Friday, July 22, 2011

They Let George Do It

One person I wish I could have met during his lifetime (1927 - 2003) was George Plimpton.  For one thing, he didn't talk like anyone else I ever met.  Click on the link to see him do an Intellivision spot and listen to him, please!  That voice was Upper Northeast US Cultured, topped with Old Money Nasal and European Traveler.

Who was he? you may ask.  Well, George Ames Plimpton came from well-to-do parents, and just from the name alone you can tell that,  but they were of the always-been-well-off class, which doesn't always mean they are as rich as they might act.  He was of that group that didn't mind if their shirt collars were a little frayed or their Topsiders >>>were a tad bit run down at the heels.  He always appeared comfortable to me, is all I know.

So, come on, who was he, you keep asking.  Well, after college and Army service, he wound up in Paris in the early 1950's.  At that time, writers and artists from all over wound up in Paris once again, following the end of a World War.  George founded a literary magazine called the Paris Review in 1953 and spent the rest of his life involved with the magazine, whose circulation was maybe 1/10 of 1% of Reader's Digest or TV Guide, but it did contain works of fiction, poetry and art, as well as interviews with intellectual giants of the age, so there was merit in his work there.  Just not a lot of money.

For money, he wrote and participated in lots of events.  He came up with a whole new field of journalism, becoming a "professional amateur."  He performed in many venues and then wrote books and essays on experiences such as:
  • playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions in an NFL exhibition game
  • pitching to the National League All-Stars in their warmup game
  • playing in a pro golf match
  • playing the triangle in a symphony orchestra
  • walking the high wire in a circus
  • doing standup comedy
  • playing tennis against Pancho Gonzales, a top pro of the era
And he became famous that way, so much so that he received the ultimate accolade of being the punch line in several New Yorker cartoons. 

He was also, on a sad note, a footnote in history, by being one of the men who wrested away the gun that Sirhan B. Sirhan had just used to assassinate Robert Kennedy.  Of all the interesting experiences that George had, that was one of which he would not speak or write for many years. 

If people speak of him today at all, it's because of Sidd Finch.  This was a character he created for the April 1, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated, a guy who came out of nowhere but somewhere, had learned the yogic mastery of mind and body, enabling him to throw a baseball 160 mph.  George hired a guy to be photographed as Sidd and wrote the story up in such a convincing fashion that many people were fooled by it, until they took another look at the date of the magazine.

George had an amazing life and he was that rare patrician gentleman who was able to mix with people from all walks of life and then, once back in his office in New York, write about it so we all could share.  

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