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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"Would you like Mike to run for you, George?" the coach asked.

Plimpton scowled, and said he was perfectly capable of running for himself. He watched the first pitch sail high for a ball, and then hit a rope into left field. He rounded first as if he were about to go for a double, then glided back to the base, with fans waving and cheering. He smiled broadly, signaled for the coach to send Lupica in to run for him, and trotted back to the sidelines. The Writers won the game with a home run in extra innings, but the highlight was Plimpton's hit.


Several weeks later at a book party, he spotted two writers who had played in that game. Plimpton would not boast of his feat, so we did. He modestly shrugged off the compliment, but his bright smile betrayed his pleasure—and ours.

Billy Collins, poet:
I'm one of these people who went from crashing George's parties in the '70s to being invited in the '80s. We had the book party for my selected poems, Sailing Alone Around the Room, at George's house on Sept 10, 2001. To me, it meant admission to this little exclusive club at the Paris Review. It was a great party—raucous and long. Paul McCartney and his then-girlfriend Heather showed up. At one point, there was a tremendous Wagnerian thunder and lighting storm. It was so violent that it brought a lot of people to the windows. People two or three deep stood looking out at the East River. No one realized till the next day that this was the weather that created the extreme blue skies of Sept. 11—a condition I since learned that pilots call "severe clear." The next day, friends called and said, "That was the last party. That was the last party for a while."

I just got back from a road trip from Michigan. Eerily enough, one of the messages on my answering machine was from George, with that distinctive accent of his: "Hallo, it's George Plimpton. Call me back."

Richard Howard, poetry editor, the Paris Review:
I worked with George for 10 years on the magazine. I have worked as poetry editor with editors on other magazines; only with George has the experience been entirely agreeable. He was not himself interested in poetry, but he read all of the poems every quarter, and he would tell me what he thought of them. It was always a surprise. Sometimes, we used to have quarrels, because he thought I took too many poems: "Are you turning this magazine into a poetry magazine?" he would say. But he would do this in the most charming and agreeable way.

That he died in his sleep was impressive. I never thought that George slept. But dying in sleep: It was as if he was doing what he did when he tried out for all those other things as an amateur—ballooning, acting, boxing, performing at amateur night. It was as if he was trying out again.

Amanda Fortini is a Slate contributor.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate’s culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at the New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother’s death, is now out in paperback.