A REPORT: PEN USA / JAMES SALTER / PLAYBOY
I was in a thrift store buying some clothes last week and under the counter I saw a stack of old Playboy magazines. Although it’s hardly possible to be an adult in America and not have at least a passing acquaintance with hardcore pornography, I realized I couldn’t remember ever having looked inside an actual copy of Playboy. So for $5 I bought the copy on top of the stack, the June 1973 issue featuring Marilyn Cole, playmate of the year, with fiction by Joyce Carol Oates, Robert McNear, and George MacDonald Fraser (yes, the issue contains three short stories).
I haven’t read anything in it yet. I leafed through it and found a relatively tame pictorial, all golden light and modest pubic hair. Also some tone-deaf comics (post-coital woman: “I guess this means I’m not very convincing when I say no”) and lame, topical ad slogans (“the men’s lib watch”). I may never open it again. But I like having it, a quaint yet iconic artifact with a warm, self-satisfied aura.
A few days ago, a friend asked if I wanted to go to the PEN USA awards. Knowing absolutely nothing about the year’s nominees or awards, I said I’d love to. It was last night. I got in a car accident on the way (not at fault), but everything was fine, no harm no foul. The first person I recognized at the awards was James Salter, who I love. I’d recently reread his extraordinary Paris Review interview. (“Salter at one point estimated that he has had eighty-seven hundred martinis in his life.”) A collection of his letters with Robert Phelps, Memorable Days, came out this summer and is lovely. Dusk, his first short story collection, was also just re-released by Modern Library. He said he and his wife Kay had flown out just for this event, at which point I realized that he was one of the evening’s two main honorees. The other was Hugh Hefner.
Hefner was to get an Award of Honor and a First Amendment Award. Old issues of Playboy were being auctioned off. Some for a lot of money. I wondered if mine was worth a lot of money. (It isn’t.) Hefner was a gravitational presence in the room. Everybody who spoke mentioned him. All these men seemed giddy that they were in a room with “Hef” (who wore a black suit with a red shirt and was accompanied everywhere by his two blonde girlfriends and his bodyguards). None of the women did, except one smart and lovely woman who said, “Hef is here… oh God, how do I get his attention? I just want to be a Playmate,” as if she were joking, except secretly I think she wasn’t joking. I went to the bathroom and was at the urinal and Hefner came in, bringing to three the number of famous men I have urinated near (the other two being Martin Amis and James Frey). The bodyguards came in, too. It made me nervous.
Hefner tweeted while there. James Salter didn’t. Victor Lodato’s Mathilda Savitch won the award for fiction. Peter Blake, a TV writer/producer, connector, and person-who-seems-to-be-everywhere, won the teleplay award for an episode of House (along with Hefner and Salter, he was the only award recipient with the good sense to keep his speech short). Walter Kirn accepted an award on behalf of the screenwriters of Up in the Air. His speech wasn’t short, but it was funny.
Then Matthew Weiner of Mad Men introduced James Salter. Hefner may have the gravitational force of fame, but Salter has the gravitas. He was receiving a lifetime achievement award. He said, “Lifetime achievement award? You’re probably thinking, just in the nick of time.” He is 85. “But I’m working on a new novel. And I think it’s pretty good. Sometimes books by novelists in their later years are thin or unsurprising. But there’s a photo I keep above my desk, it’s of a race horse…” It is of Red Rum, he said, a horse whose youth was unremarkable, but who won the Grand National late in life–much older than most horses are when they win championships. “So it reminds me,” he said, “sometimes in old age you can still get into the winner’s circle.”
He both took and left the stage to a standing ovation. I found it equally touching and terrifying that James Salter likened himself to Red Rum. I suppose it’s better always to be restless or unsatisfied than to be complacent, regardless of his literary accomplishments. Google does not reveal whether he has ever been published in Playboy.