According to conventional wisdom, The Paris Review is a literary magazine that had its run—some 50 years ago, with the bulls in Pamplona. Launched in 1953 by a group of friends that included editor in chief George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, and Harold Humes, it published a number of unknown writers who later became stars. But some would say it evolved into an elitist journal that was run out of the editor’s apartment and not particularly well-read, even by its own 4,000 subscribers. Skeptics thought the quarterly would fold with Plimpton, who died in his sleep on September 26.
Guess again. Last week’s Plimpton tribute, a celebrity-studded gala at Cipriani on 42nd Street, raised $500,000 for the Paris Review Foundation, bringing the foundation’s endowment to about $1 million. Now literary insiders are buzzing about how what used to be a for-profit magazine that lost money every year has turned into a bustling nonprofit with a shot at long-term profitability. Meanwhile, the search for a new editor has begun.
New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman welcomes the continuation of the quarterly. “I don’t see any reason why it should die with George. Other magazines that have been strongly identified with certain editors have kept going without them,” she said, citing Ben Sonnenberg’s Grand Street and William Shawn’s New Yorker. Then again, she explained, The Paris Review needs to stay alive “because it’s one of the few journals that people pay attention to, that gets poetry and fiction out to wide audiences.”
The magazine’s format has always been simple: Publish prose, poetry, and author interviews; showcase work by young writers alongside that of established stars. Many literary minds favor keeping that formula but understand that any new editor will make small adjustments. If the formula changes too much, they warn, it will dilute the brand.
The committee to choose a new editor is chaired by New York Review of Books co-editor Robert Silvers, who joined the quarterly a year after it was founded and is a member of the board of the Paris Review Foundation. According to Silvers, the magazine’s assets include not only its traditions and the quality of its writing, but also “a staff which is exceptional and devoted and has a whole series of projects that are going forward.” Silvers said the new editor should be “the best person to work with that staff and carry on with those projects.” Asked if he favors a previous staffer, Silvers said, “We’re at the beginning of a search, so it would be foolish to foreclose possibilities.”
Also on the search team are Paris Review editor at large Elizabeth Gaffney, founding editors Thomas Guinzburg and Matthiessen, and Sports Illustrated managing editor Terry McDonell, a longtime friend of Plimpton. They have invited friends and acquaintances to submit nominations and will begin interviews immediately.
While different factions are pushing various candidates and debating who has the best literary taste and the most forceful personality, the smart money is on someone from the small group of people who began their careers at the magazine, were trained by Plimpton, and collectively represent the institutional memory. Of these there are two known contenders: current managing editor Brigid Hughes and Gaffney, a former managing editor who’s also a novelist.
“It’s going to be impossible to replace Plimpton,” said a friend of the editor who asked not to be identified. “The magazine just so reflected him—it was eclectic, it was odd, but it was not snotty or pretentious or desperately hip. It’s not a matter of keeping it going, but of holding on to it. It’s a very fragile little roller coaster.”
Or is it? A few years before Plimpton died, he sold the Paris Review archives to an anonymous friend for $500,000 and used the money to create an endowment that would allow the magazine to continue publishing after his death. (The anonymous friend, who sources identify as Paris Review publisher Drue Heinz, donated the archives to the Pierpont Morgan Library, where they are being cataloged for exhibition after the library reopens in 2006.) Plimpton proceeded to delegate power to a small circle of colleagues, much as the pope has been doing lately at the Vatican.
The chairman of the board of directors of the Paris Review Foundation is Guinzburg, the former president of Viking Press. Other board members include James Goodale, a lawyer and former vice chairman of the New York Times Company; Heinz; and Sarah Dudley Plimpton, the editor’s second wife and mother of his twin daughters.
In an interview, Goodale, who also serves as lawyer for the Plimpton family, said the foundation had been his idea. “Once we got it going in 2000, we were taking baby steps. We were not up and running when George passed away, and we’re surprised that we have to do this. But considering the circumstances of George dying so suddenly, we really are off to a wonderful start.” Goodale said the dream is to keep The Paris Review in private hands. Asked if he expects the magazine to survive another 50 years, he said, “Fifty is short. There’s no reason we can’t keep it going forever.”
Said McDonell, “What’s encouraging for everyone concerned is that there’s this great rush of enthusiasm to move it on—not necessarily what someone experienced in the world would have expected. It’s crazy to use a term like synergy, but . . .” The Paris Review has many connections in media and high society and has generated a lot of goodwill. He added, “We’re going to be taking a good look at the subscription list.”
Daniel Kunitz, who was managing editor from 1995 to 2000, explained, “The Paris Review does not run on a lot of money. There are no large salaries, and a million in the bank is a lot more than it’s ever had before.” Before it became a nonprofit, he recalled, it had an operating budget of about $300,000 and required added revenues of about $100,000 a year. Plimpton never took a salary from the magazine, which McDonell has called his “spiritual hideout.” Now that the publication is being run as a nonprofit, it’s easier to attract money from other foundations, and board members see Plimpton’s death as a chance to operate it more efficiently.
However, sources say, Plimpton added a built-in escape clause: He gave the board the power to shut the magazine down if his successor somehow violated its spirit. According to one source, “If someone tried to turn it into a celebrity magazine, the board would have the power to correct that.” Think of it as editorial control from the grave.
Before Plimpton’s death, there was talk of moving into a larger space. Now some argue that his wife and children should have the fabled townhouse to themselves, and others say his wife is planning to sell it. Said Goodale of the current location, “We’re there for the foreseeable future. We don’t expect that we’re going to be there forever.”
Two days after the tribute, managing editor Hughes described the staff as “exhausted” but eager to resume work on the winter issue and on a new anthology to be published in May. “I’m glad we’re going back to being a little magazine again,” she said.
“Is George Plimpton Irreplaceable?” by Cynthia Cotts