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Aristocratic journalist George Plimpton dies

New Yorker George Plimpton was a "participatory journalist" known for his boundless energy, wit and good cheer.
New Yorker George Plimpton was a "participatory journalist" known for his boundless energy, wit and good cheer.
Diane Bondareff, Associated Press

NEW YORK — George Plimpton, the New York aristocrat and literary journalist whose exploits in editing and writing seesawed between belles lettres and the witty accounts he wrote of his various madcap attempts to slip into other people's high-profile careers, died Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 76.

The cause of death was not immediately known, but Plimpton's agent, Timothy Seldes, said it was most likely a heart attack.

Plimpton, a lanky, urbane man possessed of boundless energy and perpetual bonhomie, became, in 1953, the first (and principal) editor of The Paris Review. A ubiquitous presence at book parties and other gala social events, he was tireless in his commitment to the serious contemporary fiction the magazine published.

Easily identifiable in later years by his thatch of silver hair and always by his cheery, lockjaw delivery, Plimpton was a familiar figure, ranging above other guests at the restaurants, saloons and weekend destinations where blue-blood New York overlapped with the New York of the famous and the creative.

All of this contributed to the charm of reading about Plimpton's frequently hapless adventures — as "professional" athlete, stand-up comedian, movie bad guy or circus performer — which he chronicled in witty, elegant prose in nearly three dozen books.

As a boxer, he had his nose bloodied by Archie Moore at Stillman's Gym in 1959. As a pitcher he became utterly exhausted and couldn't finish an inning in an exhibition between National and American League all-stars before the second All-Star Game in 1959 (though he managed to get Willie Mays to pop up). As a "professional" third-string quarterback, he lost roughly 30 yards during a scrimmage with the Detroit Lions in 1963. Last Sunday, Plimpton was in Detroit for a 40th anniversary reunion with the players who once lined up with "a 36-year-old free-agent quarterback from Harvard."

He also tried his hand at tennis (Pancho Gonzalez beat him easily), bridge (Oswald Jacoby outmaneuvered him) and golf. With his handicap of 18, he lost badly to Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

In a brief stint as a goaltender for the Boston Bruins, he made the mistake of using his gloved hand to catch a flying puck, which caused a nasty gash in his pinkie. He failed as an aerialist when he tried out for the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus. As a symphonist, he wangled a temporary percussionist's job with the New York Philharmonic. He was assigned to play sleigh bells, triangle, bass drum and gong; he struck the last so hard during a Tchaikovsky chestnut that Leonard Bernstein, who was trying to conduct the piece, burst into applause.

That was Plimpton, the popular commercial writer. His alter ego was as the unpaid editor of The Paris Review, an enduring, low-circulation journal, which was founded in 1952 by Peter Mathiessen and Harold L. Humes, who asked him to edit it. He did so from 1953, when publication began, until the end of his life.

Over the years, the magazine gained a loyal following for its dedication to the best in new fiction, often by writers just starting out. Among the many authors it published were Terry Southern, Philip Roth, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Mona Simpson, George Steiner and V.S. Naipaul. It also introduced works by Donald Barthelme, Italo Calvino, Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace.

From the beginning, The Paris Review was a must-read as well for its interviews with established writers: Archibald MacLeish, Pablo Neruda, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Ernest Hemingway and scores more. Plimpton interviewed some, including Hemingway, personally.

Some years ago, Gay Talese, a longtime friend of Plimpton's, wrote about The Paris Review in an essay called "Looking for Hemingway." Describing the review's earliest days in Paris, Talese wrote that the editors, chiefly Plimpton, turned out a successful magazine because "they avoided using such typical little-magazine words as 'zeitgeist' and 'dichotomous,' and published no crusty critiques about Melville or Kafka, but instead printed the poetry and fiction of gifted young writers not yet popular."

Later, after Plimpton and his friends moved to New York and became known variously as "the Quality Lit Set," "the East Side Gang" and "the Paris Review Crowd," they gathered regularly at the Plimpton apartment, Talese wrote, "for the liveliest literary salon in the city."

As a "participatory journalist," Plimpton believed that it was not enough for writers of nonfiction to simply observe; they needed to immerse themselves in whatever they were covering to understand fully what was involved. For example, he believed that football huddles and conversations on the bench constituted a "secret world," he said, "and if you're a voyeur, you want to be down there, getting it firsthand."

And he didn't always fall on his face.

One night in 1997 (too old by then to engage in strenuous contact sports), he showed up at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, which was then having its amateur night. He announced that he was an amateur, and when asked what he was going to play, he replied, "the piano." He knew only "Tea for Two" and a few other tunes but played his own composition, a rambling improvisation he called "Opus No. 1." The audience adored him, and the charmed judges gave him second prize.

In 1983 he scored another success when he volunteered to help the members of the Grucci family plan and execute a fireworks display to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. They accepted his offer, and he did his job without destroying himself or any of the Gruccis. For a time, he was regarded as New York City's fireworks commissioner, the bearer of a highly unofficial title with no connection to the government of the city of New York. In 1984 he wrote a book on his love of the rockets' red glare, called "Fireworks: A History and Celebration."

He was given to practical jokes. While he was a writer for Sports Illustrated, he invented a pitcher he called Sidd Finch, who was described as a Buddhist with a 168-mile-an-hour fastball. This unlikely soul became the centerpiece of his 1987 novel, "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch."

Plimpton was first married to Freddy Medora Espy, a photographer's assistant, in 1968. They had two children, Medora Ames and Taylor Ames. Their marriage ended in 1988. In 1991 he married Sarah Whitehead Dudley, 26 years his junior. They had twins, Laura and Olivia.

George Ames Plimpton was born on March 18, 1927, in New York, the son of Francis T.P. Plimpton, a successful corporate lawyer (he was one of the early partners in the firm that is now Debevoise & Plimpton) who became a U.N. ambassador. His mother was the former Pauline Ames. His grandfather, George A. Plimpton, had been a publisher. The family traced its roots in this country to the arrival of the Mayflower.

Plimpton was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard and Cambridge. His career at Harvard, where he studied literature, was interrupted in 1945. He spent two years in the Army, then returned to college and received his bachelor's degree in 1950, although he always regarded himself as a member of the class of 1948. He earned a second baccalaureate degree at Cambridge, where he also earned a master's in English in 1952.

Plimpton's career included teaching at Barnard College from 1956 to 1958, and editing and writing at Horizon magazine from 1959 to 1961, and at Harper's magazine, where he worked from 1972 to 1981. He also contributed material to Food and Wine magazine in the late 1970s. In the late 1960s, he was seen frequently as a host or guest on several television shows, and still later, he made some commercials for DeBeers diamonds.

He had been inspired as a youth by the exploits of Paul Gallico, an author and celebrated sports writer for the New York Daily News who believed so much in participatory journalism that he once had a brief encounter with the heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. "What Gallico did was to climb down out of the press box," Plimpton said, creating "a wonderful description of what it feels like to be knocked about by a champion." The only problem with Plimpton's similar match with Archie Moore, set up by Sports Illustrated, was that Plimpton wept after Moore bloodied his nose. He explained it was a "sympathetic response."

Many of Plimpton's books dealt with his adventures, most notably "Out of My League" (baseball-1961); "Paper Lion" (football-1966); and "The Bogey Man" (golf-1968). Ernest Hemingway read "Out of My League" and declared it "beautifully observed and incredibly conceived, his account of a self-imposed ordeal that has the chilling quality of a true nightmare. It is the dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty."

The Walter Mitty reference was picked up by several critics over the years, but Plimpton's exploits really were not analogous to those of Mitty, James Thurber's fictitious daydreamer. For while Mitty only imagined he was doing all manner of heroic things, Plimpton wasn't imaging anything.

Not all of Plimpton's writings dealt with his guises. Among the rest were a children's book in 1955, "The Rabbit's Umbrella." He also wrote "American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy." He was a friend of the Kennedy family and was with Robert Kennedy the day he was shot to death in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan. Plimpton said the assassin "seemed composed and peaceful" after Kennedy died, "the peaceful eye of the storm."

In 1998, he also wrote an unconventional oral biography of Truman Capote, in which he meshed the techniques of oral history and traditional biography. In 2002, joined by Terry Quinn, he created "Zelda, Scott and Ernest," a dramatization of the letters that went to and from F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife, Zelda, and Hemingway. It was produced in Paris.

Plimpton made it into the movies, too. He played a Bedouin extra in "Lawrence of Arabia" in 1961, and in "Rio Lobo" (1970), he played a crook who is shot dead by a heroic, indestructible John Wayne. When the movie version of "Paper Lion" was made in 1968, Plimpton's part was played by Alan Alda. Plimpton played a minor role. Of his participation in movies, he used to say that he had been pegged as the Prince of Cameos.

Last year, Plimpton was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Perhaps Plimpton's career was best summarized by a cartoon that once appeared in The New Yorker. In it, a patient looks at the surgeon preparing to operate on him and demands, "How do I know you're not George Plimpton?"