Looking for Hemingway
On George Plimpton and the founders of The Paris Review.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
Early in the fifties another young generation of American expatriates in Paris became twenty-six years old, but they were not Sad Young Men, nor were they Lost; they were the witty, irreverent sons of a conquering nation and, though they came mostly from wealthy parents and had been graduated from Harvard or Yale, they seemed endlessly delighted in posing as paupers and dodging the bill collectors, possibly because it seemed challenging and distinguished them from American tourists, whom they despised, and also because it was another way of having fun with the French, who despised them. Nevertheless, they lived in happy squalor on the Left Bank for two or three years amid the whores, jazz musicians, and pederast poets, and became involved with people both tragic and mad, including a passionate Spanish painter who one day cut open a vein in his leg and finished his final portrait with his own blood.
In July they drove down to Pamplona to run from the bulls, and when they returned they played tennis with Irwin Shaw at Saint-Cloud on a magnificent court overlooking Paris—and, when they tossed up the ball to serve, there,sprawled before them, was the whole city: the Eiffel Tower, Sacre-Coeur, the Opera, the spires of Notre Dame in the distance. Irwin Shaw was amused by them. He called them “The Tall Young Men.”
The tallest of them, at six feet four inches, was George Ames Plimpton, a quick, graceful tennis player with long, skinny limbs, a small head, bright blue eyes and a delicate, fine-tipped nose. He had come to Paris in 1952, at the age of twenty-six, because several other tall young Americans—and some short wild ones—were publishing a literary quarterly to be called The Paris Review, over the mild protest of one of their staff members, a poet, who wanted it to be calledDruids’ Home Companion and its cover to be birch bark. George Plimpton was made editor-in-chief, and soon he could be seen strolling through the streets of Paris with a long woolen scarf flung around his neck, cutting a figure reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous lithograph of Aristide Bruant, that dashing litterateur of the nineteenth century.
Though much of the editing of The Paris Review was done at sidewalk cafés by editors awaiting their turns on the pin-ball machine, the magazine nonetheless became very successful because the editors had talent, money, and taste, and they avoided using such typical little-magazine words as “Zeitgeist” and “dichotomous,” and published no crusty critiques about Melville or Kafka, but instead printed the poetry and fiction of gifted young writers not yet popular. They also started a superb series of interviews with famous authors, who took them to lunch and introduced them to actresses, playwrights, and producers; and everybody invited everybody else to parties, and the parties have not stopped even though a decade has passed, Paris is no longer the scene, and the Tall Young Men have become thirty-six years old.
They now live in New York. And most of the parties are held at George Plimpton’s large bachelor apartment on Seventy-second Street overlooking the East River, an apartment that is also the headquarters for what Elaine Tynan calls “The Quality Lit Set,” or what Candida Donadio, the agent, calls “The East Side Gang,” or what everybody else just calls “The Paris Review Crowd.”
The parties are usually long and lively, and there are lots of pretty girls and writers and critics, and on the walls there are many photographs of George Plimpton: one shows him fighting small bulls in Spain with Hemingway, another catches him drinking beer with other Tall Young Men at a Paris café, others show him as a lieutenant marching a platoon of troops through Rome, as a tennis player for King’s College, as an amateur prizefighter sparring with Archie Moore in Stillman’s Gymnasium, an occasion during which the rancid smell of the gymnasium was temporarily replaced by the musk of EI Morocco and the cheers of George Plimpton’s friends when he scored with a solid jab. But those quickly changed to ”Ohhhhhhhhs” when Archie Moore retaliated with a punch that broke part of the cartilage in Plimpton’s nose, causing it to bleed and causing Miles Davis to ask afterward, “Archie, is that black blood or white blood on your gloves?,” to which one of Plimpton’s friends replied, “Sir, that is blue blood.”
Also on the wall is a one-stringed musical instrument made of goatskin that Bedouin tribesmen gave Plimpton prior to his doing a walk-on in Lawrence of Arabia; and above his baby grand piano-he plays it well enough to have won a tie-for-third-prize on Amateur Night at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem—is a coconut sent him by a lady swimmer he knows in Palm Beach, and also a photograph of another girl, Vali, the orange-haired Existentialist known to all Left Bank concierges as la bête, and also a major-league baseball that Plimpton occasionally hurls full distance across the living room into a short, chunky stuffed chair, using the same windup as when he pitched against big-league hitters while researching his book Out of My League, which concerns how it feels to be an amateur among pros—and which, incidentally, is not only a possible key to George Ames Plimpton but to some others on The Paris Reviewas well.
They are obsessed, many of them, by the wish to know how the other half lives. And so they befriend the more interesting of the odd, avoid the downtown dullards on Wall Street, and dip into the world of the junkie, the pederast, the prizefighter, and the adventurer in pursuit of kicks and literature, being influenced perhaps by that glorious generation of ambulance drivers that preceded them to Paris at the age of twenty-six.
In Paris in the early fifties, Irwin Shaw was a sort of pater familias to them because, in the words of Thomas Guinzburg, a Yale man then managing editor of The Paris Review, “Shaw was a tough, tennis-playing, hard-drinking writer with a good-looking wife—the closest thing we had to Hemingway.” Of course editor-in-chief George Plimpton, then as now, kept the magazine going, kept the group together, and set a style of romanticism that was—and is—infectious.
Arriving in Paris in the spring of 1952 with a wardrobe that included the tails his grandfather had worn in the twenties, and which Plimpton himself had worn in 1951 while attending a ball in London as an escort to the future Queen of England, he moved immediately into a tool shed behind a house owned by Gertrude Stein’s nephew. Since the door of the shed was jammed, Plimpton, to enter it, had to hoist himself, his books, and his grandfather’s tails through the window. His bed was a long, thin cot flanked by a lawn mower and garden hose, and was covered by an electric blanket that Plimpton could never remember to turn off—so that, when he returned to the shed at night and plopped into the cot, he was usually greeted by the angry howls of several stray cats reluctant to leave the warmth that his forgetfulness had provided.
One lonely night, before returning home, Plimpton took a walk through Montparnasse down the same streets and past the same cafés that Jake Barnes took after leaving Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises. He wanted to see what Hemingway had seen, to feel what Hemingway had felt. Then, the walk over, he went into the nearest bar and ordered a drink.
In 1952 The Paris Review’s headquarters was a one-room office at 8 Rue Garancière. It was furnished with a desk, four chairs, a bottle of brandy, and several lively, long-legged Smith and Radcliffe girls who were anxious to get onto the masthead so that they might convince their parents back home of their innocence abroad. But so many young women came and went that Plimpton’s business manager, a small, sharp-tongued Harvard wit named John P. C. Train, decided it was ridiculous to try to remember all their names, whereupon he declared that they should henceforth all be called by one name—“Apthecker.” And the Apthecker alumnae came to include, at one time or another, Jane Fonda, Joan Dillon Moseley (daughter of Treasury Secretary Dillon), Gail Jones (daughter of Lena Horne), and Louisa Noble (daughter of the Groton football coach), a very industrious but forgetful girl who was endlessly losing manuscripts, letters, dictionaries, and, one day after John P. C. Train received a letter from a librarian complaining that Miss Noble was a year overdue on a book, he wrote back:
I take the liberty of writing to you in my own hand because Miss L. Noble took with her the last time she left this office the typewriter on which I was accustomed to compose these messages. Perhaps when she comes into your library you will ask if we might not have this machine.
Subscription blank enclosed.
Yours faithfully, J. P. C. Train
Since The Paris Review’s one-room office obviously was too small to fulfill the staff’s need for mixing business with pleasure, and since there was also a limit to the number of hours they could spend at cafés, everybody would usually gather at 5 P.M. at the apartment of Peter and Patsy Matthiessen on 14 Rue Perceval, where by that time a party was sure to be in progress.
Peter Matthiessen, then fiction editor of The Paris Review, was a tall, thin Yale graduate who as a youngster had attended St. Bernard’s School in New York with George Plimpton, and who now was working on his first novel, Race Rock. Patsy was a small lovely, vivacious blonde with pale blue eyes and a marvelous figure, and all the boys of twenty-six were in love with her. She was the daughter of the late Richard Southgate, one-time Chief of Protocol for the State Department, and Patsy had gone to the right lawn parties, had chauffeurs and governesses and, in her junior year at Smith, in 1948, had come to Paris and met Peter. Three years later, married, they returned to Paris and acquired for $21 a month this apartment in Montparnasse that had been left vacant when Peter’s old girl friend had gone off to Venezuela.
The apartment had high ceilings, a terrace and lots of sun. On one wall was a Foujita painting of a gigantic head of a cat. The other wall was all glass, and there were large trees against the glass and wild growth crawling up it, and visitors to this apartment often felt that they were in a monstrous fishbowl, particularly by 6 P.M., when the room was floating with Dutch gin and absinthe and the cat’s head seemed bigger, and a few junkies would wander in, nod, and settle softly, soundlessly in the corner.
This apartment, in the fifties, was as much a meeting place for the young American literati as was Gertrude Stein’s apartment in the twenties, and it also caught the atmosphere that would, in the sixties, prevail at George Plimpton’s apartment in New York.
William Styron, often at the Matthiessens’, describes their apartment in his novel Set This House on Fire, and other novelists there were John Phillips Marquand and Terry Southern, and sometimes James Baldwin, and nearly always Harold L. Humes, a chunky, indefatigable, impulsive young man with a beard, beret and a silver-handled umbrella. After being dismissed from M.LT. for taking a Radcliffe girl sailing several hours beyond her bedtime, and after spending an unhappy tour with the Navy making mayonnaise in Bainbridge, Maryland, Harold Humes burst onto the Paris scene in full rebellion.
He became a chess hustler in cafés, earning several hundred francs a night. It was in the cafés that he met Peter Matthiessen, and they both talked of starting a little magazine that would be The Paris Review. Before coming to Paris, Humes had never worked on a magazine, but had grown fond of a little magazine called Zero, edited by a small Greek named Themistocles Hoetes, whom everybody called “Them.”
Impressed by what Them had done with Zero, Humes purchased for $600 a magazine called The Paris News Post, which John Ciardi later called the “best fourth-rate imitation of The New Yorker I have ever seen,” and to which Matthiessen felt condescendingly superior, and so Humes sold it for $600 to a very nervous English girl, under whom it collapsed one issue later. Then Humes and Matthiessen and others began a long series of talks on what policy, if any, they would follow should The Paris Review ever get beyond the talking and drinking stages.
When the magazine was finally organized, and when George Plimpton was selected as its editor instead of Humes, Humes was disappointed. He refused to leave the cafés to sell advertising or negotiate with French printers. And in the summer of 1952 he did not hestitate to leave Paris with William Styron, accepting an invitation from a French actress, Madame Nénot, to go down to Cap Myrt, near Saint-Tropez, and visit her fifty-room villa that had been designed by her father, a leading architect. The villa had been occupied by the Germans early in the war. And so when Styron and Humes arrived they found holes in its walls, through which they could look out to the sea, and the grass was so high and the trees so thick with grapes that Humes’s little Volkswagen became tangled in the grass.
So they went on foot toward the villa, but suddenly stopped when they saw, rushing past them, a young, half-naked girl, very brown from the sun, wearing only handkerchiefs tied bikini-style, her mouth spilling with grapes. Screaming behind her was a lecherous-looking old French farmer whose grape arbor she obviously had raided.
”Styron,” Humes cried, gleefully, ”we have arrived!”
“Yes,” he said, “we are here!”
More nymphets came out of the trees in bikinis later, carrying grapes and also half cantaloupes the size of cart-wheels, and they offered some to Styron and Humes. The next day they all went swimming and fishing and, in the evening, they sat in the bombed-out villa, a breathtaking site of beauty and destruction, drinking wine with the young girls, who seemed to belong only to the beach. It was an electric summer, with the nymphets batting around like moths against the screen. Styron remembers it as a scene out of Ovid, Humes as the high point of his career as an epicurean and scholar.
George Plimpton remembers that summer not romantically, but as it was—a long, hot summer of frustration with French printers and advertisers; and the other Review staff members, particularly John P. C. Train, were so annoyed at Humes’s departure that they decided they would drop his name from the top of the masthead, where he belonged as one of the founders, down to near the bottom under “advertising and circulation. “
When the first issue of The Paris Review came out, in the spring of 1953, Humes was in the United States. But he had heard what they had done to him and, infuriated, he now planned his revenge. When the ship arrived at the Hudson River pier with the thousands of Paris Reviews that would be distributed throughout the United States, Harold Humes, wearing his beret and swearing, ”Le Paris Review c’est moi!” was at the dock waiting for them; soon he had ripped the cartons open and, with a rubber stamp bearing his name; in letters larger than any on the masthead, he began to pound his name in red over the masthead of each issue, a feat that took several hours to accomplish and which left him, in the end, totally exhausted.
“But. . . but. . . how could you have done such a thing?” George Plimpton asked when he next saw Humes.
Humes was now sad, almost tearful; but, with a final flash of vengeance, he said, “I am damned well not going to get shoved around!”
Rages of this sort were to become quite common at The Paris Review, but despite them The Paris Review did very well, publishing fine stories by such younger writers as Philip Roth, Mac Hyman, Pati Hill, Evan Connell, Jr., and Hughes Rudd, and, of course, distinguishing itself most of all by its “Art of Fiction” interviews with famous authors, particularly the one with William Faulkner by Jean Stein vanden Heuvel and the one with Ernest Hemingway by Plimpton, which began in a Madrid café with Hemingway asking Plimpton, “You go to the races?”
“Then you read The Racing Form,” Hemingway said.
“There you have the true Art of Fiction.”
But, as much as anything else, The Paris Review survived because it had money. And its staff members had fun because they knew that, should they ever land in jail, their friends or families would always bail them out. They would never have to share with James Baldwin the experience of spending eight days and nights in a dirty French cell on the erroneous charge of having stolen a bed sheet from a hotel-keeper, all of which led Baldwin to conclude that, while the wretched round of hotel rooms, bad food, humiliating concierges, and unpaid bills may have been the “Great Adventure” for the Tall Young Men, it was not for him because, he said, “there was a real question in my mind as to which would end soonest, the Great Adventure or me.”
The comparative opulence of The Paris Review, of course, made it the envy of the other little magazines, particularly the staff members of a quarterly calledMerlin, some of whose editors charged the Review people with dilettantism, resented their pranks, resented that the Review would continue to be published while Merlin, which had also discovered and printed new talent, would soon fold.
In those days Merlin’s editor was Alexander Trocchi, born in Glasgow of a Scotch mother and Italian father, a very exciting, tall and conspicuous literary figure with a craggy, satanic face, faun’s ears, a talent for writing, and a powerful presence that enabled him to walk into any room and take charge. He would soon become a friend of George Plimpton, John Phillips Marquand, and the other Review people, and years later he would come to New York to live on a barge, and still later in the back room of The Paris Review’s Manhattan office, but eventually he would be arrested on narcotics charges, would jump bail, and would leave the United States carrying two Brooks Brothers suits which he had borrowed from George Plimpton. But he would also leave behind a good novel about drug addiction, Cain’s Book, with its memorable line: “Heroin is habit-forming. . . habit-forming . . . rabbit-forming. . . Babbitt-forming.”
Alexander Trocchi’s staff at Merlin in those days was made up largely of humorless young men in true rebellion, which The Paris Review staff was not; the Merlin crowd also read the leftist monthly Les Temps Modernes, and were concerned with the importance of being engage. Their editors included Richard Seaver, who was reared in the Pennsylvania coal mine district and in whose dark, humid Paris garage Merlin held its staff meetings, and also Austryn Wainhouse, a dis-enchanted Exeter-Harvard man who wrote a strong, esoteric novel, Hedyphagetica, and who, after several years in France, is now living in Martha’s Vineyard building furniture according to the methods of the eighteenth century.
While the entire Merlin staff was poor, none was so poor as a poet named Christopher, about whom it was said that once, when playing a pinball machine in a café, he noticed a ragged old peasant lady staring at a five-franc piece lying on the floor near the machine, but before she could pick it up Christopher’s foot quickly reached out and stomped on it.
He kept his foot there while the old lady screamed and while he continued, rather jerkily, to hold both hands to the machine trying to keep the ball bouncing—and did, until the owner of the café grabbed him and escorted him out.
Some time later, when Christopher’s girl friend left him, he came under the influence of a wild Svengali character then living in Paris, a pale, waxen-faced painter who was a disciple of Nietzsche and his dictum “Die at the right time,” and who, looking for kicks, actually encouraged Christopher to commit suicide-which Christopher, in his depressed state, said he would do.
Austryn Wainhouse, who had suspected that suicide was very much on Christopher’s mind, had spent the following week sitting outside of Christopher’s hotel each night watching his window, but one afternoon when Christopher was late for a luncheon date with Wainhouse, the latter rushed to the poet’s hotel and there, on the bed, was the painter.
“Where’s Chris?” Wainhouse demanded.
“I am not going to tell you,” the painter said. “You can beat me if you wish; you’re bigger and stronger than I, and. . .”
“I don’t want to beat you,” Wainhouse shouted. It then occurred to him how ridiculous was the painter’s remark since he (Wainhouse) was actually much smaller and hardly stronger than the painter. “Look,” he said, finally, “don’t you leave here,” and then he ran quickly to a café where he knew he would find Trocchi.
Trocchi got the painter to talk and admit that Christopher had left that morning for Perpignan, near the Spanish border twelve hours south of Paris, where he planned to commit suicide in much the same way as the character in the Samuel Beckett story in Merlin entitled “The End”—he would hire a boat and row out to sea, further and further, and then pull up the plugs and slowly sink.
Trocchi, borrowing thirty thousand francs from Wainhouse, hopped on the next train for Perpignan, five hours behind Christopher. It was dark when he arrived, but early the next morning he began his search.
Christopher, meanwhile, had tried to rent a boat, but did not have enough money. He also carried with him, along with some letters from his former girl friend, a tin of poison, but he did not have an opener, nor were there rocks on the beach, and so he wandered about, frustrated and frantic, until he finally came upon a refreshment stand where he hoped to borrow an opener.
It was then that the tall figure of Trocchi spotted him and placed a hand on Christopher’s shoulder. Christopher looked up.
“Alex,” Christopher said, casually handing him the tin of poison, “will you open this for me?”
Trocchi put the tin in his pocket.
”Alex,” Christopher then said, “what are you doing here?”
“Oh,” Trocchi said lightly, “I’ve come down to embarrass you.”
Christopher broke down in tears, and Trocchi helped him off the beach, and then they rode, almost in total silence, back to Paris on the train.
Immediately George Plimpton and several others on The Paris Review who were very fond of Christopher, and proud of Trocchi, raised enough money to put Christopher on a kind of monthly allowance. Later Christopher returned to London and published books of poetry, and his plays were performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Still later he began to write songs for The Establishment, London’s satirical night-club act.
After the suicide episode, which, according to George Plimpton, sent at least a half-dozen young novelists to their typewriters trying to build a book around it, life in Paris at the Review was once more happy and ribald—but, a year later with the Review still doing well, Paris slowly seemed to pall. Paris was, as Gertrude Stein suggested, the right place for twenty-six, but now most of them were thirty years old. And so they returned to New York—but not in the melancholy mood of Malcolm Cowley’s exiles of the twenties, who were forced home during the early currents of the crash, but rather with the attitude that the party would now shift to the other side of the Atlantic. Soon New York was aware of their presence, particularly the presence of Harold L. Humes.
After taking over a large apartment on upper Broadway with his wife, his daughters, and his unclipped wirehaired terrier, and installing seven telephones and a large paper cutter that has the cracking eighteenth-century sound of a guillotine, Humes lashed out with a series of ideas and tall deeds: he hit on a theory of cosmology that would jolt Descartes, finished a second novel, played piano in a Harlem jazz club, began to shoot a movie called Don Peyote, a kind of Greenwich Village version of Don Quixote starring an unknown from Kansas City named Ojo de Vidrio, whose girl friend eventually grabbed the film and ran off with it. Humes also invented a paper house, an actual paper house that is waterproof, fireproof, and large enough for people to live in; he set up a full-sized model on the Long Island estate of George Plimpton’s family, and Humes’s corporation, which included some backers from The Paris Reviewcrowd, insured Humes’s brain for $1,000,000.
During the Democratic National Convention in 1960, Humes led a phalanx of screaming Stevensonians onto the scene after employing the gate-crashing techniques of the ancient armies of Athens. When back in New York he called for an investigation of the New York police force, whereupon the police commissioner called for an investigation of Humes—and discovered fourteen unpaid traffic tickets. Humes went to jail just long enough to be discovered by the Commissioner of Corrections, Anna Kross, who upon recognizing him behind bars said, “Why, Mr. Humes, what are you doing in there?,” to which he responded with Thoreau’s line to Emerson, “Why, Miss Kross, what are youdoing out there?”
And at the same time, on East Seventy-second Street, the Plimpton parties continue—often being planned only a few hours before they begin. George Plimpton will pick up the phone and call a few people. They, in turn, will call others. Soon there is the thunder of feet ascending the Plimpton staircase. The inspiration for the party may have been that Plimpton won a court-tennis match earlier that day at the Racquet and Tennis Club, or that one member of The Paris Review crowd has a book coming out (in which case the publisher is invited to share the expenses), or that a member has just returned to Manhattan from a trip—a trip that might have carried John P. C. Train, a financial speculator, to Africa, or Peter Matthiessen to New Guinea to live with Stone Age tribesmen, or Harold Humes to the Bronx to fight in court over a parking ticket.
And, in giving so many parties, in giving out keys to his apartment, in keeping the names of old friends on The Paris Review masthead long after they have ceased to work for it, George Ames Plimpton has managed to keep the crowd together all these years, and has also created around himself a rather romantic world, a free, frolicsome world within which he, and they, may briefly escape the inevitability of being thirty-six.
It exudes charm, talent, beauty, adventure. It is the envy of the uninvited, particularly of some child-bearing Aptheckers in the suburbs who often ask, “When is that group going to settle down?” Some in the group, like George Plimpton, have remained bachelors. Others have married women who like parties—or have been divorced. Still others have an understanding that, if the wife is too tired for a party, the husband goes alone. It is largely a man’s world, all of them bound by their memories of Paris and the Great Adventure they shared, and it has very few exiles, although it has had someone being the beautiful blonde who was very much on everyone’s mind in Paris ten years ago, Patsy Matthiessen.
Patsy and Peter are divorced. She is now married to Michael Goldberg, an abstract painter, lives on West Eleventh Street, and moves in the little world of downtown intellectuals and painters. Recently she spent several days in a hospital after being bitten by the dog of the widow of Jackson Pollock. In her apartment she has a cardboard box full of snapshots of The Paris Review crowd of the fifties. But she remembers those days with some bitterness.
“The whole life seemed after a while to be utterly meaningless,” she said. “And there was something very manqué about them—this going to West Africa, and getting thrown in jail, and getting in the ring with Archie Moore… And I was a Stepin Fetchit in that crowd, getting them tea at four, and sandwiches at ten…”
A few blocks away, in a small, dark apartment, another exile, James Baldwin, said, “It didn’t take long before I really was no longer a part of them. They were more interested in kicks and hashish cigarettes than I was. I had already done that in the Village when I was eighteen or seventeen. It was a little boring by then.”
“They also used to go to Montparnasse, where all the painters and writers went, and where I hardly went. And they used to go there and hang around at the cafés for hours and hours looking for Hemingway. They didn’t seem to realize,” he said, “that Hemingway was long gone.”
Gay Talese is a bestselling author who has written eleven books. He was a reporter for the New York Times from 1956 to 1965, and since then he has written for the Times, Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and other national publications.