THE PARANOIAC AND THE PARIS REVIEW
By Rachel Donadio
New York Times Book Review
February 17, 2008
When he died at 66 in 1992, Harold L. Humes had spent decades talking to himself, and to anyone else who would listen. Since the early ’70s, Humes -- a bearded, generally benevolent figure, his mind ravaged yet not entirely destroyed by mental illness -- had been a fixture around Harvard and Columbia, a self-appointed freelance professor entrancing acolytes with his theories on vast government conspiracies, the benefits of cannabis, the shape of clouds.
It wasn’t always thus. In the ’50s, Humes, who was known as Doc, was a rising literary star. In Paris in the early ’50s, he founded the Paris Review with Peter Matthiessen and others. Later, in New York, he wrote two acclaimed novels. The Underground City (1958), a best-selling atmospheric thriller set among American secret agents and French Communists in postwar Paris, was hailed by the New York Times as the work of an “alarmingly talented” writer and by the Daily Telegraph of London as “truly monumental”; Noël Coward told Humes that every character “will live in my memory for a long while.” Howard Nemerov, in Partisan Review, called Humes’s second novel, Men Die (1959), set among African-American soldiers on a Caribbean island before World War II, “a technical achievement of dazzling virtuosity.”
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Humes was at the center of the Manhattan cultural universe, frequenting Village jazz clubs, helping overturn the city’s infamous cabaret laws and befriending writers like James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, and William Styron. Humes managed Mailer’s first cockamamie mayoral run in 1961 and attended the 1960 party where Mailer stabbed his second wife, Adele, nearly killing her. He directed a short silent film called “Don Peyote” and designed an ingenious paper house for use in the developing world. (Raised a Christian Scientist, Humes had attended M.I.T. at 16 before leaving to join the wartime Navy.)
But somewhere along the line, Humes was overtaken by paranoia. He was obsessed with the Central Intelligence Agency and thought the government was following him. He was briefly institutionalized in London in 1965 after overdosing on LSD brought by his friend Timothy Leary. How Humes went from brilliant young writer to paranoid ranter is a story told with candor and affection in “Doc,” a documentary made by one of Humes’s daughters, Immy, which was shown in Manhattan last month and is expected to be broadcast on PBS later this year.
The intrigue of The Underground City, which Random House just rereleased in paperback along with Men Die, finds something of a real-life echo in one of the most dramatic revelations to emerge from “Doc”: that Peter Matthiessen, the author of The Snow Leopard and At Play in the Fields of the Lord, spent two years in the C.I.A., using the Paris Review as his cover. “It was right after the war,” when the agency “wasn’t into assassinations,” Matthiessen says in one scene. Back then, working for the C.I.A. was seen as honorable government service -- or, as Matthiessen put it in a recent telephone interview, “a free trip to Paris to write my novel.”
The news of Matthiessen’s C.I.A. involvement was originally reported in a 1977 New York Times series on the cultural dynamics of the Cold War but caused something of a stir in literary circles when it re-emerged in an article about Immy Humes’s documentary in the Times last year. The question of secret C.I.A. financing for the arts has long been a contested one. When it emerged in 1967 that the C.I.A. had financed a variety of cultural programs and literary magazines (notably the British journal Encounter) through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, there was a tremendous uproar among left-wing writers, artists, and intellectuals who believed that being enlisted as unwitting tools in a government propaganda war had compromised their status as free thinkers and independent anti-Communists. In 2002, hackles were raised anew when a New Yorker profile revealed that Roger Straus, the venerable publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, had in the late ’40s given cover to two men who worked as literary scouts but were really intelligence officers.
In “Doc,” Matthiessen explains that he confessed his C.I.A. involvement to Humes in 1966, after Humes’s institutionalization, to help assuage his friend’s growing paranoia. “I thought if I leveled with him, it would be better,” Matthiessen says. But the confession did nothing to lessen Humes’s conviction that conspiracies surrounded him.
“I believe Peter when he says he is properly ashamed of involving the *P.R.* in his youthful folly,” Humes wrote in a March 1966 letter to George Plimpton, the magazine’s editor from 1953 to his death in 2003. But could the Paris Review itself have been “created and used as an engine in the damned Cold War?” Humes wondered. “Although Peter is not to be blamed for a paranoid system that makes victims of its instruments, nevertheless, what of Styron? . . . What of half the young writers in America who have been netted in our basket?”
Plimpton wrote back emphatically denying any connection between the C.I.A. and the Paris Review. In a recent interview, Matthiessen emphasized that the magazine had never been a front and had never received any C.I.A. money. “No, absolutely not,” Matthiessen said. “I used the Paris Review as a cover, there’s no question of that, but the C.I.A. had nothing to do with Paris Review.” Matthiessen added that he had told Plimpton about his C.I.A. involvement several years earlier. “George was outraged.”
The C.I.A. thread is discussed in greater detail by Matthiessen and others in George Being George, an oral biography of Plimpton scheduled to appear this fall, said Nelson Aldrich, who compiled the volume for Random House. Aldrich worked as an editor at the Paris Review in 1957 and subsequently as a public relations functionary at the Congress for Cultural Freedom. He concurred that the literary magazine had never received money from the congress, though he noted that Julius Fleischmann, a literary socialite and known conduit to the congress, had donated $1,000 to the Paris Review in its early years. Aldrich said it was Fleischmann, not his front foundation, that gave the money, “although who knows, he might have gotten it from his foundation.” (Aldrich married Humes’s former wife, Anna Lou, in 1967.)
Long before his breakdown, Humes was known for his odd if often endearing behavior. When he was writing his novels, he took up residence in the Random House offices, often sleeping on the couch of Bennett Cerf, one of the house’s founders. In “Doc,” Matthiessen fondly recalls how in the late ’50s, Humes would show up unannounced for dinner and stay for three days. Even in his later years, he retained a kind of cracked genius. Paul Auster, who first encountered Humes as a Columbia undergraduate in 1969, recalled in an interview that Humes was always venting about government conspiracies. “He told me that by changing channels frequently and finding out how much live music was being broadcast on the radio in New York City, he could tell what the government was doing with the ‘thumpers,’ by which he meant nuclear weapons.” In his autobiography, Auster called Humes’s monologues “the rant of a hipster-visionary-neoprophet.”
As it turns out, Humes’s belief that he was being followed wasn’t entirely paranoid. After filing a request through the Freedom of Information Act, Immy Humes learned that the government had kept tabs on Humes from the time he applied for a job with the Marshall Plan in Paris in 1948 until the late ’70s. One document has a note from J. Edgar Hoover himself advising someone to check the files on Humes, Immy said.
For his part, Matthiessen says he wishes “Doc” hadn’t stirred up so much interest in the C.I.A. story, a small chapter in his long and varied writing career. “Long, long, long ago I should have simply typed out the right chronology and gotten it straight,” he said. “It’s the one adventure of my life that I regret.”
--Rachel Donadio is a writer and editor at the Book Review.