Skip to main content

Reply to "RIP, VIP"

I can't believe he's gone to his grave and I'm still owing him big time. Desperation never fails to iluminate.

George Plimpton, Urbane and Witty Writer, Dies at 76

Published: September 26, 2003
copy from NYTimes Web obit page

Associated Press
George Plimpton, the self-deprecating author of "Paper Lion" and a patron to Philip Roth and Jack Kerouac has died. He was 76.

George Plimpton, the New York aristocrat and literary journalist whose exploits in editing and writing seesawed between belles lettres and the witty accounts he wrote of his various madcap attempts to slip into other people's high-profile careers, died yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 76.

The cause of death was not immediately known, but Mr. Plimpton's agent, Timothy Seldes, said it was most likely a heart attack.

Mr. Plimpton, a lanky, urbane man possessed of boundless energy and perpetual bonhomie, became, in 1953, the first and only editor of The Paris Review. A ubiquitous presence at book parties and other gala social events, he was tireless in his commitment to the serious, contemporary fiction the magazine publishes.

Easily identifiable in later years by his thatch of silver hair and always by his cheery, lockjaw delivery, Mr. Plimpton was a familiar figure ranging above other guests at the restaurants, saloons and weekend destinations where blue-blood New York overlapped with the New York of the famous and the creative.

All of this contributed to the charm of reading about Mr. Plimpton's frequently hapless adventures "” as "professional" athlete, stand-up comedian, movie bad guy or circus performer "” which he chronicled in witty, elegant prose in nearly three dozen books.

As a boxer, he had his nose bloodied by Archie Moore at Stillman's Gym in 1959. As a pitcher he became utterly exhausted and couldn't finish an exhibition against 16 stars from the National and American Leagues (though he managed to get Willie Mays to pop up). And as a "professional" third-string quarterback, he lost roughly 30 yards during a scrimmage with the Detroit Lions in 1963.

He also tried his hand at tennis (Pancho Gonzalez beat him easily), bridge (Oswald Jacoby outmaneuvered him) and golf. With his handicap of 18, he lost badly to Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

In a brief stint as a goaltender for the Boston Bruins, he made the mistake of catching a puck in his gloved hand, and it caused a nasty gash in his pinkie. He failed as an aerialist when he tried out for the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus. As a symphonist, he wangled a temporary percussionist's job with the New York Philharmonic. He was assigned to play sleigh bells, triangle, bass drum and gong, the latter of which he struck so hard during a Tchaikovsky chestnut that Leonard Bernstein, who was trying to conduct the piece, burst into applause.

That was Mr. Plimpton, the popular commercial writer. His alter ego was as the unpaid editor of The Paris Review, an enduring low-circulation journal, which was founded in 1952 by Peter Mathiesen and Harold L. Humes, who asked him to be the editor. He did that from 1953 onward, when publication began, and worked at it for the rest of his life. The magazine's fame was derived from its publication of quality fiction by initially little-known writers, among them the young Terry Southern and Philip Roth, and for its interviews with well-known writers, some of whom, like Ernest Hemingway, Mr. Plimpton interviewed personally.

As a "participatory journalist," Mr. Plimpton believed that it was not enough for writers of nonfiction to simply observe; they needed to immerse themselves in whatever they were covering to understand fully what was involved. For example, he believed that football huddles and conversations on the bench constituted a "secret world, and if you're a voyeur, you want to be down there, getting it firsthand."

And he didn't always fall on his face.

One night in 1997 (too old by then to engage in strenuous contact sports) he showed up at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, which was then having its amateur night and announced he was an amateur. When they asked him what he was going to play, he replied, "the piano." He only knew "Tea for Two" and a few other tunes but played his own composition, a rambling improvisation he called "Opus No. 1." The audience adored him and the charmed judges gave him second prize.

In 1983, he scored another success when he volunteered to help the Grucci family plan and execute a fireworks display to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. They accepted his offer and he did his job without destroying himself or any of the Gruccis. For a time, he was regarded as New York City's fireworks commissioner, a highly unofficial title with no connection to the city government. In 1984, he wrote a book on his love of the rocket's red glare, "Fireworks."

He was given to practical jokes. While he was a writer for Sports Illustrated, he invented a pitcher he called Sidd Finch, who was described as a Buddhist with a 168-mile-an-hour fastball. This unlikely individual became the centerpiece of his 1987 novel, "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch."

Mr. Plimpton was first married to Freddy Medora Espy, a photographer's assistant, in 1968. They had two children "” Medora Ames amd Taylor Ames. Their marriage ended in 1988. In 1991 he married Sarah Whitehead Dudley, 26 years his junior. They had twin girls, Laura and Olivia.

George Ames Plimpton was born in New York on March 18, 1927, the son of Francis T. Plimpton, a successful corporate lawyer who became the American ambassador to the United Nations. His mother was the former Pauline Ames. His grandfather, George A. Plimpton, had been a publisher. The family traced its roots in this country to the Mayflower.

He was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard and Cambridge. At Harvard, where he studied literature, his education was interrupted in 1945, near the end of World War II. He spent two years in the Army, then returned and received his bachelor's degree in 1950, although he always regarded himself as a member of the class of 1948. He earned a second baccalaureate degree at Cambridge, where also earned a master's in English in 1952.

Mr. Plimpton's career included teaching at Barnard College from 1956 to 1958, editing and writing at Horizon magazine from 1959 to 1961, and at Harper's magazine, where he worked from 1972 to 1981. He also contributed material to Food and Wine magazine in the late 1970's. In the late 1960's, he was seen frequently as a host or guest on several television shows, and still later, he made some commercials for DeBeers diamonds.

He had been inspired as a youth by the exploits of Paul Gallico, an author and celebrated sportswriter for the New York Daily News who believed so much in participatory journalism that he once had a brief encounter with the heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. "What Gallico did was to climb down out of the press box," Mr. Plimpton said, creating "a wonderful description of what it feels like to be knocked about by a champion."

The only problem with Mr. Plimpton's similar match with Archie Moore, set up by Sports Illustrated, was that Mr. Plimpton wept after Mr. Moore bloodied his nose. He explained it was a "sympathetic response."

Many of Mr. Plimpton's books dealt with his adventures, most notably "Out of My League" (baseball, 1961); "Paper Lion" (football, 1966); and "The Bogey Man" (golf, 1968). Ernest Hemingway read "Out of My League" and declared it "beautifully observed and incredibly conceived, his account of a self-imposed ordeal that has the chilling quality of a true nightmare."

"It is the dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty," he added.

The Walter Mitty reference was picked up by several critics over the years, but Mr. Plimpton's exploits really were not analogous to those of Mitty, James Thurber's fictitious daydreamer. Mitty only imagined he was doing all manner of dashing and swashbuckling. Mr. Plimpton wasn't imagining anything; he was doing it.

Not all of Mr. Plimpton's writings dealt with his guises. Among the rest were a children's book in 1955, "The Rabbit's Umbrella." He also wrote "American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy." He was a friend of the Kennedy family and was with Mr. Kennedy the day he was shot to death in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan. Mr. Plimpton said the assassin "seemed composed and peaceful" after Mr. Kennedy died, "the peaceful eye of the storm."

In 1998, he also wrote an unconventional oral biography of Truman Capote, in which he meshed the techniques of oral history and traditional biography. And in 2002, joined by Terry Quinn, he created "Zelda, Scott and Ernest," a dramatization of the letters that went to and from F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife, Zelda, and Hemingway. It was produced in Paris.

Mr. Plimpton made it into the movies, too. He played a Bedouin extra in "Lawrence of Arabia" in 1961, and in "Rio Lobo" (1970) he played a crook who is shot dead by a heroic, indestructible John Wayne. When the movie version of "Paper Lion" was made in 1968, Mr. Plimpton's part was played by Alan Alda. Mr. Plimpton played a minor role. Of his participation in movies, he used to say that he had been pegged as the Prince of Cameos.

Perhaps Mr. Plimpton's career was best summarized by a cartoon that once appeared in The New Yorker. In it, a patient looks at the surgeon preparing to operate on him and demands, "How do I know you're not George Plimpton?"

Last edited {1}