Plimpton, George (Ames) 1927-2003

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PLIMPTON, George (Ames) 1927-2003

PERSONAL: Born March 18, 1927, in New York, NY; died September 25, 2003, in New York, NY; son of Francis T. P. (a lawyer and former U.S. deputy representative to the United Nations) and Pauline (Ames) Plimpton; married Freddy Medora Espy (a photography studio assistant), March 28, 1968 (divorced, 1988); married Sarah Whitehead Dudley, 1991; children: (first marriage) Medora Ames, Taylor Ames, (second marriage) Olivia Hartley, Laura Dudley. Education: Harvard University, A.B., 1948; King's College, Cambridge, B.A., 1952, M.A., 1954. Politics: Democrat.

CAREER: Writer and editor. Editor of Harvard Lampoon, c. 1948-50; Paris Review, principal editor, beginning 1953, publisher, with Doubleday & Co., of Paris Review Editions (books), beginning 1965. Horizon, associate editor, 1959-61; Sports Illustrated, contributing editor, beginning 1967; Harper's, associate editor, beginning 1972; Food and Wine, contributing editor, 1978; Realities, member of editorial advisory board, 1978. American Literature Anthology program, director, beginning 1967; National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, chief editor of annual anthology of work from literary magazines; adviser on John F. Kennedy Oral History Project. Instructor at Barnard College, 1956-58; associate fellow, Trumbull College, Yale, 1967. Occasional actor in films; journalistic participant in sporting and musical events. Honorary commissioner of New York City fireworks, beginning 1973. Trustee, National Art Museum of Sport, beginning 1967, WNET-TV, beginning 1973, Police Athletic League, beginning 1976, African Wildlife Leadership Foundation, beginning 1980, and Guild Hall, East Hampton, beginning 1980. Military service: U.S. Army, 1945-48; became second lieutenant.

MEMBER: PEN, Pyrotechnics Guild International, American Pyrotechniques Association, NFL Alumni Association, Mayflower Descendants Society; clubs include Century Association, Racquet and Tennis, Brook, Dutch Treat, Coffee House, Devon Yacht, Travelers (Paris), Explorers.

AWARDS, HONORS: Distinguished achievement award, University of Southern California, 1967; Mark Twain Award, International Platform Association, 1982; inducted into Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), 1994; honorary degrees include Franklin Pierce College, 1968, Hobart Smith College, 1978, Stonehill College, 1982, University of Southern California, 1986, and Pine Manor College, 1988; named chevalier, French Legion of Honor, 2002; inducted into American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2002.



Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Viking (New York, NY), Volume 1, 1957, Volume 2, 1963, Volume 3, 1967, Volume 4, 1976, Volume 5, 1981, Volume 6, 1984, Volume 7, 1986, Volume 8, 1988, Volume 9, 1992.

(With Peter Ardery) The American Literary Anthology, number 1, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1968, number 2, Random House (New York, NY), 1969, number 3, Viking (New York, NY), 1970.

(With Jean Stein) American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy (interviews), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1970.

Jean Stein, Edie: An American Biography, Knopf (New York, NY), 1982, published as Edie: American Girl, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1994.

(With Christopher Hemphill) Diana Vreeland, D.V., Random House (New York, NY), 1984.

Fireworks: A History and Celebration, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1984.

Poets at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.

Women Writers at Work, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.

The Writer's Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth-Century's Preeminent Writers, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.

The Best of Bad Hemingway: Choice Entries from the Harry's Bar & American Grill Imitation Hemingway Competition, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), Volume 1, 1989, Volume 2, 1991.

The Paris Review Anthology, Norton (New York, NY), 1990.

Playwrights at Work, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2000.

Home Run, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2001.

As Told at the Explorers Club: More than Fifty Gripping Tales of Adventure, Lyons Press (Guilford, CT), 2003.

Latin American Writers at Work/The Paris Review, introduction by Derek Walcott, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2003.


Out of My League (baseball anecdotes), Harper (New York, NY), 1961.

Paper Lion (football anecdotes), Harper (New York, NY), 1966.

The Bogey Man (golf anecdotes), Harper (New York, NY), 1968.

(Editor and author of introduction) Pierre Etchebaster, Pierre's Book: The Game of Court Tennis, Barre Publishers (Barre, MA), 1971.

(With Alex Karras and John Gordy) Mad Ducks and Bears: Football Revisited (football anecdotes), Random House (New York, NY), 1973.

One for the Record: The Inside Story of Hank Aaron's Chase for the Home Run Record, Harper (New York, NY), 1974.

Shadow Box (boxing anecdotes), Putnam (New York, NY), 1977.

One More July: A Football Dialogue with Bill Curry, Harper (New York, NY), 1977.

Sports!, photographs by Neil Leifer, H. N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1978.

A Sports Bestiary (cartoons), illustrated by Arnold Roth, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1982.

Open Net (hockey anecdotes), Norton (New York, NY), 1985.

The Curious Case of Sidd Finch (baseball novel), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1987, reprinted, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 2004

The X Factor, Whittle Direct (Knoxville, TN), 1990, revised edition, Norton (New York, NY), 1995.

The Best of Plimpton, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1990.

The Official Olympics Triplecast Viewer's Guide, Barcelona commemorative edition, Pindar, 1992.

The Norton Book of Sports, Norton (New York, NY), 1992.

George Plimpton on Sports, Lyons Press (Guilford, CT), 2003.


The Rabbit's Umbrella (juvenile), Viking (New York, NY), 1955.

(With William Kronick) Plimpton! Shoot-out at Rio Lobo (script), American Broadcasting Company (ABC-TV), 1970.

Plimpton! The Man on the Flying Trapeze (script), ABC-TV, 1970.

(With William Kronick) Plimpton! Did You Hear the One About . . . ? (script), ABC-TV, 1971.

(With William Kronick) Plimpton! The Great Quarterback Sneak (script), ABC-TV, 1971.

(With William Kronick) Plimpton! Adventure in Africa (script), ABC-TV, 1972.

(Author of introduction) Bill Plympton, Medium Rare: Cartoons, Holt (New York, NY), 1978.

(Author of introduction) Oakes Ames: Jottings of a Harvard Botanist, 1874-1950, edited by Pauline Ames Plimpton, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1980.

(With Jean Kennedy Smith) Chronicles of Courage: Very Special Artists (interviews), Random House (New York, NY), 1993.

Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1997.

Pet Peeves; or, Whatever Happened to Doctor Rawff?, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2000.

A & E Biographies: Ernest Shackleton, DK Publishing (New York, NY), 2003.

The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair: And Other Excursions and Adventures, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor to books, including Bernard Oldsey, editor, Ernest Hemingway: The Papers of a Writer, Garland (New York, NY), 1981; and The Great Life: A Man's Guide to Sports, Skills, Fitness, and Serious Fun, 2000; author of foreword for The Art of the Bookplate, by James P. Keenan, Barnes & Noble Books (New York, NY), 2003; contributor of articles to Time and other magazines.

ADAPTATIONS: Paper Lion, the story of Plimpton's experiences as a short-term member of the Detroit Lions football team, was filmed by United Artists in 1968. Alan Alda portrayed Plimpton, but the author himself also had a role—he played William Ford.

SIDELIGHTS: "Although throughout his long career George Plimpton devoted considerable energy to literary pursuits of the highest caliber, including editing the prestigious Paris Review, he became widely known to the public at large for writing about his failed attempts in sports and other endeavors far beyond his capabilities. Among literary journalists George Plimpton is so unusual that he marches not just to a different drummer but more nearly to a different orchestra," declared Sam G. Riley in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Authorities called Plimpton a "professional amateur," for, although writing is his primary occupation, he also pitched in a post-season All-Star game in Yankee Stadium; held the position of last-string rookie quarterback for the Detroit Lions in 1963; golfed in several Pro-Am tournaments; briefly appeared in a basketball game for the Boston Celtics; boxed with former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore; and served as a goalie for the Boston Bruins hockey team in 1977 and the Edmonton Oilers in 1985. He also fought in a bullfight staged by Ernest Hemingway in 1954, and worked as a trapeze artist, lion-tamer, and clown for the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus.

Among his less-strenuous activities, Plimpton developed a stand-up comedy routine and performed it in Las Vegas. He served as a percussionist with the New York Philharmonic and as a guest conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony. He was in several films, including Rio Lobo, Beyond the Law, Reds, and Good Will Hunting. On television Plimpton hosted specials and appeared in several commercials.

In his writings, Plimpton lost his "professional amateur" status and worked to high standards as a consummate professional. "Plimpton's career as a literary journalist largely has been founded upon the appeal of contrast," mused Riley. "First, there is the internal element of contrast: on one hand, the serious editor of belles lettres, on the other, the purveyor of entertaining journalistic nonfiction and televised specials. Foremost is the contrast that he himself presents vis-a-vis the people he has competed against in his myriad adventures: the tweedy, genteel literary figure at play on the turf of rougher, more hardbitten types, the bon vivant amid serious athletes, and the amateur generalist head to head with professional specialists." Reviewers consider Paper Lion, Plimpton's book about his football adventures with the Detroit Lions, a classic of sports writing. It "is the best book written about pro football—maybe about any sport—because he captured with absolute fidelity how the average fan might feel given the opportunity to try out for a professional football team," explained Hal Higdon in Saturday Review. As Plimpton recalled many years later in an interview with Time, "the story I got was one I couldn't have, if I had not marched onto the field and tried my best. In my big game, as the quarterback, you will remember that I lost 32 yards in four plays. Very humiliating."

The book attracted sports fans not only through its innovative concept—a writer actually taking the field with a professional team—but also through the author's command over language. "Practically everybody loves George's stuff because George writes with an affection for his fellow man, has a rare eye for the bizarre, and a nice sense of his own ineptitude," declared Trent Frayne in the Toronto Globe and Mail. Ernest Hemingway once said, according to Frayne, "'Plimpton is the dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty.'"

Many writers have echoed Hemingway's statement. However, although Plimpton's adventures superficially resemble those of James Thurber's famous fictional character, there are many differences between the two. "In his participatory journalism [Plimpton] has been described wrongly as a Walter Mitty, and he is nothing of the sort. This is no daydreaming nebbish," declared Joe Flaherty in New York Times Book Review. Plimpton's adventures are tangible rather than imaginary. Yet, while Mitty in his dreams is a fantastic success at everything he undertakes, Plimpton's efforts almost invariably result in failure and humiliation. "Plimpton has stock in setting himself up as a naif . . . many of us are familiar with his gangling, tweedy demeanor and Oxford accent. He plays the 'fancy pants' to our outhouse Americana," Flaherty asserted. "Plimpton doesn't want to be known as an athlete," explained Cal Reynard in Arizona Daily Star. "He figures his role in sports is that of the spectator, but he wants to get closer to the game than the stands."

After more than twenty years of writing nonfiction about sports, Plimpton published his first sports novel, The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, in 1987. Plimpton based the story on a Sports Illustrated article he had written for the 1985 April Fools Day issue about a former Harvard man-cum-Buddhist-monk, Siddhartha "Sidd" Finch, who can pitch a baseball faster than any other pitcher in the history of the game—about 150 miles per hour. Plimpton, in his article, claimed that Finch was about to sign with the New York Mets and speculated about the impact an unhittable pitcher would have on the game of baseball. The Curious Case of Sidd Finch expands on the article, telling how Finch, after much self-doubt, is persuaded to play for the Mets and, on his return to Shea Stadium, pitches what former major league pitcher Jim Brosnan, writing in Washington Post Book World, called "THE perfect game;" he strikes out the entire batting lineup of the St. Louis Cardinals in perfect order.

Reviewers have commented on The Curious Case of Sidd Finch with mixed feelings. Although Brosnan found the novel "sort of like a shaggy-dog tale that once was a crisp one-liner," he continued, "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch is not the rollicking farce I'd hoped for, but it's worth a reading." Lee Green, writing in Los Angeles Times Book Review, called the book a "wonderfully wry and whimsical debut novel," while National League president and New York Times Book Review contributor A. Bartlett Giamatti stated that "Plimpton's control is masterly," and added that baseball "culture is splendidly rendered with an experienced insider's knowledge, and the whole saga of Finch's brief, astonishing passage through big-league baseball is at once a parody of every player's as-told-to biography, a satire on professional sports, an extended (and intriguing) meditation on our national pastime and a touching variant on the novel of education as Sidd learns of the world."

Although his sports writing remains his best-known work, Plimpton also wrote on a wide range of other subjects. His own upper-class roots provided him with a number of unique social connections, including a close relationship with the Kennedy family. He was a Harvard classmate of Robert Kennedy's, and was walking directly in front of the senator when he was assassinated in 1968. In American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy he edits 347 interviews that form a picture of Robert Kennedy's life and the procession of his funeral train from New York to Washington.

Plimpton's own interest centered on the small literary magazine he edited from 1953 until his death in 2003. As James Warren explained in Chicago Tribune, "It's the Paris Review, not the chronicles of his own sporting foibles . . . that constitutes the soul—and takes up much of the time—of Plimpton's life." Paris Review, unlike many other literary magazines, focuses on creative writing rather than criticism. Many famous American writers—including Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, Richard Ford, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and V. S. Naipaul—published first efforts or complete works within its pages.

Plimpton's interviews with writers about the craft of writing were a major attraction of the journal. It was the Paris Review, explained Nona Balakian in New York Times, that first "developed a new kind of extended and articulate interview that combined the Boswellian aim with an exploration of the ideas of major contemporary writers on the art of fiction and poetry." "The thing that makes these interviews different from most interviews," wrote Mark Harris in Chicago's Tribune Books, "is that they go on long enough to get somewhere. If they do not arrive at the point I dreamily hoped for—creativity totally clarified with a supplementary manual on How To Write—they supply very good instruction nevertheless." The result, Balakian concluded, is "a heightened awareness of a writer's overall purpose and meaning."

Poets at Work and Women Writers at Work, both edited by Plimpton, consist of interviews that originally appeared in Paris Review. Poets at Work includes conversations with T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Anne Sexton, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, James Dickey, and others. Poet Donald Hall described the interviews in his introduction to the volume as "literary history as gossip." Women Writers at Work joins the interviews with Marianne Moore and Anne Sexton with those of Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Isak Dinesen, and ten other noted twentieth-century women writers. Summarizing the significance of both volumes, Listener contributor Peter Parker wrote that "these interviews are a permanent and invaluable record of the working practices, opinions and observations of those who have reflected our century in their poetry and prose." In 2000, another volume in the series, Playwrights at Work, appeared, collecting interviews conducted by Plimpton and others dating back to a 1956 talk with Thornton Wilder. Among the dozen or so other pieces are discussions with August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, and two with Arthur Miller. "There's an authentic edginess throughout this instructive and salutary book that makes it a reminder of the variety, the vulnerability, and the awful strictness of the playwright's art," remarked John Stokes in a Times Literary Supplement review of the volume.

The Writer's Chapbook belongs to the same series, bringing together additional interviews from Paris Review under the editorial supervision of Plimpton. The emphasis here is on subject matter—plot, character, writer's bloc, etc.—rather than an individual author, and the resulting compendium of miscellany offers insight into the writing profession through intimate and often offhanded conversations with established literary figures such as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Ezra Pound. According to New York Times Book Review contributor David Kirby, "There is little fact and less advice in the 'Chapbook,' its subtitle notwithstanding, but there are plenty of opinions, most of them rather negative: poetry readings are nightmares, politics and writing don't mix, professors and critics (the terms are interchangeable) don't know what they are talking about."

The Paris Review Anthology, also edited by Plimpton, features selections from the journal since its establishment. "The overall tone of The Paris Review is high spirited, even mischievous," wrote Kirby. The volume includes the quintessential Paris Review story "Night Flight to Stockholm" by Dallas Wiebe, which describes how an aspiring writer eventually wins the Noble Prize in literature by sending dismembered parts of his body along with submissions to major literary journals. Kirby concluded that The Paris Review Anthology "is historically important as well, since it reminds readers how a new era in letters began."

Plimpton returned to sports and the competitive spirit with The X Factor: A Quest for Excellence, his investigation into the attributes possessed by winners. After narrowly losing a game of horseshoes to President-elect George Bush, Plimpton set out to uncover the universal secret of success through conversations with various sports legends, coaches, and top executives. "Suffice to say that where Mr. Plimpton draws upon his X factor is in his prose style, in his unfailing ability to find the perfectly funny word or phrase," wrote Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in New York Times. "What also never lets him down is his capacity to get the most unlikely people to take part in his offbeat fantasies." In the end, Plimpton managed to get a rematch with President Bush.

In 1997 Plimpton assembled a literary memoir, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. American writer Capote, who during his career had earned several well-placed enemies in the world of literature and high society for his barely disguised caricatures of them in a short story titled "The Côte Basque," died in 1984. "I knew him myself," Plimpton once noted to a Time interviewer in discussing the controversial writer. "He lived down the street in Sagaponack, Long Island. A good friend for awhile, though he felt toward the end of his life that I had made fun of him in a story I wrote ['The Snows of Studio Fifty-four'] which was a parody of Ernest Hemingway's 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro.'"

With The Norton Book of Sports Plimpton provides an eclectic collection of stories by both sport writers and literary figures, including Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, James Joyce, and Robert Bly. Chicago Tribune Books contributor Robert Olen Butler wrote, "Plimpton has assembled this collection of commentary, fiction, reminiscence, poetry and journalism wonderfully well, filling us with that impression of sports which is always hard to explain, that behind the seeming triviality of these games there resides something profound." A 2000 collection, Home Run, brought together Plimpton's choices for an anthology of baseball writing, but one with a more specific focus: the ultimate, but occasional thrill of the home run. He contributes the first essay himself, on the first recorded statistical occurrence of it in baseball history, when Ross Barnes hit one during a Chicago White Stockings game in 1876. Contributors include John Updike, Don DeLillo, and Bernard Malamud. "Plimpton's selection of pieces is very astute," noted Library Journal reviewer John Maxymuk.

The Best of Plimpton brings together examples of the author's writings over a period of thirty-five years. "While his contemporaries were off writing about war, sex and assorted other social upheavals, Plimpton was writing humorously and indelibly about taking poet Marianne Moore to the World Series, playing the triangle with the New York Philharmonic, boxing heavyweight Archie Moore," wrote Malcolm Jones Jr. in Newsweek. "Plimpton's subject is passion, whether he finds it in the major leagues, in a man who catches grapes in his mouth or in a bespectacled boy playing football."

"Plimpton has enjoyed a career unlike that of any other literary figure—journalist, author, editor, or otherwise," concluded Riley. "His varied accomplishments render his career hard to sum up, but a quotation he himself used in The Norton Book of Sports from poet Donald Hall . . . says it fairly well: 'Half my poet friends think I am insane to waste my time writing about sports and to loiter in the company of professional athletes. The other half would murder to be in my place.'" Still, he once commented in his Time interview, "all sports are predicated on error," and his experiences as a novice were not as crucial to the outcome of the game than one might believe. His month as a percussionist in the New York Philharmonic, in comparison, was far more traumatic. "In music, you cannot make a mistake. And the fear of doing this, particularly since I can't read music, was frightening to put it mildly. Evening after evening of pure terror in London, Ontario, playing an instrument called the bells. I destroyed Gustav Mahler's 'Fourth Symphony' by mishitting an instrument called the sleigh bells. I dream about that from time to time, and wake up covered with sweat."

Following Plimpton's death in September of 2003, Paris Review created the Plimpton Prize in honor of its long-time editor. The prize recognizes the best piece of writing by a newcomer. Plimpton's dedication to Paris Review also continued after his death when, as reported by JoAnne Viviano in America's Intelligence Wire, he stated in his will, "it is my wish and hope that the space in my apartment . . . which is currently made available rent free to the Paris Review shall continue to be made available without charge for so long as reasonably possible." In an obituary in New Yorker, David Remnick described Plimpton as "a serious man of serious accomplishments who just happened to have more fun than a van full of jugglers and clowns. He was game for anything and made a comic art of his Walter Mitty dreams and inevitable failures."



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Plimpton, George, Poets at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, introduction by Donald Hall, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.

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America, February 20, 1993, p. 2.

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Booklist, September 15, 1989, p. 136; October 1, 1990, p. 248; May 1, 2000, Ray Olson, review of Playwrights at Work, p. 1640; November 15, 2003, Gilbert Taylor, review of As Told at the Explorers Club: More than Fifty Gripping Tales of Adventure, p. 566.

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Sports Illustrated, September 13, 1965, p. 4; August 3, 1992, p. 6; December 22, 2003, "A Feast of Classic Plimpton: Brilliant—and Beautiful—Reissues by a Writer Who Couldn't Just Watch," p. 23.

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America's Intelligence Wire, October 21, 2003, JoAnne Viviano "Late Founder of Paris Review Leaves Will Specifying Home for His Literary Journal."



Economist (US), October 11, 2003 p. 86.

Nation, October 20, 2003, p. 7.

Newsweek, October 6, 2003, p. 8.

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People, October 13, 2003, p. 93.

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Time, October 6, 2003, p. 25.

ONLINE, (September 26, 2003).*