If you read this book—and by all means, please do–start at the back. The editor’s note gives a sense for the enormity of the undertaking which resulted in this mesmerizing oral history: 374 people interviewed from a target list of 400; winnowed down to 200 who saw their contributions in print; 23 transcribers. And the “notes on contributors” is a sort of dramatis personae for the book which I managed to discover only as I was coming to its end. No matter: someday this oversight will give me an excuse to read it again. Whatever I pick up on the second reading that I missed on the first, surely this statement of Aldrich’s will remain true: “this is a social book, in short, about a supremely social man.”
I was only passingly familiar with George Plimpton and, as I would wager is true of many of my contemporaries, I’d absorbed more of Plimpton the character than Plimpton the editor or writer. My exposure to his work hadn’t ranged much beyond a few of his Sports Illustrated pieces. And what baseball fan of my generation didn’t fail to notice the April 1 issue date when we read “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch?” Such was the genius of that one article alone, why didn’t I go searching for more? Ah, the distractions of youth.
Had I delved into the Plimpton canon, I would have found that he invented the genre of participatory fiction, and held it all to himself for a generation. He also founded the Paris Review, perhaps the most important and long-lived chronicler of “non-mainstream” fiction and poetry in the post-WWII era.
In a way, my first instincts were correct. To the degree that anybody takes issue with Plimpton, it always has something to do with his perceived lack of gravity–more of an “after-dinner speaker” than a true literary light. And it’s true, he never wrote anything truly great, even though one of his contemporaries judged his capabilities “a half inch from Thurber, if we would have cared.” Plimpton himself mused from time to time that he “coulda been a contender,” but for his devotion to his magazine (which was more realistically a “peg to hang his hat on”) and his legion of pursuits even more quixotic and desultory. But more than anything, Plimpton was a large-hearted enabler par excellence, with a sense of wonder, optimism, and good cheer which seemingly knew no bounds. As one of his admirers put it, “George saw everything out there as one huge old swimming hole to plunge seriously into and come up with a fish in his mouth.”
Beyond the obvious “man of letters” tag, there are many ways to frame the portrait of the man which refracts through a 374-faceted prism: impresario and inspiration; less than perfect husband and father; the life of a constant, moveable party which, if it ever ended, might well have found a cocktail shaker where his soul was supposed to be. But the characterization which struck me most uniquely is that of a leader and entrepreneur, of the classic, hypo-manic variety. An idea a minute, without the executional proclivities to match; the need always, always to be starting something (bringing those somethings to a close, well….); and a pied-piper, natural magnetism that inspired the same feeling among his fellows of both sexes: that if George were involved it would be not only fun, but worthwhile. If there’s a more fitting tribute and distillation of character than the one Norman Mailer, at 82, offered of Plimpton, I’d like to see it:
“Socialite” is a word that’s pinned on upper class WASPs; but he was s social light, if you will, because he was a point of focus. I think what was extraordinary about him is that he was like a socialite of the greatest possible inclusiveness….He had the life he wanted to have, which was no small gift for the rest of us….There are many people we love in New York in a pure way; and many people in New York who we remember with love. We might only see them twice a year or once every five years; it didn’t go anywhere; we didn’t have deep relationships with them, but it didn’t matter. We loved them. That is the way I loved George, and still love George. So many people loved George. It’s possible that he was loved in that manner more than anyone else in New York. It’s even more possible that he loved more people in that manner than anyone else in New York.