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Still in the game

At times it was a struggle, but George Plimpton's Paris Review has made it to its 50th anniversary.

June 14, 2003|Robert Strauss | Special to The Times

New York — New York

It was a tough morning for the staff at the Paris Review. This was no mere literary crisis; they've handled those before. They had just lost their first softball game of the season to the humor magazine the Onion, and they were dispirited.

But down from his office to the rescue came the boss, George Plimpton, wearing his new Boston Red Sox warmup jacket. Noting that pikers like the New Yorker and Vanity Fair teams were still on the schedule, Plimpton offered a new strategy.

"Everyone in softball hits it to the left side. I propose that in addition to the shortstop, we have, yes, a long-stop, just right behind," he said, jumping up and catching an imaginary line drive. A lively discussion then ensued about whether the team could recruit, as a ringer to catch the long-stop's throws, former Mets all-star first baseman Keith Hernandez, a friend of a friend of someone in the office.

"Why not?" said Plimpton, 76, long the writing world's athletic dilettante, with a wink. "Maybe he'll contribute for the 50th anniversary issue."

Should Hernandez accept, it would be the kind of tit-for-tat that has kept the Paris Review alive to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. It is the literary magazine that first published Philip Roth and did major interviews with such luminaries as E.M. Forster and Ernest Hemingway. Few literary bright lights of the last half century have missed being in its pages, from Zelda Fitzgerald to Vladimir Nabokov to Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Jonathan Franzen.

With about 300 pages an issue and only a smattering of advertising, the Paris Review has always been on the edge financially, and its survival has often been dependent on Plimpton's ingenuity. For the last 30 years, the offices have been on the first floor and in the basement of Plimpton's townhouse along the East River on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Plimpton, who has never taken a salary from the magazine, said that funds for the Paris Review were down to about $1.50 two years ago when friends from the Heinz food family gave it a cash infusion.

That is not much different from the original days of the magazine, when Plimpton persuaded wealthy young philanthropist Sadruddin Aga Khan to invest in the fledgling publication, of which Plimpton had been appointed editor.

"We were running ahead of the bulls in Pamplona, and I saw him and asked if he would like to help us out," said Plimpton, relaxing in his cluttered office a floor above the Paris Review digs. For his backing, the Aga Khan was named publisher (Drue Heinz is publisher now), and then he endowed a fiction prize as well.

"He even entered it too," said Plimpton. "We got these two stories driven over by a chauffeur and delivered in velvet covers. He didn't win, though."

Plimpton was a graduate student at Cambridge University in England when his boyhood friend Peter Matthiessen, who went on to write "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," and another novelist friend, Harold L. Humes, said they were starting a literary magazine and wanted him to be editor.

"Lots of people were in Paris then on the GI Bill," Plimpton said. "It was full of American and British people thinking they were writers and living on $2 a day."

Several of them, Plimpton said, were putting out little magazines of criticism, but Matthiessen, Humes and some of their cafe-habitue friends wanted to do something more creative.

"The idea was to do fiction and poetry and move criticism, if it was there at all, to the back of the book," Plimpton said. "And better than that, rather than have Critic A review Novelist B, we were going to go directly to Novelist B and ask about the craft of writing."

The problem was, Plimpton, Matthiessen and Humes were aspiring, if somewhat arrogant, guys in their mid-20s, had little track record and didn't really know the famous writers they wanted to interview. They were going to have to rely on Plimpton's charm again.

"I was at King's College at Cambridge, and there, sitting on the third floor of the library, was E.M. Forster, the premier writer in the English language at the time," Plimpton said. "I was going to grill this sweet man on the subject of writing, and he agreed to an interview. He had not written a novel since 1924, but he was gracious and set us on the right track. His interview set the model for those that followed."

The Paris Review Writers at Work series has been the hallmark of the magazine, and nine collections of the interviews have been published in book form. Plimpton's favorite anecdote of the early Paris Review years is that he had only seen one person actually buying the magazine -- Hemingway, at the Hotel Ritz in Paris. "I immediately went up to him and asked him for an interview, which, after a bit more pestering, he acquiesced to," Plimpton said.

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