For five years, I worked in the ground-floor studio apartment that was the office of The Paris Review. The home of George Plimpton, one of the founders, occupied two floors of the structure above, the easternmost of four connected townhouse-style buildings called the Black & Whites, built in 1894 on a cul-de-sac at the end of East 72nd Street. His living room and pool den overlooked the river, but our office, a small rectangular space with desks jammed against both long walls and a bicycle hung upside down from the ceiling, faced the street. The bike belonged to George. Several times a week, he would enter the room booming, “Finding great literature?,” glance at the leather-bound common book where we kept messages, take down the bike from its hooks, and leave.
My first day there, a young man with narrow trousers and stylish glasses handed me a broom. I vaguely knew I should have been offended, but the whole room was about ten feet by 20; it didn’t take long. Four of us, all in our 20s, sat at desks that touched one another or in the one upholstered chair jammed into the corner. Once a month, Marge, the cheerful bookkeeper, arrived with her ledger books and we made room. Each desk had a rotary phone. During that pre-cell time, it was rare for phone conversations to be so public, and the smallest personal revelation felt like making noise in a bathroom or having sex within other people’s earshot. People mumbled their endearments or harshly whispered their fights with the receiver close, hair covering their faces, as if not seeing the person next to them prevented that person from hearing. I had few fights of my own, and sadly, they were all with my mother.
Our managing editor was a startlingly beautiful, southern, Ivy League–educated young woman who had a reading block, a problem for the editor of a literary magazine, and she was working on it with her West Side analyst, whom she taxied to see four days a week. Her block allowed me to read agented manuscripts as well as the stacks of unsolicited submissions from the slush pile. These usually came in large manila envelopes, though sometimes they were stuffed into letter-size ones, each with its own self-addressed, stamped envelope — the hope of it all! We had two kinds of preprinted rejection notes, one curt, the other a bit encouraging. (I had already received my own first rejection note, which I now knew enough to classify as the less promising type.)
For the manuscripts we liked but not enough to accept, we typed letters asking the writer to send more. He always did. I use my pronoun deliberately because we recognized a pattern: When I closed a three-paragraph letter “regretfully” rejecting a story by someone with an apparently male appellation by asking him to send another piece, I regularly received one within days. Letters asking Sally or Ann or Leslie to send another piece were like messages in bottles thrown into the sea.
In addition to the bales of mail we received, messengers regularly delivered flowers. The managing editor’s desk usually held at least one bouquet. On one snowy day, long-stemmed roses arrived from a young book editor. They’d had an evening together — “a lapse,” she put it, over her shoulder, as she read the card. I heard her tell him by phone, “Cool it.” Within the hour, a large stainless-steel toaster from him was handed over by a man in a uniform. There wasn’t room for it in the office, but the managing editor lived in another of the Black & Whites. A young assistant carried it over. She had a key, it turned out. Why? “Another lapse,” the managing editor said, overshoulder, shrugging.
I had moved to New York to attend Columbia’s M.F.A. program, and six months before I finished and would lose my student coverage, I asked GAP, as we called George, for health insurance. In the inner lair of his study, a place cluttered with cigar butts, books, endless manuscripts, and socks, he looked up at me as if trying hard to decipher what I meant. “Well, if you have to go to the doctor, give me the bill, and I’ll pay,” he said. “Give it to Marge.”
GAP edited all the interviews himself. He would spread the pages out on his pool table and mark them up, moving paragraphs and crossing out sentences, sometimes pages, with a green-penciled diagonal. He bent to listen to his young staff’s opinions about fiction; I can’t remember one story we loved that he didn’t let us run. But the interviews were his pride, and he fought over those. He edited out a good deal from an interview Jeanne McCulloch and I did with Alice Munro. “Why is she talking about her children?” he asked with true bewilderment.
The beautiful managing editor, pursued by many, had a secret love, a gentle independent-bookstore clerk, who wore glasses and read philosophy and not so long before had been a heroin addict. Once, after a fight we had all overheard, she called me over to her typewriter to see the letter she was composing. I made a suggestion or two, as highfalutin and flowery as I imagined an address to one’s great love ought to be, then she stood up and pushed me into her place. Behind me, she listed their problems as I typed, her hand on my shoulder. A week later, I received my first compliment. He had liked the letter. She was so clear and eloquent in writing, he said, that for the first time he understood what she was getting at. This was how I became a minor Cyrano. Not only a secret reader but a secret writer, too.
I still sat in the upholstered chair with the stuffing coming out and read manuscripts. The seasons changed outside the window. A few of the people we discovered became famous; many did not but enjoyed long careers and devoted followings. A few whose lives we had hoped to change insulted us. I continued corresponding with several writers we never ended up publishing. Over the years, I’ve met many of these people and been surprised by the warmth in our connection, as if reading each other’s work rather than printing it was the essential exchange.
I brought up the health-insurance policy again to GAP, explaining that it wasn’t a matter of doctors’ appointments but of catastrophe. If I were in an accident, I said, it would wipe out my mom. He bought it.
More From This Series
- The Open-Plan Office Was an Auditory Disaster
- Remember the Office?
- The Infinite Semiotics of the Office Bathroom