In 1922, Emily Post wrote that “Best Society” was “not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it seek to exclude those who are not of exalted birth; but it is an association of gentle-folk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members.” This noble but, alas, antiquated standard of etiquette has known few better exemplars than the writer George Plimpton, who died unexpectedly last month. The obituaries and remembrances teem with words like “charm” and “wit” and “grace,” adjectives so often overused that one fears them inadequate to describe a man to whom they rightly belong.Of Plimpton’s qualities, the most exceptional had to be his humility, for his background and attainments were formidable. A Mayflower patrician, he was educated at Exeter, Harvard, and Cambridge. He counted Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and the Kennedys among his friends. Newsweek once compared his writing style to E.B. White’s—high praise indeed, but justified.One might therefore have expected him to display the ego and ennui that one often associates with artistic celebrity. Not for him, though, was the Byronic, ash-flicking hauteur of a Martin Amis. Neither did he strike the imperious presence of the typical literary editor. On the contrary. By all accounts, his appearance at a party would set everyone at ease, and his own celebrations often resembled Jay Gatsby’s midsummer soirees.
It is, in fact, extraordinary that he cheerfully put his considerable gifts to work recounting pursuits that exposed his weaknesses. George Plimpton was best known as an aristocratic dilettante with a common touch, a rare combination made possible by his characteristically self-effacing humor and his populist tastes: Plato, to be sure, but also football, baseball, and boxing. He quarterbacked the Detroit Lions, took a cinematic bullet from John Wayne, and traded blows with Archie Moore; sporting success frequently eluded him, but he wrote elegantly about the attempts. (He was, it should be pointed out, a good athlete, with a particular knack for tennis and the racket sports.) In his fashion, he acted out the quixotic yearnings known to many ordinary men, if only in their bedrooms and backyards. NPR sports commentator Frank Deford has said, “Since nobody else can ever be George Plimpton, simply watching football and action movies substitutes for some primeval instincts of masculine derring-do.” Many will mourn him who have never dined at Elaine’s or subscribed to Harper’s.
One disapproving glance from the great conductor Leonard Bernstein, however, could excite more fear in Plimpton than even the prospect of a linebacker charging at his head. One time, the author joined the New York Philharmonic’s percussion section for a Canadian tour, having had only the most rudimentary musical training. The experience veered from the dismal (“ruining” Mahler’s Fourth Symphony) to the triumphant (a mighty gong blast—born of nervous energy—to conclude Tchaikovsky’s Second). Afterwards, he shrank from Bernstein’s company: “Part of it,” he later explained, “was having been in the presence of such genius.” Herewith, an important distinction between the good and the mediocre: while the mediocre concedes nothing superior to itself, the good acknowledges greatness and gives it its due.This captures exactly the accomplishment of his participatory journalism, or “professional amateurism.” His clumsy sojourns in the exalted temples where human greatness dwells brought them to life for other mortals in a way that no formulaic “backstage tour” ever could. Above all, for Plimpton and for us, books like Paper Lion are as fun to read as the events themselves must have been to live. Proud, tough professional football players welcomed him because of his sincerity and good will, his modesty and evident respect.
George Plimpton was not given to partisan polemics, although it can be surmised that his political views fell rather Left of center. He volunteered on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, later choking up as he told the Associated Press how he helped tackle Sirhan Sirhan after the assassination. Just before his death it transpired that Plimpton had long ago been exiled from two clubs in the Hamptons for playing host to the radical Berrigan brothers in the 1970s. Even so, he also pitched horseshoes—in cowboy hat—with the two presidents Bush, losing painfully to the younger and burning for redemption to the end. Elsewhere, he recalls asking his Carter-supporting nine-year-old daughter what was wrong with President Reagan. Answer: “He laughs too much. He thinks everything is funny.”The critic who ventures into Plimpton’s natural milieu—English prose—to assess his career experiences something of the anxiety Plimpton himself knew beneath Leonard Bernstein’s baton. Plimpton was the classic man of letters, the erudite generalist now disappearing in this age of academic hyperspecialization. In both his fiction and nonfiction, he had an eye for the eccentric. His most famous short story concerned Sidd Finch, the enigmatic Buddhist who, en route to enlightenment, had learned to throw a 168 MPH fastball. Five years ago in the New Yorker, he related the true story of a Los Angeles veteran who attached weather balloons to a lawn chair and, flying up to a height of 16,000 feet, went arm-to-wing with jetliners, incurring the sanctions of a bemused FAA. He chronicled the odd but rarely the disturbing; his tales are consistently light-hearted and whimsical, highlighting the unserious side of human experience.
Though too young to have been of their generation, George Plimpton seemed a link to the Jazz Age of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Hemingway he knew; Fitzgerald he played on stage, in a show he adapted from the letters of “Zelda, Scott, and Ernest.” It is a shame he did not live to write his memoirs: Norman Mailer challenging all comers to thumb-wrestling contests; John and Caroline Kennedy playing in the sands of Newport. Oh the stories he would tell!Plimpton’s journal, the Paris Review—which proved that quality does not depend on budget and circulation—gained fame for its iconic interviews of such literary gods as Faulkner, Nabokhov, and Pound, as well as for publishing new fiction by the likes of Philip Roth and Jack Kerouac. Plimpton’s patronal benevolence extended even to the unknown, and he has inspired many others he would never meet. Once an aspiring author named Jerry Spinelli bought “A Night on the Town with George Plimpton” from a PBS charity auction. Plimpton, apprehensive that he was insufficiently interesting to support such a prize, nonetheless introduced Spinelli to Woody Allen and others as “the writer from Philadelphia.”
Mrs. Post speaks of “gentle-folk,” and in his manner George Plimpton was nothing if not gentle, in both connotations of the word. He wore noblesse oblige lightly, in a fashion that was natural, unaffected, and, it seemed, unconscious. Especially in this time of juvenile transatlantic recriminations, it is touching at last to recall how fondly Europeans—in Paris, after the war—embraced him as their favorite kind of American: like a Gary Cooper character, he was tall, handsome, well mannered, and naïve.
November 3, 2003 issue
Copyright © 2003 The American Conservative