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.”
Founded in 1953, The Paris Review was the brainchild of two young expatriates, Harold (“Doc”) Humes and Peter Matthiessen, who met in Paris in the winter of 1951-52. Humes was a mentally unbalanced former Navy cook who fled the United States in 1948 because, as he once declared, “the alternative to leaving was suicide or madness.” He wandered through the city’s summer heat dressed in a wool suit and homburg and sporting a silver-handled cane. Matthiessen was a handsome, gifted and supremely confident graduate of Yale (class of 1950). Born eight weeks after Plimpton, he also enjoyed a velvet upbringing. The son of a prominent architect, he was raised in Manhattan and Stamford, Connecticut–indeed, his parents owned an apartment in the same building where Plimpton grew up, 1165 Fifth Avenue–and he was in Plimpton’s class at St. Bernard’s. In 1952 he invited Plimpton, who was still in England, to come to Paris and assume the editorship of a new literary journal, which George agreed to do.
From the start, the founders of The Paris Review endeavored to navigate a course between The Kenyon Review, which favored a form of academically inflected criticism that, as William Styron proclaimed in the inaugural issue of The Paris Review, smothered literature “under the weight of learned chatter,” and Partisan Review, whose editors had been tested by the literary polemics and ideological fisticuffs of the 1930s. Instead of learned criticism, or scrappy essays in the vein of Philip Rahv, the fledgling Paris Review decided to publish what Styron called “creative work”–fiction, poetry, art. And instead of conversing about literature in the lofty tone of the critic, the editors, in a marvelous stroke of insight, decided that they would speak directly to the finest writers, in tightly edited Q&A interviews, where the muse could dance on the page:
INTERVIEWER: Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique?
CAPOTE: Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.
There is no better guide to the art of writing than the stray volumes of Paris Review interviews, whose sprightly pages constitute a voluble history of twentieth-century English-language literature.
Plimpton & Co. avoided wading into the muck of politics. Robert Silvers, who met Plimpton in Paris in 1954 and would soon become a Paris Review editor, told Aldrich he was struck by a tone-setting essay of John Train’s in the first issue: “He pointedly seemed to avoid such matters as the bitter controversy between Sartre and Camus that was dividing Paris intellectuals at the time.” The Paris Review was the antithesis of another Paris-based journal, Merlin, whose expat editors included Alexander Trocchi and Richard Seaver, and which promised to “hit at all clots of rigid categories in criticism and life.” Seaver notes: “Trocchi used to try and get George more interested in the political concerns of Europe and our country, but George could not get existentially involved in that. He was a terribly positive person, even if postwar Paris wasn’t.” Over the years, the decidedly literary bent of The Paris Review would leave some admirers disenchanted. “How is it,” John Leonard wrote in 1981, “that The Paris Review–unlike, say, Partisan Review, which has been around considerably longer–seems so tangential to the politics of its portion of the 20th century…?”
Having chosen a purely literary path, how well did the editors acquit themselves? By and large, they leaned toward the conventional and the canonical. They had no desire to brush up against the avant-garde or the law, as Margaret Anderson did by serializing Ulysses in Little Review before its book publication in 1922, a decision that incurred the wrath of the US Post Office–which found some parts of the work obscene and refused to distribute copies of the magazine–and altered the course of fiction. We remember The Dial because it published T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, early drafts of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, the scintillating poems and prose of Marianne Moore and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. The editors of The Paris Review made no discoveries of that caliber: for the most part they preferred to reinforce reputations rather than scout young talent. Still, no one can sneer at their choices in the ’50s and early ’60s: stories by Philip Roth later included in Goodbye, Columbus; the first English translations of Italo Calvino; early work by Nadine Gordimer, Richard Yates and Stanley Elkin. If The Paris Review was not always wildly adventurous–Gerald Howard has persuasively argued that Ted Solotaroff’s New American Review surpassed The Paris Review, and every other literary journal, between 1967 and 1977–it was consistently impressive.
Plimpton moved back to Manhattan in 1955, followed by others in the Paris Review circle. They returned “not in the melancholy mood of Malcolm Cowley’s exiles of the Twenties, who were forced home during the early currents of the crash,” Gay Talese noted in a famous article in Esquire in 1956, “but rather with the attitude that the party would now shift to the other side of the Atlantic.” Plimpton’s home at 541 East Seventy-second Street became the epicenter of “the Paris Review crowd.” George, Being George contains a famous photograph of a party that Plimpton hosted in 1963: the male guests, neatly outfitted in suits and ties, included Styron, Gore Vidal, Jonathan Miller, Truman Capote, Arthur Penn, Mario Puzo and a stiff-looking Ralph Ellison, the only nonwhite face in the room. In the foreground is Plimpton, dashingly at ease, clutching a cocktail. Gazing at this photo, you begin to get a sense of why James Baldwin, who spent eight days in a Paris jail in 1949 after being falsely accused of stealing a hotel bedsheet, was moved to dismiss the Paris Review crowd as a circle of wealthy dilettantes. Still, at least guests didn’t have to be wealthy or famous to be admitted to Plimpton’s parties. Geoffrey Gates explains that, following his departure from the Marine Corps in the late 1950s and his subsequent expulsion from his mother’s house, he moved in with a friend of Plimpton’s, who recounted the revelry to Gates: “‘What we’ve got here are a lot of young editors and writers, and a lot of girls, and all the liquor you could drink.’ I said, ‘I’m very interested.'”
For Jules Feiffer, those gatherings marked the eclipse of McCarthyism and nascent stirrings of a new generation: “George’s literary world,” Feiffer says in George, Being George, “was part of a general cultural revolt–against conformity, against sexual constraint.” Anne Roiphe’s memories tilt toward the sardonic: “Most of the time everybody was too drunk to be brilliant,” she says. “It was more about one big bull bumping up against another big bull.” By the early 1960s, Plimpton’s salon–along with his expanding portfolio of journalism and his social connections to the Kennedys–helped to cement his celebrity status. Guests on their way home from 541 East Seventy-second would be greeted by taxi drivers inquiring, “Is that George Plimpton’s building?”
Plimpton’s annexation of Manhattan’s social universe set him apart from some of the other early members of The Paris Review circle–including Peter Matthiessen, who was beginning to adopt a more obstreperous and combative stance toward the establishment. “I remember being present many years ago, in the 50’s, when by chance [Matthiessen] discovered his name was still in the Social Register,” William Styron told The New York Times Magazine in 1990. “I remember his rage at finding it there, and his determination to get it out.” By the late 1950s, Matthiessen, in full flight from his gold-plated roots, had embarked on a remarkable career that would include literary fiction, nature writing, environmental activism and left-wing pamphleteering. Fifty years on, he has more than thirty books to his name, including The Snow Leopard, an account of his spiritual pilgrimage to the Crystal Mountain in northwestern Nepal; Sal Si Puedes, a chronicle of Cesar Chavez’s advocacy on behalf of migrant farmworkers; Oomingmak, a record of his trip to Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea in search of rare musk ox calves; Men’s Lives, an elegiac tribute to the beleaguered baymen of eastern Long Island; and In The Spirit of Crazy Horse, a 600-page defense of Leonard Peltier, which sparked an acrimonious seven-year legal battle from which Matthiessen and his publisher, Viking, emerged victorious. Matthiessen was recently awarded the National Book Award in fiction for his long-gestating novel Shadow Country.
In the 1960s, Matthiessen made a dramatic confession to his colleagues at The Paris Review: he had originally been sent to Paris by the CIA in 1950 and had used the fledgling journal as cover for his intelligence gathering. As Frances Stonor Saunders demonstrated in her deeply researched, muckraking book The Cultural Cold War (2000), the CIA, in a bold attempt to wean European and Third World intellectuals away from left-wing, anti-American ideology, provided funding for a considerable number of conferences, periodicals, exhibitions and concerts. It was a time when writers and intellectuals were not tenured professors but, in many cases, gladiators in the cold war. Matthiessen’s contribution to that effort began at Yale, when he was recruited by professor Norman Holmes Pearson, a friend of W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens and a veteran of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Matthiessen viewed it as the beginning of a great adventure: a CIA post would transport him to Paris, provide him with a regular paycheck and afford him the necessary leisure to write novels. It was a decision devoid of angst: he was all-American and apolitical, and the young CIA exuded romance; it had yet to fully set up shop in the cold war slaughterhouses of Iran, Guatemala and Chile. Today, few if any of Matthiessen’s peers view the choice he made with rancor. “It was not an opprobrious thing,” says Russ Hemenway in George, Being George. “Those of us who had been in World War Two realized that we had no intelligence service at all, just the OSS. So we were delighted with this thing they called the Central Intelligence Agency.”
Matthiessen’s affiliation with the agency has been public for many years. He was first unveiled as a CIA agent by the New York Times, which in 1977 published a formidable series about the agency’s influence in the cultural sphere. (It remains unclear who gave Matthiessen’s name to the Times.) His case was not widely discussed until 2006, when Doc Humes’s daughter, Immy Humes, released a documentary about her father that highlighted the tensions that sprang up within The Paris Review around the question of Matthiessen’s CIA past. Her film, Doc, aroused the interest of the Times. “I used The Paris Review as a cover, there’s no question of that,” Matthiessen told Times reporter Rachel Donadio in February 2008, “but the CIA had nothing to do with Paris Review.”
But Matthiessen was thrown off balance by a revelation from Aldrich, which the latter shared with Donadio: a wealthy, shadowy cold war operative named Julius “Junkie” Fleischmann had provided $1,000 to The Paris Review in the journal’s earliest days. (In a recent interview, Aldrich said this information came from a letter in the possession of Plimpton’s widow.) Fleischmann was a major player in the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, which helped to launch and sustain the London-based intellectual journal Encounter in 1953. In The Cultural Cold War, Stonor Saunders refers to him as “the CIA’s most significant single front-man.” These days, in the wake of Stonor Saunders’s account, Matthiessen is not especially eager to be caught in Fleischmann’s historical company, and in George, Being George he speculates that the $1,000 may have come from another Fleischmann–Raoul, the publisher of The New Yorker, who died in 1969.
Documents in the Paris Review archive, which are housed at the Morgan Library, reveal that the source of the $1,000 was indeed Julius and that Matthiessen solicited the contribution. The Morgan Library possesses a handwritten letter, on Paris Review stationery, from Matthiessen to Julius Fleischmann, who had been a friend of Matthiessen’s parents. In the letter, which is undated but probably from 1952, Matthiessen wrote: “Here at last is a prospectus of the fine literary review I mentioned to you…it will be the best new literary quarterly since the TRANSITION of the Hemingway-Pound-Gertrude Stein era.” Apparently, money from Fleischmann soon materialized. For decades Matthiessen has assiduously maintained that the CIA did not found or influence the fledgling Paris Review, but in George, Being George he yields some ground and admits that the $1,000 investment “muddies the picture a bit.”
How significant, really, was Fleischmann’s contribution? In 1953, $1,000 was not an enormous amount of money, but neither was it an insignificant sum for a new, struggling literary magazine. Assuming Fleischmann’s commitment was limited to $1,000, The Paris Review would likely have survived without it. It should be emphasized that the CIA and its front organizations never made a full-scale commitment to The Paris Review, as they did to Encounter. (Indeed, it was funding from the CIA and the British government that transformed Encounter into one of the world’s most vibrant intellectual journals in the 1950s and ’60s.) The CIA also supported other small publications, including The Kenyon Review, Partisan Review, The Sewanee Review and several foreign journals like Transition. The Paris Review never benefited from that largesse, and Plimpton’s life was more stressful as a result: a survey of his voluminous correspondence at the Morgan Library reveals that he devoted a significant number of his waking hours, over many years, to the arduous task of fundraising. Cash was never plentiful: Larry Bensky recalls that in 1964-66, the years he staffed the Paris office of The Paris Review, the journal was operating on a shoestring.
In assessing the history of the journal, how consequential was its early liaison with the CIA? In light of the paucity of scholarly material, the person most qualified to make that assessment is Peter Matthiessen. If he believes the waters have been “muddied” by recent revelations, then he should endeavor to cleanse them. But over the years, and to this day, Matthiessen, who says he quit the CIA in disgust in 1953, has been tight-lipped. On those rare occasions when he has discussed this matter on the record–Aldrich’s book being one of those occasions–his normally pellucid language becomes opaque. Coming from him, such reticence is disheartening. Since the late 1950s, Matthiessen has been an indefatigable activist and truth-teller. It’s difficult to think of another major American writer who has devoted himself to such a wide range of causes, movements and struggles, many of which involve pressing ecological and environmental matters. The result is a body of work, much of which appeared in William Shawn’s New Yorker, defined by political commitment, literary distinction, lived experience and action.
Matthiessen, who is 81, has yet to undertake a memoir, but the moment for him to clarify the origins of The Paris Review has arrived, even if the questions at stake are primarily of interest to cold war historians, aficionados of little magazines and devotees of Frances Stonor Saunders, and even if the subject matter arouses in him a degree of personal discomfort. Such a reckoning may well enlarge his reputation rather than diminish it. The questions he should answer include: Why, in George Being George, did he float the name of Raoul Fleischmann when Aldrich had already informed him that Julius Fleischmann was the actual Paris Review donor? (It’s worth noting that Raoul’s name is absent from Stonor Saunders’s exhaustive and uncompromising account, while the book has many references to Julius.) Was Julius acting on his own behalf when he contributed that $1,000, or was he a conduit of funds from the US government? Did any of the other early donors, of whom there were at least eighteen, have direct (or indirect) ties to the CIA or its front organizations? As for Matthiessen, what did his CIA masters hope to achieve by allowing him to use the avowedly apolitical Paris Review as his “cover”? Were these the same men who backed Encounter, in which Julius Fleischmann was also a principal stockholder and which, like The Paris Review, was created in 1953? What were Matthiessen’s duties as a CIA agent in Paris in the early days of the cold war, and what were the precise circumstances of his departure from the agency?
Matthiessen’s silence and reticence about such matters would end up angering some of his Paris Review colleagues. Not until the 1960s did he inform them of the true origins of the journal: Plimpton got the news in 1963 and Doc Humes in 1967. (Regarding the delay in telling Doc, Matthiessen maintains that he didn’t think Doc could handle the information.) During the research for her film, Immy Humes unearthed a letter from Doc to Plimpton written shortly after Doc had received Matthiessen’s revelation about the CIA. As Immy Humes says in George, Being George:
The letter from Doc was extraordinarily lucid for somebody who had literally lost his mind and was listening to implanted broadcasts from his furniture. He says he’s going to resign from The Paris Review unless Peter goes public with his story–he’s to be congratulated on coming out on all this, but he needs to write it in public in The Saturday Evening Post or, God help us, in The Paris Review. Peter never did.
Breaking the news to his old classmate Plimpton was perhaps more difficult. “I assured him,” Matthiessen told Aldrich, “that I’d kept my two Paris activities strictly separate and that the Review had never been contaminated by the CIA. Even so, he was shocked and very angry, understandably so. Who, after all, wants to hear that the ‘love of his life,’ as he himself would call it, had been conceived as a cover for another man’s secret activities?”
Aldrich affirms in his editor’s note that he modeled George, Being George on Edie, the classic oral biography of Edie Sedgwick that Jean Stein (mother of The Nation‘s editor and publisher) and George Plimpton published in 1982. Edie is primarily Stein’s book; Plimpton was brought in to edit and organize Stein’s colossal stack of transcripts. Aldrich has chosen a steep mountain to scale. While George, Being George resembles Edie in form–pithy interview fragments, artfully arranged and configured, cascade down the page–the setting, tone and mood diverge considerably. Edie is about a privileged young woman’s descent into the Warholian abyss, where bohemian eccentricity collided with the berserk. What has Aldrich discovered? That Plimpton had affairs with a slew of young women and attended orgies in Manhattan in the 1970s.
For the most part, there’s no comparison between Plimpton’s genteel milieu and the pandemonium of both the Factory and the psychiatric institutions that were a second home to Edie. And while George, Being George contains a stirring assemblage of voices (including Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and Harold Bloom), Aldrich’s cast pales in comparison with Stein’s dramatis personae: Capote, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Jasper Johns and Warhol, to name a few. From these voices Stein and Plimpton sculpted passages that rise from the page and lodge in the mind. Ondine: “Those were the days I lived in Central Park. I’d wake up by the lakes and swim in them.” Gerard Malanga: “Andy [Warhol] would also probably deny being high on LSD, yet I found him at six in the morning [on Fire Island] rummaging through the garbage cans.” Henry Geldzahler: “When [Edie] was being paid less attention to, she didn’t know who she was. That possibility of destruction was built into the weakness of her personality. We have to get used to the reality that we’re alone. If you can’t get used to it, then you go mad. And she went kind of mad.” Nothing in Aldrich’s book is quite so fine as these passages. But what ultimately distinguishes Edie from George, Being George is the stagecraft employed by Stein and Plimpton, the drama they created through the scrupulous arrangement of voices into a rich, structurally coherent montage; Aldrich’s book is a less dynamic collection of skillfully orchestrated monologues. Still, aficionados of Plimpton, The Paris Review, the “quality lit set” and Manhattan’s upper crust will savor Aldrich’s book like a dry vodka martini.
Aldrich tells us that he wrestled with the chronology of Plimpton’s life. It was more or less linear until George returned to Manhattan in 1955, at which point his days began to whirl into a carousel of assorted routines in which “chronology becomes almost irrelevant”:
There was the Review to edit and the staff to hang out with; games to play at the Racquet Club; books and articles to write for anyone who would pay for them; New York ceremonies to MC; girls to make love with; and always, from every direction, the endlessly seductive pull of friendship to respond to. The only big changes in his life that followed chronology were his marriages–which, notoriously, hardly changed anything in his life.
Some of the most illuminating sections of George, Being George concern the ongoing tension in Plimpton’s life between his journalistic output, his stewardship of The Paris Review and his myriad social and financial obligations. Plimpton’s literary career began auspiciously enough. In 1956 he launched a fruitful collaboration with Sports Illustrated; his first piece was about the “many-sided character” of Harold Vanderbilt and his success in the America’s Cup. It was in the pages of SI that Plimpton launched his forays into professional baseball and football, which in turn led to Out of My League and Paper Lion. The former is sprightly but somewhat weightless; the latter, by contrast, demonstrated what Plimpton, at his most resolute, could accomplish at the typewriter. Paper Lion has vivid details, exuberant humor, a powerful narrative arc and a polished, sophisticated diction, all of which suggested a young craftsman pushing himself to the limit. His early books on sports were wildly popular: in 1970 Time reported combined sales of nearly 2 million copies.
But success on that scale was difficult to repeat in the 1970s and ’80s. There were some fine books to come–Shadow Box: An Amateur in the Ring, which contains an uproarious account of his bout with Archie Moore, appeared in 1977–but Plimpton eventually found himself marginalized at Sports Illustrated, as the magazine became less accommodating to his idiosyncratic brand of personalized reporting. “His interests had changed, too,” says former SI editor Myra Gelband in George, Being George. “He wasn’t gonna go suit up and play football for us, and we weren’t gonna run those kinds of stories.”
His financial position (strained by marriage, children, club memberships, weekend homes and the barely solvent Paris Review) was not improving, and by the ’80s much of Plimpton’s income was derived from television commercials (for Carlsberg beer, Saab and Dry Dock Savings Bank, among others) and speechmaking, an endeavor in which he saw his fee sink from $20,000 per appearance at his apex in the ’70s to less than $5,000 by the ’90s. And the literary projects he undertook to pay the bills didn’t always suit his talents: D.V., his 1984 collaboration with Diana Vreeland, borders on hackwork. In a nation more enamored of stars than scribes, Plimpton the writer and editor was eventually transformed, in the public mind, into Plimpton the celebrity. Says Jonathan Dee, who worked at The Paris Review in the late ’80s:
The irony is that his whole “participatory” method was devised as a way to get a better picture of the subject–it wasn’t supposed to be about George. But over time, and more or less against his will, his celebrity became such that it overshadowed whatever else he might have wanted you to get out of the story. His persona was his livelihood, and it was also a kind of trap for him. But then that happens to a lot of successful public figures. If you want to say he was complicit in it, I suppose it was only by reason of the extraordinarily hard time he had saying no.
As lucrative writing opportunities began to recede, Plimpton took refuge in “the love of his life.” According to Marion Capron, who worked at The Paris Review in the 1950s, the journal became a crutch for Plimpton: “He didn’t want nine to five. He didn’t want a regular life, but he needed a calling card; he needed a peg to hang himself on.” Matthiessen told Aldrich, with a sliver of derision, “He needed the magazine. The Paris Review was the armature for everything he did.” A more equitable interpretation is offered by Plimpton’s friend and editor Terry McDonell: “Deep in his heart the Review was the place he felt most comfortable, his spiritual hideout.”
Plimpton was on a ship in the Galápagos with Matthiessen and Jean Kennedy Smith in 2003 when a call came from New York: a publishing house had offered to pay $750,000 for Plimpton’s memoirs. His friends were ecstatic: “He could have written a wonderful book on the manners and morals of his time and place and class,” says Gerald Clarke. “George knew his world as Evelyn Waugh knew his.” But Plimpton was chilled by the idea, telling his wife Sarah, “I don’t want to do this. I’ve already written the stories of my life, what more is there to say? It’s like putting the nails in the coffin.” For Plimpton, it seemed that the adrenaline that enabled him to write Paper Lion and Shadow Box had dissipated with the years. At a private gathering in 1992, after the funeral of Doc Humes, Maggie Paley heard him utter, “I could have been a contender.” Paley says: “Clearly to me he was saying ‘If I hadn’t done The Paris Review, I could have been a major writer.'” Norman Mailer had a different view: with his customary frankness, he told Aldrich that the gods denied Plimpton “a huge literary talent.”
But maybe the gods weren’t to blame. A subtheme winding its way through George, Being George is that underneath Plimpton’s deeply amiable exterior was a person who sometimes came across as a Man Without Qualities. Says Oliver Broudy, a former colleague at The Paris Review: “I don’t know that he knew who he was.” For Plimpton to write a great book, says the literary agent Lynn Nesbit,
He would have needed to tell it; he needed an audience. To write, to do great writing, you have to be alone, to have privacy, a private life. He was the most thoroughly social creature I’ve ever known. I think George experienced private life as a terrible deprivation; I think he would have preferred not to have one.
Or perhaps his writerly inclinations at that point were better suited to a more modest undertaking, a book on the order of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy (1991), Ben Sonnenberg’s graceful account of his life as a hedonist and literary editor, or a collection of private jottings akin to his friend Kenneth Tynan’s dark and enthralling Diaries. In 1993 Plimpton produced “Death in the Family,” a learned essay about ornithology, for The New York Review of Books. Writing with melancholy and rage about the decimation of bird populations, he effortlessly chronicled the travails of the ivory-billed woodpecker, the whooping crane, the Micronesian kingfisher and Kirtland’s warbler. Birds were a subject about which he felt strongly, and on which he might have written, if he so desired, a fine and valuable book.
The accumulated residue of years of high living–he had a fondness for alcohol, and he subsisted on a diet that his doctor described as “quite poor”–began to take a heavy toll on Plimpton in the ’90s. “He went to the doctor a lot,” his assistant says in George, Being George. “He seemed preoccupied with checkups.” In 2003, while drinking at the bar of the Brook Club, Plimpton’s blood pressure fell, and he collapsed on the floor. The paramedics recognized him and, while slapping his face, yelled, “Hey, George! Wake up!”–at which point the maitre d’ turned to them and declared, “At the Brook Club, sir, we refer to him as Mr. Plimpton.”
He had been ruminating about death for a long time. In 1977 The New York Review of Books published “The Last Laugh,” in which Plimpton surveyed his writer friends about how they wished to die. Nowhere in Plimpton’s oeuvre are the high-spirited and melancholy elements of his personality held in more perfect equipoise. “The Last Laugh” was inspired by a conversation he had with Norman Mailer in Kinshasa in 1974, when both men were covering the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman heavyweight title fight. Mailer affirmed that he would be content if a biographical note in the back of a high school anthology read: “Norman Mailer had been killed by an African lion near the banks of the Zaire in his fifty-first year.” (Mailer’s second choice: “Taken by a whale off Cape Cod in his fifty-first year.”) Gore Vidal declared: “When I go, everyone goes with me. You are all figments of my waking dreams.” And Plimpton’s preference? “I usually saw myself ‘shuffling off’…in Yankee Stadium…sometimes as a batter beaned by a villainous man with a beard, occasionally as an outfielder running into the monuments that once stood in deep center field…a slight crumpled figure against the grass.”
It didn’t exactly turn out that way, but Plimpton’s good fortune sustained him to the end. On his last day, September 25, 2003, he taped a spot for Conan O’Brien, met with a fundraiser from Harvard, rehearsed for a play and embarked on his customary nocturnal rounds. Later that evening, after he had turned in, he shuffled off painlessly. “He died in his sleep from a catecholamine surge, resulting in sudden cardiac arrest,” Dr. Denton Cox told Nelson Aldrich Jr. “For George it was an ideal way to go.”