Stalking the Literary Lion
Reading Anne Roiphe’s riveting memoir of her tumultuous twenties, Art and Madness, written in a tone of Didion-like detachment, but saffroned with her distinctive, pungent regrets and her curious humility, I marveled at her depiction of George Plimpton’s Paris Review parties in the early 1960s, on the Upper East Side, near Manhattan’s East River. Thirty years later, I had gone to those parties, in those same rooms, when I was the age she was then. They did not resemble the bacchanals she remembers. For a while, I almost envied her. She describes “the heavy air of flirtation, the perfume of illicit sex that wafted through the book-filled rooms of George’s apartment,” and the power games played by the male guests, “the famous men or the would-be-famous men flexing their skills, strutting their stuff, talking of agents and publishers and rights to this or that.”
Roiphe had married one of the strutters, in 1957—a handsome, hard-drinking playwright with a neurological disorder that she mistook for artistic idiosyncrasy (he would shut himself in closets and shake his arms up and down for hours on end). At their first meeting, at a dance for private-school kids at the Plaza Hotel, when she was 16, he told her both that “only poetry can save mankind from hell” and that his mother had told him to “marry a rich girl.” Entranced, she had thought to herself, “I am a rich girl. I want him to marry me.” Five years later, she got her wish. Once married, her husband used their honeymoon money to go on a drinking binge, and later pawned her china and raided her purse for cash to pay for sprees and prostitutes. When he was able, he would try to write works of lasting brilliance. “We both thought he was a genius. Perhaps I believed it more than he,” she writes. “I believed that I was going to be a muse to a man of great talent and visit the bordellos of Morocco and sleep under the stars with the peasants of Franco’s Spain.”
Instead, back in New York she supported them both, typed up her husband’s drafts, and in 1960, in labor with their daughter, Emily, lurched, alone, to the hospital in a snowstorm to give birth, lugging the typewriter she had bought her husband, which she had paid to have repaired, and would not abandon even in extremis. She took pride in her role. She writes, “Wives and girlfriends of artists had a great task: to pay bills, to supply meals, to keep fear of poverty at bay so creation could continue.” But the relationship was not entirely one-sided; her husband’s creative credentials gave her entrée to parties like the ones at George Plimpton’s. Women were irrelevant to the pageant, she writes. “We girls, not yet called women, were like the Greek chorus, mopping up after the battle was over, emptying ashtrays, carrying the glasses to the sink.” She knew, she writes, “not to talk too much.”
And yet, supernumerary though Roiphe and women like her may have considered themselves (can a writer, generalizing the particularity of her own experience, ever be sure her impressions were shared?), the men did not entirely ignore them. As the nights and the whiskey bottles emptied to a vaporous sheen, the demi-gods pulled their worshipers into offhand orgies: There were tussles on piles of coats beside a sleeping baby, bathroom trysts, “rooms filled with thrashing limbs,” bras behind sofa cushions. Once, a somnolent, drunk sculptor grabbed Roiphe’s hand and pulled it to his groin. Another time, William Styron took her home “Why not, I say?” she reasoned; another time, it was George Plimpton himself. She recalls, “He says to me, a kind of apology in his voice, ‘If I see you in a few years I might have forgotten I slept with you.’ ‘That’s all right,’ I say. But I didn’t forget and he did.” Within a couple of years, she would divorce her husband, and soon after, leave the chaos behind, marry a stable husband, and have two more daughters. “I have no pity for that about-to-be-divorced woman who had been ready to live off the written words of someone else,” she writes. At 27, she bought a notebook, and started to fill it. “I began to write because I was no longer concerned about my lack of great gift,” she confesses. “I would work with whatever lay within.”
I thought of one or two self-destructive, talented young men of recent vintage, who might have benefited from sock-washing acolytes.
Reading Roiphe’s account of those times, I felt profound gratitude, after all, that the world she describes is not the one I found at Paris Review parties in the '90s. Back then, I had no notion of the louche anteriority that flavored this setting, only respect for the augustness of Plimpton and the Paris Review, and appreciation for the animated talkers the parties drew. (I particularly liked his zebra skin rug, and the pool table laden with finger food to soak up all the alcohol.) The guests treated one another as equals, friends or rivals, so it appeared. If women in my circle were scouting lions at these gatherings, unbeknownst to me, I doubt they did it with the venerating, mythomane gaze that had beamed from the eyes of their ambitious mothers (by Roiphe's account). In 1990, I assumed that, like me, most of the women at those parties admired literary men, but weren’t auditioning for the role of muse, did not suffer the “sudden and overwhelming desire to bring coffee to the side of a writer, to wash his socks, to stare down his enemies, internal or external,” that Anne Roiphe describes. I assumed that they wanted to be writers themselves… and maybe even have muses of their own.
At the same time, after reading this memoir, I felt a kind of pity for the young men of my generation—all the “sad young literary men,” as Keith Gessen, the co-founder of the literary magazine n+1, styled them in their more recent incarnation—who attended those parties so many decades after the orgy had ended. I wondered if they had known about the worshipful attitude that once adhered to men like themselves, and mourned its absence. In the early 1990s—an era barely emerging from Wham! and John Cusack movies—the male tyros and recent college graduates at those parties wore suits, or at least suit jackets, and stood with courtly, dapper bearing, as if they were members of John F. Kennedy’s Cabinet, or executives on Mad Men. What would they have made of the 1960s parties? Would they have preferred them? I thought of one or two self-destructive, talented young men of recent vintage, who might have benefited from sock-washing acolytes; and hoped that the new crop of writerly women were resisting the masochistic allure of serving them. For all I knew, some were: Again, it’s hard, in whatever decade, when generalizing the particularity of one’s own experience, to be sure one’s impressions are shared.
Thinking about these men—putative creative heirs to Mathiessen and Plimpton, Roth and Mailer, Styron and Southern—I remembered an episode of the TV show Star Trek, “Who Mourns for Adonais?” in which the giant green hand of the god Apollo seizes the Enterprise in outer space. Apollo misses the adulation of believers, and wants to fill a new planet with humans who will worship him. Captain Kirk, Chekov, McCoy, and Scotty resist him, but a lovely lieutenant in a Space Age mini-dress succumbs to Apollo's offer to become his goddess. It takes all of Captain Kirk’s art to persuade her to renege on her decision. “Accept him, and you condemn all of us to slavery, nothing less than slavery,” he says. Reluctantly, she rejects her divine, capricious suitor. Yet as the spurned god fades away, Captain Kirk feels a pang. “Much of our culture and philosophy came from a worship of those beings,” he reflects. “Would it have hurt us, I wonder, just to have gathered a few laurel leaves?”
Considering the bitter harvest of this crop in Roiphe’s brave, revealing recollections, I thought: Yes, it would; I thought, yes, it did.
Liesl Schillinger is a New York-based writer and literary critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York magazine, The Washington Post, the New Republic, The London Independent on Sunday, and other publications here and abroad.