BY JAMES SALTER
APRIL 14, 2014
I met Peter Matthiessen sometime in the late nineteen-seventies. I had moved east from Colorado, or intended to, and we were introduced by a mutual friend. I had been at several Paris Review parties at George Plimpton’s in the years before that, but had never happened to meet Peter there. He was famous, not only as a founding editor of the Paris Review but as a writer. He wrote for The New Yorker and had won a National Book Award for “The Snow Leopard.” An earlier book, “Wildlife in America,” had established his reputation years before.
Matthiessen was tall and long-limbed. He was handsome. I had rented a house in Wainscott only a mile or two away from his that happened to belong to one of his former girlfriends. Matthiessen and I were the same age, both writers, and we fell in with one another and became friends. He had a lot of friends—fishing friends, writing friends, birding friends, and various others, and in many places. He was about to marry for the third time. He already had four children but didn’t think he was a very good father, he confessed. He didn’t have the patience.
He’d grown up in a privileged world in which he knew the young Jackie Bouvier. He went to private schools and Yale. His best friend as a boy was a Harriman nephew, and another was a Whitney, and Diana Vreeland lived down the road. He didn’t talk about his background. He felt a little awkward about it.
His house was on six acres near the ocean. At the time there was nothing but a long field between it and the beach. He had bought the house and land from a well-known fashion photographer, Alexey Brodovitch. Peter knew the house, having poached pheasants on the land. He’d told Brodovitch that if he ever decided to sell his house, Peter would buy it. He did buy it in 1958. He paid thirty-five thousand dollars.
It was a wonderful rambling house with grassy paths through the overhanging trees and a high, impenetrable jungle of privet hiding it from the road. It was like a house in “Out of Africa” or Tahiti, weathered exterior and polished wood floors within. The rooms went on and on. There were quiet spaces, a bedroom on the garden, serenity. From a bathroom window upstairs, you could catch sight of the ocean and more when the foliage was gone. The driveway had deep ruts that were partly filled with broken clam shells. If you have any clam shells, bring them around, he said. Separate from the house and off in the trees was a wooden cabin in which he wrote. He was a hard worker and serious. I was always reluctant to interrupt him because of that, and anyway I was never sure of his exact schedule, since he had a variety of other obligations, Zen, social, and literary. He had a telephone in the cabin, but I rarely called him on that one.
After he married Maria we had dinners together all the time. There were a lot of writers out on the East End: William Gaddis, Joe Heller, Bruce Friedman, John Irving—I’m leaving out names. Peter sometimes came by with a fresh fillet of a bluefish he had just caught at the beach. Late in the fall we would drive to Gurney’s with Sherry Lord, who was a painter and had been Peter’s roommate at Yale. Peter’s friendships went deep. Gurney’s had an indoor sea-water pool, and we would swim and take a steam bath afterward. Sometimes we went to dinner that night if their wives were away. Neither of them could or would cook.
Beginning in the nineties we played tennis. Peter had played since boyhood and was pretty good. Also, he was highly competitive, as you would find out soon enough, or even by merely observing him, despite the Zen air. We played in the afternoons on the courts of people he knew.
One day, in 2006, he called and asked me to come by later. It was just before dark. He was in the cabin where I hadn’t been in a long time. William Styron had died that day, he told me, and he wanted to have a drink. We sat there drinking and talking. He had known Styron since the Paris days in the early nineteen-fifties. Styron was a close friend—the friend of his life, he said. I hadn’t known that, the last part. I’d been with the two of them various times. They were easy with one another, easy enough to exchange insults. Styron was a southerner who didn’t fish, hunt birds, or play tennis, and who lived in Connecticut, far away—but there had been some strong cord. There were aspects of Peter that faced elsewhere—his spiritual life, his solitary travels, the intimate side of his past—and that you knew only by chance or from reading his books.
We talked often about writing and writers but not much about each others’ books, which we generally read only in galleys. I happened to know a lot of “Killing Mister Watson” by being at different readings he gave while he was writing it. I don’t know how much he may have revised the manuscript as a result of the readings, but it was hard for him to stop working on something, and he once said to me that he had never published anything he wished he hadn’t worked on more.
I was reluctant to give him my work to read. I was afraid of his disapproval and too proud for advice. This may seem funny, considering how much we were with one another and how freely we talked, but there was always that slight competitive element to things. He did give me suggestions about “Burning the Days” that I took.
I’m leaving out the trips to Europe and the intimacy that developed between our families. My children felt close to him, especially Theo, my younger son. When you celebrate Christmases together and everyone’s birthdays and other events through the years, a dense and indestructible fabric is made, really too rich to imitate or describe. We sailed up the Nile. We were in France together, St. Petersburg, Italy. We drank together, sometimes quite a bit. For a few years, in our sixties, we had a ritual of throwing ourselves into the cold sea on November 1st, then having an icy martini with our wives on the beach.
We got old. At the end of the 2012, he left on a trip to Mongolia to write about great Siberian tigers, a threatened group, though he wasn’t feeling well. It involved twenty hours or more of flying and trekking after that. He forced himself to go, and he returned completely exhausted. It turned out to be leukemia.
His illness was private. It lasted more than a year, and the treatment was difficult. During it, as he became weaker, with his characteristic determination he wrote a final book, just published this past week, “In Paradise.” He died in his home near the sea.
James Salter’s latest novel is titled “All That Is.”
Photograph courtesy of Peter Matthiessen.