George Plimpton, Elegant Man of Letters

Originally published October 02, 2003

George Ames Plimpton, who as editor of The Paris Review and surrogate for a generation of armchair athletes moved among literary, sporting, political, artistic, diplomatic, and theatrical circles with equal ease and elan, died on Friday at his Manhattan apartment. He was 76.
A consummate blueblood whose plummy accent - somewhere between Cambridge, Mass., and Cambridge, England - could be heard, as he grew older, in increasingly disparate places (on television, advertising Swedish cars; on the college lecture circuit, reminiscing about Hemingway; off-Broadway, trading lines with Norman Mailer; across Three Mile Harbor, every July 14 for the last 24 years, joyfully describing the Boys Harbor-Grucci fireworks), Mr. Plimpton could do almost anything, and do it well, although people sometimes wondered what it was that he actually did.

He wrote more than two dozen books, not just the ones about playing third-string quarterback with the Detroit Lions or pitching in a major-league all-star game, but biographies, novels, anthologies, magazine articles, sports reminiscences, and a few unpeggable ones, including a 1984 opus called "Fireworks."

David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, said on the "Charlie Rose" program this week that Mr. Plimpton was underrated as a writer - that as far as boxing went, for one, he was right up there with A.J. Liebling.

He also, at one time or another, took photographs for Playboy, experimented with parachuting, bullfighting, and sports-car racing, played the triangle with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leonard Bernstein (who, he said, terrified him more than the boxer Archie Moore), leapt off a trapeze for the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, touted Carlsberg beer and Swedish cars in nationwide print and TV ads, and turned up as a master of ceremonies everywhere, from auctioneer at his children's school fund-raisers to a benefit this past winter for Southampton College's summer writers conference.

Mr. Plimpton knew music well enough to compose two short piano works, "Opus 1" and "Opus 2" (of course). He actually performed "Opus 1" in public, at one of the Apollo Theater's famous amateur nights in Harlem, and won second prize, behind a 10-year-old girl who sang and tap-danced. He entered the 1975 Filmmakers of the Hamptons Festival (precursor of the Hamptons Film Festival) with a film about a woman named Valli, a "painter, gypsy, free soul." He had bit parts in movies, too, several of them, including "Rio Lobo" with John Wayne (who, though gently corrected, would not stop calling him "Plankton").

At the heart of Mr. Plimpton's writing was a benign humor, never snide or sarcastic, and a self-deprecation that endeared him to his readers and his multitudes of friends. In his tales of bumbling-amateur-among-the-professionals derring-do, he usually wound up bloodied but unbowed, knocked to the mat, or the turf, or the ice, yet raring for the next ordeal. He was often compared to Walter Mitty, not that he liked it. Thurber's hero always succeeded in living out his daydreams, he said, whereas he, Plimpton, always failed.

Famously reluctant to talk about himself - he would throw charmed interviewers off the track by replying to their questions with red-herringish anecdotes - Mr. Plimpton did once admit that his favorite character in literature was Huckleberry Finn.

Like Huck, he was an adventurer and a risk-taker, especially where young writers were concerned. As editor of The Paris Review, a "little" magazine of large influence, he delighted in encouraging new talent. The Paris Review published one of Philip Roth's earliest short novels, "Goodbye, Columbus," in 1956, and introduced Samuel Beckett and Italo Calvino, among many others, to an American audience.

"He could pick out young people with great futures in the writing world," said Anthony Duke, the founder of Boys Harbor, who met Mr. Plimpton in Paris in the early '50s soon after Peter Matthiessen and Harold Humes asked him to edit the new venture. "He was a precise reader of manuscripts. I think that was his main objective in life, detecting talent."

Mr. Duke called Mr. Plimpton's death "an enormous loss. I don't think I've ever seen a kindlier humor, getting grouchy people to be ungrouchy, never at anybody else's expense." As for the July 14th fireworks, "He made me feel I was doing him a favor, not the other way round."

Mr. Plimpton was living on a barge in the Seine when Mr. Duke first knew him, an arrangement he was to repeat some decades later at Accabonac Harbor in Springs. He had a number of houses on the South Fork over the years, starting in the '70s, including one on Town Line Road in Sagaponack where the Boys Harbor extravaganza had its genesis.

Every summer, he would host an evening of fireworks on the beach in front of the house, until, in 1979, a man was burned on the shoulder by a wind-blown spark and sued his host for $11 million. (Writing about it in The Star last July, Mr. Plimpton observed that "any man with an arm that valuable should be pitching for the Chicago White Sox.") The event moved the next year to Boys Harbor.

"They're wonderful, fireworks," Mr. Plimpton once told Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times. "You set fire to a fuse and there, suddenly, is everything a writer or artist wants to do. The crowd cheers and the sky lights up - you've elicited an immediate reaction."

The Paris Review had big parties, too, celebrating its founding every five or 10 years, both for fun and for fund raising. (It has never made money.) In 1968 the setting was Welfare Island in the East River; in 1973, the South Street Seaport. The 25th anniversary bash, at the Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton, featured posters created for the magazine by Willem de Kooning, Saul Steinberg, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others.

In 1993, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary, Tony and Luly Duke hosted a benefit at their house here that featured a "Paris Revue" starring a number of Plimpton cronies, among them Lauren Bacall, Alec Baldwin, Jimmy Buffett, Dick Cavett, E.L. Doctorow, Norman Mailer, Jay McInerney, James Salter, Mike Wallace, and Tom Wolfe. For the magazine's upcoming 50th annivsary, Mr. Plimpton was planning a $500-per-person celebration on Oct. 14 at Cipriani's in New York. It will take place as scheduled and will celebrate his life as well.

"I didn't know him in Paris," said Mr. Salter, the author, who lives in Bridgehampton. "I wish I had. By the time I met him, though, in New York in about 1966, he was famous. He always wore it lightly, as well as any defeat lightly - and something nobody mentions is that he never seemed to be working very hard, while, in fact, he did an immense amount of work disguised as fun."

Mr. Plimpton, the son of Pauline Ames and Francis T.P. Plimpton, was born on March 18, 1927. He grew up in Manhattan, where he and Mr. Matthiessen attended St. Bernard's School together. The school had English masters and a tradition of jolly "games" songs, one of which came back to Mr. Plimpton many years later at a very bad time. He was playing with the Detroit Lions, who had a ritual in which rookies were made to stand on a table during dinner and sing their college football songs. As Mr. Plimpton gazed down at the waiting faces from his 6-foot-4-inch height, every word of his Harvard alma mater vanished from his brain. What came into it instead was the long-ago St. Bernard's song, he told an audience at the school a few years ago.

Hopelessly, he sang it out:

"So pass and kick,
And dribble and trick
And merrily chase the ball
There's naught to choose
'Twixt win and lose -
The game's the game for all."

The Lions fell apart laughing. The third-string quarterback was made to sing the song every night thereafter while he was with the team.

Mr. Plimpton also went to Phillips Exeter Academy, but was expelled near the end of his senior year for breaking some minor social rule, as he recalled in a recent article for the alumni magazine. His parents sent him down to Florida, to stay with his grandmother at her winter house in Ormond Beach, and he graduated from Daytona High School nearby. Luckily, he had already been accepted at Harvard, where he eventually became the editor of The Lampoon.

A serious ornithologist, Mr. Plimpton somehow found time for regular bird-watching trips to the Amazon, Africa, and other exotic locales. In July, he went with Mr. Matthiessen to the Galapagos Islands, accompanied by his 8-year-old twin daughters and Mr. Matthiessen's own twins, grandsons aged 14. During the trip, said Mr. Matthiessen, Mr. Plimpton got word that Little, Brown was offering him "a big new contract to write his memoirs, and he was very happy. We celebrated."

"He was an extraordinary figure and an elegant writer," said Mr. Matthiessen, adding that "his career came together this year." Mr. Plimpton was given Guild Hall's lifetime achievement award for the literary arts in March 2002 and was inducted soon after into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And just last week, five of his early books, including the classic "Out of My League" and "Paper Lion," came out in new editions.

Mr. Plimpton had had some minor heart trouble and was hospitalized for a few days in the spring after blacking out. He died in his sleep in the duplex apartment on 72nd Street where he had lived since 1963, overlooking the East River where the street dead-ends. His office, on the ground floor, was also his lair, a jumble of sports trophies, photographs, testimonials, and stacks and stacks of magazines, books, and manuscripts. It was the setting for parties every month or so, often celebrating friends' publications or literary awards.

As long as he lived, Mr. Plimpton bicycled all over the city and played court tennis at one of his clubs at least twice a week. As he grew older, his Mittyish pursuits became more sedentary, tending toward playing chess against Garry Kasparov and singing with the Metropolitan Opera.

He was married twice, in 1968 to Freddy Espy, who lives in Bridgehampton, and in 1991 to Sarah Whitehead Dudley. The children of his first marriage are Medora Plimpton of Huntington, Vt., and Taylor Plimpton of Manhattan. His twins, who will be 9 next week, are Laura and Olivia Plimpton. He is also survived by a sister, Sarah Plimpton of Manhattan, and two brothers, Francis T.P. Plimpton Jr. of Ormond Beach and Oakes Ames Plimpton of Arlington, Mass.

There was no funeral. About 30 members of the immediate family gathered on Tuesday at the apartment to exhange reminiscences. A memorial service will be held next month, the date and place to be announced.

Mr. Plimpton was cremated. It was reportedly his wish that his ashes be shot off in a firework.