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In His League: Being George Plimpton | The Nation

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In His League: Being George Plimpton

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Plimpton's annexation of Manhattan's social universe set him apart from some of the other early members of The Paris Review circle--including Peter Matthiessen, who was beginning to adopt a more obstreperous and combative stance toward the establishment. "I remember being present many years ago, in the 50's, when by chance [Matthiessen] discovered his name was still in the Social Register," William Styron told The New York Times Magazine in 1990. "I remember his rage at finding it there, and his determination to get it out." By the late 1950s, Matthiessen, in full flight from his gold-plated roots, had embarked on a remarkable career that would include literary fiction, nature writing, environmental activism and left-wing pamphleteering. Fifty years on, he has more than thirty books to his name, including The Snow Leopard, an account of his spiritual pilgrimage to the Crystal Mountain in northwestern Nepal; Sal Si Puedes, a chronicle of Cesar Chavez's advocacy on behalf of migrant farmworkers; Oomingmak, a record of his trip to Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea in search of rare musk ox calves; Men's Lives, an elegiac tribute to the beleaguered baymen of eastern Long Island; and In The Spirit of Crazy Horse, a 600-page defense of Leonard Peltier, which sparked an acrimonious seven-year legal battle from which Matthiessen and his publisher, Viking, emerged victorious. Matthiessen was recently awarded the National Book Award in fiction for his long-gestating novel Shadow Country.

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Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com), a contributing writer to The Nation,  is at work on a book about the New York...

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In the 1960s, Matthiessen made a dramatic confession to his colleagues at The Paris Review: he had originally been sent to Paris by the CIA in 1950 and had used the fledgling journal as cover for his intelligence gathering. As Frances Stonor Saunders demonstrated in her deeply researched, muckraking book The Cultural Cold War (2000), the CIA, in a bold attempt to wean European and Third World intellectuals away from left-wing, anti-American ideology, provided funding for a considerable number of conferences, periodicals, exhibitions and concerts. It was a time when writers and intellectuals were not tenured professors but, in many cases, gladiators in the cold war. Matthiessen's contribution to that effort began at Yale, when he was recruited by professor Norman Holmes Pearson, a friend of W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens and a veteran of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Matthiessen viewed it as the beginning of a great adventure: a CIA post would transport him to Paris, provide him with a regular paycheck and afford him the necessary leisure to write novels. It was a decision devoid of angst: he was all-American and apolitical, and the young CIA exuded romance; it had yet to fully set up shop in the cold war slaughterhouses of Iran, Guatemala and Chile. Today, few if any of Matthiessen's peers view the choice he made with rancor. "It was not an opprobrious thing," says Russ Hemenway in George, Being George. "Those of us who had been in World War Two realized that we had no intelligence service at all, just the OSS. So we were delighted with this thing they called the Central Intelligence Agency."

Matthiessen's affiliation with the agency has been public for many years. He was first unveiled as a CIA agent by the New York Times, which in 1977 published a formidable series about the agency's influence in the cultural sphere. (It remains unclear who gave Matthiessen's name to the Times.) His case was not widely discussed until 2006, when Doc Humes's daughter, Immy Humes, released a documentary about her father that highlighted the tensions that sprang up within The Paris Review around the question of Matthiessen's CIA past. Her film, Doc, aroused the interest of the Times. "I used The Paris Review as a cover, there's no question of that," Matthiessen told Times reporter Rachel Donadio in February 2008, "but the CIA had nothing to do with Paris Review."

But Matthiessen was thrown off balance by a revelation from Aldrich, which the latter shared with Donadio: a wealthy, shadowy cold war operative named Julius "Junkie" Fleischmann had provided $1,000 to The Paris Review in the journal's earliest days. (In a recent interview, Aldrich said this information came from a letter in the possession of Plimpton's widow.) Fleischmann was a major player in the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, which helped to launch and sustain the London-based intellectual journal Encounter in 1953. In The Cultural Cold War, Stonor Saunders refers to him as "the CIA's most significant single front-man." These days, in the wake of Stonor Saunders's account, Matthiessen is not especially eager to be caught in Fleischmann's historical company, and in George, Being George he speculates that the $1,000 may have come from another Fleischmann--Raoul, the publisher of The New Yorker, who died in 1969.

Documents in the Paris Review archive, which are housed at the Morgan Library, reveal that the source of the $1,000 was indeed Julius and that Matthiessen solicited the contribution. The Morgan Library possesses a handwritten letter, on Paris Review stationery, from Matthiessen to Julius Fleischmann, who had been a friend of Matthiessen's parents. In the letter, which is undated but probably from 1952, Matthiessen wrote: "Here at last is a prospectus of the fine literary review I mentioned to you...it will be the best new literary quarterly since the TRANSITION of the Hemingway-Pound-Gertrude Stein era." Apparently, money from Fleischmann soon materialized. For decades Matthiessen has assiduously maintained that the CIA did not found or influence the fledgling Paris Review, but in George, Being George he yields some ground and admits that the $1,000 investment "muddies the picture a bit."

How significant, really, was Fleischmann's contribution? In 1953, $1,000 was not an enormous amount of money, but neither was it an insignificant sum for a new, struggling literary magazine. Assuming Fleischmann's commitment was limited to $1,000, The Paris Review would likely have survived without it. It should be emphasized that the CIA and its front organizations never made a full-scale commitment to The Paris Review, as they did to Encounter. (Indeed, it was funding from the CIA and the British government that transformed Encounter into one of the world's most vibrant intellectual journals in the 1950s and '60s.) The CIA also supported other small publications, including The Kenyon Review, Partisan Review, The Sewanee Review and several foreign journals like Transition. The Paris Review never benefited from that largesse, and Plimpton's life was more stressful as a result: a survey of his voluminous correspondence at the Morgan Library reveals that he devoted a significant number of his waking hours, over many years, to the arduous task of fundraising. Cash was never plentiful: Larry Bensky recalls that in 1964-66, the years he staffed the Paris office of The Paris Review, the journal was operating on a shoestring.

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