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The Cold War Boudoir: Bugs, Wigs, and Wiretaps

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Despite billionaires’ obsession with space tourism, I think I would pay even more to time-travel back to one of George Plimpton’s legendary parties. I’d shell out at least a grand to be a fly on the wall on a Friday night in the fifties or sixties, preferably one of the nights Truman Capote or Jackie Kennedy were parked on the sofa, or the time Doc Humes wrestled Norman Mailer on the balcony, or that evening when Terry Southern propositioned William Styron’s wife, Rose

Plimpton—blue-blooded Yale man, co-founder of The Paris Review and inventor of what he termed “participatory journalism”—had the money, the connections, and the charm to host a damn good party. The cocktails were stiff and plentiful, the infidelity rampant, the air thick with literary one-upmanship. Folks who were there even claim Plimpton’s Upper East Side pad hosted formally arranged orgies, complete with a room full of costumes. On these occasions, Plimpton allegedly liked to dress up as a priest. 

It all sounds like an epic, if sloppy, good time—that is, if you can forget all the CIA stuff.  

The Paris Review’s CIA ties are one of the better-known examples of the agency’s involvement in propagandizing American arts and letters during the Cold War. I began my research there when I started writing my new novel, The Lunar Housewife, about a fictional female journalist who uncovers her boyfriend’s involvement with the literary arm of the CIA. Her boyfriend, Joe, is loosely based on Paris Review co-founder Peter Matthiessen, who was trained as a spy as a young man in Paris

The Paris Review began as a CIA-funded front, a legitimate day job to cover Matthiessen’s shadier activities. His task was to keep an eye on fellow writers to the far left and report back to his CIA handlers if any of them were getting too chummy with Communism. But he cut ties with the agency, so he claims, fairly quickly: the men following him around Paris in bad disguises (some, reportedly, in wigs and dresses) and the hang-up phone calls to his pregnant wife became too much for him to handle. 

We don’t know how much Matthiessen’s co-founders—among them Plimpton, Southern, Styron, Harold “Doc” Humes, and James Baldwin—knew about the magazine’s dubious beginnings. (It’s also unclear whether the CIA was involved in edging Baldwin out of his role at the magazine, which seems highly likely.) Matthiessen only told Humes about it in 1966, after which Humes wrote an impassioned letter to Plimpton, asking to have his name taken off the masthead. Humes assumed Plimpton, too, had until then known nothing about Matthiessen’s stint with the CIA. Humes advised Plimpton to come clean about the association immediately. Otherwise, Humes argued, the magazine would come to “rot.” 

As I was reading Finks, Joel Whitney’s excellent book about The Paris Review’s secret history, a friend suggested I also turn to Anne Roiphe’s memoir Art and Madness. A regular attendee of Plimpton’s parties, Roiphe had an affair in the early sixties with then-married Humes. According to Roiphe, Humes worried constantly about “alternative galaxies and life on other planets and the presence of the FBI in all our lives, following us around, listening.” At one point in the book he tells Roiphe plainly, “I may be killed.” “Be careful,” she replies, only because it was “the polite thing to say.” 

Reading this, I felt my hair stand on end. I had the sense Humes was being gaslit by everyone around him, whether they knew they were doing it or not. The man may have suffered from anxiety and paranoia, and he may have been fond of LSD, but when it came to surveillance, he was probably right. Perhaps he had come across an actual listening device in one of his hotel suites. And his fear of being killed doesn’t sound so crazy when you consider the tragic case of Frank Olson

I found myself sympathizing with Humes, despite knowing better about all of these cads and what they were up to while their wives and children waited at home. Poor Doc Humes, coming to Plimpton to commiserate, without a clue that Plimpton’s own involvement with the CIA had gone on far longer than Matthiessen’s. It was largely Plimpton who flirted with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, another CIA front that provided funding to literary magazines and artists who promoted their soft-power agenda to defeat Communism. Plimpton and Matthiessen had accepted $20,000 in magazine funding (a whopping $216,500 today) from the CIA-funded organization all the way back in 1953. Yet in 1966, when Humes confronted him about CIA ties, Plimpton clutched his pearls (or rosary beads) and pretended to know nothing about it.  

It didn’t take long, however, for my opinion of Humes, at least the version of him presented in Art and Madness, to sour. In the book he is cruel to his wife and children and frequently disregards Roiphe’s personal comfort and safety. At one point she wakes her three-year-old in the middle of the night to take a taxi to Humes’s flat, where he’s having a crisis. She and her sleepy child give him a ride to Bellevue. Later in her book she describes Humes tugging her into the woods outside the house she’s renting in the Berkshires. He pushes her to leave her child with some other (presumably drunk) adults by a pool so that he can pressure her into having sex against a tree. Roiphe is worried about her child, who can’t swim; Roiphe is worried about poison ivy. But she feels she cannot say no to him—he is that intense, that magnetic. Half an hour later, he’s back on about the little green men and the FBI; a few months later, he’s pulling another, even younger woman into that same forest within view of Roiphe. 

Did he prefer to go into the woods because there were no listening devices there? Or was he so horny in the middle of the day that he wouldn’t take no for an answer? 

To say the men in this circle weren’t great to their women—always referred to as “girls”—is a gross understatement. Norman Mailer infamously stabbed his wife for—the horror—saying he wasn’t as good a writer as Dostoyevsky. Dylan Thomas went through women the way we now trade up for a new iPhone, and yet the women, per Elizabeth Hardwick’s essay “America and Dylan Thomas,” “fought over him; they nursed him while he retched and suffered and had delirium; they stayed up all night with him, and went to their jobs the next morning.” 

There’s a reason I said I wanted to be a fly on the wall at one of Plimpton’s parties, rather than a woman in the room.

Plimpton himself had a one-night stand with Roiphe, described in her book. Afterward he told her he probably wouldn’t remember they’d had sex in a couple of years. He delivers this line with a sheepish sort of buck-up attitude, which it seems Roiphe understands. He will forget they slept together, but she will not. She will keep coming to the parties, and she’ll never say a word about their history. She will be a good sport. But even if he forgets, she will remember. 

And so, quite possibly, would the CIA. Roiphe writes that “there was a probably ridiculous belief,” going around their set, “that J. Edgar Hoover was everywhere with listening devices and it was said that his moles attended anything that might appear to be a political gathering.” This left me wondering if the moles would have considered an orgy at George Plimpton’s place, given his CIA ties, a political gathering. Do government moles participate in orgies? The idea conjures images of sock garters and terrible facial expressions and just makes me want to curl up into a ball. 

All joking aside, I can’t stop thinking about the women dutifully cleaning up after these fellows’ messes, joining their silly orgies. My guess is a lot of them were, like Roiphe, aspiring writers, aiming for their big break with little knowledge of the way in which their hosts were playing inside baseball. Roiphe’s daughter Katie Roiphe describes them as “the girls who suffered for art…who devoted themselves to these men and, maybe more to the point, to the idea of these men.” I could be wrong, but I don’t think their romantic “idea” of these men involved taking large payments from the CIA in order to repackage an anti-Communist agenda. The hip set of literary men in ’50s and ’60s New York had found a way to launder the squarish tendencies of Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon—hardly sex symbols in their time—and turn it into a way to get laid. 

The journalists who brought all of this to light, eventually, were largely women, from Frances Stonor Saunders to Immy Humes, Doc’s daughter, who in the documentary “Doc” does her best to get Matthiessen and Plimpton to set the record straight. The narrator of The Lunar Housewife is also a woman, hard at work on her own novel, something truly counterculture that she knows the fellas and their CIA handlers would hate. There’s a reason the book ends with a wink between two women: they’ve figured out what’s been going on behind the scenes, and they are not impressed. 



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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