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George Plimpton

By Peter Matthiessen

I think most of us were acquainted with George Plimpton, and others will surely be familiar with The Paris Review, if only because George and his excellent magazine have been so celebrated in the months since his death last September, but please allow me to recall a very dear old friend in a more informal way.

George and I, at the age of 8, inhabited the southwest corner building at 1165 Fifth Avenue and 98th Street, across from Central Park. Down the block on the southwest corner of Madison was the fashionable Lipschitz Candy and Cigar Store, awaiting our custom in baseball-card bubble gum—not the horrid pink elastic gobbet manufactured by the Fleer family but the flat gray-brown variety, tastefully dosed with powdered sugar. Between these two establishments, on that south side of the street, was the worn-brick edifice known as the St. Bernard’s School.

At St. Bernard’s, the leading sport was soccer, known as “football,” and every last St. Bernard’s boy in dark blue blazer and flannel shorts, long stockings drooping down from chapped red knees, had to memorize the St. Bernard’s Football Song, suitable for all occasions: “[None] cared a jot if cold or hot, so long as football’s here”—that was the thrust of it—with “Fat and Thin may all join in,” as a worthy second theme, and a lively chorus which began very slowly and rapidly gained speed:

So… we… pass… and kick
And dribble… and trick
And merrily chase—the BALL!

And so forth. It was said that St. Bernard’s alumni—known as Old Boys—would sing that dratted Football Song for the remainder of their lives, and indeed Old Boys G. Plimpton and P. Matthiessen sang it as recently as last July (2003) on a bibulous shipboard occasion in the Islas Encantadas—the Galapagos Archipelago—where we were enjoying a wildlife expedition with assorted family and friends just weeks before George died at home in New York City in his sleep. Over the intervening seven decades, and in particular the half century and more that involved The Paris Review, Fat and Thin have joined in with a will, most recently at the Review’s 50th Anniversary Revel, where many varieties of passing and kicking could be observed, and some tricking, too, and even a bit of dribbling, if only in decrepit mismanagement of the soup and wine by our more elderly editors and contributors.

From earliest days, St. Bernard’s days, young Master Plimpton was interested in theatricals, performing in Pierrot Shows, Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, and Shakespeare plays. He was always an amateur actor and public performer, and would later become an accomplished raconteur and a deft master of ceremonies, humorous and self-deprecating though not in the least bit shy—I recall no occasion when George was ever tempted to slip by unnoticed. A lordly accent acquired at St. Bernard’s and burnished later at Cambridge, in England, enhanced his distinguished aura, as did elevated stature and a silver head of hair which might have encouraged a career in politics but mercifully did not.

Even at a distance, at age eight, George’s appearance was unmistakable; he never looked like anybody else. Except on one occasion, when he introduced me to Muhammad Ali, he always appeared to be the tallest person in the room, with the angularity and intent forward hunch of the praying mantis. At the same time, he was oddly elfin in demeanor, with that bright-eyed pointy-nosed expression so prominent in woodland creatures on the point of mischief, such as Squirrel Nutkin in the Beatrix Potter books for children.

St. Bernard’s School, Exeter Academy, Harvard, Cambridge University. George was in Cambridge in late 1951—we were twenty-four—when I tracked him down and, on the basis of his previous stewardship of the Harvard Advocate, invited him to take charge of a new literary magazine. Under his fond guidance, The Paris Review became one of the most distinguished as well as the longest-lived publications in what our early contributor and old familiar Terry Southern was wont to call “the quality lit biz.”

George’s generous intelligence, affability, and sense of fun were virtues from the start, together with a sleepless curiosity which led to his lifelong delight in bizarre or obsessed or otherwise inexplicable human behavior. For example, he wrote delightfully about an amateur aerialist aloft in a homemade contraption of a lawn chair and balloons who was still ascending when reported by passing airliners at an altitude of 15,000 feet; this modern Icarus had dropped the pellet gun which, by deflating his balloons, would have brought about a return to earth under his control.  Left to their own devices—inertia, mainly—the balloons eventually accomplished a gradual deflation and descent of their own accord.

Throughout the half century after arriving in Paris, George would reproach me, not entirely in jest, for luring him away from a writing career. Yet despite his plaints of eternal bondage to that “damned penniless rag,” the Review was the armature of his existence, and afforded him the time, besides, to compose all manner of articles and books, notably those wonderful accounts of his sometimes scary forays into professional sports—scary physically but also psychologically, since he courted exposure as a foil and fool. And that was part of his plan, of course, self-inflicted folly being just the spice that such books called for. He handled these outings stylishly and was never injured, for he was a natural athlete, playing the amateur and if need be the klutz with aplomb and a sort of haunted grace. His elegant, informative accounts of his brave misadventures in the public arena are truly sui generis and together constitute a peculiar American classic. Yet in all his books, the passages I most admire are certain lyrical and somehow wistful elegiac episodes—I think of these passages, for want of a better term, as “dream imaginings”—that turn up like golden Easter eggs among the common grasses.

Of course he loved the arcana of sports and prized his friendships with its professionals.  Returning from Detroit a few days before he died, he rang up to describe his lively visit with some of the Detroit Lions teammates portrayed in his book Paper Lion. This turned out to be our final conversation.

In a last interview, George would call the Review “my life, my love. There are other things—fireworks, birds, books and articles, and God knows what else; but my primary fascination and love is this magazine… [which] afforded me an extraordinary life.”* The fireworks and birding were activities we enjoyed together (and also, an aberrant episode in the early Sixties, when in the company of Robert Silvers, a founder and still the distinguished editor of The New York Review of Books, leapt out of airplanes in parachutes for reasons not clearly recalled, far less understood.) Tennis should be mentioned, too, for George was an excellent tennis player, quietly competitive and yet a joy to play with, thanks to the grace of his court manners.

Plimpton’s prominence as a cultural figure was reflected in the immense advance he was offered for his memoirs in an e-mail which caught up with him in the Galapagos: I won’t forget his stunned red face when he appeared on deck, nor the odd mix of emotions in his expression—joy, sheepishness, triumph, bewilderment, even mild alarm.

To celebrate, we had a mid-morning whiskey, in the course of which, for the first time, he expressed a sincere happiness about his induction into this Academy just two months earlier.  For it was George Plimpton the writer, not the editor nor the celebrity, who was honored here last May—belatedly, most would agree, but as it turned out, just in the nick of time.

I’m indeed happy that George’s wife, sister, and son are here this afternoon for this brief tribute to a rare and remarkable man, much esteemed by many in this room. We were fortunate to know such a fine funny fellow. Thank You.

*The Improper Hamptonian, September 2003.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 2004.

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