George Plimpton... Literary Giant, a Sporting Underdog, Died at 76
"I thought about the applause afterward. Some of it was, perhaps, in appreciation of the lunacy of my participation and for the fortitude it took to do it, but most of it, even if subconscious, I decided was in relief that I had done as badly as I had." - George Plimpton, writing in Paper Lion
Some of you might have heard that George Plimpton died this past week. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Plimpton after he gave a brief lecture at Regis, my high school, many many years ago, somewhere in the late 1980s, when I was a strange shy teenager, and never in my mind did I ever expect to emerge as a struggling writer in my 20s, on the verge of a serious breakthrough in my early 30s. At the time, the notion of being a "writer" did not seem possible. During his serious, sometimes comical lecture, I admired Plimpton's honesty and candor, something that always shined through in his writings. In a world were artistic competition is fierce, he was always gregarious towards other writers... supporting his fellow scribes. He always gave them strong words of encouragement and often forked over money to his struggling friends, in addition to sharing his desire to unearth what makes each and everyone one of them masters of thier craft. Plimpton edited The Paris Review which I loosley modeled my blog-zine Truckin' after. Jack Kerouac was first published in the Paris Review, a story called The Mexican Girl.
Here's some excerpts about George Plimpton from ESPN.com:
"George Plimpton, the self-deprecating author of "Paper Lion" and other sporting adventures and a patron to Philip Roth, Jack Kerouac and countless other writers, has died. He was 76.
"Paper Lion" documented Plimpton's time training with the Detroit Lions in 1963.
Said author John Updike, a longtime friend: "My goodness, he was so vital, full of fun."
Praised as a "central figure in American letters" when inducted in 2002 to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Plimpton also enjoyed a lifetime of making literature out of nonliterary pursuits.
He boxed with Archie Moore, pitched to Willie Mays and performed as a trapeze artist for the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus. He acted in numerous films, including "Reds" and "Good Will Hunting." He even appeared in an episode of "The Simpsons," playing a professor who runs a spelling bee.
But writers appreciated Plimpton for The Paris Review, the quarterly he helped found in 1953 and ran for decades with eager passion. The magazine's high reputation rested on two traditions: publishing the work of emerging authors, including Roth and Kerouac, and an unparalleled series of interviews in which Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and others discussed their craft.
The Paris Review remained more respected than read. The subscription base was rarely higher than a few thousand and the bank account seemed to descend at will. At one point in 2001, Plimpton reported, funds dropped to $1.16. Donations from various wealthy friends kept it going.
In 1971, Plimpton worked out at quarterback with the Baltimore Colts as preparation for a TV special. He still wasn't cut out for the NFL.
A native of New York, Plimpton held the parallel identities of insider and outsider. He was born into society -- a diplomat's son -- and spoke in an upper-class accent worthy of a Harvard man.
But the public knew him better as an amiable underdog, stumbling amid the feet of the giants of sports and other professions. Much of his career served as a send-up of Hemingway's famous credo: "Grace Under Pressure."
Starting in the 1950s, when he began his vocation as a "participatory" journalist, he practiced the singular art of narrating panic. In a culture where millions fantasized about being movie stars or sports heroes, the lanky, wavy-haired Plimpton dared to enter the arena himself, with results both comic and instructive.
In "Paper Lion," he documented his time training with the Detroit Lions in 1963. Allowed briefly to play quarterback, he remembered the crowd cheering as he left the field after a series of mishaps.
His other books included Bogey Man, Out of My League, and Shadow Box. Plimpton could also take credit for at least one memorable fictional character: Sidd Finch, a baseball pitcher of unprecedented gifts (168 mph fastball) and unlikely background (reared in the mountains of Tibet) portrayed so vividly by Plimpton in a 1985 Sports Illustrated article that many believed he existed.
He seemed to know everyone: athletes, actors, musicians, statesmen. He had deep connections to the political world, dating back to childhood, when Adlai Stevenson -- the two-time presidential nominee -- was a family friend and Jacqueline Kennedy a debutante he would see at dances. Robert Kennedy was a classmate at Harvard.
He sailed with John Kennedy, played tennis with former President Bush and rode on Air Force One with President Clinton. He witnessed a baffling encounter between Richard Nixon and Casey Stengel, when the president wanted to talk baseball and the former baseball manager wanted to discuss banking."
Here's a Note from the Editor of the Paris Review where the staff mourns the loss of their longtime editor, mentor, and friend, who presided over the magazine for fifty years with grace and wisdom.
"Editor and writer George Plimpton passed away during the night on September 25, 2003. Mr. Plimpton was the co-founder of The Paris Review, the legendary literary journal that helped launch the career of diverse writers, including Philip Roth, Adrienne Rich, Jeffrey Eugenides, and many others. Mr. Plimpton remained at the helm of the Review to the last, putting the special 50th anniversary issue to bed the night before he passed away. Mr. Plimpton was also a well-known writer in his own right, and the author of more than thirty books, including A League of My Own, about his experience pitching for the All-Star game of the American National League, as well as numerous others documenting his experiences in participatory journalism, a medium that he largely helped create.
Mr. Plimpton was known to be looking forward to the Paris Review’s 50th anniversary celebrations, centered around a gala fundraising event at Cipriani’s in New York on October 14th, and featuring, among other things, indoor fireworks (Mr. Plimpton was the Fireworks Commissioner of New York), readings by famous writers, and a line of can-can dancers. The event will proceed as planned, and in Mr. Plimpton’s honor.
The Paris Review was Mr. Plimpton's greatest legacy, and so in lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent to The Paris Review Foundation to help keep The Paris Review going for another fifty years."