An oral history of George Plimpton.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 29 2003 7:05 PM

Amateur Night on 72nd Street

George Plimpton ran the Paris Review, played with the Detroit Lions, wrote books, and interviewed Hemingway.

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"I have decided," he said, "that I have got to jump from a plane. And you are going to come with me. We're taking off from Teterburo, N.J., at 4 a.m. tomorrow. OK? I'll pick you up."

I had a hard time sleeping that night, as you might imagine. Finally I did. And later I woke up—at 6 a.m. Later I called up George, I said, "What happened?"

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"I thought it over," he said, "and I took mercy on you. You should be very grateful. It was horrifying."

Angelo Dundee, trainer for Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard:
George was such a great guy. He was respected by all. When he was on the scene, everything was a big happening—an event. When Muhammad Ali was fighting, George Plimpton was always there. He had a way of putting it all together, of understanding fighters in the ring; he was a good analyst of boxing. Big, tall, good-looking guy, easy-going. He had it all going! He was smooth. He was a great addition to the human race. He could have been a fight trainer, a fight manager! He could have done whatever he wanted. All the good guys have got to go.

Jay McInerney, author:
Arriving in Manhattan as a young writer, nothing was more thrilling or daunting than attending my first Paris Review party at George's townhouse on East 72nd in the fall of 1984. Realizing that I probably didn't know anyone, George took me around the room to introduce me to his guests—William Styron, Norman Mailer, Robert Stone, and Gay Talese among them. I thought I'd died and gone to Olympus. Somehow George had gotten it into his head that I was on the verge of becoming a pharmacist before he had called me up a year earlier to tell me the Paris Review was publishing a story I had submitted—perhaps because of the pharmacological bent of the subject matter. And he told everyone that night, and for many years after, that he'd diverted me from a career of filling prescriptions.

Felix Grucci Jr., of Fireworks by Grucci (Plimpton wrote about the Grucci family, widely held to be "the first family of fireworks," in Fireworks: A History and Celebration):
George had a very big passion for fireworks. He loved the ones that made a lot of noise and racket and excitement. In the early '60s, when I was working at the firework plant with my dad [Felix Grucci], George would pull up in shiny red sports car on his way to the Hamptons. He'd ask what was new in fireworks business and doodle around the facility with my dad, and he would always leave with a package of fireworks, to put on his own show.

He joined us in Monte Carlo when we won the international [fireworks] competition. I remember getting the news: It was my wife Madeleine's birthday, Aug. 7. We'd gone to dinner and the maitre d' comes over and says, "Felix, I got a call for you from Monaco."

I pick up the phone, and I hear George's Bostonian accent. "Butch," he says, because he always called me Butch. "Where are you?"

"I'm at dinner with my wife," I said. "It's our anniversary. What's the matter?"

"Well," he said. "I want you to go [to the shop] pull out the biggest firework you have and go out and light it up, because you just won the firework contest in Monaco!"

I was so stunned, all I could think to say was, "I don't think I can get a permit that fast!"