Lion of Paper

George, Being George
Edited by Nelson W. Aldrich Jr.
Random House, 423 pages, $30

Even the prologue of this quite extraordinary book about the legendary George Plimpton suggests a sad but wondrous tale: George had a “yearning for ecstatic experience … you saw it most sensationally in his love of fireworks,” a friend tells us. It started when he was in his late 20s and in Madrid about to interview Hemingway, and he and Piedy Lumet saw some homemade fireworks erupt onto a square and he was hooked.

From then on his life seemed punctuated by fireworks. His fireworks. He’d set them off in places like Wainscott, mammoth fireworks erupting over the potato fields behind his house. Or in Boston for the Lampoon festival and at Martha’s Vineyard on John Marquand’s beach.

And then there was the New York Bicentennial, when he was dubbed Fireworks Commissioner and rode in a huge parade in a horse-drawn carriage from the Battery to Washington Square waving to the crowd, and according to William Styron, who was with him, he got such a kick out of it—“it was an example of George’s joy in being George.”

Styron is one of 200 friends, lovers, acquaintances and others (among them Gay Talese and Norman Mailer) who share their memories and opinions of Plimpton in George, Being George. Nelson Aldrich edited the book. He calls it an “oral biography” and a “collage.” The result is a fascinating narrative, although there’s no one voice making sense of the countless events in George’s hectic life. Even so, it succeeds in telling a story that has the drama and pathos of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

 

AS FOR GEORGE, THE book illuminates him in flashes. A portrait emerges of a supremely cultivated man, whose family descended from the Mayflower, and whom everybody describes as “someone who saw things in his own imaginative idiosyncratic way.” A graduate of Harvard and Cambridge, an inveterate bird watcher, a genuine literary figure, who was determined to take risks to challenge himself, and above all have fun—often while drinking himself into oblivion.

By the 1960s George was hanging out with the Kennedys, and he’d become famous as the editor of The Paris Review; he’d created his masterful Writers at Work series for the magazine and he was giving amazing parties—legendary parties in his apartment overlooking the East River to which the likes of Jackie O, Andy Warhol, Mario Puzo, Jerry Lewis and Sugar Ray Robinson came.

At parties like George’s, “you could be, or at least feel, more dangerous and more playful than you’d ever been in your life,” cartoonist Jules Feiffer says. “George’s literary world was part of the general cultural revolt [of the ’60s]—against conformity, against sexual constraint … there was an excitement at that time, that these writers were part of … think of Mailer’s The White Negro, Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Freidman’s A Mother’s Kisses, Heller’s Catch 22.”

Meanwhile, George wanted joy to come through in The Paris Review and in everything else he did in life. He got a kick out of having such access to everybody for his journalism. That was part of his success. Everyone he approached was as interested in him as he was in them. And he had a real need to communicate how people felt, what people did, what they were thinking.

You see that in the 16 eloquent, wonderful books he wrote, among them Paper Lion (1966) and Out of My League (1961), examples of his early “participatory journalism.”

“It was an important element of George’s presence in life or his books, that he made fun of himself,” Calvin Trillin says. “It took self-confidence—and talent to play the piano at the Apollo, or to play tennis with whoever it was, Bobby Riggs or Pancho Gonzales.”

“His craft was based on self-deprecation,” Peter Matthiessen says. “It was the source of his charm and his wit.”

And of course he was still relentlessly giving parties and dating scores of lovely, desirable women. But he never seemed to want to commit. Occasionally, he’d attend orgies on the West Side. Everybody wore costumes and George dressed as a country priest in a little hat.

 

HE NOW REALLY DID like one girl named Freddy Espy. She was beautiful and “had a lot of demons.” On their first date, he took her to supper with President John F. Kennedy and after they went out to Raffles “and the president was very happy because he’d eluded the Secret Service,” Freddy says.

George and Freddy lived together off and on for four years, but George didn’t want to get married. He only married Freddy because Bobby Kennedy insisted. Something about Ethel not approving when they were sleeping over at Hickory Hill—“she thinks it’s bad for the kids.”

They spent their honeymoon in the spring of 1968 on the campaign trail, ending up in L.A. at the Commodore Hotel. They were part of the excited mob cheering Kennedy’s victory speech. Following the candidate into the hotel kitchen, Freddy saw a hand stick out holding a gun and Bobby Kennedy’s tousled head was blown away, and George wrestled Sirhan Sirhan onto a tabletop and he and Rafer Johnson and Rosey Grier almost choked the gunman to death.

George could never write about the assassination. But the next year he began editing the raw transcripts of Jean Stein’s interviews of everyone who had been on the Kennedy funeral train as it traveled to Washington, and arranging it into an oral history titled An American Journey (1970). He loved the process, and went on to shape the interviews Jean Stein did for Edie (1982), and later compiled an oral history of Truman Capote.

Meanwhile, he and Freddy stayed married for over 20 years. They had two children, but most of the time they were miserable and drinking a lot. Eventually, Freddy joined AA and divorced George.

In 1991, he married Sarah Dudley; a year later they had twins, Olivia and Laura. I was working for George then, editing my tapes of an interview I’d done with Diana Trilling for The Paris Review, so I spent time with George at his office. Sometimes he’d be there in black tie—about to go off to emcee an event at the Explorers Club. Once we had lunch with Trilling at the Café Des Artistes when I heard George tell a story in his own inimitable way—this one about being at Norman Mailer’s party when he stabbed his wife.

It was quite amazing—he wasn’t making a judgment on Mailer, just setting the scene, the people, the noise, the drinking, all told in the strange elegant lockjaw accent of his that nobody could imitate.

Says the novelist Bruce Jay Friedman, “I’d close my eyes and listen to George and it was like listening to Katharine Hepburn.”

 

GEORGE DIED IN 2003, just after he’d edited the 50th anniversary issue of The Paris Review. He’d gone to an early dinner with Laurance Rockefeller. The next morning Sara couldn’t wake him up. He’d died in his sleep from a catecholamine surge—resulting in sudden cardiac arrest. His arteries were heavily laden with plaque from cholesterol. His diet had been quite poor. Sarah says, “I looked at his face and knew he was gone.”

The twins woke up and were getting ready to go to school. Olivia came in and stood there. Sarah told her, “Dad’s very sick, and I want to call the doctor.” Olivia started to cry. “He’s dead, isn’t he? I dreamed that he died.”

Sarah sent them away for a while, but she stayed and brushed his hair. “He looked so beautiful.” Then the twins came back and sat with him on the bed.

Laura picked up a toy, a Canadian goose George had given her for Christmas the year before. She placed it on his forehead and gave it a honk. “George would have liked that,” Sarah says. “It was the sort of thing he would have done.”

Patricia Bosworth, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is the author of biographies of Marlon Brando and Diane Arbus. She can be reached at books@observer.com.

Lion of Paper