Is George Plimpton Irreplaceable?


Wanted: Editor to take over New York-based quarterly magazine of fiction and poetry. Must have impeccable taste, be steeped in the craft of writing and editing, and have met every key literary figure of the last 50 years. Please have natural athletic skills, good manners, and a genuine enthusiasm for life. Be world-famous, witty, unpretentious, admiring of pop stars and complete nobodies, a party animal, experienced fundraiser, and shameless self-promoter. Understand New York as the ultimate coliseum for accomplished people in every field. Optional: be tall, handsome, and well-born, with spacious uptown flat that can double as editorial and business offices and party venue.

Writing the job description that might produce another George Plimpton is an exercise in absurdity, but it suggests what kind of person edited The Paris Review for 50 years and how hard it will be to replace him. Plimpton died in his sleep on September 26.

In early October, the staff worked round the clock on a fundraising tribute, which allowed them to remain in denial about their leader’s unexpected death. Shortly before the party on October 14, associate editor Thomas Moffett said, “It’s very strange and very weird. You keep expecting him to walk downstairs.” At the tribute, Paris Review founding editor Peter Matthiessen mused that his friend might show up any minute. He recalled times when, as people were arriving for a dinner party at Plimpton’s townhouse on East 72nd Street, the host dallied upstairs in the tub, winding up his toy boat.

But now the reality is setting in. He’s not coming down again, and there will never be anyone like him. Yet a Paris Review search committee is looking for a successor, and they must decide which qualities are essential and which are not.

“It’s a preposterous and horrible assignment,” says Sports Illustrated managing editor Terry McDonell, a longtime friend of Plimpton who is on the committee. “George was such a force at the magazine and handled so much, including ad sales, circulation, and distribution. All those jobs have to be redistributed somehow.” At the same time, McDonell said, the committee must try to “keep the charm” and address the notion that “the whole DNA of the magazine rode on that bicycle with George.” Daniel Kunitz, a former Paris Review managing editor, echoed the DNA theme, saying the new editor should be “someone different than George who can be themselves in a Georgeish way.”

Insiders are now debating just how young, rich, famous, socially connected, and literary the next editor should be. They say it would be nice if Plimpton’s successor is young, because a young person is more likely to close down the parties and stay in the job for years to come. By all accounts, the best candidate won’t be looking to get rich, because the job doesn’t pay a Condé Nast salary and may not even be full-time. As far as personality goes, New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman thinks the magazine “needs another strong presence like George,” but that could either mean “someone fresh but deeply talented, or one of the more established editors or writers who have been tangentially connected to it over the years.” Says McDonell, “I don’t think you have to be an established eminence to do this.” And no one thinks it has to be a man.

Plimpton’s connections made it a snap for him to raise money. Indeed, Kunitz recalls, before the Paris Review incorporated as a nonprofit, “George was the fundraising staff. Whenever we got into trouble, he got on the phone and asked someone for money.” Things are more secure now, Kunitz says, “but you worry that if no one is playing a public role, the magazine won’t get the same kind of attention.”

This is certain: The next editor must be efficient and organized. According to a Paris Review board member who asked not to be identified, “George flew by his instincts and that worked for George. It wouldn’t work for anybody else.” The board wants the business side of the magazine to be run in a more functional manner.

Which brings us to taste. The new editor must be “someone who’s in the game,” says one source. That is, someone who knows lots of writers and has good literary taste. Taste is tantamount, because the new editor will decide which pieces to publish from a large inventory, which authors to interview, and which direction to take the magazine aesthetically.

Some say the best choice is someone who has already worked there. According to one staffer, editing the Paris Review is “a mindset you learned working with George and hearing the history of the magazine from all the editors who have worked here over the years.”

More specifically, some insiders say the new editor must be someone who understands the art of the Paris Review interview, who worked on those interviews with Plimpton, and who can preside over them. This trademark interview is no mere Q and A, but a collaboration in which authors correct and revise their answers and sign off on the final product. It was conceived as a vehicle for established writers to explain their craft, and Plimpton conducted the first one in 1952 with E.M. Forster, whom he knew from his days at Cambridge University. According to one friend, Plimpton invented the contemporary interview form, which was later adopted by Rolling Stone and Playboy, and which he used to great effect in his oral histories. The interview is a “very intricate process,” says another friend, and “even when it was another interviewer besides Plimpton, his hand and influence were all over it.”

In the end, the search team must trust its instincts—and act quickly. Says Treisman, “It’s a matter of having the right person at the helm to pick up right away before submissions and subscriptions start to fade.” The committee has no deadline, says chairman Robert Silvers, but “we hope to find someone as soon as we can.”

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