A literary cocktail in George Plimpton’s apartment on the Upper East Side in 1963.
Photo: © Cornell Capa © International Center for Photography
For five years I worked in the studio on the ground floor which was the office of The Paris review. The home of George Plimpton, one of the founders, occupied two floors of the above structure, the easternmost of four connected townhouse-style buildings called the Black & Whites, built in 1894 on a cul- de-sac at the east end of 72nd Street. Her living room and pool overlooked the river, but our office, a small rectangular space with desks tucked against the two long walls and a bicycle hanging upside down from the ceiling, faced the street. The bike belonged to George. Several times a week he would walk into the booming room, “Find some good literature?”, Glance at the common leather-bound book where we kept messages, took the bike off its hooks and drove off.
My first day there, a young man in tight pants and stylish glasses handed me a broom. I vaguely knew I should have been offended, but the whole room was about ten feet by twenty; it didn’t take long. Four of us, all in our twenties, were sitting at touching desks or in the lone padded chair tucked in a corner. Once a month, Marge, the happy accountant, would arrive with her ledgers and we made room. Each office had a rotary telephone. During this pre-cellular time, phone conversations were seldom so public, and any personal revelation was like making noise in a bathroom or having sex within earshot of others. People mumbled their tenderness or muttered harshly their fights with the receiver close, hair covering their faces, as if not seeing the person next to them was preventing that person from hearing. I had a few personal fights and unfortunately they were all with my mom.
Our editor was a surprisingly beautiful, Southern, Ivy League-educated young woman who had a block of reading, a problem for the editor of a literary magazine, and she was working on it with her West analyst. Side, which she taxed to see four. days a week. Its block allowed me to read mandated manuscripts as well as stacks of unsolicited submissions from the slush stack. These usually came in large manila paper envelopes, although they were sometimes packaged in letter-size envelopes, each with its own postage-paid, self-addressed envelope – hope for it all! We had two types of preprinted rejection notes, one brief, the other a little encouraging. (I had already received my own first rejection note, which I now knew enough to rank as the least promising type.)
For manuscripts that we liked but not enough to accept, we typed letters asking the writer to send more. He always has. I use my pronoun on purpose because we recognized a pattern: when I closed a three paragraph letter “reluctantly” rejecting a story from someone with an apparently masculine designation and asking them to send another piece, I regularly received one in a few days. Letters asking Sally, Ann or Leslie to send another song were like messages in bottles thrown overboard.
In addition to the mail bales we received, couriers regularly delivered flowers. The editor’s office usually contained at least one bouquet. One snowy day, long-stemmed roses arrived from a young book publisher. They had spent an evening together – “a failure,” she said over her shoulder as she read the map. I heard her say to him over the phone, “Cool it.” Within an hour, a large stainless steel toaster was handed to him by a man in uniform. There was no room for it in the office, but the editor lived in another of the Black & Whites. A young assistant picked it up. She had a key, it turned out. Why? “Another failure,” said the editor, over the shoulder, shrugging his shoulders.
I had moved to New York City to attend Columbia’s MFA program, and six months before I finished and lost my student coverage, I applied to GAP, as we called George, for health insurance. In the inner den of his office, a place cluttered with cigar butts, books, endless manuscripts and socks, he looked at me as if trying to decipher what I meant. “Well, if you have to go to the doctor, give me the bill and I’ll pay,” he said. “Give it to Marge.”
GAP edited all the interviews itself. He would lay out the pages on his pool table and mark them up, shifting paragraphs and crossing out sentences, sometimes pages, with a diagonal in green pencil. He leaned down to listen to his young staff’s opinions on fiction; I don’t remember a story that we loved that he didn’t let us run. But the interviews were his pride, and he fought for it. He deleted a lot of an interview Jeanne McCulloch and I did with Alice Munro. “Why is she talking about her children?” he asked with real amazement.
The handsome managing editor, pursued by many, had a secret love, a nice freelance bookstore clerk, who wore glasses and read philosophy and who, not long before, was a heroin addict. Once, after a fight we had all heard, she called me at her typewriter to see the letter she was composing. I made a suggestion or two, as rich and flowery as I imagined an address to her great love must be, then she stood up and pushed me in her place. Behind me, she listed their problems as I typed, her hand on my shoulder. A week later, I received my first compliment. He had liked the letter. She was so clear and eloquent in the writing, he said, that for the first time he understood what she meant. This is how I became a Cyrano miner. Not only a secret reader, but also a secret writer.
I sat in the padded chair with the padding sticking out and read manuscripts. The seasons have changed outside the window. Some of the people we have discovered have become famous; many have not but have enjoyed long careers and dedicated follow-ups. A few whose lives we hoped to change insulted us. I continued to correspond with several writers that we never ended up publishing. Over the years, I have met many of these people and have been surprised by the warmth of our relationship, as if reading each other’s work rather than printing it was the essential exchange.
I reported the health insurance policy to GAP again, explaining that it was not a doctor’s appointment but a disaster. If I was in an accident, I said, it would devastate my mother. He bought it.