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.