Thursday, September 25, 2008

Remembering New York Icon George Plimpton

Five years ago today, George Plimpton died at the much-too-young age of 76. Who was he? He was a modern day Renaissance man, someone of many talents and interests who wanted to do -- and did -- just about everything. Above all, he married highbrow culture with popular tastes, and he was someone who made you feel good about being alive.

A native New Yorker, George Plimpton was a blue-blooded, Harvard and Cambridge University educated Knickerbocker. He lived on the Upper East Side for almost his entire life and was prominent on the New York social circuit. Plimpton founded the still-running literary magazine The Paris Review in 1953 and edited it until he died in 2003. Among some of the writers he helped discover were Terry Southern and Philip Roth, and he even interviewed Ernest Hemingway. He also wrote books, including one on Truman Capote. In literary circles, he was a star-maker.

But Plimpton was not just some ivory-tower elitist. Far from it. He was a man of action. He fought in World War II. He was with Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles on the night of his assassination in 1968, and helped wrestle Sirhan Sirhan to the ground. And he did something most of us would only dream of: he got to pitch in a National League Baseball game, box against Sugar Ray Robinson, golf on the PGA Tour with Jack Nicklaus, and play with the Detroit Lions football team. He wrote about these experiences in Sports Illustrated and other magazines, and he wrote about his football experiences in the book Paper Lion that became a movie with Alan Alda.

Talking about movies, Plimpton appeared in them too, including as an extra in Lawrence of Arabia and small parts in Reds, Volunteers, and Good Will Hunting among others. He appeared on TV as well, as himself on The Simpsons and also in a small recurring part as Carter's grandfather on ER.

Plimpton was also the New York City Fireworks Commissioner for over thirty years, first "appointed" by Mayor Lindsay and holding that "job" until he died.

I had the pleasure of seeing George Plimpton in person several years ago at the 92nd Street Y. He was appearing with Norman Mailer and Mailer's wife where the three of them read letters by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. A very tall man with an aristocratic voice and bearing, Plimpton was funny, charming, and a great reader. It was a real honor to have seen him and I only regret not learning about who he was much sooner.

George Plimpton was one of those people who brought joy to just about everyone who ever encountered him. I remember right after he died, James Lipton of Inside the Actor's Studio appeared on Charlie Rose and he said of his friend's passing, "What are we going to do now?"

My guess is George Plimpton would say, "Go on living -- and enjoy it!" He was a true original, someone who blazed his own path, a real New York icon.

George Plimpton: Man of Letters, Man of Action

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please keep it civil, intelligent, and expletive-free. Otherwise, opine away.