For many readers, George Plimpton was a novelty act; a mild-mannered reporter who took a few snaps as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions, an unfunny man who tried his hand at stand-up comedy. But when Plimpton passed away last week at age 76, many aging journalists felt they had lost a mentor.
As part of the "new journalism" movement of the 1970s, Plimpton joined Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and others to foster a new way to report stories. And young journalists quickly signed up. Today, Truman Capote's use of "faction" (facts told with fiction techniques) and Thompson's take-no-prisoners "gonzo journalism" are still somewhat useful. But it was Plimpton's "participatory journalism" that "had legs" and continues to enchant and inspire young writers.
Plimpton was a polished soul born to the manor and well-acquainted with sophisticated ways. His father was the American ambassador to the United Nations. Young George received the obligatory first-rate education at Harvard and, as an adult, was named editor of the Paris Review and other high-brow publications. But what charmed readers was not Plimpton's urbanity but his willingness to play the fool in order to land a good story.
During his career he donned boxing gloves and allowed himself to be bloodied by Archie Moore. He was waxed by Poncho Gonzalez on the tennis court, destroyed by Arnold Palmer on the golf links and hardly flew through the air with the greatest of ease as a trapeze performer.
He pitched to Willie Mays, played music for Leonard Bernstein and was gunned by John Wayne in the movie "Rio Lobo."
Because of Plimpton, young writers everywhere began jumping from airplanes, searching for buried treasure and signing up as maids and waiters just to get the "inside scoop."
And though Plimpton is partially responsible for much of the over-wrought, self-indulgent pieces that have emerged over the years, he must also be credited for teaching many journalists how to walk in the shoes of other people.
The legacy of George Plimpton, in the end, is not one of self-promotion, but one of empathy.
According to the New York Times, Ernest Hemingway once called Plimpton's exploits "the dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty."
They were also a ray of light in a profession that needed it.
George Plimpton did a "pro job." He will be remembered fondly for many years.