I’ve always been a bit obsessed by mastheads, and one of my favorite mastheads to peruse is that of The Paris Review. The print is very small, because there are so many names to fit on the page. The normal fluctuations of people arriving and vanishing from a magazine do not apply here; a name might get moved from one category to another (the trend is usually upward), but as far as I can tell once you have made it onto the masthead you are there to stay.
There are currently eight people listed under the term, “editors,” at the top. This is followed by a list spelling out some familiar roles at a literary magazine (managing editor, editor at large, senior editor) and some less familiar roles (Paris editor, London editor, assistant London editor). Then there are the “special consultants,” the “contributing editors” and finally the “advisory editors,” all with a clump of names beneath them, many of them familiar. Then come lists of the previous poetry editors, art editors, publishers and, finally, at the bottom, the founding editors.
In this last group of six there recurs a name from the top of the page, George Plimpton. Connecting the Plimpton at the top with the one the bottom is the only clue offered about how a magazine founded in 1953 is still going strong 50 years later.
Plimpton was many things in addition to being editor of The Paris Review. You can only list so many accomplishments in an obituary, and in the days since his death I came across one that simply said: “He wrote ‘Paper Lion,’ appeared in several movies and his voice was featured on ‘The Simpsons’.”
The Paris Review did not make the cut. When I read this my first thought was that this is exactly the sort of thing that Plimpton himself would have enjoyed recounting. He was, on one hand, a remarkably resilient and self-assured man. On the other, he had a literary ego as nakedly ambitious and fragile as any writer. He kept track of the insults, slights and underappreciations that came his way, invariably turning them into fodder for comedy in the retelling.
But I didn’t know Plimpton that well, so perhaps I’m just projecting. If so, I’m not alone. Plimpton was an avatar of a particular kind of male experience: the sporting experience. But a tacit sport that he engaged in was the evasion of, or the braving of, all sorts of projections that came at him, from men and women alike. About the vibes he got from women I will not speculate. About the vibes he got from men I don’t have to speculate; I was for a period of time one of those young writers standing around at a Paris Review party clutching a gin and tonic, filled with chest-pumping adrenaline that felt vaguely similar to getting into a fight. But what was there to fight about? It was a party. No one had delivered any insult—yet—but one was somehow felt. Looking back on those years, which for me were in the late-’80s and early-’90s, the insult was an anti-gesture. No one knew who you were or cared. And who was the most conspicuous not-knower? Who was the person to whom all grievances could be addressed? The host, of course, to whom you were nothing but cordial when you actually shook hands. After all, it was his party, and you were having a great time.
What’s amazing to me, looking back on it now, is that I was just one of wave of upon wave of drink-clutchers who had been showing up at Paris Review parties for decades before I arrived, and for more than a decade since. George greeted them all, however briefly. Most writers, once they get to a certain level of fame, tend to keep their head down precisely to duck this random, negative—or at least weird—energy.
Plimpton kept his head up. He didn’t just edit The Paris Review, he hosted it, extending the metaphor of a magazine as a kind of party into his own home. His appetite for socializing seemed integral to the energy he put into and drew from his magazine. It was in this context that I gradually came to know him over the years. Somewhere along the line he began to make these off-hand remarks complimenting Open City, the literary magazine I cofounded in 1990, in a way that seemed remarkably generous and sincere.
It’s interesting to consider Plimpton’s activities as a participatory journalist in light of his work on The Paris Review. The activities he participated in were mostly in the realm of sports, where at the very least there was an overlap between his gentlemanly manner and the idea of sportsmanship. Engaging with literature takes you much further outside yourself than you can get on your own.
The weekend I heard about his death (and a whole new literary genre seems to have sprung up in the wake of the news, in which all sorts of people were either reading him, were reading about him, had a message on their answering machine from him, were about to call, had just seen him … the man was busy) I was immersed in Robert Lipsyte’s fascinating book, published in 1975, “Sportsworld.” It contains this nugget on Plimpton, which pops up in the middle of a reflection on football in the ’60s in general, and coach Vince Lombardi in particular: Lombardi “was also capable of sighs and grunts and guffaws and snorts and rasping and bawling and stompings out and whirlings around that somehow made the Ivy League cool of the fifties and early sixties seem effete. In ‘The Decline of the Wasp,’ Peter Shrag writes, ‘The uncouth boor had taken over. He controls the imagination while the rest of us watch from a safe distance and send our man Plimpton to report back on how it feels … in those precincts of action which seem forever beyond our reach.'”
Mine was a particularly meta experience—I was reading a book that quoted another book talking about Plimpton.
Lipsyte continues: “Whether he was spying or slumming, Plimpton’s superbly crafted reports turned out to be major definers of the experience he infiltrated.”
Perhaps Lipsyte was doing a bit of projecting himself, as “Sportsworld” is in part a meditation on the uneasy relationship between journalist and subject, spying and slumming. Plimpton, for his part, never seemed bothered by these distinctions. He was so himself, he could do something else and it was still him doing something else.
This past summer The Paris Review sent a questionnaire out to editors of literary journals. There was a list of questions (#4. What was your magazine’s darkest hour?) that all amounted to reframing of the question: why do you do it?
These questions sounded like the ones magicians and writers often get of the “What is the trick? How do you do it?” variety. Finally, they all sounded particularly disingenuous coming from Plimpton. He obviously knew the answer to them all, he’d been doing it for 50 years!
Contemplating that figure, I was impressed with not just the quality of the magazine over that time but the stamina. The Paris Reviews you find on street corners that are 20 or 30 years old are totally fascinating, both for the ways they do and do not date. They are the product of many editorial sensibilities shepherded and shaped into one continuous strand.
The questionnaire started a conversation, though, and one of the main reasons to do a literary magazine (defined by me as: a primary source composed of fiction, poems, essays) is to have a conversation. The conversation may have started with complaints—about the world, the culture, literature, magazines—and the magazine is an answer to that complaint. It has as its primary motivation: a yes, not a no. Of course you end up having to say no all the time when you do a magazine—The Paris Review’s bathroom was lined, like a bomb shelter, with thousands of manila envelopes waiting to be opened—but the general spirit of the activity is a yes—making an offering to the world of things you think are alive. So the magazine is a rebuttal to your own doubt. You could say the same thing about writing.
His questionnaire made a disparaging remark about the audience for magazines like The Paris Review— publications filled with stories, poems, essays, artwork and all sorts of do-dads of no immediately evident usefulness. OK, reaching 200 or 2,000 or 20,000—where does one draw the line between small and big?—is different from making millions of dollars selling what you do to a wide audience. But it is a real connection, nonetheless, and also fun most of the time. That sheer enjoyment is a simple enough reason to put out a magazine was a feeling Plimpton was always able to convey.
I still remember the time a few years ago when Plimpton and I and a few other people closed down the PEN literary gala. The 400 people in black tie were festive enough for drinks and dinner, but they cleared out with remarkable speed at the end of the night. The ice cream with desert had barely melted and the crowd had been reduced to a handful standing at the bar for a nightcap, watching someone go from table to table blowing out the votive candles. We went across the street for a last drink and George told stories.
One involved calling John O’Hara to ask if he would be interviewed for The Paris Review. O’Hara listened to Plimpton but did not speak. “He just panted into the phone,” said George. “I could hear him breathing.” O’Hara then hung up on George. Apparently he was offended that The Paris Review had done an interview with Hemingway before they had asked him.
It occurs to me now that The Paris Review interview I most regret never took place was the one with George Plimpton. Conducted, ideally, by George Plimpton.