Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Paris Review Revel

Schoolchildren walking along the Bridle Path in Central Park. 3:00 PM. Photo: JH.
David Halberstam, the writer, died in an automobile accident in California yesterday.  I learned this last night at the Paris Review Gala when James Goodale told me that Gay and Nan Talese had backed out last minute on hearing of their good friend’s death.

Mr. Halberstam achieved near-greatness forty years ago in his book “The Best and the Brightest” about the history of the American foreign policy that  birthed and nurtured the great war in Viet Nam, rife with corruption and duplicitous politicians (Red China was going to take over Hawaii after that, and then California, we were told ad nauseum for many years! by one foreign policy expert after another, including, of course, the Presidents).

David Halberstam. (Photo Courtesy of Royce Carlton, Inc.)
Despite his “radical” departure from our years of celebrating these men (the “best and the brightest”) many of whom came to the fore in the Administration of JFK, Mr. Halberstam was in no way a radical but rather a sensible thinking man. And a brilliant reporter (for the New York Times in Viet Nam) throughout his long career.

When it was over, there were 58,000 Americans dead and as well as more than 3 million Vietnamese, North and South, military and civilians. Halberstam’s title was an acceding to fatal irony. It had a powerful influence on the public and eventually public policy as well as -- or so it would seem for a brief time -- foreign policy. More than 35 years after the Americans evacuated Viet Nam, we still have not come to terms with it, and in all likelihood we never will. Mr. Halberstam’s reporting in the “Best and the Brightest,” however, remains steadfast. That is his legacy.

In a short space of time, New Yorkers have been witness to the passing of four very influential (and in very diverse ways) individuals – Kitty Hart, Ahmet Ertegun, Pat Buckley, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and David Halberstam.  I don’t know if they knew each other but I have no doubt they were on equal footing in their community.

Yesterday was a very warm and beautiful day in New York. After an editorial meeting with our executive editor Sian Ballen, on the Upper East Side, JH and I went over to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park. JH had wanted get some shots for you to see of the trees nearby that are now in blossom. There were lots of small school children walking in groups along the horse path.

Spring reverie. I don’t know why it happened “yesterday” but looking over the vast body of water around which Mrs. Onassis liked to jog reminded me of her and her New York life. Although a legendary pop culture character in life, surrounded by mystery and mystique, she was also out there. Private and out there at the same time. The feat of a brilliant hand. She lived her life as she pleased (with a married man no less), and yet wisely exercised her influence in a way that benefited everybody including herself.
Running along Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir
So many other joggers and walkers passed her by on her frequent runs along  this path. In those days, before her untimely death, there was a ratty old iron fence around the lake that was erected in 1926, three years before Jacqueline Bouvier came into the world. It was a replaced at the time the reservoir was renamed in her honor in 2003 thanks to a donation of $2 million by Donna and Marvin Schwartz. It’s a beautiful fence. I was thinking how Mrs. Onassis with her acute appreciation for all things beautiful would have loved it.

It was still warm when I left my apartment about seven, heading downtown to the Puck Building for the annual Paris Review Gala, “Spring Revel.” They were awarding the Plimpton Prize for Fiction to Benjamin Percy, presented to him by Radhika Jones and Nathaniel Rich. And then they were presenting the Hadada Award to Norman Mailer by E. L. Doctorow.

The Puck Building is in SoHo. Or what is now “technically” at the northwest corner of NoLita in SoHo but by the NoHo section of Greenwich Village. Or just plain old Houston and Lafayette Streets. The building which went up in 1885 had to wait almost 100 years before it was in the neighborhood (aforementioned junctures) it is now attributed to. It’s a big brick building that gets its name from the name of the magazine that was published out of the building until it went belly up in 1918.

Philip Gourevitch of the Paris Review interviewing Norman Mailer about the life of the writer.
There are two gilded figures of Shakespeare’s Puck on the façade, on a corner and over the entrance. It’s the building used by the TV sitcom Will & Grace as the building where Grace works. It is now owned by the Kushners, the real estate family from New Jersey. Young Kushner, Jared, 25, recently personally purchased (for $5 million) the New York Observer which he immediately jazzed up by turning it into a kind of ersatz weekly literary/political tabloid/journal. I mention all of this to exemplify how this building is at the heart of the New York action where all creative self-interest merges at times.

There were a lot of writers gathered in the big brick-walled reception room by the time I arrived, close to the dinner hour. People suited up, looking very respectable with a couple of exception (like Peter Mathiesson who was looking casual and rugged the way you’d imagine a best selling novelist might look – at least in a movie). Lyn Nesbit introduced me to Andre Aciman who wrote “Out of Egypt: A Memoir,” and most recently published an acclaimed novel “Call Me By Your Name.”

Mr. Aciman, among his literary interests, is a Proustian scholar. He is also chair of The Graduate Center’s doctoral program in Comparative Literature.  I first learned of him from an article in the Sunday Times about his introducing Proust to college students and how they were so open to its rhythm and nature because of their youthful openness. I was so impressed by his articulation I went out and bought his “Out of Egypt.” His novels blend non-fiction with fiction in that everything seems factual and authentic, fiction or non-. The mystery is in the characters, but also in the writer. Frankly however, his brand of intellectual capacity is daunting and even intimidating to the point of avoidance for this writer.
I love New York parties where there are a lot of writers. Even at this age I have not lost my romantic notions of what it means to be a writer, and so, at these times, I am like a kid in a candy store. Although I have been a working writer for many years now, I remain  in awe of these men and women in much the way a schoolboy would. However, being in my present position (where as a reporter I am able to meet so many people), I naturally get to see the real thing up close and “in the flesh,” where egos collide with vanity and self-doubt and wit and all the day-to-day drivel that torments so many of us.

Peter G. Petersonand Joan Ganz Cooney were the Benefit Chairs. Mayor Bloomberg made an early appearance during the cocktail hour to congratulate those such as James Goodale who had put together a Foundation to save George Plimpton’s Paris Review after his passing. Since then, they have built it into a healthy publication. They raised $750,000 last night. A very healthy figure. Writer and Artist hosts included Joan Didion, Frances Fitzgerald, Peter Carey, Jonas Bendiksen, Karl Taro Greenfield, Eliza Griswold, Uzodinma Iweala, Mary Karr, Peter Matthiessen, Meghan O’Rourke, Gilles Peress, Richard Price, Salman Rushdie, James Salter, Gary Shteyngart, Charles Simic. There was also a large contingent of young social New Yorkers – Boykin Curry and Celerie Kemble, David and Shelley Mortimer, Serena Boardman, Marina Rust Connor, Vicky Ward, mixed with the Elaine’s crowd, the bankers and philanthropists, and lots of writers.
Houston Street. 7:00 PM and 10:30 PM.
After the award to Mr. Percy for his fiction (http://www.theparisreview.org/percy.php) Pete Peterson made a toast followed by the dinner. I sat between Toni (Mrs. James) Goodale and Rose (Mrs. William) Styron. Peter Matthiessen and Honor Moore were also with us. Conversation was easy and direct.

Then E. L. Doctorow took the lectern to read his introduction of Norman Mailer. Knowing that the man needs no introduction. So Mr. Doctorow shared his talent, adding Technicolor to historical context: Mr. Mailer and his predecessor and Mr. Hemingway. There were affectionate barbs. When the young Doctorow was much younger, he was briefly Mailer’s editor at Dial Press. He recounted sitting with the already acclaimed best-selling author of “The Naked and the Dead,” giving him his editorial ideas for his latest work, and how this same man listened to the “younger” editor carefully and receptively.

Then Philip Gourevitch sat down to interview Mr. Mailer. Still formidable and feisty in bearing, Mr. Mailer is a generous and reasonable interviewee and there were several hundred people in the room listening as carefully and receptively as the man himself did with the younger Mr. Doctorow. I’m sorry that I cannot share the entire twenty minutes, but I caught a tiny piece of it with the Vid. What could be better for those of us who remain in awe of the whole process, the author, the life, the lives? The eternal promise.
The Hungry March Band greeting Paris Review guests on the steps of the Puck Building
E.L. Doctorow in conversation
Taki, Lisa Crosby, and Chuck Pfeiffer
Joan Ganz Cooney and Liz Smith
Shelley Mortimer and Lyn Nesbit
Philip Gourevitch and James Goodale
Commissioner Ray Kelly and Andre Aciman
Stephen Lagan, Minnie Mortimer, John Jay Mortimer, Celerie Kemble, and Boykin Currie
Chris and Priscilla Whittle
Simon Doonan and Jonathan Adler
Former Governor Bill Weld with John Jay Mortimer
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Lewis Lapham
Joan Didion
Marie Brenner
Vicky Ward and Alex Kerry

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