Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club #17: George Plimpton's Fully Charmed Life

Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club #17: George Plimpton's Fully Charmed Life

One early evening about a half decade ago a seventy-something George Plimpton put on an argyle sweater and a pair of khakis and pitched a game of softball against my colleagues on the Team Onion New York softball team alongside his compatriots in the Paris Review squad. Oh sweet blessed Lord do I wish I could have been there. I treasure the mental image of a grey-haired, distinguished-looking, impossibly lanky and still youthful Plimpton staring down the Team Onion softball team, then taking them out afterwards, apologizing profusely for not being able to procure better scotch and trying to arrange an ad trade between the Paris Review and The Onion.

I'm pretty damned happy here in Chicago but I wish my graceless existence had overlapped with Plimpton's charmed life for even a single preposterous evening. Before reading George, Being George, Nelson W. Aldrich Jr.'s delightful oral history of the late writer, raconteur and professional dilettante I knew of Plimpton largely through reputation. He was the quintessential bon vivant, a social butterfly who knew everyone and was the perfect cocktail party guest and an even better host. He was, to borrow a phrase from a beer commercial, the most interesting man in the world.

Oh, and he also did some writing, though Plimpton's writing was frequently upstaged by his celebrity. To quote the big homey Walt Whitman, every man and woman contains multitudes. Consequently, I suspect that Aldrich could have taken the countless hours of transcripts he and his researchers compiled from talking to hundreds of Plimpton's friends, colleagues and rivals and spun it into any number of narratives. George, Being George could have been a tale of snobbishness or prodigious talent done in by fame. Instead, it is primarily a story of rapturous, sustained joy. It is fundamentally a book about the endless pleasure of being George Plimpton, or at least being part of his world.

When the interviewees of George, Being George discuss the book's subject words like "pleasure", "enjoy", "entertained" and "wonder" keep popping up whereas if someone were to write an oral history of me I suspect that phrases like "creepy", "feral", "rat-like", "history's greatest monster", "peeping tom" and "raping me with his eyes" would reoccur with disturbing frequency. Plimpton comes off as such a delightful creature that not even the unsavory revelation that the Paris Review perennial attended numerous orgies in the seventies can sully his air of boyish enthusiasm and almost oppressive geniality that surrounds him even in death.

That blew my mind and caused my monocle to shatter into a million little pieces. Can you even imagine what it would be like to attend an orgy in the disco era and have George Motherfucking Plimpton walk through the door? That would freak me the fuck out. I would find it hard to concentrate on the task at hand because I'd spend the entire time thinking, "Holy shit! That's George Plimpton over there wacking away at some fetching lass with his joint." I suspect that if someone of Plimpton's stature were to frequent orgies today blurry footage of their sexcapades would pop up on the internet within the hour.

Ah, but George isn't about epic WASP fuckfests. No, it is a celebration of the life and times of the bluest of bluebloods, the quintessential American aristocrat. One of the interview subjects wryly notes that one of Plimpton's esteemed forefathers was offered the Vice-Presidency under Lincoln and quipped that he'd only accept on the grounds that Lincoln die immediately. Lincoln, of course, turned the man down and lived to be over a hundred years old. Or at least he did in my self-published historical fan fiction.

Plimpton breezed through Exeter and Harvard en route to his literary destiny as one of the men behind The Paris Review, a plucky labor of love that was started partially as a CIA front, as a way to funnel money to operatives without arousing too much suspicion. At the Paris Review Plimpton got to live out his lost generation fantasies alongside the crème de la crème of the literary world.

The pictures in George tell much of the story. In George Plimpton emerges as a Zelig or Forrest Gump-like figure, a witness to history with a front-row view and myriad connections to all the major players. Plenty of people have had failed marriages but only Plimpton entered into his first unsuccessful marriage because Bobby Kennedy pressured him into doing so.

Similarly, everyone was affected on some level by Bobby Kennedy's murder but it was Plimpton's profound misfortune to be with Bobby when the dastardly deed was done. "Plimpton wrestles gun away from Sirhan Sirhan" reads the single most spectacular photo caption here. Others include "Plimpton in Rio Bravo, "Plimpton with Hemingway in bullfighting ring" and a photograph of Plimpton at a cocktail party whose line-up including Ralph Ellison, Mario Puzo, Truman Capote, Frank Perry and a half-dozen other major players whose names I can't recall.

To cite another example, everybody loves fireworks, with the possible exception of Hitler (that guy hated everything awesome). But only George Plimpton was named Fireworks Commissioner of New York by Mayor Lindsay. True, it was an unofficial post but, c'mon, Fireworks Commissioner! How can that not be awesome? Lindsay later deputized Plimpton as an official New York state bikini inspector, an important government job too many people dismiss as nothing more than the basis for a cheap novelty tee-shirt.

Plimpton was a professional amateur who made a good living mixing it up with the pros, most famously during a stint with the Detroit Lions chronicled in his best-selling memoir Paper Lion. As indelibly captured in George, Plimpton maintained what Buddhists call a "beginner's mind" well into his seventies. He retained a child-like sense of wonder while his contemporaries grew jaded, bitter and cynical. Plimpton had a singular ability to make whoever he was talking to feel as if they were the most fascinating, important person in the world without coming across as a phony or a sycophant.

He was, in other words, everything that I am not but hope someday to be: charmed, graceful and utterly at ease with himself and his place in the world. Even when his sturdy body began to betray him Plimpton still went out every night and drank in all the world had to offer. Late in the book he attends a Radiohead concert while wearing a seersucker suit and bumps into Gwyneth Paltrow in the elevator. He was that kind of a guy and led that kind of life.

George, Being George infectiously captures the joie de vivre at the core of Plimpton's blessed existence. Best of all, every copy of George, Being George comes with a free hot plate!

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