by Alasdair McKillop

Spooky or what?

March 16, 2017 | by Alasdair McKillop

In a recent edition of the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan was right about the fun to be had in speculating about the links between the Paris Review and the CIA. Peter Matthiessen, one of its co-founders, was famously a recruit but what about the magazine’s editor, George Plimpton? Was the renowned participatory journalist also a participatory spook? When did he find out the magazine was created as part of Matthiessen’s cover? 

Plimpton is on record saying he became aware of this in the 1960s but one former member of the National Security Council said Plimpton himself was an agent of influence for the CIA before then. The precise nature of the relationship between the agency and the author is hard to grasp. It was Plimpton, for example, who was credited with persuading Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan to become the Paris Review’s first publisher in 1954 but Matthiessen claimed the Prince’s foundation was used as a conduit by the CIA. Incidentally, Matthiessen sought the backing of Julius Fleischman who channelled CIA funding to a number of enterprises including Encounter.

Plimpton was close to the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), a CIA front that sponsored appropriate literary activity around the world. By means of interview syndication and other favours, it is claimed the CIA acted to shape the content of the Paris Review. Plimpton’s activities form a central part of Joel Whitney’s recent book Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers and he previously wrote an intricate article for Salon that drew from the Paris Review’s archives. Whitney records Plimpton writing to a fellow editor regarding the possibility of the CCF publicising a special issue he planned on Boris Pasternak’s decision to refuse a Nobel prize following pressure from the Soviet authorities. Whitney concluded Plimpton probably knew about the CCF’s relationship with the CIA earlier than he let on.

Plimpton was also the Paris Review’s link with Ernest Hemingway, whose espionage work that was the focus of O’Hagan’s article. James Scott Linville, a former editor at the magazine, has an interesting story about the pair. Linville approached Plimpton in the 1990s in the hope of running a piece about Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries but he was cut off mid-pitch. Plimpton then recalled visiting Hemingway in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution, having previously spent a long time interviewing him for the Paris Review. During this later visit, Plimpton and a few other writers were driven from Hemingway’s home to the outskirts of town where they enjoyed some drinks prepared by Papa. In time, a truck pulled up and some soldiers got out, followed by some prisoners. What happened next requires no elaboration. How, one wonders, did Hemingway know where to find such a spectacle?

Linville asked Plimpton if he had ever written about this experience. He said he had not and could only shrug when asked why. He had, however, written about a similar event that must have preceded the one he described for Linville. In his book Shadow Box, Plimpton recalled being invited, along with Kenneth Tynan and Tennessee Williams, to witness the execution of some Batista henchmen. An American mercenary calling himself Captain Marks was the suitor. Tynan denounced the idea but Plimpton was torn. On the advice of Hemingway, he eventually agreed to attend but the plan fell through. Perhaps it was then that Papa helpfully arranged another viewing but in the story recounted by Linville it didn’t seem like Plimpton knew the real reason for the trip. He might have guessed but why would Hemingway have bothered to keep him in the dark given their previous conversation about the offer from Captain Marks? Regardless, if Plimpton did have connections in the espionage community, they would no doubt have been interested in what he had seen and heard on the island.

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