Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Valentine's Day Menacing

... or Christopher Hitchens and the battle of Beirut... may be read at my Standpoint magazine blog here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

More on the Plimp

On Beirut soon, but meanwhile more Plimpton while he's on my mind...

For a few years at Paris Review I worked in a little office upstairs between George’s and the billiards room of his apartment. His assistant Antonio, though not much of a Star Trek fan, used to call these offices "The Bridge." When George would fly off to Omaha or wherever to give a speech I’d slip in to his capacious office and sit at his desk. Above it hung a framed letter from Hemingway and a verse collaboration between pugilist Cassius Clay (later M. Ali) and poet Marianne Moore that George had set them one evening at Toots Schorr's saloon. I'd sit at his desk, spin in his chair, sort of like a kid trying on his father’s shoes. Then I’d prepare to make my Important Call.

One day George had gone off and left a large book sitting open in the center of the desk. Well, well, I thought, what have we here? Handwriting... a diary... George’s diary. Open. Of course I had to look.

In the very center of the page that he'd left open, he'd written: “When one goes on a journey of self-exploration, one should go heavily armed. – Verlaine.”

So George.

A Lesson from the Master - George Plimpton

I've been away, on a research trip to Beirut, Lebanon, about which I'll be posting soon. Now back in London, I've been reading off-piste to unwind, mostly Nelson Aldrich's "George, Being George," an oral biography of my old boss at The Paris Review literary magazine in New York. I include here now a story I told Nelson for his book, about Plimpton's attempt to teach me a great lesson in life.

It was a time when 541 East 72nd Street was not such a happy place, and all manner of diverse gossip swirled. Even, so I gathered, about me... patently false rumors I should add. At the time I found such loose talk upsetting. For his part, George tried to teach me to make a practice of ignoring gossip... some of which of course he'd no doubt had a hand in unleashing. I was chatting with him in his office where he adopted a sage-like pose in his Eames chair and offered this bit of wisdom: "James, halitosis is better than no breath at all."

Huh? I said.

"You know," he said, smiling conspiratorially, "just as long as they're talking about you..." All I could do was shake my head and pout. Then one night, a drink with a young woman from Random House that turned into a sort of date. Midway through dinner, she stopped eating, stared at me intently and asked “Is it true you procure black transvestites for George Plimpton?" I burst out laughing. It was just so absurd. But at the same time, oddly, I suddenly had a light feeling, of some weird freedom. I realized there was little you could do to control that kind of thing, and better just to learn to let it slide off your back. The next morning I bounded up the stairs to George’s office to tell him that he had, after all, been right. Well, I did begin to tell him and he absolutely hit the roof—“She said WHAT?!” Who is this woman?”

I had to back out of his office saying, "Halitosis! George, remember halitosis!"