February 23, 2020

The Remarkable Life and Times of George Plimpton

The groundbreaking journalist taught me one of life’s most important lessons: You never have to be afraid to be yourself

June 17, 2013

Recent months have seen a resurgence in all things George Plimpton (journalist and founding editor of The Paris Review), with the release of a documentary, “Plimpton!” as well as the paperback edition of “George Being George.”

Why should we care? What makes Plimpton so interesting to us now? For one thing, we have Plimpton to thank for participatory journalism. His assignments for Sports Illustrated, where he quarterbacked for the Detroit Lions, boxed with Sugar Ray Robinson and pitched for the Yankees, prefigured all the writers and bloggers who’ve made careers of their own experience, as well as a whole generation of journalistic memoirists.

Without Plimpton, would we have Michael Pollan’s wonderful writing about food, or Ian Brown’s pieces about caring for his son in “The Boy in the Moon,” or even “Julie and Julia”? Plimpton understood his own brand way before the culture understood branding.

I had the good fortune to write for The Paris Review in the mid-80s and would often attend Plimpton’s legendary parties. On one occasion, I was on the receiving end of a harangue by the voluble publisher Judith Regan. (I can’t recall what she said; just that it scared me.)

Every so often I’d catch sight of Plimpton himself — the perpetual preppy, drink in hand — deploying the art of conversation. He’d always make me feel not only that he remembered me, but that he had read my work. Then the conversation would take off. Plimpton had the gift of all great conversationalists: When you talk to them you feel brighter, smarter, wittier, more interesting than ever before. Plimpton made you feel that whatever you were doing, it was vital and compelling. And then something, or someone, would catch his eye and he’d be off to the next conversation.

Much about writing is solitary and mysterious. Plimpton made the writing life something to be explored, admired and celebrated. He made a party out of good writing and invited those it touched to feel connected, just as he invited his readers to believe they could gain insight into the extraordinary feats of professional athletes and artists by dint of his entering the fray.

If I try to crystallize what Plimpton taught me, it is that I didn’t have to be afraid to be myself; that great writing, whatever the subject, whatever the form, is often about voice.

A few months before his death, I ran into him as we both boarded a flight from New York to LA. He was traveling there to give a reading at the Getty Center of a work in progress based on the letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. We ended up sitting together and talking the whole flight. The time flew by. I don’t remember a word of what we said, but I recall the conversation energized me. When we landed, we shook hands and parted ways. Off he went, his mop of grey hair bobbing, on his way to the next party.

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