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In Memoriam: George Plimpton

September 26, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: George Plimpton boxed with Archie Moore, pitched to Willie Mayes, and joined the circus, and he did all that, and much more, as a writer. He also helped found and edited for decades a leading literary journal, “The Paris Review.” Plimpton was called a central figure in American letters when he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters last year. He died last night at age 76. Here to tell us more about him is Michael Dirda, senior editor of the “Washington Post” Book World and author of the new memoir, “An Open Book.” Michael Dirda, welcome.

MICHAEL DIRDA: Thank you. Good to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: The George Plimpton who many Americans know is the author of “Paper Lion” and other books, in which he thrust himself out into the playing fields as a sort of average guy and then wrote about it. Tell us about that.

MICHAEL DIRDA: Well, he did that in the great age of new journalism, when reporters were suddenly discovering that they could be part of the story themselves. He took that even farther than a lot of people like Tom Wolfe, although perhaps not extravagantly as, say, Hunter Thompson. He did represent an average guy on the playing field, although his image was, as we came to know him from television, rather patrician, he had a very plumy, kind of prep school New England accent.

But he had a wry, self- deprecating manner about him that undercut the aristocratic quality that he sometimes had. And he generally loved these games. He really would have liked to have been a great player of football or great golfer or any other number of sports.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a sense, he managed to take childhood fantasies and live them out. I mean, who hasn’t thought about getting out and being the quarterback, or making the last shot in the basketball game. He did it.

MICHAEL DIRDA: That I think is one of his great qualities, whether he was talking about sports or about literature. He made things seem fun and glamorous and exciting and he introduced you into this world, a world that you perhaps only fantasized about, but he made it real to you.

Whether he would take you to the locker room of the Detroit Lions or talk about Hemingway as a writer or the famous people he met when he was a young man in Paris or throughout his career in New York hanging out at Elaine’s. We could fantasize the literary life through George Plimpton as much as the golfer or tennis player or football player.

JEFFREY BROWN: Then there was George Plimpton, the editor of the “Paris Review,” a journal with a very important history and legacy. Tell us about that.

MICHAEL DIRDA: Well, I think if were you to ask anybody who has ever dreamt of being a writer in the last 50 years, he or she would most like to be published in the “New Yorker” and the “Paris Review.” For 50 years it’s been just a wonderful showcase for new talent and a wonderful memorial to the great writers of the earlier part of the century. You have to remember that Plimpton and Peter Matheson and a number of other young friends of his went to Paris in the early ’50s and got to know the last generation of great famous writers like Hemingway, or back in this country Faulkner and Steinbeck, or in England, Ian Forester.

And they provided the first interviews for the famous “Writers at Work” profiles that the “Paris Review” started. If you look at literary reviews now, almost all have of them have an interview with the writer as the center part of the magazine. It was really the “Paris Review” that started doing that. They did it so well, and still do it better than anyone else.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as you mentioned, Plimpton was had mix of high and low, patrician, Harvard — educated, but he seemed to enjoy writing about being crushed by 300-pound linemen in the dirt. He seemed to know everyone. I read about him sailing with John Kennedy and hanging out with Muhammad Ali, who’s quite a larger than life figure.

MICHAEL DIRDA: I think he had a gift for friendship. To meet him, he was a man who really liked parties, and I think he especially liked parties where you dressed up in tuxedos. But he liked being around people. He had a kind of showman quality. He could deliver a speech and be witty, he could be flamboyant, can make fun of himself, and he was just very appealing, a genial kind of figure. And because he liked people, other people liked him.

He was smart and he knew all sorts of things. He was knowledgeable about books and about sports and about social life. He had a kind of Scott Fitzgerald glamour about him, which he probably cultivated to some degree living in the Hamptons. But again there was part of that fantasy aura that he could project and make it exciting for ordinary people.

I can remember as a boy growing up in the steel town of Ohio, discovering the first paperback edition of those “Writer’s at Work” interviews. I would read them over and over as I know a lot of people did who had literary dreams, because he made them seem so close at hand. He told you how writers really lived and worked, and you felt you could become one of them, even if that was an illusion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, the fascinating life of George Plimpton. Michael Dirda of the “Washington Post,” thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL DIRDA: Thank you.