When Paris Review editor George Ames Plimpton died unexpectedly in October, the literary world’s shock quickly turned into twittering: The magazine has no reason to exist without George, many said-and yet George would roll over in his grave if it were ever to fade away.
Now, after two months of soul-searching and rallying-round, The Paris Review intends to name a new editor next week. She is Brigid Hughes, the current managing editor. The decision to choose Ms. Hughes was “unanimous,” said Thomas Guinzburg, a founding editor of the quarterly, who was on the search committee. “She’s been at The Review and worked with the existing staff, who are all first-rate themselves. She has a great feel for the magazine, and she seemed like the right choice at this time, in this difficult transition.”
Ms. Hughes wouldn’t comment on her impending appointment, saying only, “We haven’t made any official announcement. That’ll happen next week.”
Those who know Ms. Hughes, who is in her 30′s, call her a diligent, accomplished editor who has demonstrated her devotion to The Paris Review -but not someone who could be expected to duplicate Plimpton’s sui generis role at the magazine he founded. Indeed, next week Ms. Hughes will be named the magazine’s executive editor, a new title created so as not to cast its occupant in the impossible role of Plimpton’s successor. “The big task in terms of the search was for everyone to realize that we couldn’t replace him; we shouldn’t try to fill his shoes,” Jeanne McCulloch, a former managing editor is on the board of the Paris Review Foundation, said. The goal, she continued, was “to keep the magazine going in the best possible way, not try to duplicate something that could never be duplicated.” That means maintaining “high literary standards, the integrity of the magazine, and keeping it going financially.”
Ms. Hughes won’t be left on her own to sink or swim: The old guard, by all accounts, will be more involved in the running of the magazine than ever before. Ms. McCulloch indicated that the new title Ms. Hughes will hold in a sign that the board would have more of a say in running the magazine than it did when Plimpton was alive. Some on the masthead, Ms. McCulloch included, “take our roles seriously and will have an ongoing relationship with the staff both editorially and in terms of the financial well-being of the magazine,” she said.
“The rest of us are going to be around-the oldsters who were here from the beginning,” Mr. Guinzburg added. “We’re a foundation now. We’re not going out at night putting up fliers on billboards all over Paris.”
A graduate of Northwestern University and a former Paris Review intern who rose through the ranks to become managing editor in 2000, Ms. Hughes did much of the heavy lifting for the hefty 50th-anniversary issue that was published earlier this year. She is said to have been a favorite of those on the search committee who favor continuity over a sharp turn into the unknown.
At holiday parties around town-especially ones marked by Plimpton’s notable absence-talk flowed freely about the difficulty of succeeding the man who interviewed Hemingway and was named New York’s honorary Commissioner of Fireworks, and who carried off a million other fabulous feats-among them convincing his Harvard roommate, Prince Salruddin Aga Khan, to become the first publisher of the fledgling literary magazine he founded in Paris in 1953. An ideal Paris Review editor, some said, would be someone with impeccable literary taste, a Rolodex full of literary luminaries, a generous appetite for parties, the ability to raise vast sums of money-and someone who did not require a salary. It’s a job from a different era.
“Right after George died, everybody on the board-and we were so honored to be on the board-we felt like we had to get out our Ouija board and ask how to get on without George,” said Ms. McCulloch. “His spirit, if everything works correctly, will preside in an ongoing way,” Ms. McCulloch continued. “It’s a time of great evolution, and I think it’s a time of great excitement, too.”
“It’s very popular to imagine that the magazine will be nothing without George,” said Terry McDonell, the managing editor of Sports Illustrated and another board member who served on the search committee. “But the reality is that at the beginning it was a great idea, and it’s still a great idea-although he was irreplaceable.”
The search committee was chaired by Robert Silvers, the co-editor of The New York Review of Books and an editor of The Paris Review . Mr. Silvers was in Europe and couldn’t be reached for comment. The committee also included Peter Matthiessen, a founding editor of The Paris Review , who also could not be reached for comment.
Sources said the search committee had been divided about whether to promote from within or to bring in an outsider. One candidate who was interviewed several times was John Sullivan, a writer at large for GQ and former senior editor at Harper’s , who is known for his bravado journalism in the Plimpton vein. Mr. Sullivan interviewed Guy Davenport for The Paris Review last year. Mr. Sullivan said his discussions with the board were “mostly about intensifying the attention paid to nonfiction.” The most important task for Ms. Hughes, said Mr. Sullivan, will be “to keep it The Paris Review . It takes a long time to turn something into an institution. It can be blown fairly quickly.” Mr. Sullivan added that Ms. Hughes did “a great job” editing his Guy Davenport interview. “I really like her a lot,” he said.
An accomplished journalist, Mr. Sullivan won a National Magazine Award for his story in Harper’s on horse racing, which he turned into a memoir, Blood Horses , due out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux this spring.
In the end, though, it was Ms. Hughes, the loyal inside candidate, who prevailed. “I think she’s great,” said Daniel Kunitz, who preceded Ms. Hughes as The Paris Review ‘s managing editor in the mid-90′s. He said that he and Ms. Gaffney were the ones who hired Ms. Hughes as an intern. “I hired her, so of course I think she’s wonderful,” he said.
While it has yet to chart its future course with any specificity, one thing is clear: The Paris Review will keep going. Shortly after Plimpton’s death in October, the Paris Review Foundation voted unanimously to continue publishing from its sunny offices in the sprawling Plimpton townhouse on East 72nd Street and the East River. “There was a strong belief that that is what he wanted,” said Ms. McCulloch.
After all, Plimpton once said he would “feel that a limb had been amputated” if The Paris Review ever stopped, David Michaelis wrote in a remembrance of Plimpton published in October in this newspaper. And it was Plimpton who spent much of the 1990′s trying to ensure the magazine’s future. With an eye on the balance sheet, he established the Paris Review Foundation, with an endowment to keep the magazine funded. The review’s current publisher is Drue Heinz, who helped establish the foundation and also bought much of The Paris Review ‘s manuscripts and correspondence and donated them to the Morgan Library.
Even so, one can’t help but wonder whether the magazine lost an essential part of its raison d’être on Oct. 6, when Plimpton died in his sleep at the age of 76, a quiet end to a gloriously loud life. The Paris Review wasn’t just a publication; it was the center of Plimpton’s life, and he turned it into a world of its own.
It was a first job for dozens of aspiring writers, many of whom never quite found their footing after leaving the nest on East 72nd Street. It was also the excuse for hundreds of parties, where eminent literary figures like Sonny Mehta would cluster outside to smoke, where lovely young literary types congregated around the hors d’oeuvres served on the covered-up pool table, where even the lowliest vice sub-deputy publishing assistant could brush shoulders with luminaries.
In New York, at least, those parties were as much a part of The Paris Review as the magazine itself. “I don’t think they’ll ever exist in exactly the same way,” Mr. Kunitz said. “There’s not a reason they couldn’t exist in an equally interesting way that’s perhaps different. But it’s an issue,” he said. “There will never be George’s parties, but one would hope they’d continue having parties.”
But there’s a party, and then there’s a party . Sure, the magazine can continue to live on-but can it do so in any meaningful way now that Plimpton is no longer alive to act as host? “Well, all you can do is try,” said a wistful-sounding Sarah Plimpton, George’s sister. “There are lot of young people who have been working under him, and I think they’ll try to do the best they can. I don’t think you can make a prediction as to what will happen. A lot of people want it to continue, and I think it will.”
Ms. Plimpton said she wasn’t involved in the search, but that she knew George would have wanted the magazine to go on. “Absolutely,” she said. “He set up the Paris Review Foundation, and he wanted it to continue …. It may take a different slant, but I think it will keep going.” Ms. Plimpton said that she thought it made sense for The Paris Review to promote from within. “I think that would probably be better-someone who’s worked on it at some point, one way or another,” she said. “They’ll carry on what they learned from George.”
After St. Bernard’s, the English-accented Upper East Side boys’ school, and Harvard, Plimpton made his way to Paris, where he founded The Paris Review in the summer of 1953. “At that time, Paris was a lively center of literary activity, inexpensive, a postwar period with many young American writers there on the G.I. Bill of Rights,” Plimpton wrote in the introduction to this year’s 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 was in this kind of culture dish atmosphere that The Paris Review was conceived.” Along with Plimpton, its progenitors were Mr. Guinzburg as the managing editor, Mr. Matthiessen as fiction editor, Donald Hall handling poetry, William Pene du Bois handling art, John P.C. Train as the business manager, and Harold L. (Doc) Humes and William Styron as advisory editors.
Ever guided by Plimpton, The Paris Review became an essential guide to postwar literature. It served as the link between the Lost Generation and the Vietnam Generation, a generation that didn’t have a name in 1953 and probably still doesn’t. Not having any drums to beat didn’t make it “the Silent Generation (the fact of The Paris Review belies that), or the Sacred Generation, either, content to lie around in one palsied, unprotesting mass,” as Styron wrote in 1953, in his introductory essay to the magazine’s first issue, an essay that perfectly captured the moment between the war and the 1960′s. “It’s not so much a matter of protest now, but of waiting; perhaps, if we have to be categorized at all, we might be called the Waiting Generation-people who feel and write and observe, and wait and wait and wait. And go on writing. I think The Paris Review should welcome people into its pages-the good writers and good poets, the non-drumbeaters and non-axe-grinders. So long as they’re good.”
The aim of The Paris Review was to bypass criticism entirely to focus on the writers themselves. Or, as Styron put it, to “strive to give predominant space to the fiction and poetry of both established and new writers, rather than to people who use words like Zeitgeist.” Thus The Paris Review ‘s great innovation: the “Writers at Work” series, or the Paris Review interview, which gave writers the opportunity to articulate exactly what they were trying to do in their work. The first issue contained an interview with E.M. Forster that probed why Forster-”the most eminent writer in the English language at that time,” Plimpton wrote-hadn’t written a novel since 1924. Plimpton famously interviewed and befriended his hero, Ernest Hemingway. The magazine also published interviews with Gabriel García Márquez, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Joseph Heller, Italo Calvino, Paul Bowles, Chinua Achebe, John Updike, Thornton Wilder, Henry Miller and Don DeLillo.
But are there any greats left to interview? Is there still room in the culture for the Paris Review interview? Mr. McDonell said he thought there still was, although he added that he was hard-pressed to come up with a short list of subjects.
In recent years, Plimpton had published interviews with younger writers like Lorrie Moore. Whether the magazine should revisit writers who’d been interviewed in past decades has been “an ongoing discussion,” said Ms. McCulloch. Mr. McDonell was in favor of it. “Depending on the last time you heard from a particular writer, you may want to go back,” he said. “I think probably some editors are worthy of those kinds of interviews.”
“I think the interviews are a great strength, and people love reading them,” said Mr. Kunitz. “I don’t think it should change much. I just think it should maintain its vitality, and maintaining its vitality means being open to change. One would hate to see it become a mausoleum or a reflection of what it was.”
And therein lies the problem. The Paris Review will forever be linked to Plimpton-and yet if it remains in his shadow, it will never thrive. Some fear The Paris Review might now take the path that Grand Street did after Ben Sonnenberg sold it to Jean Stein in the late 90′s. Grand Street continues to publish, but had to reinvent itself.
So which direction will The Paris Review take? “Personally, I’d like to see more literary nonfiction, perhaps memoir form. George liked all that stuff,” Mr. McDonell said. “I think it’s always been the home of fiction. It was such a wonderful idea originally because there was no criticism in it-just the real stuff. I think that’s still a very appropriate stance.”
“Literary magazines have always existed to cater to a particular audience and a particular small group of people. That’s why they’re little magazines,” Mr. Kunitz said. “There are 15,000 or 20,000 people out there who want to read serious fiction. It’s not a huge group of people, but that number is much larger than it was in the 20′s or the 50′s, the heyday of other magazines. I don’t think literary magazines need to have the place in the culture that TV does. They never will, so it’s not a problem.”
Whatever its future will look like, people seem to think there will always be a Paris Review . “I think that it will hold its place in the literary landscape,” said Mr. McDonell. “There is a sense of rejuvenation, I think, after the sadness, and some people are prepared to work very hard.”
-additional reporting by George Gurley
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