An oral history of George Plimpton.

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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.

"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?"

"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!"

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.

"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.

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