by Bryant Urstadt
Here’s Harold L. Humes again, back from the dead this time, rising from the boiling mists of time like The Swamp Thing, dripping muddy secrets and forgotten brilliance and true madness. Nothing new about that, in a way. He was always showing up with his own invite, overstaying a welcome he had extended to himself. His appearance in a PBS documentary making the rounds of local public stations this winter is among the least strange of his drop-ins.
He appeared at James Jones’ funeral in 1978, with a boulder in the back of his station wagon, which required three men to unload. Jones was the author of From Here to Eternity, just the kind of bright literary lamp Humes would introduce himself to when he was alive. The boulder is still on the lawn in Bridgehampton. Fine, but… Humes had never met Jones.
He showed up at Random House in the mid-Fifties with a stellar novel, just moved in with his manuscript and his toothbrush and his motorcycle, which he wheeled into the lobby of the office of founder Bennett Cerf, when Random was located in the more motorcycle-friendly Villard Mansion, just behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Madison Avenue.
“You didn’t just meet Humes,” remembers Random House editor Bob Loomis, who edited Humes’ second novel, Men Die.
Loomis, now 80, is the embodiment of the legend of Random, having worked with everyone from William Styron to Toni Morrison, and he lobbied hard within Random to allow for last springs’ reissue of Men Die and Humes’ longer, better novel The Underground City. “He kind of entered your life. He used to sleep in our offices. He helped me move. He just became part of your day.”
Humes swept into the cafes of Paris in the late forties and early fifties, inserting himself into a crowd that included Irwin Shaw, James Baldwin, and everyone else, it sometimes seemed, who would otherwise have been living in Greenwich Village. Humes was at Le Dome in Paris one night in 1951, probably wearing the black velvet cape and carrying the silver-handled cane for which he became known in those days, tapping a 24-year-old Peter Matthiessen on the shoulder and introducing himself, and soon after teaming up with him to start Paris Review.
And now Humes, dead for 16 years, crashes 2008, his books up for reevaluation after forty years in the cooler of history; the subject of Doc, the documentary by daughter Immy Humes; and shedding awkward news about Matthiessen, who used Humes and their Paris Review as a front for his work with the CIA. (It was deeper than that, of course; in a way, it can be argued that Matthiessen was using the CIA as a front for living as a novelist in Paris.) Humes now is a weird Banquo pounding the literary table, asking us to listen, listen, to the story of his life, his work, and the birth of one of the country’s most important literary magazines.
Humes was called “Doc” for most of life, a nickname he was given by his high school classmates in Princeton. He earned it by being smarter than everyone else, and most everyone who knew him has described him, roughly, as an infuriating genius. He went on to MIT, but dropped out after two years, spent some time in the Navy, and ended up working for the Marshall Plan in Paris in 1948, which led him directly into the second great migration of Americans to Paris, the cafes and then to Matthiessen, whom he recruited as the literary editor for a magazine he had just started, the Paris News Post. It has been described as a “fourth-rate” version of the New Yorker, and by Matthiessen himself as a Parisian version of Cue, the old listings magazine which was eventually folded into the back pages of New York. But it was more than that, with its own charm and style, and a distinctly literary bent. At some point, the two decided to start a second, less mundane magazine, and drew up plans for the Paris Review.
Humes and Matthiessen began work in earnest over the summer of 1952, drafting Plimpton, who had gone to grade school with Matthiessen at St. Bernard’s in New York. Plimpton came over with his own cape and a tiny fedora and everything else that would set him atop New York’s social world for the next fifty years. Humes, true to himself—infuriating and a genius—rather than buckling down to the work of laying out a magazine, took off for a sojourn in a villa with girls in the south of France with William Styron while Plimpton, Matthiessen, and others sweated out the details of the first issue. Humes took the magazine’s typewriter with him, too, leaving Matthiessen to complain frequently in handwritten notes that he was running a magazine with no typewriter. And then Humes went off to Harvard, to study literature with Archibald MacLeish.
Humes’s disappearance, among other things, temporarily lost him his spot on the masthead, and the magazine would take off without him. It was a stellar first issue, like one of those fireworks whose tracers reach far from the initial explosion. Within the pages of that first issue was a tremendous display of talent, almost too much to list, but including William Styron, Donald Hall, Terry Southern, Robert Bly, Matthiessen, of course, and finally, Plimpton, the longtime editor, and one of a handful of American writers to step into the imagination of the general public.
Plimpton, Matthiessen, and the others involved have offered many stories over the years about who really came up with the idea for the Paris Review, but none is as odd as the description offered by Humes himself in a letter which has sat for more than fifty years in an envelope marked “Private.” It’s at the back of a box marked “unprocessed” in the Morgan Library, which took ownership of the complete files of the Review in 1999 and 2005.
In the letter, dated February 25, 1953, Humes argues that the Review was his idea from the start, challenging Plimpton to check with James Baldwin, with whom he discussed it in the summer of 1950 at the Metro Café on the Rue de Four, a year before Matthiessen would arrive. Humes not only claims that the magazine was his idea alone, but that he caused Matthiessen to suggest to him. It takes a little explaining, a task Humes never seemed to duck. In his letter, he describes some management techniques he had learned while working for William Sheppard on the Marshall Plan in Paris. Among “Sheppard’s Rules” were instructions on how to convince colleagues to advance your own ideas as theirs. Humes claims he worked on Matthiessen in this regard for some time, writing, “Do you think it is an easy thing to build up steam for the idea of the Paris-American Review in Peter Matthiessen’s cold, New England boilers?” and then reaching a fever pitch:
“No one can know the organizing dream, the planning, the scheming, the long conversations, the step-by-step learning, which had to precede the event. No one ever saw me step into the dark street and click my heels in the air in a mad little dance one morning at 5 a.m. That was the night that Peter had first suggested that maybe we should junk the Paris News Post and start a new magazine…. I played reluctant, unconvinced. It was necessary – for Peter to convince me, before he’d really convinced himself.”
In the letter, he offers as proof the fact that he registered the name the Paris American Review with the French publishing authorities on October 3, 1951, and there is in fact a little document, all neat and French, containing the “official” declaration of “un journal ayant pour titre PARIS-AMERICAN REVIEW,” and registered to Humes himself.
Adding a penthouse to the many floors of manipulation was the fact that Peter Matthiessen had arrived in Paris as a new CIA recruit, something Matthiessen hasn’t spoken about publicly about until Immy Humes “cajoled” him into doing so. There were times when his silence might have been a practical decision: While working on his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which argued for the overturn of the decision against Leonard Peltier, the Native American serving two life terms for the murder of two FBI agents, Matthiessen certainly would not have been helped with the ghost of a CIA badge around his neck. But discussing the CIA may have been personally difficult as well, for he had been working undercover alongside a close friend with an historic case of paranoia, and it created an unsolvable problem.
When they first met, Matthiessen was looking for cover, and likely primed for Humes’ developed techniques of suggestion. The Paris News Post had been an adequate start, but the Paris Review would be much better. “It strengthened the cover I was supposed to set up,” he told me from his home in Sagaponack. “I had been using the Paris News Post but it was shaky. I was looking for something more stable.”
Matthiessen had graduated in 1948 from Yale, the veritable birthplace of the CIA, where he was recruited by a graduate school professor. Many of his classmates had joined, and it was, as he notes in the movie, “kind of the thing to do.” He lasted about two years, writing up reports on activity in the city. Matthiessen quit the CIA “abruptly” in March of 1953, having been asked to befriend and inform on several figures in the French intellectual left. “It was no go. My politics were veering left and fast,” Matthiessen told me. “I wasn’t sympathetic, and they couldn’t trust me anymore.” As for Humes, who, as his letter suggests, was a conspiracy theorist’s conspiracy theorist, he would not find out about Matthiessen’s role until the worst possible time, during a nervous breakdown twelve years later.
Over two years in the late fifties, Doc banged out two novels that excuse much of his later antics. He wrote the first, The Underground City, in 1957. Set amid the French Resistance during and just after the second World War, it at times digresses in a way that would impress a subway preacher, but it is, overall, the kind of book that ones finishes and closes with the satisfaction of having lived through something, from hiding out in basements to ambushing German prison guards to burying an armored car to waiting in a dark field for a shipment of arms to arrive by plane. It is also filled with conflicting loyalties, cross-purposes, deceptive behavior and conspiracy.
As Matthiessen told me, Humes wrote it on a dare, in about two months. “He had showed up at my house, unannounced, as he often did, and he was ranting about literature. I challenged him, saying ‘Why don’t you write your own book?’” and he said, ‘Well, Goddamn it, I will,’ and about two months later he was at Bennett Cerf’s office saying you had better read this book, because it’s brilliant.”
It is a particularly astonishing feat due to the book’s length, an imposing and practically archaic 755 pages. “I don’t know how he did it,” says Matthiessen, “unless he had been secretly typing on the side. He might have been. He loved that kind of thing. He loved staging things.”
The novel appeared to incredible response. Random House told Humes that it was the most widely-read and best-received debut novel they had published. (It is a poignant requiem for letters in America to page through Immy Humes’ scrapbook of clipped reviews, with tiny papers across the nation publishing their own opinions on the literature of their time.) Men Die, a smaller but nearly as accomplished book about doomed men building an arms cache on an island during the War, appeared the next year, also to acclaim. It also marked the end of Humes’s literary career.
Humes cracked up in 1965, and afterwards claimed that even trying to write made him ill. There was never another finished novel. In the years before his breakdown, however, Humes had been everywhere. He managed Norman Mailer’s first aborted campaign for mayor, and was in the kitchen the night Mailer stabbed his wife. He built a paper house of his own design at George Plimpton’s parents house in Huntington – cheap and weather-resistant, it was meant to house the poor. He prepared a wooden boat for an ocean crossing. He had four daughters, including Immy. But paranoia, always a part of his personality, was expanding its hold, taking over after Timothy Leary—with whom he had been doing acid since Harvard—left Humes alone in a house in London with way too much LSD. Acid was a subject Humes took seriously. He kept notes of his “research” with the drug, even taking the addled care to note that the research had gone way out of control. He began talking to the Queen, through his bedpost, which he believed was bugged. He was sure he was being watched. Institutionalized, he would tell friends in confidence that he had averted a world war by mediating talks between the CIA and the KGB via a tabletop radio.
Matthiessen and Humes had grown close over the years, but with a conspiracy-obsessed friend desperately in need of help, he was in a bind. Humes was suffering from delusions that might have been right for the wrong reasons, and Matthiessen naturally imagined that the only thing worse than telling him might have been him finding out some other way. Matthiessen had told Plimpton years earlier about his involvement with the agency, and feels it really shook him.
“George was outraged,” Matthiessen told me. “Here was his baby and it turns out to be a front.” In any event, Matthiessen and Plimpton agreed at that time, according to Matthiessen, that Humes “simply could not handle it.”
Even after decades, Plimpton seems uneasy discussing the matter in the film. “None of us knew,” says Plimpton, “that the magazine was….” he pauses, clearly at a loss and goes on to say, “I guess some people might call it a front.”
When Humes broke down, Matthiessen and Plimpton discussed again what to do about their friend, and agreed that it would be best to tell him, as a way of clearing a way toward Humes’ recovery. It was a hard decision and turned out perhaps only a little better than the alternative.
Or as Plimpton puts it in the film, “It was the worst conceivable therapy.”
“It didn’t help,” Matthiessen told me, in response to Immy’s film, which he feels places too much blame on him for Humes’ breakdown, “but it didn’t hurt either. He had already been institutionalized. I remember telling him as we walked down a London street. I remember the scene so well. ‘I want to tell you something,’ I said. I think he already knew. We had a very agreeable evening afterwards. He came back to my hotel room and spent the night. I suggested he take a bath, which he sorely needed, and he did. But he wasn’t outraged. George says that he was outraged, I guess this was George’s way of expressing outrage. He was the outraged one.”
There may have been enough outrage to go around, however, and enough generosity on all sides to somehow accept it. In a letter owned by Immy Humes, Doc Humes wrote Plimpton in March of 1966, letting him know what Peter told him, and threatening to resign unless Matthiessen publicly confessed, writing: “Since this was apparently a formal arrangement, involving his being trained in a New York safe house and being paid through a cover name… our hapless magazine was created and used as an engine in the damned cold war… It still shocks me that Peter, again in his own words, used you as he used me and frankly I am still sore as hell about it. More precisely, I’m hurt….”
And yet Humes, as Matthiessen argues, seems to have taken his comments in stride, writing, “far from blaming Peter I think at this juncture he deserves full marks for having had the guts to speak up.”
Plimpton would write a calming letter to Humes in response, sprinkling it liberally with soothing charm, pleading that Humes not resign, unless it was over the poetry, which, he admitted, had seemed bad lately, and noted that he didn’t accept resignations anyway.
CIA rumors would dog the Review for years, far out of proportion to the magazine’s actual participation in any “missions.” As late as the anniversary issue in 1980, Plimpton was still dispelling the notion that the Review had been a tool of the CIA. And in fact it was not, in the sense that the CIA had or cared to have any control over its content. It merely allowed Matthiessen to continue work for a style of government he would later, as a mature and important American writer, struggle against.
Humes would never be the same. He never wrote again, for all practical purposes, and his ideas flowed with equal intensity but lesser relevance. He became a student of massage as a cure for everything, up to and including heroin addiction. He grew a Methuselah beard and became an apostle of pot. He embarked on a fifteen year long talking tour of the campuses of the northeast, finding an ear in the students of the early seventies, who were at a high point in history for their tolerance of esoteric anti-establishment jibber-jabber. With two of these students, he a son; that is, two sons of two different students. He saw his daughters irregularly. When he inherited a few thousand dollars from his father in 1969, he gave it away on the Columbia campus in fifties and hundreds, hoping to bring down capitalism by overwhelming it with irrational and inefficient generosity, or something like that. Columbia would ask him to leave. He moved up to Harvard, producing long answers to questions no one had asked. He interpreted cloud formations and described international cabals of scientists. Harvard would ask him to leave. He blamed that on the C.I.A. He died of prostate cancer at a rest home in New York in 1992.
Humes has been gone for years, but the Review survives. It has even flourished of late, under editor Philip Gourevitch, who took over in 2004. Circulation has doubled, to nearly 15,000, and a redesign, more faithful in many ways to the earliest issues, has created a magazine as pleasant to hold as to read. The offices have moved from Plimpton’s apartment to a business-like loft in SoHo.
Plimpton is gone, too, of course, leaving behind numberless bookworms who saw his death as particularly sad, as it meant they would never be able to attend one of his legendary parties. There is a young group trying to get a statue of him built somewhere in the city. Not long before his death, Plimpton called the Paris Review the best thing to ever happen to him, and he certainly would be diminished, and perhaps even largely forgotten, had he merely been a writer of funny sports books, fine as they are.
In a way, Humes is like the Tim Paterson of literature. Very few have heard of Tim Paterson. He sold an operating system to Bill Gates in 1980, who needed something for IBM, with whom he had just signed a contract to supply the software which most of us use today. Humes gave birth to an institution, too, and like Paterson, Humes held the door open to history for many, but will likely never pass through himself. It’s good to see him again, if only for a short time.