fistful, she began downing them as she gulped her martini, listening benignly to Sarah complain about a new apartment building that was going up that threatened their view. Then, before we began dinner, Plimpton introduced James Merrill and Richard Howard, who was the poetry editor of The Paris Review, and lauded Sadruddin Aga Khan as the benefactor whose generosity, as publisher, had made The Paris Review possible. I noticed Plimpton’s mother with a wry grin on her face. Did she know something I didn’t?
What puzzles me is that when Plimpton’s memory is honored, there are accolades to his father, but never any mention of his unpretentious mother, who was clearly responsible for his buoyant and exuberant side. Louis Begley was guilty of this omission in an event at Guild Hall in East Hampton, at which Peter Matthiessen also spoke. Begley, a successful novelist and corporate lawyer, had been Francis Plimpton’s law partner, so his gratitude to the father is understandable, but George’s mother probably made him uncomfortable. Candor has a way of doing that to people.
As I was leaving the party, Plimpton asked me if I was going to attend the 40th anniversary celebration of The Paris Review in Paris, Mississippi, that he was planning, with events and parties in nearby Oxford, and, of course, fireworks. “Gosh, that’s a long way to go,” I said. “It will be worth it,” Plimpton winked. It would be, but not for the reasons Plimpton probably imagined. But Paris Review celebrations were always major events. The one at Tony Duke’s Boys Harbor featured an array of American literary celebrities, including the two Normans, Mailer and Rush, with lavish food and drink. For a small literary magazine, it had a way of generating a considerable amount of attention. I was definitely going to Oxford, Mississippi, home to William Faulkner and Ole Miss.
I checked into the guest lodge on the campus of Ole Miss. On the walls were photographs of legendary athletes as well as the beauties who had won Miss America titles. Ole Miss had more Miss America winners than any other institution in the country and a stroll on the campus showed me why. Gorgeous, beautifully dressed and groomed young women were everywhere, smiling and greeting me graciously with a polite, “Hello, sir,” in languid southern accents. Not for nothing had Plimpton picked this place. I caught the exhibit of Paris Review covers by famous artists that were on display at the museum and headed over to downtown Oxford for dinner.
I found a restaurant in a hotel on the square and after a dinner of New Southern Cuisine (shrimp with grits), I sat down on a sofa in the lobby. In walked Plimpton, resplendent in a blue blazer, his white mane glorious in its disarray. He gave me a huge smile and invited me top join him and some friends for drinks later that night at a bar in Oxford, providing me directions.
It was the night of the Ole Miss-Tulane basketball game and the place was packed with undergraduates partying in the manic manner of the southern elite. Smoke filled the room and a zydeko band blasted away in the background. In the chaos, I managed to locate Plimpton by the sight of his head. He was seated at a table with a number of people. He looked up and saw me, signaling for me to join him. Besides George, at the table were William Styron, Willie Morris, whom I knew from Bridgehampton and his Bobby Van’s days, George’s new wife, Sarah, and the then managing editor of The Paris Review, James Linville, whom everyone called Jamie. I sat down at the end of the table next to Linville, with Plimpton opposite me. Waiters kept bringing huge pitchers of beer, which everyone devoured from mugs. I knew that Styron was supposed to be on the wagon, but he was drinking also.
Gratuitously, Linville told me that he had read “The Pied Piper.” “The stuff about the CIA is fascinating,” he said. Then, without skipping a beat, he added. “ Peter Matthiessen was in the CIA. The Paris Review was his cover. Peter is haunted by the CIA.” I looked up and saw George, who was leaning over so far his chin was practically in my beer mug. He had heard every word but said nothing. Why Linville had volunteered this to me in these circumstances puzzled me. I thanked him for reading my book but said nothing further about the CIA. There was a forced conviviality that I found unnerving. Plimpton was somewhat cooler towards me and eyes narrowed a bit as he looked at Linville, but otherwise, he gave no indication that there was anything wrong in the slightest. We all drank and talked until it was quite late and departed.
Richard Cummings is the author of “The Pied Piper-Allard K. Lowenstein and the Liberal Dream” and the comedy, “Soccer Moms From Hell.” He has taught at the Haile Sellassie I University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados, and received the Ph.D. in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge.