On the night of September 15, a party was held to celebrate the release of The Paris Review’s most recent issue. When it ended, and the dozens of writers, editors, and poets streamed out of the Chelsea office, the staff of America’s pre-eminent literary quarterly found their hospitality had been abused.
As reported in Page Six, an e-mail went out. “In the aftermath of the party,” it read, “we noticed an empty picture hook on our wall where a beautiful archival photograph of two women reading The Paris Review used to be. We miss the picture very much, and we would be grateful to anyone who could help us recover it—no questions asked.”
With a guest list drawn from the great and the evidently not-so-good of the New York arts world, the question in the city’s most avant-garde minds was that of the generic detective potboiler: Whodunit?
For nearly 70 years, The Paris Review has been a bastion of the written word. Under the editorship of its co-founder George Plimpton, it published works by Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, Adrienne Rich, and Samuel Beckett, among others. But just as renowned as its writers were its parties, hosted in Plimpton’s town-house apartment on the Upper East Side, which also served as the magazine’s offices. Here, counterculture and high society mixed, along with spirited arguments, booze, and hanky-panky. The feminist writer Anne Roiphe recalled The Paris Review’s parties as having “rooms filled with thrashing limbs.” And then there was the stripper who leaped out of a cake dressed in a gorilla suit.
After Plimpton’s death, in 2003, new editors followed in quick succession, at least compared with their predecessor. Lorin Stein, who took over in 2010, was widely seen as Plimpton’s spiritual successor, equally at home with a stanza as with a cocktail, until a thunderclap of sexual-harassment allegations led to his resignation in 2017. Since 2021, under the leadership of the formidable Emily Stokes, a former senior editor at The New Yorker, The Paris Review appears to have washed its hands of scandal. But not, it seems, of criminality.
Working our way through the guest list, Air Mail’s sleuths contacted some of the partygoers and asked them for their alibi. “My crush was at the party, so I couldn’t concentrate on petty theft,” said Janique Vigier, an editor at Semiotext(e), an independent press specializing in critical theory. What did she think of the missing picture? “Only writers would think of stealing it.”
Many spoke of the party as being youthful and debauched. But when we reached Sarah Nicole Prickett, a writer and erstwhile editor of the modern erotica journal Adult, she demurred on that topic: “I don’t think there are debauched literary parties anymore.” After a pause, she added, “Gian. Giancarlo [DiTrapano, former publisher of Tyrant Books], he knew how to party. But he’s dead.” That being so, did she happen to perceive any criminal element working the room while she was there? “No,” she said. “I didn’t notice a preponderance of art collectors.”
The feminist writer Anne Roiphe recalled The Paris Review’s parties as having “rooms filled with thrashing limbs.”
A finger of suspicion was pointed at the male model Dagsen Love, who proved not to mind too much. “I wish I was involved in The Paris Review art theft!” he said, before confessing to a lesser crime. “I will admit to taking a hat without paying. I asked someone for permission because I couldn’t find the person handling payments.” Hardly the words of a hardened criminal.
Next, we questioned Dean Kissick, the New York editor of the contemporary-art magazine Spike. A prime chronicler of the so-called Dimes Square scene, perhaps he would know who might have stolen the picture. “I’d imagine it was the Drift girls,” he declared, referring to the fashionable journal, which recently secured funding from the art dealer David Zwirner. “That’s exactly the kind of thing they would do, because [The Paris Review] is like a rival. After all,” he went on, “Zwirner as an institution is very interested in the power of images and the power of gestures that are hard to understand.”
When we approached Rebecca Panovka, co-editor of The Drift, our e-mails went unanswered. A sign of guilt? Or merely the sign of an encroaching publication date? Whatever the case, since The Drift doesn’t have a physical office, it seemed hard to imagine where they would display such a spoil of war. Indeed, David Velasco, the editor of Artforum, suggested that the whole affair might be “a very ingenious publicity stunt by the new editor” to “juice up the gossip world. And if that’s the case, then hats off to her.”
With so many critics, theorists, poets, and assorted postgraduates, the theft itself was rapidly becoming less important than the meaning of the theft. Was the fact that the missing picture depicted two women a subtle dig at the current female leadership? Or was some versifier merely following T. S. Eliot’s dictum—“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”—a little too literally?
Perhaps Stephen Hiltner, an editor at The Paris Review back in 2016, might be able to shed some light on the matter. He had negotiated the return of a framed letter by Gordon Lish to Ann Beattie that had also been stolen from the office during a party (not to be confused with the theft, at a 2017 party, of a Tomi Ungerer drawing of Günter Grass, which was quickly returned, along with two other pictures that the staff hadn’t noticed were missing). Although now at The New York Times, Hiltner was still honor-bound not to reveal the repentant thief’s identity, but he was happy to share his knowledge of the case. “My sense is that these kinds of transgressions, which seem exhilarating in the moment, hit differently in the sober light of day,” he said.
One can hope, but as of this writing, no one has sobered up sufficiently to return the picture. When asked whether this would cause The Paris Review to re-evaluate its party policy, Stokes assured us in an e-mail that there are no plans to change the gatherings, “which we trust will remain raucous as ever.” Has she considered tightening security? “As to the question of frisking,” Stokes said, “we do our best to resist the temptation wherever possible.”
George Pendle is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL. His book Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons became a television series for CBS All Access. He is also the author of Death: A Life and Happy Failure, among other books