George Plimpton Died 10 Years Ago. Here Are the Best Articles By and About Him

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Sept. 21 2013 7:00 AM

The Longform Guide to George Plimpton

Playing QB for the Lions, creating Sidd Finch, and interviewing Hemingway.

Writer George Plimpton in 2003, before his death.
Writer George Plimpton in 2003, before his death.

Photo by Steven Henry/Getty Images

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Much of George Plimpton’s best writing is not available online. Luckily, Plimpton wrote—and was written about—so prolifically before his death on Sept. 25, 2003, that we still have plenty of great work to choose from. Here are a few favorites:

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An oral history of the oral history master.

"Gay Talese, writer: I remember one time, at the height of Camelot, this party, a mixed bag of people, a couple black people and a couple socialites and a couple beatniks, I remember when Jacqueline Kennedy walked in. She was on George’s arm, and tall as he is, he was looking over the crowd, craning his neck, surveying, you know, a hundred people, and I watched his eyes moving around the room, and at certain points, his eyes would stop and lock on to a person he saw, and I could see registered in his brain that, “Yes, I will introduce that person to Jackie,” and, “No, I will not introduce this person to Jackie,” and “Yes, I will introduce that person to Jackie,” and it reminded me of a slot machine, because I saw the eyes rolling, rolling, and then they would stop, and you knew you had either a good or a bad reaction. In a way, he was surveying his life, he was surveying the eclectic gathering of people with whom he associates himself-but, on this occasion, he found himself looking at his collected force of friends in a way that was somewhat … I’m not saying critical … I merely saying here that he was looking upon the gathering, and into his world walks the First Lady-and I am just saying, he had to make a decision. You have to draw the line somewhere, and so he did. Certainly, he would not introduce the First Lady to Norman Mailer. That is a foregone conclusion. I mean, Mailer is out. We’re talking about the 1960′s. Do you understand? Put this in context. You don’t introduce her to this macho Mailer. God knows what he is going to say to her. I am merely saying that George Plimpton had to be an editor, not of The Paris Review, but more than that-within his own house, he had to edit out those people who were going to be risky when being introduced to the First Lady."

"Hut—Two—Three … Ugh!"
George Plimpton • Sports Illustrated • September 1964

A classic piece of participatory journalism, a genre Plimpton basically invented, on his very brief tenure as quarterback of the Detroit Lions.

"He had tackled me high and straightened me up with his power, so that I churned against him like a comic bicyclist. Still upright, to my surprise, I began to be shaken around and flayed back and forth, and I realized that he was struggling for the ball. The bars of our helmets were nearly locked, and I could look through and see him inside—the first helmeted face I recognized that evening—the small, brown eyes surprisingly peaceful, but he was grunting hard, the sweat shining, and I had time to think, 'It's Brown, it's Brown!' before I lost the ball to him. Flung to one knee, I watched him lumber into the end zone behind us for a touchdown."

Looking for Hemingway
Gay Talese • Esquire • July 1963*

On Plimpton and the founding of the Paris Review:

"Early in the fifties another young generation of American expatriates in Paris became twenty-six years old, but they were not Sad Young Men, nor were they Lost; they were the witty, irreverent sons of a conquering nation and, though they came mostly from wealthy parents and had been graduated from Harvard or Yale, they seemed endlessly delighted in posing as paupers and dodging the bill collectors, possibly because it seemed challenging and distinguished them from American tourists, whom they despised, and also because it was another way of having fun with the French, who despised them. Nevertheless, they lived in happy squalor on the Left Bank for two or three years amid the whores, jazz musicians, and pederast poets, and became involved with people both tragic and mad, including a passionate Spanish painter who one day cut open a vein in his leg and finished his final portrait with his own blood."

Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction No. 21
George Plimpton • Paris Review • May 1958

An interview years in the making.
"Hemingway: You go to the races?
"Plimpton: Yes, occasionally.
"Hemingway: Then you read the Racing Form . . . . There you have the true art of fiction."

George Plimpton • Sports Illustrated • November 1981

A father and his 9-year-old daughter watch Harvard play Yale in football.

"It worried me. I had ulterior motives (besides the chance to see The Game) in taking Medora to Cambridge. My vague hope was that she would become impressed enough with Harvard to think about working hard at her studies so she might go there one day. I knew it wasn't important where she went as long as she approved of the choice herself. But I hoped it wasn't going to be Yale. After all, it would be one thing to sit in the stands and root for her as she performed for the Smith College field hockey team, or the Rutgers gymnastic squad, or whatever, but to think of her across the football field joyfully waving a blue pennant and yelling 'Bowwow-wow!' with the Yale team poised on the Harvard goal line, while I raise a feeble 'Hold 'em!' across the way, is a possibility too intolerable to consider.
"'I should tell you something,' Medora was saying beside me in the plane. She pointed to a tall blue feather of a man a few seats in front of us sported from his hatband. It had a white Y on it. 'There's my favorite letter.' When I asked her why, she said it was because the yacht club where she is learning to sail has a blue pennant with a Y in the center and she likes to see it snapping in the wind from the bow of the club launch."

My Father's Voice
Taylor Plimpton • The New Yorker • June 2002

Plimpton’s son on his dad’s signature style.

"Above all, he was a gentleman, one of the last—a figure so archaic, it could be easily mistaken for something else. No, my father’s voice was not an act, something chosen or practiced in front of mirrors: he came from a different world, where people talked differently, and about different things; where certain things were discussed, and certain things were not—and his voice simply reflected this."

The Story Behind a Nonfiction Novel
George Plimpton • New York Times • Jan 1966

In January 1966, the month In Cold Blood was published, Truman Capote sat down with Plimpton to discuss the new art form he liked to call “creative journalism.”

"Plimpton: What is the first step in producing a 'nonfiction novel?'

"Capote: The difficulty was to choose a promising subject. If you intend to spend three or four or five years with a book, as I planned to do, then you want to be reasonably certain that the material not soon 'date.' The content of much journalism so swiftly does, which is another of the medium's deterrents. A number of ideas occurred, but one after the other, and for one reason or another, each was eventually discarded, often after I'd done considerable preliminary work. Then one morning in November, 1959, while flicking through The New York Times, I encountered on a deep-inside page, this headline: Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain.

"The story was brief, just several paragraphs stating the facts: A Mr. Herbert W. Clutter, who had served on the Farm Credit Board during the Eisenhower Administration, his wife and two teen-aged children, had been brutally, entirely mysteriously, murdered on a lonely wheat and cattle ranch in a remote part of Kansas. There was nothing really exceptional about it; one reads items concerning multiple murders many times in the course of a year."

The Curious Case of Sidd Finch
George Plimpton • Sports Illustrated • April 1985

A profile of a previously unknown rookie pitcher for the Mets who dropped out of Harvard, made a spiritual quest to Tibet, and somewhere along the line figured out how to throw a baseball much, much faster than anyone else on Earth. (Also a hoax.)

"Finch's entry into the world of baseball occurred last July in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, where the Mets' AAA farm club, the Tidewater Tides, was in town playing the Guides. After the first game of the series, Bob Schaefer, the Tides' manager, was strolling back to the hotel. He has very distinct memories of his first meeting with Finch: "I was walking by a park when suddenly this guy—nice-looking kid, clean-shaven, blue jeans, big boots—appears alongside. At first, I think maybe he wants an autograph or to chat about the game, but no, he scrabbles around in a kind of knapsack, gets out a scuffed-up baseball and a small, black leather fielder's mitt that looks like it came out of the back of some Little League kid's closet. This guy says to me, 'I have learned the art of the pitch....' Some odd phrase like that, delivered in a singsong voice, like a chant, kind of what you hear in a Chinese restaurant if there are some Chinese in there."

The Last Laugh
George Plimpton • New York Review of Books • August 1977

Plimpton indulges an interest in how he and his fellow writers, including his friend Norman Mailer, would write their own deaths.

"It was interesting listening to Mailer talk about this—quite shyly and not without self-mockery, and yet with a curious wistfulness. He told me that the other fancy of this sort which he could remember involved a whale he had seen swimming through a regatta off Provincetown, Massachusetts—very impressive sight—and he thought that would not be a bad obituary note either: 'Taken by a whale off Cape Cod in his fifty-first year.' Hemingway? Melville? He couldn’t make up his mind."

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.

Correction, Sept. 21, 2013: This piece originally dated "Looking for Hemingway" as being published in 1960. It was published in 1963.

Max Linsky is a founding editor of Longform.org.

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