George Plimpton

The Invincible Everywhere Man.

George Plimpton seemed to be everywhere, doing everything, just at the right moment. He was at Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 and helped wrestle down the killer, Sirhan Sirhan. He was in Norman Mailer’s apartment the night the writer stabbed his wife. He was there when the world’s shortest poem rolled from Muhammed Ali’s smooth tongue: “Me-We”. He was the first to interview Ernest Hemingway on ‘The Art of Writing’. He was a quarterback for the Detroit Lions. He pitched to Willie Mays at Yankee Stadium. He performed as a trapeze artist for the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus. He raced across the desert in the grueling Baja 500. He was an extra in Lawrence of Arabia and played a role in the film, Good Will Hunting. He photographed centre-folds for Playboy magazine. He performed with the New York Philharmonic and did a stand-up comedy act at Ceasars Palace. He dated Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth and Candice Bergen.

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And this was just in his spare time. His more serious occupation was editor-in-chief of The Paris Review, the famous literary magazine, which he co-founded in 1953. The Review published the works of great writers such as EM Forster, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch. “George” as he was affectionately known, was also a champion of young writers. “Like probably a hundred other writers, he started my career. I always felt the greatest debt of gratitude,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, who recalled that The Paris Review ran excerpts of his first book, The Virgin Suicides.

Plimpton enjoyed a lifetime of making literature out of nonliterary pursuits. He boxed with world champion Archie Moore and lived to write the story. He pitched to Willie Mays at Yankee Stadium and wrote Out of My League. In his book Paper Lion, he documented his punishing stint training with the NFL’s Detroit Lions in 1963. Over his fifty year stint with The Paris Review, Plimpton authored over fifteen books, most which were born out of “participatory journalism”, a method where he put himself into the heart of the action in order to properly write about the subject.

When the writing and editing were finished, “George” would throw the wildest parties at the 72nd St office in New York; a preppy, literary, alcoholic, heterosexual alternative to Andy Warhol’s Studio 54 scene, just a few blocks away.

Plimpton’s true gift was that he would literally try everything, even if he were going to get hurt or humiliated. A 1971 cartoon in The New Yorker shows a cleaning lady on her hands and knees scrubbing an office floor while saying to another one: “I’d like to see George Plimpton do this sometime.” In another cartoon in The New Yorker, a patient looks up at the masked surgeon about to operate on him and asks, “Wait a minute! How do I know you’re not George Plimpton?” A feature in Mad Magazine titled “Some Really Dangerous Jobs for George Plimpton” spotlighted him trying to swim across Lake Erie, strolling through New York’s Times Square in the middle of the night, and spending a day with Jerry Lewis. Perhaps George’s greatest moment was when he appeared in an episode of The Simpsons, “I’m Spelling as Fast as I Can”, as host of the “Spellympics”. Here, the cartoon George attempts to talk Lisa Simpson into losing the spelling bee with the offer of a college scholarship at a Seven Sisters College and a hot plate, claiming “it’s perfect for soup!” George Plimpton, gentleman editor, literary patron and participatory journalist of everything, died in September 2003 at age 76, having lived a thousand splendid lives.

Text by Howard Collinge- The Unique Creatures 

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