George Plimpton is beautifully connected. He is connected by blood to Benjamin "Beast" Butler, a rakish pol who told Abraham Lincoln he would be his running mate "only if you die within three weeks." He has, as an escort, been connected by the elbow to Jean Seberg, Jane Fonda, the Bouvier sisters (Jackie and Lee) and Queen Elizabeth II. And he is connected, by a punch in the face courtesy of Archie "The Mongoose" Moore, to Jack Dempsey, Muhammad Ali and a procession of other fistic phantoms.
Good Lord, the sweetness of it!
"Yes," George Plimpton says, "It's true. I do feel blessed."
As well he might. Plimpton lives with his wife Freddy and their children Taylor and Medora in a magnificent town house at the extreme east end of 72nd St. The sturm und drang of FDR Drive is far below them, and there is an endless view of the East River and Roosevelt Island. You come to this place and begin to understand what such connections can bring and just how good the good life can get.
Is there a beard-stroking author or a tight-around-the-eyes socialite worth mentioning who has not gazed out these very windows while gripping a sweating cup full of booze and felt the chatter humming along the bookshelves and the tension of literary and social rivalry thrumming in their guts? "All those authors," Norman Mailer once said, "myself included, walking rigidly through that packed room towards the drinks, our heads erect, only our eyes swiveling sideways to identify the enemy."
And what fool who is invited up to Plimpton's study on the Upper East Side does not feel he is in the sanctum of the luckiest literary light on the island?
Between working on the upcoming 30th anniversary issue of the Paris Review, the literary magazine he helped found and still edits, and arranging a pyrotechnical display at Shea Stadium in conjunction with his new book "Fireworks," Plimpton has set aside a couple of hours to chat. He leans back and the chair, like the ancient, cracked leather chairs in board rooms and Harvard libraries, creaks.
Plimpton has the sort of patrician, affable mug you see on Ralph Lauren's models of autumnal Yankee life: watery blue eyes, a wide, full mouth, a long, ivory chin, a sleek, sculpted nose angled gently as if sniffing a handful of fresh stinkwort. He is 6-feet-4 and, at 57, enviably thin. He is, by his own admission, "built rather like a bird of the stilt-like, wader variety -- the avocets, limpkins and herons."
Plimpton is in his typical morning deshabille: stretchy white slacks, pin-striped shirt with the tail hanging out, no shoes, no socks. A "Wobbly WASP" at home, as Women's Wear Daily has called him. Says Plimpton's friend and former assistant at the Paris Review, Fayette Hickox: "It's very much the thing for George to work in disarray -- with one's underwear sticking out above one's pants, for example."
For a moment, take your eyes off the genial, reedy man sitting before his grandfather's ancient Underwood. Scan the magnificence of his clutter: handwritten manuscript pages from Hemingway's "The Battler" and a collaboration by Muhammad Ali and Marianne Moore, "A Poem on the Annihilation of Ernie Terrell"; a framed player contract for $1 from the Detroit Lions that led to the research for and writing of "Paper Lion"; prints by Wyeth and de Kooning and Warhol that were used as covers for the Paris Review; various tokens of a St. Bernard's-Phillips Exeter-Harvard-King's College, Cambridge education; smartly bound histories of the Ames and Plimpton families; trophies of African antelope and water buffalo on the walls and a zebra skin underfoot -- animals "all shot during one's Hemingway period, I'm afraid."
Plimpton's life has been so varied and the artifacts so plentiful that the adjoining bathroom must act as an extra wing to this personal Louvre. A photo of Plimpton and Hemingway leaning against the gate of a Spanish bullring hangs above the toilet.
"I was there to interview him for the Review," Plimpton recalls. "We nearly missed doing it altogether. We were too busy having a wonderful time."
You wonder how Plimpton ever got that accent and diction of his, how a sense of the "mah-velous" became his very voice. You wonder how a man can talk to both Jacqueline Onassis and a building superintendent in that same "Brideshead Revisited" tone and get away with it! A touchy question, to be sure.
Instead, you inquire meekly about his background, his origins.
"You know," he says, "if you go to one of those dinners for descendants of people who came to America on the Mayflower, they read the names and you must stand when they name a relation. I guess I would have to stand up five times."
A word about the midgets.
"I belonged to the Devon Yacht Club [on Long Island]," Plimpton says. "They have a meeting every year to decide who to keep and who not. Well, they told me I was no longer quite their sort. It seems there were all sorts of rumors about me. They'd heard that I'd been up in a helicopter and the helicopter blew sand all over the yachts. I've hardly ever been up in a helicopter! I had a meeting in my house about the situation at Attica [a state prison hit by riots] in 1971 . There were rumors that there were ex-cons running around on the beaches of the Hamptons. And there was this strange story that I'd played tennis there with some midgets. It just wasn't true! I'd invited some people from the circus to my house, but there were no midgets or giants there. Happily, I'm a member of the club again."
There are all sorts of George Plimpton rumors.
One of the best was that he used to rent himself out to cocktail parties as a "guest celebrity for hire."
"That was dead wrong," Plimpton says. "You know that was a favorite subject of John O'Hara's. A tiny rumor can be ruinous. It's the fate of a public figure I suppose."
Plimpton is a strange, multifaceted public figure. He lives in a world in which remarks are the stuff of lifelong conflict, and yet he has no enemies. He is the ultimate Good Fellow, a figure more difficult to imitate than an actor may wish to believe.
Several years ago Clark Whelton wrote a story for Esquire called "Paper Plimpton: A True Change of Life." Whelton wondered "what it's like to be George Plimpton" and intended to "do what Plimpton does, go where Plimpton goes, be what Plimpton is."
Whelton tried to mimic Plimpton's manner at Elaine's and at a lit-biz cocktail party. He drank Plimpton's drink (a Tom Collins), played his sport (the French medieval game of court tennis), and patronized his haircutter (Simon Scudera at One Flight Up, just down the block from the town house).
The idea was clever, a turn on Plimpton's own attempts to penetrate the world of professional sports. In "Paper Lion," Plimpton brought to bear all his reading and breeding and insight to reveal the exacting difficulty of professional football and the characters who play it. Whelton wanted to describe Plimpton as Plimpton had described loony hulks like Alex Karras.
But Whelton's piece was a dud. "Paper Plimpton" concentrated on Plimpton the dilettante, the gadfly, the rangy figure in the center of the room saying "mah-velous" to Norman Mailer and then "fab-ulous" to a snarling middleweight.
It was a nice try. Shoulder pads, alas, are more easily assumed than pedigree and panache. While Plimpton could at least call on modest athletic talent from his prep school days to help him through the ordeal in Detroit, Whelton found himself fumbling at Elaine's, completely unable to mimic the ease, the insouciance inherent in the nature and nurture of George Plimpton.
"George has grace," says playwright and friend Peter Stone. "There's something perennially boyish about him. He looks and dresses like he's just out of college. You are always stunned by his real age."
"George just has that style, that look, that voice, it's very Cary Grantesque. It's something one is born with or not born with," says Hickox, who is now an editor at Vanity Fair. "You never have the feeling that you completely know George. He's very private. There's this inner core which never expresses itself. That's where the style comes from. Someone once called him a 'smokeless Vesuvius.' That's absolutely true. The man just does not leak." Beasts and Other Fancies
There is an old English saying that the best families have names that end in "-impton" and have houses in places that end in "-ampton." (Which is to say: Is there anyone between here and Ulan Bator who has not heard of George Plimpton's July 4th fireworks parties each summer in the Hamptons?)
Plimpton's family has been a prominent one in this country for three centuries. He has the sort of Unitarian, alte goyishe background that has served as a counterpoint to the American ethnic novel from "Letting Go" to "Go Tell It on the Mountain."
"There were four Ameses and one Plimpton on the Mayflower," Plimpton says. "The Ames side consisted of politicians, generals and the builders of the railroad. The Plimptons were farmers, educators, writers."
On the Plimpton side: There was grandfather George Arthur who was the founder of the Ginn publishing concern and the author of books on Shakespeare and Chaucer. There was father Frances T.P., who was a founding partner of one of the most prestigious law firms in New York (Debevoise & Plimpton) and an ambassador to the United Nations.
On the Ames side: Benjamin "Beast" Butler gained his nickname when, as the governor general of New Orleans during the Civil War, he ordered a man executed who trampled the Union flag and issued a proclamation that all women who "taunted" Union soldiers were to be treated as prostitutes. There was Adelbert Ames who led the charge at Gettysburg. "He died when he was 96 and I remember him," Plimpton says. "I looked into eyes that saw the charge of General Pickett. He always told me to keep my posture. 'Pull up your bowels,' he used to say." And there was Plimpton's grandfather Oakes Ames, a Harvard botanist who specialized in orchids.
Plimpton has assumed all the trappings of New York privilege: the town house, the place on Long Island, memberships in the Century Association, Piping Rock, Racquet and Tennis, and, in Paris, Travellers. He is, as Hazlitt would say, a lifelong member of "the Fancy."
Plimpton once said, "In dime-store-novel terms, I had a perfectly pleasant, non-unhappy childhood. No divorces, no tragedies." His father, who died two years ago, never even applied much pressure on George to enter the fields of law or business:
"He knew I would have been perfectly awful at that. You need a disciplined turn of mind that is much more organized than mine is. You need a tremendous sense of detail. And to be a lawyer, you pretty much have to settle down. I went running around the world for years and years, never really settling down. It's still very much like that." The Tall Young Men
"It was the worst thing that's ever happened in my life."
Plimpton is talking about his expulsion from Phillips Exeter Academy, his father's alma mater and one of the most distinguished prep schools in the country.
"I just wasn't a good citizen, as they might say. It was a tremendous pileup of small crimes. A fellow named 'Bull' Clark was the master of my house and the football coach, too. Three months before graduation, I was 15 minutes late to something and Clark said, 'I've got you now.' It was awful. My father was a trustee. I never go back and I never give them money. I think about Clark all the time. I undoubtedly deserved what I got."
The expulsion was not enough to keep Plimpton out of Harvard, and in Cambridge Plimpton spent much of his time editing the Harvard Lampoon. He wrote a piece on the secret societies at Yale for Archibald MacLeish's creative writing class and published it in the magazine.
"I'd been writing a novel about parricide," Plimpton says. "The Yale piece was much better."
Sometimes even Harvard is not enough. To this day, some graduates of the best Ivy schools want a bit more finish, something to separate them from the hordes who graduate each year from The Big Three: Harvard, Yale and Princeton. If they can, they win a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge. If not, they go anyway.
Plimpton's two years at King's College, Cambridge, led him to the most serious and enduring literary endeavor of his life. During his Easter vacation in 1952, Plimpton visited his friends Harold "Doc" Humes and Peter Matthiessen in Paris. They planned to start a literary magazine, one that would print stories and poems and not critical essays.
Thirty years before, Hemingway and Pound and the "Sad Young Men" were young and poor and writing their first works in Les Deux Magots with a demitasse of le cafe' steaming into the morning light. This new literary generation was wealthier and, as it turned out, rather larger than their heroes' and predecessors'. Irwin Shaw, the paterfamilias of the group, would call them "The Tall Young Men."
It was as if the Porcellian Club had moved to the Cafe' de Tournon in Montparnasse. Like Plimpton, John P.C. Train and Tom Spang were former Lampoon editors. Donald Hall was a buddy from Harvard and Oxford. Matthiessen was a boyhood friend from St. Bernard's. The most worldly of all was William Styron, the author by then of "Lie Down in Darkness" and self-assured enough to wear a black leather motorcycle jacket and smoke cigars in amber holders. "Our older brother figure," Plimpton calls him.
Gay Talese described the time and the romance of it in "Looking for Hemingway": "They were the witty, irreverent sons of a conquering nation and, though they came mostly from wealthy parents and had been graduated from Harvard or Yale, they seemed endlessly delighted in posing as paupers and dodging the bill collectors, possibly because it seemed challenging and distinguished them from American tourists, whom they despised, and also because it was another way of having fun with the French who despised them. Nevertheless, they lived in happy squalor on the Left Bank for two or three years amid the whores, jazz musicians and pederast poets, and became involved with people both tragic and mad, including a passionate Spanish painter who one day cut open a vein in his leg and finished his final portrait with his own blood."
Plimpton moved into a toolshed behind a house owned by Gertrude Stein's nephew. He slept on a cot amid lawn mowers, garden houses and dozens of alley cats. But he also remembered to pack his black tie, tails, evening cape and snap-brim fedora. Paris in those days was dirt cheap and money was rarely the consuming subject it was for their literary predecessors. The spirit of the time (and an occasional check from home) was sufficient currency.
"Yes, Paris was grand because it was Paris," Plimpton says. "Everyone was young and there were a thousand things going on. Travel, starting something new, it was all so refreshing."
Plimpton and the Aga Khan's second son Sadruddin took a summer holiday in 1954 to Spain. Hemingway, of course, was still the looming literary Papa of the day and "The Sun Also Rises" was a cultural Baedeker. Plimpton and Sadruddin made their obligatory trip to Pamplona for the running of the bulls. With beasts charging them from behind, Plimpton turned to his magnificently wealthy friend and asked him to help fund the new magazine. Sadruddin, perhaps terrified by the encroaching horns, quickly agreed.
There was one vote to call the new magazine the "Druids' Home Companion" and print it on birch bark, but the "Paris Review" and simple paper won out. The one-room office at 8 Rue Garanciere, Talese writes, "was furnished with a desk, four chairs, a bottle of brandy, and several long-legged Smith and Radcliffe girls who were anxious to get onto the masthead so that they might convince their parents back home of their innocence abroad."
"George was then very much like he is now," says Train, who was the business manager for the Review. "He was debonair, amusing. Everyone liked him."
"George became editor and stayed editor because, eventually, everyone else abdicated," says Matthiessen. "It was a wonderful format and he evolved with it . . . George tends to pull strings together. He is a master of ceremonies at every level." Writers at Work
The Review published the early work of writers such as Philip Roth and continues to print the poems and stories of promising writers, but the magazine's best-known contribution has been that of the literary interview. Plimpton himself conducted two of the most im- portant early interviews, with E.M. Forster and Ernest Hemingway.
"The Forster interview was the first and it was important because it set the tone," Plimpton says. "He was the most distinguished novelist in the English language but he hadn't published a novel since 1924 "Passage to India" . And in this interview you begin to understand why. You would read long essays on the works of E.M. Forster's silence, but no one ever thought to ask him, no one thought to disturb his privacy.
"He was a fellow at my college King's , and the situation at Cambridge is very different than at an American university. There is a very warm relationship between the fellows and the students. He calls you George and you called him Morgan. That made it easier.
"I met Hemingway at the Ritz Bar in Paris. He hated the idea of doing an interview, but we had a wonderful time. I spent a month running around Spain with him, purportedly to do the interview. He did not like talking about writing and we almost never got around to it. It made him edgy. We did a lot of the interview later by mail. But even in the correspondence he was prickly."
The interview did not ponder long over academic arcana, but rather focused on Hemingway at work, his life as a craftsman. As a result of the interview, readers will forever picture Papa in the heat of inspiration and Cuba, standing in oversized loafers at a writing board from 6 a.m. on, trying to come up with 500 or 1,000 words, no more.
"Wearing down seven number two pencils is a good day's work," he told Plimpton.
Hemingway later decided to be furious about the interview and the time it had consumed. He sent Plimpton a nasty letter and made him a temporary enemy. Sometime later when the feud had cooled, Hemingway and Plimpton got into a hand-squeezing contest at the Colony restaurant. Hemingway destroyed Plimpton, applying such pressure that Plimpton's hand was soon covered with little purple bruises.
"Say, what are you doing?" said a woman at the next table.
"We're just horsing around," Hemingway said. "We're pretending we're a pair of Norman Mailers." 'Everyman' on His Face
In New York Plimpton continued to work on the Review but he also began to write for Sports Illustrated. A pitcher and tennis player in his adolescence, Plimpton was fascinated by sports and by one sportswriter in particular -- Paul Gallico.
For his book "Farewell to Sport," Gallico tried to enter the world of professional sports as a participant. He felt it "fairly obvious that a man who has been tapped on the chin with five fingers wrapped up in a leather boxing glove and propelled by the arm of an expert knows more about that particular sensation than one who has not, always provided he has the gift of expressing himself."
Gallico, an Ivy Leaguer like Plimpton, boxed Jack Dempsey, returned serve from Bill Tilden, played golf with Bob Jones and tried to catch football passes from Benny Friedman.
Plimpton extended Gallico's project. He boxed three rounds with light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore for "Shadow Box," pitched to Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Frank Robinson at Yankee Stadium for "Out of My League," played quarterback for the Detroit Lions for "Paper Lion," tended goal for the Boston Bruins for "Open Net," played forward for the Boston Celtics for articles in Sports Illustrated and entered the pro golf circuit for "The Bogey Man."
He received $1 for playing with the Lions, $2 for playing with the Celtics. His contract with the Bruins had a rider on it absolving the team of responsibility if he met his death on ice.
"Sports is a highly dramatic life," Plimpton says. "Georges Simenon talks about how people are forced to a moment of extreme pressure, the edge of the precipice. The image he uses is to put his characters on a tree limb. Then he starts to saw on the tree limb and see how the characters react. Sports does that to a degree. Novels are always about how people react to crises of war, of financial disaster. Sports set up these artificial precipices and tree limbs."
Hemingway, in perhaps his last published words, produced a puff for "Out of My League": "Beautifully observed and incredibly conceived, this account of a self-imposed ordeal has the chilling quality of a true nightmare. It is the dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty."
The success of Plimpton's "Walter Mitty" books is rooted in failure. Plimpton is a patrician "Everyman" flailing amid nimble beasts.
"As soon as he put on his shorts in training camp, with that oblong body and his dangling legs, you knew George had no ability whatsoever," says Nick Pietrosante, a running back with the Lions when Plimpton did his research for "Paper Lion." "He was a good guy, though. He had that Harvard accent and he was from the 'Paris Review,' so I don't think he'd been knocked on his ass too many times. He was gutsy. We had the best defensive line in football at the time and they gave him no mercy."
Plimpton extended his Walter Mitty project beyond competitive sports. He has jumped out of airplanes, acted in "Rio Lobo" and "Reds," and searched for the Imperial Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. He played contract bridge with Oswald Jacoby, flew on the trapeze with the Flying Apollos, and ruined the New York Philharmonic's rendition of Mahler's Fourth Symphony with some incompetent percussion work.
"Jumping out of planes, I just hated that, but I've often told people that my most frightening moment was playing triangle with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. I was terrified of him," says Plimpton. "You couldn't make a mistake. In a football or baseball game, mistakes are part of what happens. Bernstein was a terror. Former Celtics coach Red Auerbach was a pussycat in comparison. Music is a cerebral thing and when you find your brain isn't functioning, it's somehow more painful than making an athletic mistake. You can blame your legs. Here, you're just stu- pid.
"I have this curious obligation to continue this series. I'm going to try to sing with the Metropolitan Opera this year. It absolutely terrifies me. There's a little role for me in 'La Bohe me.' In the fourth act there's a scene where two soldiers wander down a street. One says to the other, 'What are you carrying in that basket?' And Soldier No. 2 sings 'Nothing!' That's all he sings. I might get away with that. 'Nothing!' " Paper Pilot?
A knock at the door.
It's one of Plimpton's assistants at the Paris Review.
"George, that was Mrs. Onassis on the phone."
"She won't be at the fireworks tonight."
Plimpton flips a lock of white hair out of his eyes and leans back once more.
He has been talking reluctantly about himself and after a long delay he starts again: "You see," he says, "I have this somewhat curious image."
To make his living Plimpton gives speeches all over the country and appears frequently on television pushing various products or acting as a master of ceremonies at sports lunches and business dinners. A whole generation of compu-kids will remember him as a computer games pitch man on television.
"But I wouldn't want to be remembered for that," Plimpton says. "It's funny, though. Eight years ago it would have been considered the worst thing you could do. Selling out. I remember doing an ad for Esquire and there was this storm of criticism from all my pals. Selling out, that was the big phrase, as if one were giving oneself over to this evil force. There doesn't seem to be the same feeling anymore."
Plimpton's literary ambitions are strewn on the floor and piled up on ancient file cabinets. "I wrote a story called 'The Luna Moth' that almost went in the magazine. It had a rattlesnake in it. But it wasn't very good." He has notes for a novel about "a photographer who is always in the right spot but always gets the wrong picture." And there are articles still to write about music and sports. The writing seems always to lag behind the research.
"It would be fun to go to the moon," Plimpton says. "I'd love to go. But I hear they've already decided to send a teacher."