"I hate your shoes," said Norman Mailer to my date Gene Andrewski, a managing editor of The Paris Review, as we stood amid a gaggle of literary luminaries, young writers, artists, musicians, politicians and other guests in George Plimpton's crowded living room.
"My shoes?" joshed Gene. "Why? They're new...."
"I HATE YOUR SHOES," blared Norman belligerently, as I stared in awe at one of my literary idols, who had recenly assaulted his wife, Adele, with a penknife. Heads turned toward us. Norman railed on.
"Let's get out of here," smiled Gene, then quietly quipped, "I'm afraid he might kill me."
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So it went in late 1960 at one of George Plimpton's legendary soirees at 541 E. 72nd St., New York. When Plimpton, the co-founder of The Paris Review, died in 2003 at age 76, The New York Times wrote, "For more than 45 years he was host to hundreds of parties for thousands of guests, sometimes at a rate of once a week."
The Paris Review celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and a documentary about its co-founder called "Plimpton!" is touring the country. The film, which I've not yet seen (it hasn't screened in Chicago), recounts his long extraordinary life as writer, participatory journalist, adventurer and editor. News of it brought me back to the years when my two roommates and I were George's neighbors.
We lived at 527 E. 72nd St., in a unique block of low-rise buildings dubbed "The Black and Whites." These four connected brick structures, built in 1894, were five-story walk-ups painted black and white with bright red doors. In the 1930s, Carmel Snow, editor of Harper's Bazaar, converted them from old tenements into cheap lodging for friends. When George returned from Paris in the mid-'50s, he moved into a rent-controlled apartment at 541, then set up The Paris Review offices in the basement of the same building. The apartments are now co-ops priced sky-high.
From our window, we regularly spotted the strikingly handsome George, once named "New York's Most Eligible Bachelor" by Esquire magazine, dashing out in a tux or in gym clothes with squash racquet, often accompanied by a celebrity. Occasionally, he and his chums cavorted noisily in our common cul-de-sac. During one huge blizzard, my friends and I were struggling to slog down the block to our door. George and pals, involved in a shouting snowball fight, rushed over, scooped us up and carried us, laughing and flailing, to safety.
Though guests at the early parties might include established authors such as Truman Capote, Peter Matthiessen, Gore Vidal and Harold Hume, they mingled with an unpredictable assortment of talents, attractive women of varied ages and occupations, and sometimes a few tenants from our buildings. George shrewdly included our building superintendent, himself a middle-aged fledgling science-fiction writer, thereby cleverly circumventing any complaint calls.
Scotch and wine flowed freely along with laughter and music. Unlike some other Manhattan cocktail parties which could be obligatory, staid and ultimately tiresome, George's brimmed with revelry, energy, buoyant interaction and intellectual stimulation. Peering from one of the windows that lined a wall, one could look out at boats navigating the East River or down to spot new arrivals. They might be Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, who lived across the street; Jackie Kennedy and her sister, Lee, emerging from a long black limo; circus performers; or an entire rock band. Guests kept an eye on the open door, wondering who might traipse up the stairs next to join the festivities. George didn't hesitate to dispatch a guest, famous or not, to pick up supplies or a friend. When composer/musician David Amram phoned with transportation difficulties, George said, "I'll send someone. Be downstairs. The guy's name is Norm." Sharing the story later, Amram said, "The car pulls up. It's Norman Mailer."
Back then, The Paris Review wasn't even 10 years old. Its longevity is a marvel. In 1964, I purchased (and still own) Issue 31, the 10th anniversary issue, for $1.25. A lifetime membership was $60. The Art of Fiction interview was with Norman Mailer. Last month I picked up Issue 204, The 60th Anniversary Edition, for $15. As the documentary "Plimpton!" points out, "The point of The Paris Review was not only to publish creative work, but to discuss it from the point of view of those who do creative work."
Hundreds of interviews with authors ran in the magazine's Art of Fiction series, though some writers, including Ernest Hemingway, responded reluctantly. He wrote: "I might say 'F— the Art of Fiction' … what I would really mean is 'F— talking about it.' Let us practice it and shut up." Nevertheless, he agreed to be interviewed by George in the March 1958 issue. The letter in Hemingway's handwriting containing the quote has been displayed at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.
The Spring 2013 issue quotes a letter that George wrote to his parents: "What we are doing that's new is presenting a literary quarterly in which the emphasis is more on fiction than on criticism. Also we are brightening up the issue with artwork."
Lorin Stein, the current editor, writes that in the last decade, subscriptions have doubled, and two national magazine awards have been won. The magazine runs a website, The Paris Review Daily.
The big question is how did George Plimpton find time to do all that he did socially and professionally? He appeared in films. He was a brilliant writer. "The Best of Plimpton," a collection of essays, articles, profiles, stories and a hilarious parody, attests to that.
He traveled with friends for business and pleasure. He was politically active. The documentary contains George's police deposition taken after his friend Bobby Kennedy was shot. George had been at Kennedy's side, tackled the assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, to the ground, and wrestled the gun from his hand. That, reportedly, was the only time he ever spoke of the incident.
George was passionate about fireworks, wrote about them extensively, and even served as fireworks commissioner of New York City. He recounts in his book "Fireworks" how he assisted in both creating and launching them. He helped orchestrate the fireworks at the Reagan-Bush inauguration and, as The New York Times reported, "arranged the explosion in Florida of Fat Man II — a 700-pound firework that was the largest ever, according to the Guinness Book of World Records."
As a participatory journalist, he quarterbacked with the Detroit Lions, played percussion for the New York Philharmonic, skated with the Boston Bruins, boxed with Archie Moore, attempted top-level bridge, spent time as a high-wire circus performer, photographed Playboy models, pitched to Willie Mays in Yankee Stadium and did stand-up in Vegas — among other endeavors.
Which brings me to his voice. No one, not even the best comic impersonators, could simulate that speaking voice. (For a detailed analysis, read the New Yorker piece, "My Father's Voice," by Taylor Plimpton, an exquisite and touching tribute). I recently asked a friend who had been introduced to George in an airport to describe it. He struggled, then came up with "British? … Patrician?" — which is what most people settle for, but that doesn't really capture it. It was solely his sound and accent — a friendly, energetic-yet-refined vocal thrust colored with blue-blood tonalities that surprised and intrigued the listener. For instance, my own name, Mona, as voiced heartily by George, sounded like: MAOWWWNAHH!
Although George accomplished as much as possible with his own life, he encouraged and helped so many others to do the same. His means included his interest, his generosity, his magazine and his renowned social gatherings. When told by a colleague that my accompanist and I rehearsed using a rented "midget" piano with only 64 keys, George exploded, "NO! They must come up and use MY wonderful piano!" Which we did. He threw open his door, stood regally attired in white tie, greeted us exuberantly, and grandly extolled our artistic ambitions. He then gestured toward the beautiful piano, said "Make yourselves at home," flung on a cape, (yes, a cape) and took off with a wave.
Mona Abboud is an actress, singer and writer who has worked in film, TV, stage and cabaret. She has voiced more than 7,000 commercials, and her appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson became a hit novelty recording, “The Pretty Little Dolly.”