GEORGE PLIMPTON: The Last Gentleman


October 6, 2003

By David Michaelis

In those days, The Paris Review occupied a one-room ground floor office on the East River with a lion-tamer’s chair hanging from the ceiling. George lived upstairs in a duplex. His first wife, Freddy, and oldest daughter, Medora, lived up there, too, but the first floor of the Plimpton apartment, with its pool table and club-green walls and hunting trophies and general flavor of Harvard and Hemingway, was such a pure expression of George, that the whole of the first floor had simply remained a bachelor pad-a clubhouse. The domestic side of the household, to which George and Freddy were adding a son, Taylor, that Bicentennial summer of 1976, was recessed into the floor above; to get there, you climbed a spiral staircase so suggestively curvy and Sixties-mod that Hugh Hefner seemed to have as strong a hand in getting George Plimpton upstairs as his wife. In those summer mornings, the managing editor, Molly McKaughan, all bustle and energy, opened the office. Next came the three editorial assistants; one with a desk (Jannika Hurwitt), one with a rolling chair (Lucas Matthiessen) and one perched uncertainly between the tiny bathroom, the front door, and the sliver of a storage room (me). I came in one morning to find a rat swimming in the office toilet, which caused hardly any commotion, it turned out, so unflappable was the staff of George Plimpton’s literary magazine.

By mid-morning, George showed up, looking surprised and amused to find us there: still at work, or at work already. He himself was half-dressed; pale blue Brooks Brothers boxers and a hastily buttoned dress shirt, his hair a mop of semi-tarnished silver, his nose, like the beak of wading bird, rising as he peered into the office with furrowed forehead. The idea was that he, too, should already be hard at work, but, alas, here he was, just another boyish Upper East Side WASP male in stocking feet, guiltily retrieving the morning paper from the vestibule instead of getting down to work the bank.

His editor’s armchair was wedged alongside a windowsill and a covered radiator that was piled with months-old manuscripts and correspondence awaiting his approval. “Swamped” was the word always used to describe George’s schedule; agents and writers demanding final word on a story would be told that George had been swamped, which meant that he was off earning his living by stalking the Imperial Ivory-Billed Woodpecker for Life , or covering the Harvard-Yale game for Sports Illustrated , or managing the Yankees in an exhibition game against the Dodgers at spring training in Florida. The heyday of his participatory journalism was just passing, and putting in a few hours a day as “GAP”–the monogram he always used when marking himself as editor of the literary magazine he had founded in Paris in the summer of 1953 with Peter Matthiessen (fiction editor), Thomas H. Guinzburg (managing editor), William Pène du Bois (art), Donald Hall (poetry), John P. C. Train (business manager), and Harold L. (Doc) Humes and William Styron (advisory editors)–was both his longest-running gig and among the most important achievements of his career.

Half-dressed George would fold himself into his armchair, gloomily pulling on his glasses to look at the topmost query on the pile. Almost immediately a phone would ring, but no one would answer it-it was the Plimptons’ private line. After an interval the intercom would buzz from upstairs, and George would be needed on that line. George’s voice heard up close for the first time in a quiet room made you complicit in a strange phenomenon. Was he serious? “No one who talked the way George did could ever be serious,” the poet Donald Hall recalled thinking when he first met Plimpton in the ’50s. Where was that Brahmin drawl from? Kurt Vonnegut called it a “honk”; it was thought to be “British.” George himself described it as “Eastern Seaboard cosmopolitan.” What people didn’t understand was that although it was not a put-on, Plimpton’s accent had a playful aspect that took some getting used to. As a boy, George had attended St. Bernard’s, a Manhattan private school with a English character. I used to think of George’s voice as a headmasterly tone that he had learned at St. Bernard’s. George, a winner, also had a mocking notion of victory, and there frequently was not a little self-amused irony in his cool patrician tone.

In any case, he made deliberate use of his voice, and what he most often did with it-at least when he was feeling generous-was to make you an intimate by letting you in on the joke. The joke was that stuffy as he sounded, George Plimpton had in fact made a career by taking stands against the professionalism and adultism that was the bane of his generation. He had started by being suspended from Phillips Exeter Academy in the ’40s. Like his friend Jack Kennedy (suspended from Choate in the ’30s), Plimpton profoundly disbelieved what the brass had said in the war and what the suits were saying in the 1950s. In private, of course, J.F.K. was a cool, ironic, mocking Irishman. Plimpton was, among the first to use in public the cool voice of sardonic distance.

He triumphed uniquely in this because his career was founded on the expectation that he was not in the end going to win. He did hard work and made it look easy. He had the ability to impart lightness in the form of a touch of self-amusement. He had both the courage to enter worlds where well-trained professionals risked blood and guts and the wit to look at their struggles with the kind of bemusement that puts life itself into perspective. He stepped into the boxing ring with the light heavyweight champion Archie Moore, took the mound as a major league pitcher, and sauntered onto the field as the third-string quarterback for the Detroit Lions-all at a time when sports were becoming increasingly professional and obsessive. Plimpton single-handedly returned sports to pure pleasure, but with a twist, and with hard work.

The twist was in his generous fascination with the way people did things. In a culture that cares more for who people are than for what they do and how they do it, George peered curiously, and with great respect, into the way the game was played. He conveyed the work that went into the game. He revealed both to the players he played with and the readers reading him a new idea in American sports writing: Winners rarely feel like winners. Victory is what the onlooker feels, not the participant. From his vantage point inside the game, Plimpton could see that triumph was expressed not by the exhausted warriors but by their spear-carriers, the fans. Victory had become something to go out to the stadium to see, no longer earned only on the field. His work conveyed, above all, an almost melancholy sense of the price paid by the man in the dust of the arena.

What Plimpton’s work was also about was the creation of a character-not an Everyman, or a Walter Mitty, as Hemingway mistakenly had it. George’s gift was to have in his genes the capacity for pure enjoyment-the ideal of the gentleman sportsman. George loved his work so intensely you got the impression that he would have paid to do these things (as rich men can now pay to become amateur astronauts). He could afford to be in the position of the admiring amateur, not for financial reasons but because playing at a game didn’t compromise his position: he worked too hard for that, and he was already too comfortable in his own skin. “I never had the temerity to pretend I was something that I wasn’t,” he wrote in Paper Lion . Temerity had nothing to do with it.

His model for participatory journalism was Paul Gallico, a 1921 graduate of Columbia University, who had been reviewing movies for the New York Daily News , when he persuaded Jack Dempsey to spar with him. Gallico had an almost scientific interest in what it would feel like to be hit by the world heavyweight champion. Gallico, knocked out in two minutes, got up, pulled himself together, wrote his story, and went on to become the best-known sports writer in America. Gallico was all about striving; George Plimpton was already where he wanted to be. But because he came from a higher world, and because he worked hard, he elevated the thing admired, which was the professional player of the game.

Journalism set Plimpton apart, and therefore placed him in his natural element, which was to be isolated and alone even among a crowd of people. Of all the things George Plimpton did, and the Paris Review office was nothing if not a living museum of the artifacts of a singular career, the magazine itself was always closest to his heart. “I would feel that a limb had been amputated,” he once confided, “if The Paris Review stopped.”

Once, in 1960, it almost had. After 25 issues, the editors, now in their thirties, with careers and families, met in New York to decide the magazine’s future. Matthiessen and Guinzburg had both moved on to newer projects and voted for closing down The Paris Review . Plimpton, still the editor, was held to account for the lateness of issues and general inefficiency. For his part, George was frustrated and angry at having been abandoned by the other founding editors; he wanted everyone to stay on and work harder. Factions formed, tempers flared, everyone had too much to drink. Finally the poetry editor, Donald Hall, soothed the room with a speech about the magazine’s first principles. George, left with the choice to shut the shop or carry on alone with new talent, credited Hall as “the man who saved The Paris Review .” But it was Hall who got closer to the truth that defined Plimpton’s whole life: “George never gives up on anyone.”

During his first phone conversation of the morning, a second outside line would ring-this one dedicated to the editorial office-and after the usual confusion about the Paris Review no longer being headquartered in Paris but on East 72nd Street but also at 45-39 171 Place in Flushing (where Lillian von Nickern, a stalwart of the ages, served as business manager), a third line would light up-George’s private office line.

George was a man of many orbits. The voices on his line seemed to come from lives that functioned as satellites positioned in geostationary orbit around the World of Plimpton. To be a summer intern entrusted to answer the private line was to have an ear to the training camp of the world heavyweight boxing champion, the upper reaches of New York publishing, the scattered membership of the Maidstone, Knickerbocker, and Porcellian clubs, the New York City of the late Ford administration, a still-optimistic city being saved by Felix Rohatyn and polished by Lauren Bacall and Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Ashe and Jacqueline Onassis and Clay Felker and Saul Steinberg and Howard Cosell and Truman Capote and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and William Shawn and Bobby Short.

George’s belief in human resilience was the magic thread that wove together all those lives.

Everything and everybody in his life was for the purpose of making work into play and play into work. The world always supposed that George Ames Plimpton was swimming in what was then called Old Money. In fact, George lived within the limits of his income as a working journalist. People never believed it. The basic put-down of Plimpton was that he was nothing more, really, than Bertie Wooster, P.G. Wodehouse’s adventuring moneyed fop. But, remember: the singular nature of Bertie is that without Jeeves, he wouldn’t survive a day on the streets of New York, let alone in the percussion section of the New York Philharmonic. George could take care of himself. In the end, he was hard core.

His father, Francis T. P. Plimpton, a corporate lawyer, a quintessentially practical Yankee in pinstripes, was amused by a son who dared to climb down out of the seats in Yankee Stadium and pitch to a post-season team of major-league all-stars. That he also got Willie Mays to pop up before collapsing from exhaustion was the Plimpton in him. Father was fond of son. At the same time, Francis appeared to be puzzled at what kind of bird he’d hatched in his New England nest on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In the father-son tug of war, one sensed the greater tension on the father’s side: Francis may have been a bit hurt, finally, at being George Plimpton’s father and not one of the legendary founding figures at the firm that became Debevoise & Plimpton. George was the middle child, wedged between a charming older brother, Oakes Ames Plimpton, and a artistic younger sister, Sarah Ames Plimpton. But to their mother, the former Pauline Ames, daughter of Oakes Ames, director of Harvard’s Botanical Museum, and Blanche Ames Ames, a woman’s rights activist who invented an early formula for spermicide as well as a method for using a canning jar sealing ring as a diaphragm, George was the son who drove all the stars out of the sky.

Mrs. Plimpton was a formidable presence in George’s life. In The Paris Review ’s many editorial offices going back to 1953 and the boardroom in the basement of Les Editions de la Table Ronde on the rue Garancière, the phrase “George’s mother” was said to have had a correcting effect on otherwise reckless young men. On one occasion in the winter of 1953, George’s mother telephoned Thomas H. Guinzburg, then serving as the magazine’s New York editor. Mrs. Plimpton had taken exception to a story in the fourth issue about a grotesquely fat, drug-addicted 19-year-old boy, “The Sleep of Baby Filbertson,” by James Leo Herlihy (later to write Midnight Cowboy ). “Tom,” said Mrs. Plimpton, “how did you, as head of the New York office, allow that story to go in?” Guinzburg replied that George made all those decisions, in Paris. Mrs. Plimpton considered for a moment, then said, “Well, I’m quite sure he didn’t intend it to appear in the Christmas issue.”

George took it for granted that he was welcome anywhere, as his Ames ancestors had (not quite) been. George’s great-great grandfather Benjamin Franklin Butler (1818-1893), governor of Massachusetts and Greenback-Labor candidate for President of the United States in 1884, made himself at home during the Civil War as the administrator of New Orleans, collecting taxes, seizing local bullion, and spending money without federal approval. George’s great-grandfather Adelbert Ames (1835-1933) was elected by carpetbaggers during Reconstruction as governor of Mississippi, then U. S. senator. Ames, the youngest major-general in the Civil War was celebrated sixty-eight years after Appomattox as its last surviving general; he also had a talent for inventing mechanical things, from pencil sharpeners to fire-engine ladders. George, born in 1927, remembered him well. George’s maternal grandmother, Blanche A. Ames, a women’s rights activist, had patents on a hexagonal lumber cutter (1939), a system for trapping low-flying aircraft (1945), and an anti-pollution device for toilets (1968).

George invented himself. In Paris at the age of 26, he still, however, had no idea what he would do with his life. He thought maybe he would come home and get involved in television, the coming thing. Then he stumbled on his first real invention, “the Paris Review interview.”

George and the other editors created an alternative to criticism. They let the authors talk about their work themselves. The Paris Review ’s first issue featured an interview with E.M. Forster, in which the old King’s College don de-mystified the Malabar Caves scene in A Passage to India by revealing that he had consciously created it as a substitute for violence. The Paris Review interviews, Writers at Work , are the indispensable companion to postwar world literature. Plimpton, who interviewed Ernest Hemingway for issue no. 18, thus made an art form of going to writers better than he and talking about what it was really like to write. There, in other words was the template for his whole career as interested participant on center court at Wimbledon or at the 18th hole at the U. S. Open or in the backfield of the Detroit Lions football team.

Plimpton’s generation was guilty about taking play so seriously. In Paper Lion , preparing himself for the Detroit Lions training camp, he trots off to Central Park to toss a football around. The mood is melancholy as Plimpton discovers that on weekdays in the city, “with friends working in their offices, it was difficult finding someone with whom to throw.” Out of step with his conventional contemporaries, it’s up to Plimpton to make the study of play fascinating enough to distract them from their responsibilities.

There was a degree of guilt always in the background of George’s life-guilt at being so fascinated by games and personalities, guilt at not being a man who earned his living at a firm, guilt at being the last of the red-hot bachelors. He dealt first with his guilt by concealing how hard he worked. He could never have resolved having such a good time if he couldn’t tell himself that playing tennis with Pancho Gonzalez was hard work.

As with so many things in his life the New York of the 1960’s and of his prime was the sunlit city of pretty girls in their summer dresses, he seemed merely amused by pretty girls: he concealed how hard he had taken it when the love of his youth jilted him. The story was allowed to show its nose, but that was all: at Harvard, a faun-like Radcliffe girl named Bea was smart, with a purpose in life besides getting a man. The romance was serious on both sides, but Bea was cautious-perhaps she could see that being married to this young man was a career in itself-and turned George down.

He appeared to take the comic mask as his cover, but in fact he had a strong tragic element. In the blast of a coach’s whistle gathering players together at the end of Paper Lion , he could hear “the long bleat…almost one of sorrow.” He could “see the girls with their racquets on the tennis court, the sound [of the whistle] catching them in lovely poses of arrest, the bells of hair turning at their shoulders as they stopped their play to turn and listen, peering at the pines, their heads tilted for the sounds drifting up from the practice field beyond.” He believed that the world was a sad place, but you had to work at it to avoid sorrow. This more than anything made him kind and sparing and merciful.

He could be the testy Yankee in private but never in public or at parties. The George who peeled away pretense did it in small groups. His books are a liberal education. George’s classic bestsellers about the world of professional baseball, football, golf, football (again), boxing- Out of My League , Paper Lion , The Bogey Man , Mad Ducks and Bears , Shadow Box –are not adventures among inarticulate oafs. His amazing illusionist trick was to let the Detroit Lions be articulate, even as he skewered his own intelligence. It remains one of the great trompe l’oeil achievements of postwar American literature.

His prose style-the artless, nonchalant voice of his reporting, the ironist always at work-was one of his great contributions. He was the gentleman out of his depth who remained a gentleman. The 1960s in Manhattan had been the last hurrah for the world George had come from, and he brought the dignity of a real citizen of the world to his grass-stained, blood-trickling transactions in the arena. As time went on, and entertainment took over the world, Plimpton was not needed in quite the same way. But he was still the man who conferred upon our newer world a touch of anthropology and a dash of boyish charm; the mixture still worked through the ’80s and ’90s: If George Plimpton could be fascinated by fireworks or snakes or whatever, no one else need be embarrassed by it.

He was a celebrity in a minor key. He was famous in a gentlemanly way. He was criticized for being a publicity hound, but in fact, though George loved being famous and worked very hard at it, he never opened the windows on his private life. He never alluded to his childhood, or to episodes of personal pain. He was always George Plimpton, Amateur, and he lived in a world in which painful passions do not exist on the page.

In the end, the cold New England eye was outweighed by his kindness, the kindness that is emphasized along with inventiveness in the biographies of his Calvinist ancestors. He aroused astonishing loyalty. He was a chaplain to the newly arrived among the bright lights of the big city, as well as to all those lost people who had worked hard and still wondered what it was all about. How was it that someone who worked so hard at not being taken seriously aroused such serious loyalty?

He was no Gatsby. He could be wistful, with a tragic look in his eye, and he had his Daisy, and God knows we all went to his parties, but he was not a self-made man. He was, instead, something new in the Republic: a self-unmaking man. But time after time, he came back with one more triumph. How did he do it? He did it with a concealment that is the concealment of intense art. His was not just gentlemanly understatement. Self-deprecation was for the club. Hemingway didn’t invent grace under pressure; it was invented by George’s gentleman ancestors. George Plimpton’s profession, finally, was to be unique; to be George Plimpton, the one and only. No one in the last fifty years of American life has been a professional gentleman in quite the way Plimpton pulled it off. By his early forties, he had established a national reputation. He was never diluted by imitators, and his eye and his “I” never clouded over with the kind of self-parody that finally put cataracts on Mailer’s journalism. He went on to his dying day without a single encroacher–in a country of 300 million people. There were thousands of would-be Woodward-and-Bernsteins; hundreds of Tom Wolfe wannabes; numberless phony Hunter Thompsons. But only one George Plimpton.

He was a Yankee to the end. But he could never have been himself in New England. Just as Henry Adams had to go to Washington, D. C., to carry off being Henry Adams, so George had to live his life in Manhattan. To be a hard-working Yankee and carry it off in high style, one perched alongside the East River and worked one’s ass off, while of course never being so crass as to say one was working at it.

George talked incessantly about money. Money was a routine topic of conversation in The Paris Review ’s editorial office-a surprise to me, at eighteen. In my own middle-class family, the subject of money was an embarrassment. George had an aristocratic unembarrassment about money.

His concern about money centered always around the baby he’d fathered in Paris and been stuck with by his fellow founders. He worried, perhaps, again, out of guilt: George always knew that of all the choices in his life, the “most sensible one,” he once told me, “would be to drop The Paris Review .” But he didn’t, and from the moment he tapped Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, his Harvard roommate, to be the Paris Review ’s first publisher while they were running the bulls in Pamplona, to the somewhat less glamorous but no less loyal publishers of the 1970s (Ron Dante, the music producer and creator of the Archies; Bernard F. Connors, the Canadian soft-drink king), to the creation in the 1990s of a sensibly endowed Paris Review Foundation, fundraising was foremost on his mind.

Money is the key theme–dignity the dominant gift conferred–in his final note to subscribers. It arrived the week before his death as a small printed insert accompanying the dazzlingly chic invitation to the magazine’s gala fiftieth anniversary revels. Under The Paris Review ’s insignia-talon-gripped dip pen and liberty cap with tricolore cockade-George took note of the fact that the party on October 14 was going to be, in fact, a fund-raiser and that, for some, the ticket prices would be “relatively high.” Was George taking pity on the poor subscriber in Kansas City, Kansas, because the cheapest seat would be $500 and it’s a long way to New York? Well, no, probably not–but he wanted us all to know that we were welcome, and he turned what might be seen as condescension into a high compliment: “We tend to think of our subscribers as those we would like to have with us at such an occasion and thus the invitation.” And having done the cosmopolitan thing, he then wastes no more time before pointing out that if you happen to be unable to come, you still have several options: You might like to make a contribution to the Paris Review Foundation; or simply buy an extra subscription for a friend through The Review ’s new Web site; or–the purest of Plimptonian salutes–”simply raise a glass on the 14th of October.” He signs off in even purer faith, a classically wistful sounding Plimpton promise: “In any case, the fiftieth anniversary issue will be reaching you next month.”

This column ran on page 1 in the October 6, 2003 edition of The New York Observer.

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