George Plimpton did it all: The co-founder of the literary magazine The Paris Review, Plimpton also wrote (or edited) 36 books; boxed, pitched, quarterbacked and dribbled with the pros; wrestled the gun from the hand of the man who killed Bobby Kennedy; and interviewed Hemingway in Madrid and Ali in Zaire. Oh, and he threw legendary parties.
As a friend of his puts it in the new oral biography, George, Being George (edited by his friend, the writer Nelson Aldrich): "George saw everything out there as one huge old swimming hole to plunge seriously into and come up with a fish in his mouth."
It would have been easy to resent Plimpton. Tall, erudite and impossibly enthusiastic, he grew up a child of old-money New York WASP privilege. Kicked out of Exeter after a schoolboy prank, Plimpton went on to Harvard and Cambridge anyway — then to Paris and New York. No matter what, he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
In 1963, Plimpton attended the Detroit Lions' pre-season training camp as a backup quarterback — an experience he chronicled in his 1966 book Paper Lion, which would inspire me, 40 years later, to spend a summer as a placekicker with the Denver Broncos.
It's hard to imagine how Plimpton got athletes to play along, take him seriously and like him — all of which they invariably did. There's a great story in George, Being George about the time Plimpton fought the light heavyweight champion Archie Moore.
Moore bloodied Plimpton's nose, and afterward, the trumpeter Miles Davis, who was there at Stillman's Gym in New York, inquired, "George, is that black blood, white blood or red blood?"
Plimpton replied, perfectly: "That's blue blood."
That sort of self-awareness was the heart of Plimpton. As his life unspools in George, Being George, you sense that Plimpton understood that he enjoyed advantages unavailable to others, and that something about that bothered him. So he chased things that would have been unavailable even to him.
His voice, which Plimpton himself once described as "Eastern seaboard cosmopolitan," had a unique tone to it, as if it were a holdover from a different era. The writer Calvin Trillin remarks that it took confidence to think of Plimpton's voice "as an accent instead of a speech impediment." But Plimpton used it as a tool — and it enhanced the self-deprecation inherent in his exploits.
But there's a flip side to self-deprecation: "In the literary aristocracy that Plimpton embodied, it's a dangerous position," says author and editor Thomas Beller. "Precisely because it's sort of debonair and easy, he somehow exempted himself from really trying — from what the athletes had to do to get where they were or, for that matter, from the dangerous, emotional daring thing that the writers he ended up publishing in The Paris Review did."
As a reader and a copycat, I think that's true. Plimpton was an optimist, a teller of amusing and amazing stories. He once said that, in writing Paper Lion, he wanted to reveal the "humor and grace" of football. He saw athletes as heroes — he didn't want to visit their dark places. He preferred everything to be "Mah-velous!" or "Ex-trohr-din-ree!"
Was it a weakness? It wouldn't have been his only one — the women in his life quoted in the book attest to that. And it certainly wasn't a disqualifying one.
Terry McDonnell, who edited Plimpton for various magazines, comments that, as a writer, Plimpton was "half an inch away from Thurber — if he cared."
What Plimpton didn't do — write the big novel or the big memoir and become James Thurber or Norman Mailer or Philip Roth — is a fascinating thread in George, Being George.
Plimpton would remark — jokingly, his widow Sarah says — that he coulda been a contender. Instead, he chose a nonstop public life to fit his extrovert personality. Paper Lion was the turning point in that life. One former Paris Review staffer recalls what Plimpton told him about reading the first review of the book: "I knew then that my life was going to be different."
But there was an irony in George becoming George. As novelist and former Paris Review staffer Jonathan Dee, puts it:
"The 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, 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 kind of a trap for him."
Intentionally or not, George, Being George reinforces that theme. The book gives Plimpton's writing short shrift. Plimpton acknowledged that he didn't invent the participatory genre — a New York sportswriter named Paul Gallico boxed and swam against the greats in the 1920s. But Plimpton made it his own in the way he bonded with the players; in his remarkable attention to detail; in his thick, anecdotal, rolling prose and his sense of whimsy.
I asked Sarah Plimpton what George would have made of a remake like mine.
"He never would have presumed he had cornered the market," she responded. "He would have been amused and secretly flattered and curious to see how you handled it. I think he would have adored you."
I'm flattered to be mentioned favorably in the same sentence as Plimpton, and now I'm flattered by the spirit of Plimpton himself. That was the effect, is seems, that he had on everyone. By the end of the book, you just can't believe that someone like George Plimpton existed, someone so gracious, so curious, so out there — with all the complications that might involve.
"There was something immensely impersonal about George — he wasn't doing it for himself, he was doing it for the spirit of the universe," says Norman Mailer. "Or rather he was doing it for the spirit of the occasion, because if you improve the spirit of the occasion, maybe that wouldn't be altogether bad for the spirit of the universe."
No one will ever be George Plimpton. But it sure feels good, once in a while, to try.
Stefan Fatsis is the author of A Few Seconds of Panic, about playing in the NFL, and Word Freak, about playing competitive Scrabble. He is a regular guest on All Things Considered.