The Many Lives of Peter Matthiessen
Credit: Photograph by John Midgley
Long before he was a literary icon or an environmental hero, Peter Matthiessen was a rich juvenile delinquent. He was born into the Wasp aristocracy of New York City, the son of a prominent architect, and was raised in a Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park before moving to Connecticut. He almost immediately started to rebel against his privileged status. "I've been amazed since taking notes on the events of my childhood and my life for this memoir, the pattern of being resistant to authority," he said. "I just had that . . . ." He clenched his fists and shook them, pantomiming a child's impotent fury at the injustice of the adult world. "I've been angry since I was about eight," he said. "I didn't realize until years later that it had seeped into my entire life."

The arc of that life was largely shaped by his aversion to being told what to do. "I got busted when I was 12 or 13, still in day school," he said. "I had two BB guns, and a friend of mine and I were shooting at cars going by on the Merritt Parkway. We had them in a crossfire." The school was Greenwich Country Day, then as now an educational cradle for the children of America's elite, stretching from the first president Bush to the Winklevoss twins. Boarding school at Hotchkiss did not mellow him. "I was a bad, bad kid," Matthiessen said, laughing. "I wouldn't have had me in the house for anything. My parents were saints. But I didn't think so at the time."

Matthiessen was not a man who often shied away from a good time of any sort. He spoke enthusiastically about martinis consumed during the Truman administration and the joyous, unspoken connection he shared with the Dalai Lama when he met him for the first time. For years, he and a group of friends crashed Long Island's private golf courses and played for free, getting caught only once. ("Poaching adds a lot of tension to the game, especially when you're betting, which we were," he explained.) By the time Matthiessen was 17, his tireless pursuit of happiness had left him largely estranged from his exasperated family. "I wasn't really welcome at home," he said. He dropped out of Hotchkiss and lied about his age to enlist in the Coast Guard near the end of World War II. His precarious status didn't inhibit his insubordination, such as "giving a sort of half-assed Hitler salute" to a captain he felt undeserving of respect. ("He was an asshole," Matthiessen explained, reenacting the ill-advised Fascist greeting and laughing at the memory.) When his father, who had been in England developing a top-secret weapon, returned home and learned where his son had gone, he demanded that Peter be sent back to Hotchkiss.

After a stint in the Navy, Matthiessen enrolled in his father's alma mater, Yale, where he fell into the orbit of the charismatic literature professor Norman Holmes Pearson. Matthiessen spent his junior year abroad in Paris; there, he met his girlfriend and future first wife, Patsy Southgate, whom Matthiessen's lifelong friend George Plimpton once described as "so beautiful that people would stop and stare at her on the street." Photographs from the period confirm that Matthiessen may have had a similar effect on pedestrian traffic. Rose Styron, a Matthiessen friend since she and her husband (novelist William Styron) met him over the Christmas holidays in 1952, recalled him as "an extremely attractive bon vivant, hard-drinking and hard-playing. He was definitely a leader."

Matthiessen had begun selling short stories in college and was eager to start a novel. "I needed a job after graduation, and my girlfriend was dying to go back to Paris," he said. Yale's Pearson offered a solution. The Cold War was intensifying; the Soviets had detonated a nuclear bomb, and U.S. forces were trying to repel a Communist invasion of South Korea. Might Matthiessen be interested in signing up for a patriotic new organization, the Central Intelligence Agency?

"They promised me Paris was a hotbed of intrigue, and it was at that time," Matthiessen said. In return for monitoring the activities of the French Communist Party, Matthiessen received a stipend. To provide deeper cover than that of an unpublished novelist, Matthiessen conjured up the idea of starting a literary magazine. Under the editorship of his friend Plimpton, whom Matthiessen had lured from studies at Cambridge University, The Paris Review became one of the most influential publications of the 20th century. Matthiessen quickly tired of spycraft; he admired the devotion and sincerity of the French Communists he was assigned to monitor, even if he never quite understood their blindness toward the dark side of the Soviet Union.

Considering the long-standing connections between Yale and the spy agency – in the early 1950s, the New Haven campus was to CIA recruiting what Venezuela was to shortstops in the 1980s – Matthiessen might have shrugged off the tales speculating about The Paris Review's connection to the CIA that swirled through New York's fishbowl literary world in recent years. Instead, he took the offensive, raising the subject preemptively with interviewers, insisting that no CIA funds had ever gone to support The Paris Review, and pointing out that his brief involvement, which ended in 1953, predated the CIA's policy of political assassinations. "I didn't have any politics" prior to that time in Paris, he said. "The CIA made a lefty out of me." The opportunity to tell "the true story" was one of the things that prodded him to his writing desk each day, and he said he had completed a draft of his version of the CIA episode as part of his memoir project.

Shortly before Matthiessen's death, I asked the novelist James Salter, a friend and Hamptons neighbor of Matthiessen's for 35 years, what he thought about his friend's preoccupation. "He's a bit sensitive about it; I think unduly sensitive," Salter said. "If anybody had purposes and beliefs contrary to whatever the CIA's happen to be, it would be Peter Matthiessen." Rather than trying to persuade or reason with his critics, Salter said, "I think he should just say, 'Kiss my ass.' "