In His League: Being George Plimpton
Tom Albert Photo
In the summer of 1963, while most of his companions were toiling in sundry Manhattan offices, George Plimpton spent many a weekday alone in Central Park tossing a football. "Without someone to throw to," he later remembered, "it was a melancholy practice--to throw a ball in a park meadow and then walk to it, and throw it again--and I did it in a sort of dull, bored way." Plimpton hoped that his nonchalant bearing would convince the elderly men flying kites that he was merely awaiting the arrival of friends caught in a traffic jam. If the heat in the park was too intense, he would practice in his apartment--"a sort of studio, long enough to allow a throw into an armchair from twenty or twenty-five feet away."
Plimpton was in the grip of a quixotic notion: to become the "last-string quarterback" of the Detroit Lions. When he arrived at the Lions' training facility later that summer, he was greeted by the equipment manager, Friday Macklem, who declared, "I hear you're a writer turned footballer. You're going to play for us--making some sort of big comeback." "That's right," Plimpton replied in his patrician accent. Macklem shook his head: "Well, I've been with Detroit for twenty-seven years, dishing out uniforms all those years, and I know if I'd ever been tempted into one, I wouldn't be around to tell of it, for sure." Not only did Plimpton survive his foray into professional football, but he also produced a fine book about it, Paper Lion, which enhanced his personal wealth and literary clout. The book sold extremely well, and Tom Wolfe included excerpts from it in his famous anthology The New Journalism, published in 1973.
As a "participatory journalist," Plimpton endeavored, in a wry, self-deprecating manner, to "play out the fantasies, the daydreams that so many people have." And so he had his nose bloodied by the boxer Archie Moore at Stillman's Gym; he was vanquished by Arnold Palmer on the golf course; he floated through the air on the trapeze for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus; he performed with the New York Philharmonic; he tried stand-up comedy in Las Vegas; he was a Bedouin extra in Lawrence of Arabia; he was shot by John Wayne in Rio Lobo; he pitched to nine players, including Willie Mays, during an unofficial postseason all-star game at Yankee Stadium. From this last endeavor came a slim book, Out of My League, which contained a blurb from Plimpton's hero, Ernest Hemingway, who praised it as "beautifully observed and incredibly conceived."
Reality sometimes intruded into Plimpton's daydreams. In 1968, when Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Plimpton helped to wrestle the pistol from the assassin's hand. In George, Being George, Nelson Aldrich Jr.'s affectionate and absorbing oral history, we learn that Plimpton never wrote about Kennedy's slaying, but that many years later, over cocktails with young staff members of The Paris Review, the journal he had led since 1953, he burst into tears at the memory of it.
But distress and trauma were fleeting occurrences in the Plimptonian realm. Throughout five decades, the writer and editor, to a breathtaking degree, enacted his daydreams and fantasies and fashioned them into a glittering persona. He was "George Plimpton"--editor, host, naturalist, toastmaster, celebrity escort, fireworks specialist, athlete, gossip and playboy. (Esquire listed him as one of the most attractive men in America.) As Nathan Zuckerman declared in Philip Roth's Exit Ghost: "When people say to themselves 'I want to be happy,' they could as well be saying 'I want to be George Plimpton': one achieves, one is productive, and there's pleasure and ease in all of it." The friends, colleagues and associates of "George Plimpton" monitored it all with varying degrees of astonishment, amusement and distress. "I have a hard time having fun, period, and he was the paragon of fun," Richard Price says in George, Being George. "George knew so many more people than I did," Norman Mailer recalled, "he was having so much more fun in New York than I was having. I felt that whatever enjoyment I was having, I had earned; and there is nothing that excites envy like the feeling that you received no more than you earned, while there was George, who had received so much more than he had earned."
Plimpton was born in Manhattan in 1927 and raised in a Fifth Avenue duplex with views of the East River and the Central Park Reservoir. His lineage was equally commanding. His great-grandfather Adelbert Ames was the youngest general in the Civil War and subsequently became a Reconstruction governor of Mississippi. His grandfather George Arthur Plimpton earned a fortune as a textbook publisher and served on the boards of the New York Philharmonic, Exeter and Barnard. His father, Francis T.P. Plimpton, was a partner at the white-shoe law firm Debevoise & Plimpton and a man whose favorite lecture at the family dinner table concerned "the beauty of the mortgage indenture."
Family summers were spent near Walt Whitman's birthplace in leafy West Hills, a tight WASP community of lawyers, brokers, bankers and architects on Long Island. The years passed in a whirl of touch football, tennis, swimming, bicycling and Ping-Pong. "My parents lived in the same small tribal community as the Plimptons," George's cousin Joan Ames told Aldrich. "I remember this little telephone table in my parents' bedroom that held the Social Register; it was the only phone book we ever used." George was not a reclusive child. "Our parents entertained there a lot," his younger brother Oakes recalled. "George came by his social appetites honestly--our parents were very social people--but I guess he outdid them and then some."
Francis T.P. Plimpton placed a high premium on a certain kind of education, and George began his schooling at St. Bernard's, next door to the family's apartment building. His classmates included Charles Morgan, J.P. Morgan's grandson, and Arthur Sulzberger, scion of the New York Times. Aldrich recounts a story about a weekend trip Plimpton made with Sulzberger to the country, in a chauffeured limousine that got a flat tire:
What followed was not the worst of George's lifetime of mortifications, but he vividly recalled his squirming embarrassment in the backseat as the chauffeur got out of the car and set about changing the tire. He remembered how the tails of the man's black uniform jacket flapped crazily in the wind of the passing traffic and how the sweat stood out on his face as he worked the jack up and down, up and down, while the rear of the car, with the little boys safe in their soft gray seats, went up, up, up.
Family ties to Exeter--his father chaired the board of trustees--facilitated George's arrival there in 1940, and he soon distinguished himself with his manners and sophistication, and his skill in athletics. He did not excel in the classroom, perhaps because, as a friend offers, "his mind was not set up for strict schedules." For disregarding curfew, Plimpton was placed on disciplinary probation; and for aiming a Revolutionary musket at the football coach, he was expelled.
He made it to Harvard nevertheless--"It was a little easier to get into Harvard in those days," Oakes Plimpton says--and arrived in 1944. He joined the Lampoon, immersed himself in the Porcellian Club and got acquainted with Archibald MacLeish, I.A. Richards and F.O. Matthiessen, whose company deepened his interest in literature and the arts. He began to ponder a career in publishing. When he decided to pursue graduate study in English in Britain, his father was not excluded from the application process. "May I again say," George wrote in a letter to his parents, "that I am more particularly interested in Cambridge at the moment, and the epistolary offensive should be directed towards that University." As usual, things went his way, and in the fall of 1950 Mr. and Mrs. Plimpton received a letter from their son about the new heights he had scaled abroad: "There is no mountain climbing here, East Anglia being notoriously flat, but there is a wonderful sport called roof-climbing."