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George Plimpton is best known as the cofounder of the Paris Review and as the author of Paper Lion (1966), a highly acclaimed account of his experiences in a professional football training camp. Plimpton occupies a unique niche in sports literature, one marked by his own participation in the sports he covers, sound reportage, and elegant prose.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up in New York
A New Yorker most of his life, George Ames Plimpton was born on March 18, 1927, to Pauline (Ames) Plimpton and Francis T. P. Plimpton, a lawyer, who was appointed ambassador to the United Nations in the Kennedy administration (19611963). Plimpton attended St. Bernard’s School and Phillips Exeter Academy, where he wrote for the student newspaper, the Exonian. At Harvard University, which he entered in 1944 and left to serve in the United States Army from 1945 to 1948, he became editor of the Lampoon (the college’s humor magazine) before graduating with an AB in 1950. He earned an additional BA and MA from King’s College, Cambridge University, which he attended from 1952 to 1954.
Co-founding the Paris Review
Along with several other Americans, including Peter Matthiessen and Donald Hall, Plimpton helped to found the Paris Review in 1953. The magazine established itself almost immediately as an influential American literary journal, and Plimpton remained its editor thereafter. The literary quarterly is best known for its probing interviews with contemporary novelists, poets, and dramatists, many of which Plimpton conducted in the early days of the journal. Also in those early years, Viking published his first book, The Rabbit’s Umbrella (1955), which Plimpton wrote in Paris.
Vanderbilt Interview Begins Career in Sports Writing
Plimpton’s sports writing career began after a chance meeting with a friend, Whitney Tower, a writer for the fledgling Sports Illustrated when Plimpton was in his early twenties and teaching at Barnard College. He was asked to write a piece on Harold S. Vanderbilt, whose J-Boats helped defend the America s Cup titles in the 1930s. Vanderbilt had proved to be an unforthcoming subject for other writers, but Plimpton relied on his Harvard ties to get an interview with the elder alumnus.
Career with Sports Illustrated Begins
An early piece, ”Dreams of Glory on the Mound” (Sports Illustrated, April 10, 1961), later expanded to book form that same year in Out of My League (1961), began Plimpton’s longtime relationship with Sports Illustrated. ”Miami Notebook: Cassius Clay and Malcolm X,” published a few years later in the June 1964 issue of Harper’s, was the first of many pieces Plimpton wrote on the great heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay.
The mid-1960s was a prolific period for Plimpton at Sports Illustrated. In ”World Champion Is Refused a Meal” (May 17,1965), he covered Cassius Clay (or more precisely Clay s trainer, Bundini Brown) on a private bus trip to Clay s Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, training camp. in Yulee, Florida, the heavyweight champion of the world and his mostly Muslim entourage were refused a meal at a segregated restaurant. In ”Celestial Hell of the Superfan” (Sports Illustrated, September 13,1965), Plimpton offers a study of professional football’s superfans. In contrast to the superfan piece, Plimpton wrote ”But Why Me, Coach?” (Sports Illustrated, December 13,1965) about the waiving of New York Giant defensive tackle Mike Bundra. Having bounced around with several clubs before losing his job again, Bundra saw his own woes mirrored by his relatives who called to console him.
In 1966 Plimpton had expanded his Sports Illustrated articles (as well as two other sections that appeared in the New Yorker and Harper’s) on his experiences as a quarterback with the Detroit Lions into the best seller (twenty-four weeks) Paper Lion, which was later made into a movie. After learning about five plays of the Lions during a three-week training session, Plimpton got to play a series of downs during a preseason intersquad scrimmage.
Plimpton Named Contributing Editor
Plimpton’s reputation was growing quickly by the late 1960s. In 1967 he earned a distinguished achievement award from the University of Southern California and was also named contributing editor to Sports Illustrated. On March 28, 1968, at age forty-one, Plimpton married photography studio assistant Freddy Medora Espy. They had two children: Medora Ames and Taylor Ames.
His next book, The Bogey Man,appearedin1968. With the financial backing of Sports Illustrated, Plimpton spent a month touring with the Professional Golfers’ Association. The book covers his participation in the Bing Crosby National Pro-Amateur, the San Francisco Lucky, and the Bob Hope Desert Classic. Portions of the book appeared in several issues of Sports Illustrated. The book was reviewed favorably in general, but several critics, Dick Schapp among them, felt that it did not measure up to Paper Lion.
Plimpton published several non-sports-related books, including several collections of Paris Review interviews; three volumes of The American Literary Anthology (1968,1969,1970) with Peter Ardery; and American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy (1970) with Jean Stein. He served as associate editor of Harper’s and contributing editor at Food and Wine.
Sports Coverage during the 1970s
Several Plimpton books on sports were published during the 1970s. First came Pierre’s Book: The Game of Court Tennis (1971) by Pierre Etchebaster, which Plimpton edited and for which he wrote the introduction. Mad Ducks and Bears (1973) addresses two seemingly unrelated subjects: the first is NFL linemen, in particular the Lions’s offensive guard John Gordy (the “Bear” of the title) and defensive lineman Alex Karras (the ”Mad Duck”); the second was Plimpton’s diary as he prepared to play quarterback again, this time for the Baltimore Colts against the Detroit Lions, for a 1971 television special, Plimpton! The Great Quarterback Sneak. Some critics were critical of the two-pronged approach, arguing that it weakened the book considerably. Henry Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run was the occasion for ”Final Twist of the Drama” (SportsIllustrated, April 11,1974), which Plimpton later expanded into book form as One for the Record:
The Inside Story of Hank Aaron’s Chase for the Home-Run Record (1974).
Plimpton continued to contribute sports essays to Harper’s. ”Baseball Stories” (May 1976), which also appeared in The Game and the Glory: The Commissioner’s Official Bicentennial Volume (1976), ruminated on the bullpen.
One More July: A Football Dialogue with Bill Curry (1977) utilizes Plimpton’s great interviewing skills and seems to wrap up his decade-long infatuation with the game of football. The dialogues with Curry, who played professional football from 1965 to 1975, helped put a coda on a football era that was coming to an end just as a new one was beginning. The events in the book are recalled during a long car trip Plimpton took with Curry, whom he met during his brief foray with the Colts, as the two men travel from Lexington, Kentucky, to Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Curry, a former all-pro center, was hoping for one last shot with the Packers.
Shadow Box was also published in 1977; like Plimpton’s other sports books, participatory or otherwise, it is an attempt by the author to understand a sport he really ”never understood.” The admission is not merely to feign ignorance but to acknowledge that one can never really get to know a sport or any subject—Plimpton has also tried his hand at stand-up comedy in Las Vegas, acting with John Wayne in the 1970 movie Rio Lobo, and guest conducting with the Cincinnati Symphony— unless one gets inside his material either by taking part in it or by studying it thoroughly.
Thus, in Shadow Box Plimpton returns to 1959 and his three-round exhibition bout with light heavyweight champion Archie Moore (in which he was assisted by an Ernest Hemingway-recommended trainer) and moves forward to a detailed account of the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman match in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974, in which the aging Ali reclaimed the heavyweight title. Plimpton also recalls the Ali he had profiled in an earlier essay for Sports Illustrated, ”Return of the Big Bopper” (December 23, 1974), just after the 1974 fight, when the magazine named Ali ”Sportsman of the Year.”
By the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, during which Plimpton received the Mark Twain Award from the International Platform Association and a few honorary degrees, he published a coffee-table book, Sports! (1978), with photographs by Neil Leifer, and A Sports Bestiary (1982), with cartoons by Arnold Roth, in which Plimpton lampooned such sports cliches as ”the Cliffhanger.”
When Plimpton was in his fifties, he turned one last time to participatory journalism to experience ice hockey. Open Net (1985) tells the story of his playing goaltender for the Boston Bruins.
An Elaborate Hoax
Plimpton next published his first novel, The Curious Case of Sidd Finch (1987). The novel was the outgrowth (urged on by a six-figure advance from Plimpton’s publisher) of an April Fool’s piece he had written for Sports Illustrated in 1985, which claimed that ”a converted cricket-bowler from Pakistan” who could throw the ball 168 miles per hour had signed with the New York Mets. The article was part of an elaborate hoax (with the cooperation of the Mets organization and players), but it read like a straightforward work of investigative journalism, with interviews and biographical information on Finch’s Harvard days and later life as an aspirant Buddhist monk. The story managed to fool the media for a short time and caused a minor controversy.
Exploring Other Interests in the 1980s
Plimpton continued to edit and write non-sports books throughout the 1980s, including Edie: An American Biography (1982), about model and actress Edie Sedgwick, with Jean Stein; D. V.(1984), the memoir of Diana Vreeland, edited by Plimpton and Christopher Hemphill; and Fireworks: A History and Celebration (1984); as well as several additional Paris Review Interviews anthologies.
He also published a December 26, 1988, Sports Illustrated piece, ”A Sportsman Born and Bred,” which featured president-elect George H. W. Bush as an all-around American sportsman with perhaps the greatest sporting pedigree of any U.S. president since Theodore Roosevelt. ”The Wild Blue Yonder” (Sports Illustrated, April 3,1989) tells the story of ”the upper reaches” of Madison Square Garden. The piece contrasts Plimpton’s well-mannered sensibilities against the coarse, spontaneous actions of working-class hockey fans.
Searching for the “X-Factor”
Plimpton, who was divorced from his first wife after twenty years of marriage, married Sarah Whitehead Dudley in 1991; they have twin daughters, Olivia Hartley and Laura Dudley. He also published more books in the 1990s: The Best of Plimpton a collection of various material, including several sports pieces; The Norton Book of Sports (1992), for which he selected the pieces and wrote the introduction and which allowed him to reintroduce his literary theories of sports; and The Official Olympics Triplecast Viewer’s Guide (1992), a commemorative edition of the Barcelona Summer Olympics. In 1990 The X-Factor appeared, in which Plimpton attempted to define the qualities and character of the pure champion. His last sports book, for which he served as guest editor and wrote an introduction, was The Best American Sports Writing, 1997.
”The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair”
Near the end of the century Plimpton continued to write about sportsmen, always searching for the new subject and the new adventure that would stretch his curiosity. In 1998 he profiled Larry Waters, ”The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair” (New Yorker, June 1, 1998), who in 1982 had soared to 16,000 feet in a ”Sears, Roebuck lawn chair to which were attached four clusters of helium-filled weather balloons, forty-two of them in all.” Although Plimpton reluctantly agreed not to write about his flight (so that Waters could take advantage of lecturing before aviation clubs), Waters’s suicide at a campsite near Mt. Wilson occasioned Plimpton to return to his subject, whose lonely death seemed to parallel his one great flight.
Plimpton died of natural causes in his sleep on September 25, 2003.
Works in Literary Context
Plimpton occupies a unique place in American letters as both the esteemed editor and cofounder of the Paris Review, a journal known for its author interviews, and as an award-winning sports journalist who participated in the sports he covered. He has attributed much of his success to his failure at Phillips Exeter Academy.
Whether playing tennis against Pancho Gonzales, swimming against Don Schollander, or playing for two minutes in a Boston Celtics game, Plimpton insists on engaging directly with the subjects of his writing. Over the course of his career, Plimpton covered and participated in nearly every professional sport in the United States. He first ventured into participatory sports journalism with Out of My League. Like in his other works, Plimpton sees himself as a sort of espantaneo, the man who hurls himself impulsively into the bullring to win the crowd’s applause. The idea for the piece came from something James Thurber once wrote: ”The majority of American males put themselves to sleep by striking out the batting order of the New York Yankees.” While Out of My League deals with some of the arrangements, details, and technicalities involved in getting Plimpton actually on the mound to face American and National League all-stars in a postseason exhibition game, the book recounts no Walter Mittyesque triumphs but rather Plimpton’s total humiliation, failure, and disappointment.
Likewise, the climactic moment of Paper Lion, Plimpton’s most famous work, occurs when he plays in the game himself. ”I felt myself a football quarterback, not an interloper,” Plimpton notes. Yet, on the first play, despite his brief feelings of contentment and empowerment at the quarterback position, he realizes how out of his depth he is (a seasoned quarterback cannot take ”the extra second” it takes Plimpton ”to control the ball”). Finding himself in the path of one of his own blockers, Plimpton describes it as ”coming around a corner in a high speed car to find a moose ambling across the center line.” All of these events lead Plimpton to an epiphany as he hears applause upon leaving the field, which he believes was because he had played so poorly. Had he performed spectacularly, their cheers would have been disingenuous. ”Their concept of things would have been upset. The outsider did not belong, and there was comfort in that being proved.”
Works in Critical Context
Plimpton enjoyed popularity among both scholars and critics throughout his career as an editor, sportswriter, and small-time actor. Most critics consider Paper Lion to be his best work, and criticisms of his later work are often based on comparisons to it.
Critical Acclaim for Paper Lion
Reviewers consider Paper Lion, Plimpton’s book about his football adventures with the Detroit Lions, a classic of sports writing. It ”is the best book written about pro football— maybe about any sport—because he captured with absolute fidelity how the average fan might feel given the opportunity to try out for a professional football team,” explains Hal Higdon in Saturday Review. The book attracted sports fans not only through its innovative concept—a writer actually taking the field with a professional team— but also through the author’s command over language. ”Practically everybody loves George’s stuff because George writes with an affection for his fellow man, has a rare eye for the bizarre, and a nice sense of his own ineptitude,” declares Trent Frayne in the Toronto Globe and Mail. ”[Ernest] Hemingway … [once] said, ‘Plimpton is the dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty.”’ Many writers echo Hemingway’s statement. However, although Plimpton’s adventures superficially resemble those of James Thurber’s famous character, there are many differences between the two. ”In his participatory journalism [Plimpton] has been described wrongly as a Walter Mitty, and he is nothing of the sort. This is no daydreaming nebbish,” declares Joe Flaherty in the New York Times Book Review. Plimpton’s adventures are tangible rather than imaginary. Yet, while Mitty in his dreams is a fantastic success at everything he undertakes, Plimpton’s efforts almost invariably result in failure and humiliation. ”Plimpton has stock in setting himself up as a naif… many ofu s are familiar with his gangling, tweedy demeanor and Oxford accent. He plays the ‘fancy pants’ to our outhouse Americana,” Flaherty asserts. ”George Plimpton doesn’t want to be known as an athlete,” explains Cal Reynard in the Arizona Daily Star. ”He figures his role in sports is that of the spectator, but he wants to get closer to the game than the stands.”
- Aldrich, Nelson W. George Being George: George Plimpton’s Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals, and a Few Unappreciative Observers. New York: Random House, 2008.
- Moore, Marianne. A Marianne Moore Reader. New York: Viking, 1965, p. 244.
- Orodenker, Richard. The Writers’ Game: Baseball Writing in America. New York: Twayne, 1996, pp.113-199, 132-134, 159-160.
- Nadel, Alan. ”’My Mind Is Weak but My Body Is Strong’: George Plimpton and the Boswellian Tradition.” Midwest Quarterly 30 (Spring 1989): 372-386.
- Severo, Richard. ”George Plimpton, Urbane and Witty Writer, Dies at 76.” New York Times, September 26, 2003.
- ”A Swinging Walter Mitty.” Time, April 7, 1967, p. 40.
- ”Obituary, George Plimpton, American Writer and Madcap. ”Economist 369, no. 8345, (2003): 104.
- Welton, Clark. ”Paper Plimpton.” Esquire (January 1976): 115-17, 142, 144, 146.
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