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     The ULA Monday Report!

    This week's report by Richard Cummings

The Fiction of the State: The Paris Review
and the Invisible World of American Letters
[Part 1]
                   
          
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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.

                    
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……………………………………………………………………………………………

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.  






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