12.08.08

Plimpton's Crazy Co-Conspirator

As a fascinating new documentary reveals, Doc Humes was the true mad genius behind The Paris Review.

George Plimpton is having a posthumous moment. George, Being George, Nelson Aldrich's oral history/biography of Plimpton, was expansively praised by Graydon Carter last month on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. And Philip Roth, equally unencumbered by irony, mourned Plimpton effusively in his novel Exit Ghost. Beneath the warm words for Plimpton, a hugely witty journalist, one senses nostalgia for a time when writers with literary ambitions stood somewhere near the center of American cultural life.

There is something merely cosmetic at work here, too, as embodied by the famous Cornell Capa photo of a 1963 party at Plimpton's apartment that accompanied the Times’ review. The black-and-white image captures an all-star get together that included Plimpton, Truman Capote, Mario Puzo, and Ralph Ellison, among others, all looking very young and stylish in their narrow-lapel suits and skinny ties. The photo tempts the viewer to long for the good old days when writers were mostly white men who dressed properly, and there was plenty of booze around, as well as what Plimpton called "pretty girls.” This is a highbrow version of nostalgia for the Rat Pack.

Norman Mailer once described Humes as “one of the few people I have ever met who was essentially, at bottom, more vain, more intellectually arrogant, than I was."

Among the ghosts in that alluring photo is Harold L. “Doc” Humes, dapper in suit, vest, and bow tie. Humes, a co-founder of The Paris Review (along with Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen), is the subject of Doc, a documentary directed by his daughter Immy Humes. An hour-long version of the jazz-filled, visually arresting film airs December 9 on PBS. It rather unsentimentally chronicles the little-known life of a literary figure whom Norman Mailer once described as “brilliant…one of the few people I have ever met who was essentially, at bottom, more vain, more intellectually arrogant, than I was."

These striking words attest to Humes’ stature among his contemporaries. His life was as rich in incident as a Dickens novel, and the film is rich in interviews with the likes of Plimpton, Matthiessen, William Styron, Timothy Leary, and Mailer himself. But none of this would matter much if the filmmaker, an Oscar nominee in 1992, had not artfully avoided several traps awaiting any daughter taking on the life of a brilliant, difficult, deeply paranoid, and profoundly ill father.

In many ways, Doc Humes was a kind of Norman Mailer gone wrong. Like Mailer, Humes was precocious: he enrolled at MIT at the age of 16, did time at Harvard, and while still in his twenties, published two highly praised novels, The Underground City and Men Die, both recently reissued by Random House. Like Mailer, Humes conceived of himself as a public intellectual and creative troublemaker whose duty it was to follow his paranoid instincts, making headlines along the way. It was Humes who managed Mailer’s short-lived 1961 New York mayoral campaign. He also instigated what the press called a “beatnik riot” in Washington Square Park and helped overturn New York’s oppressive “cabaret card” laws which were used to hassle the likes of Billie Holiday and Lenny Bruce.

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Courtesy of the Humes family ()

But while Mailer reclaimed his muse after a brief period of literary floundering, Humes stopped writing by the mid 1960s. He spent his considerable intellectual capital elsewhere: making a silent film called Don Peyote; inventing and manufacturing a waterproof, fireproof house made of paper; taking LSD with Leary; advocating for medical marijuana and massage therapy; hanging out; talking too much; fathering children; and eventually going insane. In l969, Humes showed up at Columbia University handing out thousands of dollars from a recent inheritance in a kind of Yippie-like social protest. Shortly thereafter, he camped out in the apartment of a Columbia student named Paul Auster. It seems Doc always had an eye for good casting.

In the film, these incidents pile up at a rapid pace, leading inevitably to Humes’ breakdown and, finally, his death in 1992 from prostate cancer. He left behind six children by three different mothers—and a world of hurt. Yet his daughter’s film is untarnished by recriminations or self-pity. It is both personal and dispassionate, and it constitutes a kind of counter-history of a generation of writers. Among its revelations: the little-known fact that while Matthiessen was helping start the Paris Review, he was also, like so many privileged types of his generation, working for the CIA. This news, of course, fits eerily into Doc’s paranoid worldview, as do the details of Humes’ FBI file, cited at the close of the film.

Doc does not set out to redeem its subject. Instead, it conveys with artistry and compassion the exceptional life of a troubled genius while capturing a moment in the country’s literary history. No father deserves more.

Ronald K. Fried is the author one book of non-fiction and two novels. His work as television producer has earned five New York Emmy Awards. He recently completed a new novel about the TV industry.