Black Tie Sappho: The Paris Review Honors a Significantly Silent Frederick Seidel

Lorin Stein, Frederick Seidel, Robyn Creswell. (Courtesy Patrick McMullan)

Lorin Stein, Frederick Seidel, Robyn Creswell. (Courtesy Patrick McMullan)

There were three foreboding circumstances that occurred in rapid succession near Grand Central Terminal before we arrived at Cipriani 42nd Street for the Paris Review Spring Revel honoring the poet Frederick Seidel: a contretemps at the Oyster Bar that nearly came to blows; an indignant request from a morbidly obese man for a cigarette, directly followed by an equally violent request from a women searching for a Western Union; and, on a cigarette run, a bald man trying to return a hair clip at a CVS pharmacy to no avail.

This barrage of New York ephemera was an appropriate enough overture for a tribute to Mr. Seidel, the so called “Laureate of the Louche,” who observes depravity from an ivory tower. Arriving at the party was a decidedly more respectable scene: Everywhere were young women in red va-va-voom dresses, the ceilings dripped gold leaf over towering marble columns, and men donned gleaming watches that seemed to cost more than one of Mr. Seidel’s advances. The only things missing were a few motorcycles zipping through the foyer—Mr. Seidel, if you haven’t heard, is a connoisseur of Ducatis.

The poet has a tendency to spike his work with bits of eloquence such as “Mother Nature went to China / China the vagina” and “Technology is the placenta / Feeding the fetus dreams.” The literary celebrities in attendance were, in general, admirers of Mr. Seidel’s work.

“I like someone who is brave enough to admit how rich he is, and to excavate some of the prejudices that you can’t be without after growing up with wealth,” said Jeffery Eugenides. “I find the poems delightful.”

“I’m a fan,” said Lydia Davis. “When he’s just enjoying wealth and privilege so straightforwardly, it’s refreshing.”

When we caught Martin Amis outside post-smoke, he took the opportunity to gently put down the honoree while invoking his old man, Kingsley.

“His poems, they’re all dirty and outrageous, and I’m very squeamish about these things,” Mr. Amis said. “I agree with my father, who said ‘Sex, like dreams, is one of the things that art can’t do.’”

After what’s always a historically wet cocktail hour (to wit: an animated Gay Talese, martini-in-hand, ran up to us and announced, with a glass-clink, “I’m still drinking gin!”) the tipsy literary establishment all took their seats for the award ceremonies. Emma Cline, who published her first Paris Review piece last year, received the Plimpton Prize, which was presented to her by an admiring Ms. Davis. The Plimpton Prize, for some reason, is a giant ostrich egg.

“Lydia Davis pointing at an ostrich egg sounds like a really lovely dream I once had,” Ms. Cline said on stage.

Roz Chast handed over the Terry Southern Prize to Ben Lerner, and then servers wheeled over Frisbee-sized filets mignon. Did Mr. Seidel, who is nothing if not a carnivore, in all senses, insist that everyone devour a heaping portion of bloody red meat? It’s quite possible. As we discovered with the Hadada presentation, no indulgence of the poet was spared: John Jeremiah Sullivan, the writer and essayist, launched into an extended, far-reaching riff on his genius, and this was followed by readings of his work by Mr. Amis, Zadie Smith and—perhaps just because Mr. Seidel is classy—Uma Thurman.

As a final giddy burst of ego, the poet didn’t even bother to walk from his table to the stage to accept the award, and had Jonathan Galassi, his editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, pick it up for him.

“Sorry that Fred could not be up here tonight, because he’s, um, down there tonight,” Mr. Galassi said, pointing directly below. “I think this is the closest he’s ever gotten to a podium.”

With dinner a wrap, the bar reopened, and at this point, things seemed to come full circle to our evening’s comparably depraved preface. Jet-setting financier and man about town Euan Rellie grabbed Hollywood director Chris Weitz (as it happens, the man responsible for that defiled baked good in American Pie is a family friend of Mr. Seidel’s, so he co-chaired the event) and insisted we all down another martini or two. There was Champagne involved, as well, for some reason. Then Paris Review editor Lorin Stein corralled the stragglers to the after-party, held at a board member’s mansion on 49th Street, where a Dixieland band played in the living room, the gin turned to whiskey, the air stank intermittently of pungent weed and Ms. Cline briefly horrified Mr. Eugenides by walking up to him and deadpanning, “So, what’s your name?”