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Still in the game

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Special to The Times

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.

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“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.”

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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.”

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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.

The latest Paris Review anthology, published by Picador and just out for the 50th anniversary, has the unwieldy if appropriate title “The Paris Review Book of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love, Betrayal, Outsiders, Intoxication, War, Whimsy, Horrors, God, Death, Dinner, Baseball, Travels, the Art of Writing, and Everything Else in the World Since 1953.” It has excerpts from interviews with, among others, Toni Morrison, John Le Carre, Ezra Pound and William Faulkner, and fiction and poetry by Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, John Ashbery, Gertrude Stein and Jack Kerouac.

But the Paris Review’s pages are not only for the famous. The magazine, which appears more or less quarterly and has a circulation of 10,000, gets 20,000 submissions a year, all of which are read either by editors or “readers,” mostly graduate students who often lounge in the old overstuffed chairs in the basement poring over manuscripts. The unknown stuff is called “slush” by the editors, and some of it tracks its way into the magazine.

“John Barlow had never had anything published before we had him in the winter issue of 2001-2002,” said managing editor Brigid Hughes. One of the magazine’s readers picked his story from the slush pile, and now he is working on his first novel.

Back in the Paris days, especially after the Forster interview coup, the magazine was able to pick up good submissions without much trouble.

“We might have hyperbolized it by now, but I remember it being pretty easy to get writers to be in the magazine, even though we were paying next to nothing,” said Tom Guinzburg, another boyhood friend of Matthiessen’s who was an editor at the magazine’s inception and later became editor in chief at Viking Press. “Jimmy Baldwin and Terry Southern were cooking up literature in Paris, and Bill Styron, who wrote our credo in the first issue, was in from Rome. Word got around quickly.”

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Guinzburg said it was a sense of romance that led his generation of writers and editors to Paris, where they depended, at least slightly, on the generosity of their parents.

“We pretty much raided our parents’ Christmas card lists to get contributors,” he said. “I think Peter’s and George’s and my parents each put in $500, and we promised lifetime subscriptions to any of their friends who gave $100.

“The guy who didn’t get much credit was William Pene du Bois, a children’s book illustrator, who for some reason knew the mechanics of putting out a magazine, which none of the others of us did,” Guinzburg said. The eight current editors of the Paris Review, all in their mid-20s to early 30s, have a romantic optimism about them that contrasts with the general mode of sarcasm and cynicism in the magazine world.

“It’s George’s spirit. The great part about being here is being apprenticed to George,” said Fiona Maazel, an associate editor. “He makes it seem like there is a glory in publishing that doesn’t exist anywhere else now.”

Plimpton has never seemed to have a down moment, reinventing himself continually. He tells stories with a sincere smile and a patrician twang. His father, Francis, was a Manhattan lawyer and Kennedy clan friend, appointed by President John F. Kennedy as ambassador to the United Nations from 1961 to 1965. Plimpton went to prep school, then Harvard, then Cambridge, seeing Jackie Kennedy at teenage social functions and graduating from college with Bobby Kennedy. He was with Bobby when he was shot and helped subdue assassin Sirhan Sirhan by grabbing him by the throat.

But Plimpton’s name was made as what he calls a “participatory journalist.” He returned from Paris to teach at Barnard College in the mid-1950s (the magazine followed him to New York in the ‘70s) and hooked up with Sports Illustrated.

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He had read about Depression-era sportswriter Paul Gallico sometimes hitting with Babe Ruth or punching with great boxers, and persuaded the Sports Illustrated editors he could do the same. From the late 1950s until the mid-1980s, Plimpton sparred with light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore, quarterbacked the Detroit Lions, pitched against a lineup of baseball all-stars, played on the pro golf tour, took a turn at goalie for the Boston Bruins and swung on the flying trapeze with circus aerialists. Most of his stunts turned into books.

“I don’t imagine many of those I played with are Paris Review readers, but it’s nice to have different lives,” Plimpton said. “You know, too, I was just a character on ‘The Simpsons.’ I think that means I’ve made it.”

Plimpton has had small roles in movies (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “Reds”) but this time he played himself, sort of. “I was the emcee of a crooked spelling bee,” he said, tugging at his jacket in slight embarrassment. “Lisa was all set to win, but then I would ask her to spell ‘weather,’ which she would do, and then I would shout, ‘No, it’s w-h-e-t-h-e-r. Wrong!’ I was just evil and weird.”

At that moment, a disembodied voice comes over a loudspeaker: “George! George!” It is editor Hughes calling from downstairs. “I’m still always connected to the magazine, I guess,” he said. “The only thing about it being 50 is you think, Uh, oh, how much longer can I last?’

“I hope the legacy of the magazine is that you are never quite sure what you will find in it. It is the French amuse -- to publish a journal that amuses, a poem, a surprising essay, a prose poem, an interview,” he said. “That’s what I hope the young editors will be able to foster.”

Plimpton himself has never had fiction published in the magazine, but he did many of the writer interviews early on. These days, his job is to read, cajole and encourage. It’s also to plan the magazine’s many 50th-anniversary celebrations -- readings and parties and softball games and, finally, a yet unformed gala scheduled for the fall.

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“But we’re not alone. It’s also the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA, the Oreo cookie and Playboy,” said Plimpton, although he was off on the age of the Oreo by a good 40 years. He then paused, searching for a connection. “Well, here it is. I once posed as a Playboy photographer for a story. Maybe we’ll get a poem about Oreo cookies in the slush.”

They will now.

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