George Plimpton (1927-2003)by Maggie Paley and Dan Simon
George Plimpton, who died suddenly on the last Thursday of September at the age of 76, led by all measures a brilliant life.
He was passionate, first and foremost, about literature. For the past 50 years, as editor of the literary quarterly, The Paris Review, he was dedicated to publishing new writers of serious fiction, as well as important interviews with established writers that threw light on how literature gets made and why.
He was also a great raconteur, in a living room or on a stage; a generous host and friend; a man of enormous charm; a father of four; and an elegant and funny (and routinely underrated) writer with more than 30 books to his credit.
He was most brilliant, though, in the way in which he used himself. He never pretended to be anything other than what he was: a deeply worldly, endlessly curious, extroverted patrician. But he drew on his extraordinary gifts to put himself in situations where even he would be ordinary. He pitched in an all-star baseball game, played quarterback with the Detroit Lions, tried out as a trapeze artist with the Clyde Beatty Circus. Though he seemed to be the most rarified of creatures he was also, clearly, for real. And so the public identified with the embarrassment he suffered and responded to the wit and grace with which he described it. Whenever he could, he used his increasing celebrity to further the cause of literature.
I first met George in the mid-1960s, and I remember, early in our friendship, driving with him from New York to Easthampton on a summer afternoon, stopping first at a New Jersey fireworks factory to pick up supplies for a July Fourth party. There we saw the shacks where the fireworks were made, and the men— some with missing finger joints—who made them, and a three-legged goat tethered to a post. The fireworks were loaded into the trunk of George’s little gray Mercedes convertible. If we had an accident, he said, as we made for the Long Island Expressway, at least we would go out with a bang.
Many years later, though he died quietly in his sleep, he did go out with a bang, leaving an enormous space where he once stood.
Maggie Paley, a Contributing Editor to The Paris Review, is author of a novel, Bad Manners, a chapbook of sestinas, Elephant, and a non-fiction book, The Book of the Penis.
A few months ago, I was fortunate to sit next to George Plimpton at a small dinner. We hadn’t met before. Afterward I drove him home and, after parking illegally and noticeably so, followed his curious, long body up the narrow, worn stairs of his East Side row house, past the Paris Review offices, to the graciously appointed living room, where we stayed nearly until dawn, drinking hard liquor— vodka on the rocks for me, whiskey I think for him— talking here and there, mostly just enjoying the dim lamp light and the effects of the booze, each of us happy to be nearly alone rather than alone.
At the dinner I had understood right away that Plimpton was someone in the habit of saying yes with his heart. Most of us say yes or no with our heads and only on the rarest of occasions do we assent with our whole being. At the dinner, someone, not me, was asking him to sign on as master of ceremonies for a week-long arts festival to take place in a European gambling capital. The idea was whimsical and marvelous and almost certainly would never come to pass. Plimpton didn’t give himself time to think. He just said yes, humbly, spontaneously, lending the as yet unformed idea its first breath of real life.
It would be doing Plimpton a disservice, I think, to say that he was an artist and that his art form was his own life. In a way he was better than that, more unique. Cultural rain makers are a different species altogether, usually, from the writers and artists and thinkers they hang out with and for whom they can perform key services. Where great writers always have a predatory side— encircling an idea, stalking it, and when the time is right, pouncing— these others know, and teach us, another side of human creativity: creative passivity, having the wherewithal to know when it is time to just lie there like bait. In Plimpton’s case it could mean having your face bloodied by Archie Moore or publishing— discovering— raw literary talent spanning generations. You don’t have new voices but for there being very special people standing around waiting to hear them.
A great cooking secret in culture-making is that when you’re doing it small, do it like it’s big; and when you’re doing it big, do it like it’s small. Plimpton cooked that way to perfection. The Paris Review was ever large and small in the best tradition, lasting longer than perhaps any other literary journal ever did or could in America, never straying from its mission or its dedication to the immediacy of literary creation.
That night he talked to me at length about his latest project, based on undiscovered letters between Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I found him— his Mayflower pedigree notwithstanding— to be an anti-elitist, someone who took for granted that everyone was somebody, that great things always came from the least likely places. Someone who never quite understood or accepted how important his own role truly was in that magical process of discovery. And what could be more charming than that?