It wasn't supposed to be a memorial service when it was planned weeks ago, but last night's gala 50th anniversary dinner for The Paris Review turned out to be a rollicking, moving farewell for the magazine's founder, George Plimpton .
It actually featured a spectacular display of indoor fireworks set up by the Grucci family in honor of Plimpton, a well known aficionado of the art.
Imagine a room full of the great literary lions of the 20th century: Kurt Vonnegut, E.L. Doctorow and William Kennedy among them. Not bad considering that Garrison Keillor and Peter Mathiessen, two lions in their own right, hosted the event.
There were more writers, writers, writers: Walter Moseley, Francine du Plessix Gray, Candace Bushnell, Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Price, Paul Auster and the great poet Billy Collins. (Conspicuously absent: Jay McInerney, who made a career of being a Plimpton party guest.)
Can-Can girls even danced on the stage of the Cipriani 42nd St., formerly the Bowery Bank. The elegant Peter Duchin conducted his orchestra.
William Styron , the lion of lions, author of "Sophie's Choice" and "The Confessions of Nat Turner," checked himself out of the hospital he'd been in for some time just to pay his respects.
Styron, I am a little nervous to report, is frail and walking with a cane following a small stroke. He is also recovering from a bout of depression, the same kind he described in his important book about the subject, "Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness."
But he also seems to be on the rebound, and told me that — as I reported in this space some time ago — he is working on a novel and a collection of short pieces.
"I always have a novel at bay," he said.
Elsewhere around the room, 850 people — twice as many as expected before Plimpton's sudden death three weeks ago — stuffed themselves in the space. According to the party planners, another 800 were on a waiting list.
It may have been the last great literary event of all time. Editors and writers from every publishing house were there, plus magazine types such as John Huey and Norm Pearlstine (from Time Inc.), David Remnick (The New Yorker), Wayne Lawson (Vanity Fair), Terry McDonnell (Sports Illustrated) and media hyphenate Tina Brown.
James Atlas, the literary critic and biographer, who's written about Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz, was seated next to Peggy Siegal, the movie P.R. maven who hangs out with Brian De Palma and Barry Levinson . Neither had heard of the other. That's the way it went.
One of Plimpton's aides told Siegal the editor had left a message on his computer to call her before he died because he thought the Review needed a touch of her glamorous magic. Siegal was shocked, to say the least.
The only other Hollywood types were from opposite generations: "Traffic" writer Stephen Gaghan and famed "On the Waterfront" author Budd Schulberg, who told me he'd seen "Waterfront" director Elia Kazan shortly before he died last month.
"He was still angry Darryl Zanuck passed on 'Waterfront,'" Schulberg said. That would have been half a century ago.
In the middle of the hubbub, Elaine Kaufman, the restaurateur, commanded the center front table. The whole night was like an Elaine's night on steroids.
Calvin Trillin mingled around, actors Alec Baldwin and Timothy Hutton did readings, a trio of CBS heavyweight newsmen — Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace and Andy Rooney — plus Charlie Rose, made the rounds.
Of course the evening wouldn't have been complete if someone hadn't filmed it, and that was left to award-winning documentarian Albert Maysles. His task was to get as many of the guests recorded for posterity as a gift for Plimpton's widow, Sarah .
Maysles recalled that when he was wrapping his film, "Salesman," in 1969, Plimpton had the whole crew — including the Bible salesmen featured in the movie and their wives — back to his house on East 72nd St.
"Even Leonard Bernstein came," he said.
Lee Grant, behind her big tinted glasses, also showed up as a favor to Plimpton. The Oscar winning actress/director read a poem by Frank O'Hara that brought the crowd to tears. It's called "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island," and if you don't know it, it reads in part:
"Sun, don't go!"/ I was awake
"No, go I must, they're calling
"Who are they?"
Rising he said "Some
day you'll know. They're calling to you
too." Darkly he rose, and then I slept.
You get the idea. Musician David Amram dedicated "Amazing Grace" to Plimpton, which he performed on the alto recorder.
Vonnegut, looking sturdy, took over the program. He was asked to make a toast.
"If anybody could come back from the dead and write about it, it would have to be George Plimpton," he declared. "Good night sweet prince, may flights of angels send thee to thy rest."
There were more parties and celebrities on red carpets last night than you could — or should — shake a stick at. Regis and Joy Philbin, Kim Cattrall, Ralph Lauren and Tony Bennett also came to the gala opening night at Radio City Music Hall of "Sinatra: His Voice, His World, His Way." And you thought Frank was gone. Never!
Over at Django, Robert Evans, the movie producer and legend if there ever was one, was the guest of honor at a party thrown by Gotham magazine's Jason Binn for his "Kid Notorious" series, which debuts on Comedy Central this weekend and is said to be hilarious. (See Bill McCuddy 's interview with Evans this weekend on "FOX & Friends.")
There was also some kind of HBO party (isn't there always?) and New York Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove, evidently not satisfied that these events would manifest much chatter, had his own soirée, we hear, for 40 guests down at Il Cantinori.