Last Call for George Plimpton’s Apartment, and the Era It Embodied

Photo: Cornell Capa © International Center of Photography

“I was sad thinking about it on the way over,” said Maggie Paley, a former Paris Review editor, during the last party that would ever be thrown in George Plimpton’s apartment. “But being here, it’s hard to be sad. There’s so many people!”

Paley was standing by the couch where Truman Capote had sat in a famous 1963 Life photograph (above) that immortalized the parlor floor of 541 East 72nd Street as the center of postwar American high culture. George Plimpton — writer, publisher, amateur lion tamer — died in 2003 after 50 years as the founding editor of The Paris Review. The journal, which had operated out of his home, moved downtown two years later. Three months ago, the third editor to succeed him, Lorin Stein, a cerebral bon vivant emcee in the Plimpton mold, resigned in a fog of sexual-harassment allegations (including sex in the office). And now Plimpton’s widow, Sarah, was planning to put their multistory apartment on the market. To mourn and to celebrate, she threw one last shindig Wednesday night, billed “Last Call at 72nd Street.”

It was, as they say, the end of an era — an era of intellectual conviviality but also an era in which women tended to serve as ornaments or helpmeets to Great Men. “George was an era,” said Gay Talese, gazing at the same East River view he’d described in his own piece of party mythmaking, an Esquire cover story of the same vintage as the Life photo. (Missing from both was Jackie Kennedy’s visit to a Plimpton party soon after; she was appalled at the state of his bedroom.) Talese still attends the Paris Review’s fundraising “Revels” in its new offices. He’s registered “a little change in clothes,” but everything else is “pretty much the same — always good-looking women.” (It bears mentioning that Talese got in hot water two years ago for asking a female Times journalist if she was off to get her nails done.) As for Plimpton, he was known to tell guests, “Bring a pretty girl.”

Morgan Entrekin, Grove Atlantic’s longtime publisher, was less blasé about time’s passage. Standing on a riser, the same high vantage point of the famous photo, he was feeling a pang of nostalgia for the place where he’d gotten to know Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, writers he went on to publish. “What was powerful was the continuity between generations of writers,” he said, an exchange between wise elders and energetic youth fostered by the Review. “After they moved out of here, it evolved out of my age group and set. It was really hot and crowded with a lot of people who were 25 years younger than me, and it didn’t have the same thing.”

“The simple word is glamour, which also means magic,” said William Wadsworth, a director of Columbia’s MFA writing program, who had his engagement party in the apartment. “George himself was just an amazing, amazing person. He was so funny — he could stand up at one of these events, he’d blow his bugle and make a speech, and it was hilarious …”

As if on cue, there were calls for quiet, sadly bugle-free. Standing midway up the staircase leading to private quarters upstairs, Sarah Plimpton gave a quick speech paying homage to the Paris Review Foundation and more generally to history. “Coming to a Plimpton party was a rite of passage for aspiring writers,” she said. “Every time George had a party here I was worried there wouldn’t be enough room, but there’s something about this place — it absorbs everyone who comes in.”

The house did feel magically expansive, like Narnia behind the wardrobe — a world that opens out from a row-house hallway to reveal extra stairwells, nooks, and risers, along with a metamorphosing billiard table. By day it was a makeshift desk for pasting together the Review, by night a covered surface for the most basic hors d’oeuvres. This evening, it was just a pool table; chic canapés were ferried instead by a crew of caterers based in a kitchen carved out of the late publisher’s original bedroom. Long gone were the days when Plimpton would self-cater a party by emptying a can of Dinty Moore stew into a pot.

Like the Plimpton apartment, which expanded over the decades, the party did evolve with the times. “Before my day it was pretty raunchy,” said Sarah Plimpton, who became George’s second wife in 1991. “I think we’ve cleaned it up a lot.” She confirmed, with a grimace, the story of a woman popping out of a birthday cake in a gorilla suit, stripping fully, and then leaping into Plimpton’s lap. Not everyone went home in the old days — at least according to a famous anecdote from a friend of Plimpton’s, who’d arrived one morning to find the novelist Terry Southern “and a young woman passed out on the sofa in the early stages of undress, each holding a glass of Champagne.”

There were a couple of other speeches Wednesday evening, including a 50-second toast from Dick Cavett (about a “notorious William Faulkner interview”) and another by James Goodale, a core member of the board of the Paris Review Foundation. Goodale recalled the magazine’s 50th-anniversary party, which Plimpton allowed “under two conditions: One, we had cancan girls, and two, we would have fireworks.” (Plimpton died, but the party went ahead, featuring both.) Goodale touted the Review’s evolution, under his board, from a magazine with “twice the Sewanee [Review]’s circulation — it was 4,500” to a website attracting 600,000 viewers a month.

Talking to me earlier, Goodale had taken more personal credit for the journal’s longevity: “George said no good literary editor ever wants the publication to survive him because it’s his creation and they all fail, so don’t waste your time. I’ve wasted my time and here we are.” After Plimpton’s death, his managing editor, Brigid Hughes, succeeded him under the title “executive editor.” But then, according to a recent article by A.N. Devers headlined “This Is How a Woman Is Erased From Her Job,” an “old boy faction” of the board, including Goodale, ended Hughes’s yearlong tenure and hired journalist Philip Gourevitch instead. Hughes was rarely spoken of again. Gourevitch was there on Wednesday, but didn’t have much to say about the leadership, except that “we threw fantastic parties during my period as well,” and that “the Paris Review will keep on keeping on.” Hughes wasn’t at the party, though she was invited. Lorin Stein was not.

When Stein took over the Review in 2010, the New York Times called him “a proud throwback,” the fitting inheritor of a title for which “bacchanalian nights are practically inscribed in the job description.” When he resigned seven years later, during an internal investigation into alleged affairs with writers and subordinates, Stein was derided as a throwback to the darker side of the Review’s golden age — when men doled out opportunities in return for sexual favors.

Goodale was laid-back about the departure. “Lorin couldn’t stay there forever,” he said. “I was on the committee that was looking into it, and we knew something had to be done, but we couldn’t agree on what. If we took it to the board, we’d still be in the boardroom today trying to figure out what to do. So he was a real gentleman to resign and save us all a lot of stress.” But was Stein an outlier or merely the inheritor of an outmoded mid-century culture? “I think it’s the times,” said Goodale. “The whole approach to this sort of thing has changed; the law has changed.”

The past, meanwhile, grows hazier by the moment. “I can’t remember any egregious misbehavior in the old days,” said Entrekin. “But my wife says I’m not very aware sometimes. I guess you’d have to ask people who were there, particularly the women.” As the party sauntered past its official 9 p.m. end-time, several women gathered in the kitchen. Jeanne McCulloch, the Review’s managing editor in the ’90s and a current member of the board, wouldn’t comment about Stein, “but you can have this for the record. George very much kept women in positions of authority, women with opinions, because he knew he couldn’t cover the waterfront. It was very much about an ensemble effort.”

McCulloch was one in a long line of hardworking female editors, from the legendary Maxine Groffsky all the way up to Hughes. But her first task, at the age of 26, was to organize a party in Plimpton’s absence. “He called and said, ‘Listen, kiddo, I’m stranded in Ohio. You can host, right?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ But I did. Kurt Vonnegut walks in, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and they’re all like, ‘Where’s George?’ I said, ‘Ohio. Want a drink?’” She was also there when the Grateful Dead popped in on a few hours’ notice, requiring an emergency liquor run and billiard-table transformation.

Standing nearby, Sarah Plimpton said that when she met George, hostessing two or three parties a week was “like part of the contract. And I was the cleanup crew. And I survived. I survived!” Twenty-six years younger than Plimpton, she’d lived a few doors down from him for years before they met. And now, three decades and thousands of parties later, she’s moving out. “I told my kids” — her twin 25-year-old daughters with Plimpton — “I’d keep the apartment until they were launched. I’d been dreaming, before I met George, of living in Santa Fe. Now, 35 years later, I’m making it; I’m moving to Santa Fe.”

Shortly before ten, everyone was headed home — except the woman who was already home, though not for much longer. “I’m so tired,” she said. “It’s been such a long night.”

Leaving George Plimpton’s Apartment, and the Era It Embodied