If there had been a catastrophe of some kind on Monday night at Cipriani on East 42nd Street in Manhattan, a good portion of the literary community of the East End would have suddenly become history: Peter Matthiessen of Sagaponack was being honored by The Paris Review, and many of his peers with longtime connections to East Hampton and Southampton were there.
Mr. Mathiessen, who turns 81 next month and whose latest book has just been published, received the Hadada Award, an honor first conceived by George Plimpton six years ago when he was editor of The Paris Review and a year before he died in 2003. The event was the “Spring Revel,” an annual fund-raiser for the magazine, which is celebrating its 55th year. It included Mr. Matthiessen being interviewed by Philip Gourevitch, and remarks by Tom Brokaw, who at one time lived in Bridgehampton.
Presenting the award was Frank McCourt of Sag Harbor. Interviewed before the event, Mr. Matthiessen said that he did not know what Mr. McCourt was going to say, adding, “I’m sure it will be funny, and most likely rude, because that is Frank’s sense of humor. He’s a good friend, so I’ll take whatever he gives.”
There is a remarkable connection between the literary community of the Hamptons and The Paris Review. The publication was founded in Paris in 1953 by Mssrs. Matthiessen, Plimpton (who lived in East Hampton), and Thomas Guinzburg (East Hampton) along with Harold Humes, John Train, William Pene du Bois, and Donald Hall.
Also affiliated with The Paris Review are local writers (or editors) in residence E.L. Doctorow of Sag Harbor, Richard Price of East Hampton, Robert Loomis of Sag Harbor, and James Salter of Sagaponack.
Mr. Matthiessen might be best known for his nonfiction book, “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” and his involvement with Native American causes, but his career has encompassed much more.
He was only 26 when The Paris Review was founded and was a CIA recruit at the time. He gave up being a spook to be a writer and world traveler full-time. His first book to attract attention was a novel, “At Play In the Fields of the Lord,” about a group of American missionaries and a South American tribe. (It was made into a feature film in 1991.)
His magazine articles and nonfiction books focused on nature and wildlife and included “Blue Meridian,” “Sand Rivers,” and “The Snow Leopard,” published in 1979 and the winner of a National Book Award.
During the last decade, Mr. Matthiessen has concentrated on fiction, writing a trilogy of novels: “Killing Mr. Watson,” “Lost Man’s River,” and “Bone by Bone.” The books were inspired by accounts of Edgar Watson, a Florida planter who died shortly after the Southwest Florida Hurricane of 1910. Just hitting bookshelves now is “Shadow Country,” which Mr. Matthiessen calls a “distillation” of the three Watson novels.
On the East End, inevitably, his most well-known work is “Men’s Lives,” published in 1986. It is a poignant, detailed chronicle of the decline of the striped bass fishery on the South Fork and with it the occupation of bayman. Several years after it was published, “Men’s Lives” was adapted by Joe Pintauro for a landmark stage production as the very first play to be presented at the then flegling Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor.
Given his resume—Mr. Matthiessen was also the official State Author of New York 1995-97—and his status as a co-founder, one would think that The Paris Review would have honored him already. According to Mr. Matthiessen, the first opportunity was a year ago: “They offered the Hadada Award to me, but this is the magazine’s major fund-raising event and I advised they feature someone with a bigger name than mine. So they went out and got Norman,” he said, referring to last year’s recipient, Norman Mailer, who died a few months later at 84. (Even here there is an East End connection: among Mr. Mailer’s credits is directing the film “Maidstone,” set in East Hampton.)
For his part, Mr. Matthiessen was not necessarily looking forward to the attention he was to receive on Monday night, but he was anticipating seeing the writers, friends, and others connected to The Paris Review. “I’m pretty sure all of my kids will be there [he has four] and I’ll see a lot of old friends there, too,” he said. “Also a few new ones, those being the writers the magazine is bringing along these days.”
Much missed is Mr. Plimpton, who was the first and only editor of The Paris Review for 50 years. “I do wish George were there,” this year’s prize winner said. “And he always loved a party.”
Mr. Plimpton often kept the magazine afloat financially out of his own pocket and the editorial offices were on the bottom floor of his townhouse on East 64th Street. He himself had a strong writing resume prior to his death at 76, with books that included “Paper Lion,” “The Bogey Man,” and “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” and appearances in such films as “Rio Lobo” with John Wayne, “Reds” with Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton,” and “Good Will Hunting,” as Matt Damon’s psychologist. Mr. Matthiessen thinks, though, that The Paris Review might be Mr. Plimpton’s most enduring legacy, because of the work of writers and the interviews published for more than half a century and their impact of American letters.
The first publisher of The Paris Review was Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan and it was operated out of a small room of the publishing house Les Editions de la Table in Paris. Mr. Matthiessen remembers that staff members were not given keys to the office, so those who worked late would have to climb out of the window, hang from the ledge and jump, and they were occasionally mistaken for burglars by passing police. A couple of years later the publication moved to a grain carrier anchored on the Seine and editorial conferences gave way to jam sessions featuring Chet Baker and David Amram. When it seemed like a good idea, Mr. Matthiessen, Mr. Plimpton, and others held meetings at the Café de Tournon in the rue du Tournon on the Rive Gauche.
Over the years The Paris Review became known especially for its lengthy interviews with the world’s best writers, including William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov, Ralph Ellison, Samuel Beckett, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, and Jorge Luis Borges. (“The Paris Review Interviews, Volume 1” was published last year by Picador.)
“It really became George’s magazine, but over the years I still felt very much attached to it,” Mr. Matthiessen said. “We all felt terrifically loyal to it. Now it’s in excellent hands, with Philip [Gourevitch] doing an excellent job. When you get hold of a copy of the ‘Best Short Stories of The Paris Review,’ which has an introduction by William Styron, you’re amazed at the writers who are in there. There was clearly an impact on international literature. The legacy of the magazine was having had a lot to do with getting many terrific writers read and recognized.”
Today, the magazine operates out of offices in Tribeca, and the editor is Mr. Gourevitch, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award for “We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families,” about the genocide in Rwanda. He is particularly pleased that Mr. Matthiessen is being honored this year, above and beyond, as he said, “saluting one of our founding fathers.”
“Peter has led really one of the most accomplished and versatile and varied lives in American literature,” he said. “He’s really been a pioneer among American writers. The nonfiction he was doing early on was really a new form and was enormously influential. It mobilized people to see the world in a different way, which is an extraordinary thing and not something that can be said about many writers, only a select few like Peter with his distinctive powers as a writer and naturalist.”
“He is going as strong as he was 50 years ago,” Mr. Gourevitch continued. “He is traveling everywhere. He knows our land, our nature, our history at a depth that very few people do and he has made that literature. Peter’s work has really mattered. Remember too that he fought a U.S. Supreme Court battle over ‘In the Spirit of Crazy Horse’ that significantly protected the rights of working writers in dealing with their source material. We are all beneficiaries of that.”
With the Spring Revel done, it is back to work for Mr. Matthiessen. An ongoing project is spending time with an Indian tribe in the Arctic, resulting in a series of articles being published in The New York Review of Books.
“The search for oil and the drilling is making the environmental situation in the Arctic Ocean much worse,” said Mr. Matthiessen. “I’m fortunate that I’m doing what I want to be doing.”