Plimpton, George Ames

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Plimpton, George Ames

(b. 18 March 1927 in New York City; d. 25 September 2003 in New York City), editor in chief and cofounder of the Paris Review, popular writer, and principal practitioner of participatory journalism during the latter half of the twentieth century.

Plimpton was the eldest of four children born to Francis T. P. Plimpton, a Wall Street lawyer and a diplomat, and Pauline (Ames) Plimpton. Their marriage, the son wrote, united two patrician families whose lineage reached back to the Mayflower and included generals, senators, college presidents, and tycoons, each setting a high standard of achievement that, in his formative years, Plimpton found difficult to meet. Plimpton was a gifted but undisciplined student at Saint Bernard’s School in Manhattan, New York City, and then at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he edited the school paper, the Exonian, and was frequently in trouble for low grades and various rule infractions. He was expelled three months before graduation as a consequence of a prank involving an heirloom musket, and he received a diploma from Daytona Beach (Florida) High School in June 1944.

In September 1944 Plimpton entered Harvard University, where he became friends with the future senator Robert Kennedy. On completion of his freshman year he was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving as a tank driver in Italy and mustering out as a second lieutenant in the infantry (1945–1948). Returning to Harvard, he served as editor of the Harvard Lampoon and received an AB in English in 1950. As a student whose education was interrupted by wartime service, Plimpton was considered a member of the class of 1948 despite his actual graduation date. In 1950 he entered King’s College, Cambridge, where he earned a BA in English (1952) and an MA in English (1954). During the Easter holiday in 1952, Plimpton went to Paris, France, to renew prep school and college friendships with Peter Matthiessen and Harold L. Humes, who agreed to join him in publishing a literary journal in the spirit of the “little magazines” that flourished in France after World War I but with a difference: The Paris Review would eschew literary criticism in favor of new fiction and would examine the creative process and the act of writing as writers understood it, without the political focus and theoretical emphases of journals like the Partisan Review, which was then the leading intellectual publication in America. Each of the founders put up $500 to cover publishing costs, and Plimpton was named editor in chief, a position he would hold for fifty years.

The first issue of the Paris Review appeared in 1953 with the publication’s manifesto: a letter from the novelist and cofounder William Styron, who wrote that the quarterly journal would relegate criticism (if any) to its back pages, giving the majority of space to “the good writers and the good poets, the non-drumbeaters and the non-axe-grinders.” The centerpiece of the inaugural issue was an interview with the novelist E. M. Forster under the title “Writer at Work,” a feature that became the quarterly’s hallmark. By its eighteenth issue in 1957 (carrying Plimpton’s interview with the writer Ernest Hemingway), the Paris Review was firmly established as a literary journal of importance. Nearly every noteworthy American and European writer appeared in its pages over the next four decades—many of them in print for the first time. Although its circulation never reached much beyond 10,000 subscribers and never showed a profit (Plimpton and his associates made up the financial losses from their own pockets), the Paris Review reigned as the premier literary journal in the United States until the end of the twentieth century. It was the centerpiece of Plimpton’s writing career.

Plimpton returned to New York City from Paris in 1955. He published a children’s book, The Rabbit’s Umbrella (1955); taught English at Barnard College of Columbia University (1956–1958); and freelanced for a number of popular magazines, including Vogue, Sports Illustrated, and Playboy. By 1959 he had settled on a multifaceted writing and editing career in which he moved easily from the highbrow pages of the Paris Review to a broad range of popular magazines, among them Horizon, the New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, Architectural Digest, Audubon, and Food and Wine. His articles were stylishly written, often autobiographical, self-deprecating, witty, and highly readable because of the offbeat subjects he explored.

After 1960, especially in Sports Illustrated, his writings were fashioned as participatory journalism, with Plimpton simultaneously taking part in an event and commenting on it as an observer. That approach to sports writing had been developed in the 1920s by Paul Gallico, a sports writer for the New York Daily News, who described what it was like to be knocked out by Jack Dempsey, to catch Dizzy Dean’s fastball, and to golf with Bobby Jones. Plimpton went beyond Gallico in a number of ways, notably in focusing on the professionals rather than on himself. Acting as his readers’ surrogate, he wanted to give readers the feel of a sport, describing what it was like to work with professionals, knowing at the outset that he would have no chance of matching their skills or performing at their level but would nonetheless learn what it was like to be on the inside of any sport or public event. For the first of such articles for Sports Illustrated he fought three rounds with the light heavyweight champion Archie Moore and described in vivid prose—touched with humor and moments of terror—his great sense of relief that he had emerged from the bout with nothing more serious than torn nasal cartilage, his only preparation for the fight having consisted of reading a book called The Art and Practice of English Boxing (1807). Later he pitched to baseball all-stars during an exhibition game at Yankee Stadium and expanded the resulting magazine article into his first sports book, Out of My League (1961).

Participatory journalism became Plimpton’s signature style with the publication of his rollicking best seller Paper Lion (1966), which several reviewers called the best sports book ever written. The book was based on Plimpton’s attendance at the 1963 training camp of the Detroit Lions, a professional football team. Although the coaches knew that he was not really a candidate for third-string quarterback, the players did not—until Plimpton, who was thirty-six years old and six feet, four inches tall, revealed his ineptitude in the simple act of putting on his helmet. In the one exhibition game he was allowed to enter, Plimpton led the Lions through four plays, losing a total of thirty-seven yards. What made Paper Lion special was Plimpton’s ability to bring alive both the special relationships that develop among professional players and the range of personalities who learn to work together in a team effort. Paper Lion was made into a movie (1968), starring Alan Alda as Plimpton and featuring Plimpton in a minor role as William “Bill” Ford, the owner of the Lions.

Over the next decades Plimpton repeated this insider’s view of sports (and other events) in hundreds of articles and a dozen sports books, including The Bogey Man (1968), an account of his round of golf with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus; Mad Ducks and Bears (1973), a follow-up account of his experience with the Detroit Lions; and One More July: A Football Dialogue with Bill Curry (1977). He revisits his encounter with Moore in Shadow Box (1977) and in Open Net (1985) recounts his experiences as a hockey goalie for the Boston Bruins and the Edmonton Oilers. In The X Factor (1990) he examines the special qualities that set champions apart from journeymen athletes and amateurs like himself. In other articles Plimpton describes his disastrous performance as a percussionist (who did not read music) with Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic; his minor triumph as a runner-up during amateur night in the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City; his not unexpected failure in a bridge tournament with one of the nation’s master players; his loss to Pancho Gonzalez in tennis; his appearance as a matador in a bullfight arranged by Ernest Hemingway; and his appearance as a lion tamer and a trapeze artist with the Clyde Beatty Circus.

During the 1970s Plimpton wrote television scripts for the American Broadcasting Company and for the Public Broadcasting Service. From time to time he took cameo roles in films, among them Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Reds (1981), and Good Will Hunting (1997). He married Freddy Medora Espy on 28 March 1968. They had two children and divorced in 1988. He married Sarah Dudley on 31 December 1991. They had two children.

Plimpton wrote, edited, or contributed to nearly fifty books, the most enduring of which are likely to be the nine volumes of Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (1957–1992), Poets at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (1989), Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (1989), Playwrights at Work: The Paris Review (2000), and Latin American Writers at Work/The Paris Review (2003). In 1968 Plimpton worked on the presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy and was walking in front of the senator in Los Angeles when Sirhan Sirhan shot and killed Kennedy. Plimpton was one of two men who wrestled the assassin to the floor. With the assistance of Jean Stein, he compiled a series of interviews with Kennedy’s family and associates, published as American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy (1970).

Among Plimpton’s other books are Fireworks: A History and Celebration (1984); his sole work of fiction, The Curious Case of Sidd Fitch (1987), about a pitcher with a fastball of 168 miles per hour, which first appeared as an April Fools’ Day hoax in Sports Illustrated (1985); and Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career (1997).

In the summer of 2003 Plimpton completed Ernest Shackleton, a biography of the Antarctic explorer. He devoted long hours to planning the fiftieth anniversary issue of the Paris Review as well as a celebratory party that would feature cancan girls and fireworks. He died in his sleep of heart failure at his East Seventy-second Street home in Manhattan just as these plans were completed. The Paris Review anniversary party took place as scheduled in October, as Plimpton wished, and a memorial service, at which the writer Norman Mailer delivered the principal eulogy, was held at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in November. Plimpton’s body was cremated.

Asked by an interviewer late in his career to name his favorite figure in American literature, Plimpton unhesitatingly replied Huck Finn because of the spirit of adventure he embodied, a quality Plimpton believed he found in himself and that was reflected in so much of his participatory journalism. His principal legacy was the Paris Review, especially the Writer at Work interviews, and his nurturing of young, untested writers who went on to make a mark in twentieth-century American literature.

Plimpton’s papers, including manuscripts, letters, books, tapes, and photographs, were left in trust for his widow, Sarah Dudley Plimpton. George Plimpton, The Best of Plimpton (1990), provides a good introduction to his journalism. Sarah Plimpton, ed., The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair and Other Excursions and Observations (2005), a posthumous collection of essays, offers many autobiographical details. Obituaries are in the New York Times (27 Sept. 2003) and the New Yorker and Sports Illustrated (both 6 Oct. 2003).

Allan L. Damon