An oral history of George Plimpton.

An oral history of George Plimpton.

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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Alice Quinn, director of the Poetry Society of America, poetry editor, The New Yorker:
When I was an adviser at Columbia Magazine [a journal run out of Columbia University], we were scraping barrel, with no money in the bank, and I said to the students we should have a benefit auction. Anyhow, I asked Terry Gross from Fresh Air and George Plimpton to be auctioneers. It was a hot, sweltering day. I had made about five thousand egg and tuna sandwiches. I knew that between the time I'd asked Plimpton to do the auction and the night itself, he had probably received five invitations for a better evening, but he would never have reneged. And he stood there ebullient and charming all night; he bid on many items himself. We made $15,000-20,000. He just did it because Columbia was another literary magazine. But he could easily have said, "Alice, I have enough trouble raising money for my magazine."

Daniel Kunitz, managing editor of the Paris Review from1995-2000:
I once heard George joking with William F. Buckley on the phone about how they had the last affected accents in New York. Typical of George to laugh about something others saw as a defining trait—he never took himself all that seriously. A lifelong New Yorker, he never tasted a bagel or an olive, and he never chewed a stick of gum. If you found him at a fancy restaurant, he was there as a guest: For his own meals he preferred cheap Chinese or bangers and mash at a local Irish pub.


In the offices of the Paris Review, he displayed far more discerning tastes. This kept his magazine fresh for 50 years. When he found a story to be short of the mark, he rejected it no matter who the author was—an old friend, a Pulitzer winner, an unknown. "Too old-fashioned. It sounds like Somerset Maugham," was a favorite putdown. I think all the editors who worked at the magazine can recount a time when they ascended to his office to argue for a particular story that had been submitted, certain that George hadn't read it or hadn't read it closely enough, only to stand gape-mouthed as he reeled off, from memory, its every deficiency.

Elaine Kaufman, owner of Elaine's restaurant:
Over the 40 years I knew him, George came in often, sometimes twice a week, usually on his way back from a cocktail party. His dish was Spaghetti Bolognese. He'd have that and a scotch on the rocks, his favorite drink. Over the years, we held a lot of dinner parties for him, and he brought a lot of people in—many, many writers. One night Joe DiMaggio was here, and they had never met, so I introduced them. I had George tell him the story of Sidd Finch. Sidd Finch was a fictional character George had created for a Sports Illustrated story, supposedly the greatest and fastest pitcher in the world. After it was published, all of the baseball people were trying to get in touch with Sidd, but he didn't exist—it was an April Fool's joke! And George had written it straight. When George told the story, DiMaggio laughed so hard I thought he was going to fall on the floor.

Louis Begley, novelist: 
Jim Atlas interviewed me for an "Art of Fiction" piece in the Paris Review, a feature of the magazine that George invented and brought to perfection. The list of authors interviewed is extraordinary, and stretches from Hemingway years ago to Amy Hempel (in the 50th anniversary issue that has just been published). These interviews are a collaborative effort, and, I believe, a fascinating contribution to literary history. Just when Jim and I thought we had finished, and we had been working a long time, George, who loved the result of our efforts, decided he wanted to talk to me as well. This was his habit. So we got together and, after some preliminaries, he popped the question that he was really there to ask. It took the form of a statement: "I don't know writers who write about sex better than you." I rose to the bait and answered saying, "Thank you. I enjoy doing it." "That's it," George cried out. "Now the interview is perfect!"

Lewis Lapham, editor, Harper's Magazine:
George's immense enthusiasm was his primary characteristic. Whether on the football field or on a golf course or in a poem or an essay, the notion of human talent in whatever form excited him. It's a joke to say "500 of my closest friends," but that would have been true with George—1,000 of his closest friends, actually.

Jonathan Ames, author:
Back in the fall of 1999, in preparation for my one and only boxing match, I read George Plimpton's great book, Shadow Box, where he recounted his foray into the world of boxing and his famous encounter with Archie Moore.

During my fight, my nose got badly broken in the second round, but I did last all four scheduled rounds, though I lost. A few days after, I went to a Paris Review party and showed off my damaged nose and two black eyes to George. He very much approved.

George also approved, I think, of the fact that I lost. Losing, he knew, always makes a better story than winning. And being good at losing was one of George's many gifts. He had the bearing of Gen. MacArthur, but the soul of Charlie Chaplin. He liked the fact that I had broken my nose in defeat. Archie Moore, after all, had broken his nose.

Charles McGrath, editor of the New York Times Book Review:
I don't think George had played golf in years, but he used to save up oddball tips for me and others. The most recent was about how to extend the swing though impact, and the trick, George said, was to station an imaginary dwarf several feet in front of your ball and then (you have to re-create those broad Plimptonian vowels here) "smack the dwarf in the ass." I don't know whether it works, because I can't think of it without laughing. Talking about sports with George—or, even better, reading George about sports—was more fun than sports themselves.

Ken Auletta, author:
Sometime after age 70, when his reflexes dulled, George took to the sidelines in the Artists and Writers softball game in Easthampton, N.Y. Each year his name was announced, and each year he was hailed by the crowd, who paid more attention to him than to the game. He did not appear last year, or the year before, and we feared he was done with us. [Then] this August he showed up, pulled the shirt over his head, and said he was ready to bat. The coach for the Writers team announced that Plimpton would pinch-hit for the first batter of the game, Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica, and the crowd roared.