An Oral History of George Plimpton: The Man Does Everything Rather Well

If Manhattan can be said to have a man of letters, few would argue with bestowing that title on George

If Manhattan can be said to have a man of letters, few would argue with bestowing that title on George Plimpton, editor since 1953 of The Paris Review , inventor of participatory journalism, host of an endless stream of literary parties in his East 72nd Street town house. In his new book, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career , Mr. Plimpton, as he did with Edie Sedgwick and Robert F. Kennedy, has created an oral biography of an American icon. One could say that Mr. Plimpton, given his literary output and after-hours enthusiasms, prolongs Capote’s motif of writers and society locked in a treacherous, giddy dance.

In that vein, here is an oral biography of George Plimpton.

Mr. Plimpton was born in Manhattan in 1927 and raised in Huntington, L.I. His father co-founded the law firm Debevoise Plimpton. Mr. Plimpton attended Phillips Exeter Academy but graduated from a high school in Daytona, Fla. He attended Harvard University, was editor of The Harvard Lampoon , graduated in 1950. He studied for two years at King’s College, Cambridge, then moved to Paris, where, with Peter Matthiessen and Harold (Doc) Humes, he founded The Paris Review . In 1955, he moved back to New York. In 23 books and countless magazine pieces, he invented a new brand of journalism: playing for both the Detroit Lions and the New York Philharmonic, circus trapezing, photographing centerfolds for Playboy . In 1968, he married his first wife, Freddy Espy, and had two children. In 1992, he married Sarah Whitehead Dudley; they had twins. He still edits The Paris Review out of his town house and gets around Manhattan on a bicycle.

Sarah Plimpton, sister of George Plimpton: George’s room where we grew up had this glass case filled with the most wonderful things-stuffed mice, rabbits, woodchucks, birds’ eggs, rattlesnake skins. He stuffed the animals, too. This was when he was 12 or 14.

George Plimpton: I learned rather crudely to stuff things, but there was usually something wrong with them. The prize of my collection was a weasel. I didn’t know what it was and took it to the Museum of Natural History. I thought it was a new animal. And, in sort of an arch way, they said, “That’s a weasel.” And then, to the despair of my brother Oakes, one of my first loves was a girl whose nickname was Weasel, and I gave her the weasel, which had an appalling effect on my brother. I don’t know what effect it had on the girl, to be given a weasel with stuffing coming out of it.

Brendan Gill, writer: George’s mother was very proud of George. They adored each other. They were all writers. His father was a writer, too; you could call him a Sunday poet. He wrote a lot of verse and very correct, amusing verse for a big-shot lawyer.

George Plimpton: I went to St. Bernard’s. It was quite a class: Charlie Simington, who ran for Senate in Missouri, Punch Sulzberger (of The New York Times ), Peter Matthiessen. The school was run by these English masters, most of whom had survived the Battle of Ypres.… Then I went to Exeter and I didn’t last, I was thrown out my senior year, it was an embarrassment of small sins. The last one had to do with pointing a Revolutionary musket down the stairwell at whom I thought was my classmate Spenny Welch but it wasn’t, it was Bull Clark, who was the housemaster and who never forgave me because he screamed.

Jill Fox, wife of the late Joe Fox, Mr. Plimpton’s editor at Random House: The first time I saw George was a cocktail party after a football game at Harvard College. A bunch of us were sitting around, my husband-to-be was there. Suddenly, the door opened and this sort of lit-up figure came plunging into the room, arms already waving, full of stories, full of gaiety, lots of laughter, and I just thought to myself, This is simply the most attractive man I’ve ever seen in my life. After that, George came to my family’s house. Every Christmas Eve, we had a big party where everyone had to give skits and sing or play the piano or dance. George came and sat down at the piano and played, I think it was, “What’s Got Into You, Since You Got Into Me.” There was a rustle around the room, and one could see that several aged ladies were deeply shocked. He was yanked away from the piano and banished to the hall.

Nan Kempner, socialite: I met George in 1951, when I was at the Sorbonne, and he was at Cambridge. He had just been skiing in Chamonix, and he had broken his leg, and I was the date of someone else. We went punting on the Cam and, of course, by the time we got out of the punt, George and I were in love. He was one of the most dynamic, dramatic, attractive men I’d ever met. We had a little period where he would fly to Paris, and I would fly to London, and we had an awfully good time. We were both too young for it to be anything but innocent. He was a good kisser. He was good at everything.

Peter Duchin, society band leader: When he came to Paris in his early Paris Review days, George stayed with us some nights on the barge that Bob Silvers [current editor of The New York Review of Books ] and I shared near the Pont d’Alma. He slept on an army cot which wasn’t quite as long as he was. His feet stuck out the bottom. In the morning, he would walk up to the Plaza Athénée hotel, one of the fanciest in Paris, and do his correspondence on their stationery.

George Plimpton: In Paris, there was a beautiful girl who was the publisher of Merlin , a literary magazine. Jane Lougee, a very stunning girl. Her great lover at that time was Alex Trocchi, the editor of Merlin . They lived together but he was happy to pass her around to other people, I’ll guarantee you. We went to the Quat’zarts Ball, it was a group of art students, and you were supposed to have a tableau to be judged. Every balcony had one of these tableaux. So Alex Trocchi suggested that he and Jane Lougee make love on the balustrade of this balcony, and I was standing holding a fan. This was very risqué, even for Paris at that time. So there was Jane, naked, lying there getting ready, and this big searchlight was moving through, picking up tableau after tableau, and it came to ours and there I was, fanning. She was lying there naked waiting for Alex to start making love to her, and he, while running up the little stairway, knocked his head and knocked himself out, so there was nobody to make love to her, which upset him. He said “Why didn’t you take my place?” The idea never crossed my mind, I must say.

Thomas Guinzburg, a founding editor of The Paris Review and former president of Viking Press: I was working in New York, and I got a very agitated phone call from George’s mother, Mrs. Plimpton, a woman of enormous presence and dignity and so forth, and she said, “I have just been reading the new issue, and this disgusting story which you’ve put in it.” I said, “Excuse me, Mrs. P., I think I know the story which might be causing you to be somewhat offended.” It was a story by a fellow named James Leo Hurley, who went on to write Midnight Cowboy , and this story was all about a big, fat, 17-year-old boy who stays in bed all day, and his mother is in bed, too, and they eat chocolates together, and it was absolutely marvelous and just dreadful in every possible implication. Anyway, Mrs. Plimpton said, “It is just awful what you’ve done.” And I said, “Hang on there, Mrs. P. It is not I who has done it. George, your son George, as you know, is the editor of The Paris Review , the ultimate head.” She said, “George would never do such a thing. George had nothing to do with that story.” I said, “Mrs. P., the material, you know, it comes from all over the place, but finally it gets into the magazine from Paris. That is where George is, in Paris.” Well, I tried to convince her, but finally she said, “I know my son, and he would never have allowed that story to go in the Christmas issue.”

Mike Wallace, television reporter: Three years ago he came to Martha’s Vineyard and rented a home behind us, and his mother came to visit. She was in her 90’s, she sparkled, she was full of life. I think he was in awe of his mother. He adored her. I don’t ever remember seeing George Plimpton cowed under any circumstance. But, cowed or not, let’s say he was very respectful of his mother.

David Amram, musician, former Beat, friend of Jack Kerouac: We met at a jazz club in Paris and I was very impressed by how articulate and gracious he was, and he said to me, “If you ever come to New York, call me.” I moved to the Lower East Side in 1955 and was playing with Charles Mingus, and I got a phone call in my sixth-floor walk-up. It was George Plimpton inviting me to his place, and I assumed he probably would live in a similar kind of rat hole to where I was. And I walked into this beautiful apartment in the East 70’s and not only saw people that I met in Paris but also writers, football players, boxers.

Blair Fuller, writer and former editor at The Paris Review : When he started those participatory stories, I was in his corner with the bucket and towels. George was going up against Archie Moore, the light heavyweight champion, in Stillman’s Gym. There was this entourage, including Miles Davis, who came just to see Archie. He was riding high. We were in the dressing room and in came Archie, he had decided not to knock George out, so he came into the dressing room and said to George, “Just go out there and do your best. I’m going to make you look good.” Then he started telling George stories about when he’d first started boxing and people who’d lost their eyesight and getting killed in the ring. And George didn’t really respond to this, he didn’t seem quite there. After Moore had his hands taped, he threw a punch at the plywood wall and it made a great sound, and a medicine cabinet which was hung on the wall flew across the room. When we got into the ring, Archie was all smiles, clowning around with his friends. Finally, the bell rang, and the remarkable thing was, George never took a backward step. He really didn’t know anything much about boxing. He just decided to wade into Moore. Moore’s efforts to sort of clown it up really didn’t work, because on came George. It was tremendously courageous. And in the second round, George, just coming forward, did something, I really cannot tell you what, which made Moore slip, and Moore went to one knee. Now this was humiliating for the light heavyweight champion of the world. You know, he is not going to like that. He got up and with one punch he broke George’s nose.

David Amram: There was a memorable party one night in 1960. George invited the Beat poet Lord Buckley to come and give a program for all these people George had invited from the world of television and publishing and films. He wanted to give this underground genius a chance to reach a large public. So Lord Buckley spoke incredible raps about Jonah and the whale and the famous Mark Antony speech from Antony and Cleopatra -and suddenly, Norman Mailer starts heckling Lord Buckley. George gracefully calmed the waters, saying what a important creative artist Lord Buckley was and how he deserved everyone’s appreciation. After the party, I went with Lord Buckley to the place where he was staying, and he mentioned that no one had ever really been that nice and gracious to him in his whole life, and the next morning Lord Buckley passed away.

John Updike, writer: I first met George when he was master of ceremonies at a Playboy party, in Playboy ‘s heyday … I couldn’t possibly survive the way George does, going to parties, the parties he’s gone to, the parties he’s given.

Gay Talese, writer: I remember one time, at the height of Camelot, this party, a mixed bag of people, a couple black people and a couple socialites and a couple beatniks, I remember when Jacqueline Kennedy walked in. She was on George’s arm, and tall as he is, he was looking over the crowd, craning his neck, surveying, you know, a hundred people, and I watched his eyes moving around the room, and at certain points, his eyes would stop and lock on to a person he saw, and I could see registered in his brain that, “Yes, I will introduce that person to Jackie,” and, “No, I will not introduce this person to Jackie,” and “Yes, I will introduce that person to Jackie,” and it reminded me of a slot machine, because I saw the eyes rolling, rolling, and then they would stop, and you knew you had either a good or a bad reaction. In a way, he was surveying his life, he was surveying the eclectic gathering of people with whom he associates himself-but, on this occasion, he found himself looking at his collected force of friends in a way that was somewhat … I’m not saying critical … I merely saying here that he was looking upon the gathering, and into his world walks the First Lady-and I am just saying, he had to make a decision. You have to draw the line somewhere, and so he did. Certainly, he would not introduce the First Lady to Norman Mailer. That is a foregone conclusion. I mean, Mailer is out. We’re talking about the 1960’s. Do you understand? Put this in context. You don’t introduce her to this macho Mailer. God knows what he is going to say to her. I am merely saying that George Plimpton had to be an editor, not of The Paris Review , but more than that-within his own house, he had to edit out those people who were going to be risky when being introduced to the First Lady.

George Plimpton: We used to give these huge fireworks parties. Two thousand people would come across the potato fields.

Sidney Lumet, film director: Sometime in the early 60’s, George was doing his fireworks out in East Hampton, and Teddy Kennedy was there, with Steve Smith, Jean Kennedy’s husband. And the East Hampton cops were fairly determined to create an embarrassing situation, and they decided to invade the place. George didn’t have a proper permit, et cetera, and George was immediately aware, as we all were, that what the police were looking for was an incident in which the Kennedys would be present. When the cop cars started arriving, Teddy and Steve immediately took off. So the cops in their frustration, the frustration of not being able to come in and find Teddy drunk, I guess, or Steve Smith jumping naked into a pool-arrested George. And they slapped him up against the police car and jammed the handcuffs onto his wrist. About 3 o’clock in the morning, George was released and he was shaking. He was white with fear, anger, frustration. His wrists were raw because of the way they had jammed on the cuffs, and then he said the most remarkable thing, for which I have always loved him. He said, “If this can happen to me, what must it be like to be a poor Puerto Rican kid in upper Manhattan.” I just thought that was the most touching indication of the size of the man. He’s not just a jokester. That’s why I’m giving you this story.

Hunter S. Thompson, writer: Our first meeting of note was on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Zaire in 1968. I was headed to the [Muhammad Ali-George Foreman] fight down there. We arrived in Kinshasa in the middle afternoon, and I was planning to slink off the plane and fight my way to a hotel-and there on the runway, holy Christ, there was a giant caravan out to meet us and at the head of it was Don King, saying, “Ah, George!” And I realized I was in royal company. At the time, the caravan couldn’t have been led by anybody more powerful. Even President Mobutu would have been small. Don King was the most powerful man in the world. On paper, George was just another journalist, we were just the same, but when we hit the tarmac, George was like a prince of the realm.

Remar Sutton, writer: The Harvard Lampoon had decided in the early 70’s for George to build the world’s largest firework. George and I end up in Florida on a narrow sand spit in the Indian River with a two-ton steel cylinder. The Grucci family is with us, there are about 25,000 people lying along the shoreline, and a crane is putting in a 700-pound firework into this cylinder. We’re on this tiny sand spit with a lot of reporters, a lot of fancy people, having a cocktail party. Once we have the charge set, we’re supposed to start the timer and then jump on this little cabin cruiser and go. And in the midst of the cocktail party, old man Grucci accidentally sets the timer off, and he says, “Oh, my God, I’ve set the timer off.” All of a sudden, everybody’s running. Mary Bubb, a very famous reporter, refused to get her shoes wet, so George threw her over his shoulder, all 6 foot 4 of him, threw her into this boat, then he runs through the cabin, grabs a bottle of Dewar’s Scotch, he runs up to the bow and we are stuck on a sand bar. So George and I call everybody to the front of the boat and have them jumping up and down. The boat takes off, George passes around the Dewar’s, everyone’s laughing. This thing’s supposed to go up to 2,000 feet. It went up about 30. It sent a shock wave across the water into Titusville, Fla., cracked the foundations of two houses, knocked all of the windows out of the Sears Roebuck. When the boat came ashore, there were police to arrest George and me. They said, “Do you know what’s happened?” They’re telling us about this complete devastation, and George quietly turned to me and simply said, “Marvelous.”

Sarah Plimpton, Mr. Plimpton’s second wife and mother of his twins: Everybody’s first introduction to George is him walking by bleary-eyed, answering the door wearing his boxer shorts.

Jeanne McCulloch, former managing editor of The Paris Review : Everyone who has ever worked with George is familiar with his boxer shorts. It rarely dawns on him to get dressed until late in the morning, and by that time the magazine is in full swing, interns collating papers, editors checking galleys, George on the phone, but all of this is accomplished while he’s in his pale blue boxer shorts.

George Plimpton: I don’t have much to say on the boxer shorts. Once, Frank Sinatra had been here, he lived right across the street, and we’d had a big argument about Robert Kennedy, whom he didn’t like and I did like, and it got to be 4 A.M. and we finally decided to talk about it another day and I went to bed. Not more than an hour later, this cat burglar appeared in the bedroom.… I had this Luger pistol from the Army and I picked up the pistol and ran after this guy, wearing my boxer shorts. By this time, it was almost dawn, and I’d had quite a lot to drink, and I remember the enormous feeling of power running down the street with this Luger and bare feet and I chased the guy into a garage and I never found him in there. When I came out, it was 7 o’clock in the morning and people were going to work, and here I was dressed in boxer shorts and a big pistol.

Sarah Plimpton: George has a ritual. He doesn’t get dressed before he has to. He’ll have his breakfast and he’s totally incommunicado. You could have a fire in the kitchen and he wouldn’t realize it. Then he slowly goes to The New York Times , slowly moves out of the dining room, sits down at the piano, plays a few riffs of his Opus No. 1. And if that goes well, he plays a game of pool against himself. And if that all goes well, he might actually get to work.

Mona Simpson, novelist: I think I was one of the first middle-class people who’d ever worked at The Paris Review , and it concerned me that we didn’t have health insurance. George’s first response was, “Well, you’re only 21 years old. If you get sick, we’ll pay. Give me the bill.” … My experience working at The Paris Review was never a professional kind of thing. It was really like having a 19th-century adventure. We went up in blimps, we went to an island in the Caribbean, we were on yachts for fireworks displays.

Jonathan Dee, novelist and former assistant to George Plimpton at The Paris Review : One time, George had a couple of drinks and he asked if we’d like to see his impression of Swifty Lazar. The impression consisted of George pulling up his trouser leg up to about his thigh and flexing his leg, then taking a pair of eyeglasses and putting it on his knee. It actually looked remarkably like Swifty.

Hunter S. Thompson: The bastard came out here [to Colorado] one time with Terry McDonell and we went to play golf. Jesus Christ, George began whacking the ball like Tiger Woods. He just wiped us both up. But George does not brag. He apologized almost. I recall we all ate acid. He’ll deny that.

Terry McDonell, editor, Men’s Journal : We played into the darkness. Hunter has a shotgun in his bag, and there are swans all over the place. The sun is going down and it’s getting cold. George, of course, is a brilliant golfer like he is everything else, and Hunter was very upset with his game. He tried to hit some geese with a golf ball. I remember George playing this elegant round and insisting we finish the nine holes because you have to finish what you start, especially with sports and literature.

Oliver Stone, film director: He was in two or three scenes of Nixon . He played one of Nixon’s lawyers. In one scene, George was walking down a staircase in the White House with Nixon, played by Anthony Hopkins. George got himself wound up about it and he kept blowing his lines. Of course, he kept feeling awful. You know the way George is-he’s very apologetic and boarding school-“I’m so sorry, I’m so stupid”-you know.

George Plimpton: It was horrifying. My line was terribly simple. It was “Sir, the charges against you are very serious.” And I muffed this thing two or three times, and Oliver Stone came over and said, “What the hell’s wrong with you?” I’d begun worrying about my lines because I had appeared in Just Cause with Sean Connery, where I had a long speech, and halfway through this long speech, I knew I was going to flub it, and I did flub it. Somebody cries out “Cut!” and they come around and polish your nose and then they say “Action!” I flubbed it a second time, and Sean Connery came across the stage and he said, “You’ve got no oxygen in your brain. Take a deep breath.” And I did this and I flubbed it again.

Jay McInerney, novelist: George published my first story in The Paris Review , and I told him upon meeting him how he had saved me from a life of being an English instructor or from following my parents’ fondest wish by going to law school. But George somehow, over the years, decided in his own George-like way that he had saved me from a career as a pharmacist. George actually has this very elaborate story full of details about my life as a starving aspiring writer studying in pharmacology school.

Brian Antoni, Miami-based novelist: Three years ago, my first book came out and I was going to do my first reading at the Miami Book Fair, sandwiched in between George and Winston Groom [author of Forrest Gump ]. Both of them were staying at my house. Well, the night before this reading, no matter what I did, I couldn’t make them go home. I kept taking them into weirder and weirder clubs, to try to make them, you know, have enough. I kept saying “George, do you want another drink?” and he goes, “They are free, right?”-because they were giving us drinks wherever we went. Then it’s 4 o’clock in the morning, and I have them in a club called Uranus, on “risk night,” musclemen making out with musclemen and models making out with beautiful models, and Winston Groom looks at George and says, “George, can you explain to me why people are fighting to get into a place like this?” George said, “Well, if you don’t know, Winston, I can’t tell you. But don’t you think it’s beautiful?” The next morning, we get up and it is like 20 minutes until the reading, and I’m nervous as could be, and George and Winston are having their pancakes, and I’m like, We’ve got to get out of here. I’m feeling terrible. Of course, they know how to drink, so they are fine. You know, here they are twice my age, and I’m still hung over, and I’ve got to go read to 1,000 people and George says, “Don’t worry. The show can’t start without us.”

Elaine Kaufman, proprietor of Elaine’s: I introduced him to Joe DiMaggio just a while ago. I said, “This is George Plimpton. He’s the man who wrote about the fastest pitcher in the world.” I said, “George, tell him the story.” George had him on the floor. He really got him going. You know it’s not easy to get Joe going. What do you talk to him about? You don’t talk baseball to him.

Remar Sutton: George’s idea of heaven is a bowl of macaroni and cheese. You go any place in the world, that makes that man happy. He hasn’t been raised where he does much cooking. In Long Island, Kurt Vonnegut, who lived 10 feet across the road, would come over, and George’s idea of cooking would be to break four eggs, with the shells, into a pot. No butter, no seasoning, nothing. Kind of stir it till it burns and give it to us on a piece of moldy bread. And it was his idea of a meal.

Thomas Guinzburg: George’s first wedding [to Freddy Espy, 26, in March 1968] was held in Joe Fox’s Central Park South apartment, and the apartment had a balcony on it, and George was sort of hiding out up there. Below, on the ground floor, was this extraordinary cast-disparate people like Marianne Moore and Terry Southern and then a whole retinue of family and friends, Caroline Kennedy and Jackie Onassis, the most bizarre gathering of 40-odd people. This wedding, which had been rumored to be on and off many times in the preceding week, was apparently finally taking place-except that George was upstairs on the balcony, clearly very agitated. Various people were dispatched to try to calm him down and keep him company and make sure he didn’t sort of blow out the window. Finally I went up there, and George was really in a state of great agitation, and I said, “George, George, just look at this way, whatever else, you are never going to be lonely again.” And he looked at me despairingly, eyes glazed with anxiety, and threw his arms around me and said, “Tombo, I’ve never been lonely in my whole life.” An Oral History of George Plimpton: The Man Does Everything Rather Well