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.

George Plimpton
George Plimpton

On Sept. 26, George Plimpton died in his sleep, at the age of 76. Plimpton was a writer-raconteur and dilettante in the best sense of the word: He co-founded an important literary magazine, the Paris Review, and tried his hand at everything from quarterbacking for the Detroit Lions (which he wrote about in Paper Lion), boxing with light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore (which became Shadow Box), and becoming New York's unofficial "official fireworks commissioner." His exploits were such that at one point, The New Yorker ran a cartoon in which a patient eyed a surgeon with misgiving and said, "But how do I know you're not George Plimpton?"

But perhaps foremost among his accomplishments was his elevation of the interview to a literary form, both in the Paris Review and in his two superb works of oral history, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, and Edie, a biography of Edie Sedgwick, which he and Jean Stein compiled. And so it seemed only fitting to commemorate his death with the form he made his own.—Meghan O'Rourke

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Gay Talese, author:
As a young man not long out of university, at 26, 27 years of age, George Plimpton went with his friends to Paris to be benighted in the tradition of Paris culture. And they founded this thing called the Paris Review and published poetry and short story writers and did interviews. In the '50s Plimpton and staff came to New York, where they kept the Review going for half a century. The Paris Review was a testimony to his literary taste and his sense of glamour. It evoked a sense of Paris from a time when Paris was still the literary capital of the world, publishing literary giants who were considered obscene—Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence. Plimpton brought the Left Bank to NYC—people like Peter Mathiessen, William Styron, Terry Southern. The Left Bank really became East 72nd Street. And his apartment, with those windows that looked out onto the East River, became a famous landmark in NYC. That's where there was that cross-section you once found in Paris—of literary people, of people who were illiterate, of people down on their luck, and people of status. They all gathered there. His friendships testified to what an eclectic man he was. He was equally at home on a bicycle or getting out of a limousine with a Saudi Arabian prince.

Robert Silvers, editor, the New York Review of Books:
I met George on the Ile Saint-Louis in 1953 as I was leaving NATO headquarters. We worked at the Paris Review on the Rue Garançere for several years together. He was immensely generous in every way—generous about sharing the work and about giving one a chance to edit things. In 1955 or '56, he went back to New York. When I eventually went back to be an editor at Harper's, I arrived at his flat, not having been in New York for eight years. He said, "You better stay here," and I did, for a while. At the time, he was getting ready to pitch for the Yankees,and we would throw pitches across 72nd Street in preparation. It was always as if one were setting out with him on a special adventure.

I saw him [last] Wednesday night at a party; we rode home together, and he told me that he was planning to go down to Cuba, to revisit the site of his famous interview with Hemingway. He was going to put on a reading of his play Zelda, Scott, and Ernest. He'd done it in Amsterdam, Moscow, and London; he'd done it at a PEN benefit; and now he and Norman were going to do it in Cuba. He thought Castro might come.

Norman Mailer, author:
George had a rare gift. Friends were almost always happy to see him because you knew he was bound to improve your mood. He was so open to life and all its new and unexpected situations. What fine manners he had! Few could give a toast or tell a story with equal humor.

Peter Matthiesen, author, co-founder of the Paris Review:
I was in Liberia, of all places, and George met me in Monrovia. We were going to go looking for strange birds. I have a memory of George emerging out of the bush, with a terrible sunburn on his nose and face and legs; he was in safari gear, none of it hanging together very well, and over it all he was wearing a nice blue blazer. He looked like a very eccentric old Englishman. George was not vain—he didn't care a whit about his image. During our time in Paris, he had a famous little car, a dark blue Peugeot—it was mine originally; I sold it to him—and it had to be seen to be believed. It was so tiny that if you saw him in it, you couldn't believe he'd be able to get himself out of it. Everything he did was like this, just a bit odd. He looked for ways in which he could make himself a ridiculous figure, and not only on the football field, but in all walks of life. That made him a great storyteller.

Rose Styron, wife of William Styron and former Paris Review editor:
My husband Bill was with George when he started the Paris Review. Bill and I met in Rome, several months after the Paris Review was started—we were, as they say, courting—and he drove me to Paris so George and Peter [Mathiessen] could look me over. And I, of course, was looking them over, too. I thought they were terrific. Peter even came with us on our honeymoon in Ravello, though George didn't. Bill, who was from the South, kept saying to me, "Can you believe George's not English? I've known him for six months and I just now learned he's not English!"

Tom Nowatzke, fullback, Detroit Lions (In the 1960s, Plimpton briefly played with the Detroit Lions asresearch for the best-selling book Paper Lion, which was later made into a film):
I was the No. 1 draft choice of the Lions in 1965. George was the one who read my name out to the commissioner. The guys here in Detroit treated him like one of us. He was very understanding of what we did and how we did it. He knew we were just as good as he was, but in a different field. He would have a beer with you. George was a little more in-depth than a lot of us, of course, with his education and all. But he came right down to our level. I think he came down [to the shooting of Paper Lion in] Florida once. He wanted to play his own part, but they wouldn't let him.

Timothy Seldes, George Plimpton's literary agent:
Whenever George wanted me to do something for him, he would call me up and say, "Hello, Old Tim." One day, I got a call, and heard his voice, and my heart sank. I just knew it was going to be something terrible.

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