There are some institutions in life that are sacrosanct: Great Literature, the sport of Boxing, the National Football League and The Paris Review. And only one man has a hand in every one of these seemingly disparate fields. Mr. George Plimpton. Founded in Paris in 1953 then relocated to George Plimpton’s apartment in New York City in 1973, The Paris Review has been called “one of the single most persistent acts of cultural conservation in the history of the world”. The Review’s highly regarded Writers at Work series includes interviews with Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, T. S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Elizabeth Bishop, and Vladimir Nabokov, among many others. In the 1960s, George Plimpton became known for “participatory” journalism. He boxed with Archie Moore, pitched to baseball legend Willie Mays, played in pro-am golf tournaments and even performed in the circus. His best-selling book Paper Lion chronicles the time he spent in training camp with the Detroit Lions (posing as a quarterback from Harvard) and has been called “the best book written about pro football-maybe about any sport.” And, as my editor Max points out, the pioneer of the oral biography.
SP had the great fortune of meeting the inimitable George Plimpton on Fifth Avenue on a September afternoon while strolling the New York Book Fair. Having just returned from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the eager SP was less than cool on the serendipitous occasion of running into this literary lion. The unflappably civilized Mr. Plimpton was gracious and took the time to share a few pearls of his infinite wisdom before strolling on to the next booth of books.
Mr. Plimpton was that incredible mix of intellectual wise man and hardy social animal and as such was famous for the impromptu parties he threw at his brownstone on New York’s Upper East Side. Though hardly a unique experience — as all were welcome when those legendary doors were thrown open — I was lucky enough to attend one of these soirees. My friend Tara’s boyfriend was working for The Review and asked if we wanted to “stop by George’s place” before we went out on the town. Needless to say, it was one of the most thrilling nights of my life. Smoking, drinking and running up and down those stairs, into the kitchen for another drink all the while jockeying for a position within earshot of the man. The Last Gentleman (as he was called by Kurt Vonnegut and as he is referred to in this great tribute) was gracious, generous, accommodating and very obviously thrilled to have a house full of young people all mixing gallantly with the more esteemed guests, half of whom had no idea who he was. The evening still stands atop an Olympus of incredible parties and that is where it will remain until the dust gathers on this life. The news of the new editor at The Paris Review has stirred this nostalgia and I thank you for letting me roam. Needless to say, Mr. Plimpton is a hero and inspiration for the SP life, one that includes equal parts intellectual curiosity, meager attempts at scribbling on a page, fearless nosedives into new experiences and most certainly throwing a hell of a good party. Thank you, Mr. Plimpton, for your enormous contribution to the culture.
Lorin Stein has taken the helm of The Paris Review and from the sound of this article, seems a worthy steward of Mr. Plimpton’s legacy. Check out this upcoming documentary Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself.