Fifty years ago, while an undergraduate at Yale University, George Plimpton co-founded The Paris Review, one of the most highly regarded literary journals in the world. Since then he has been an icon of American literature.
Best-selling author and editor of nearly 30 books, Plimpton is best known for his practice of covering professions by participating in them as an amateur. He has played quarterback for the Detroit Lions, percussion with the New York Philharmonic, flown on a trapeze for a circus, and boxed against Archie Moore. In the process, he has suffered some bruises—to his body and his ego—but he has never lost his sense of humor. “There are people who would perhaps call me a dilettante,” he says, “because it looks as though I’m having too much fun. I have never been convinced there’s anything inherently wrong in having fun.”
Known as one of America’s most engaging public speakers, Plimpton is also an accomplished character actor and has appeared in numerous television shows and movies, including ER (1994 ), Good Will Hunting (1997), and L.A. Story (1991). His books include Out of My League (1961), Paper Lion (1966), Shadow Box (1977), and Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. He lives in New York City.
Excerpt from The Best of Plimpton (1991)
“Of my friends, the writers seemed to be the ones who most enjoyed the sensation of setting off a shell, especially those who were having difficulty with their own work, suffering the so-called ‘writer’s block.’ I understood why, I thought: it was the frustration of not being able to put on paper what was so vivid in one’s mind—the agony of confronting Mallarmé’s blank page—compared to the simple act of igniting a fuse and immediately producing a great chrysanthemum of color and beauty high above, punctuated with a splendid concussion, while below, people would gape in wonderment and call out ‘Wow!’ It was the kind of reaction that writers always hoped for with their own work but never received in such visible and adulatory form. The best one could expect from a reader was a low hmmm, whereas fireworks could produce loud ‘Ohhs!’ and ‘Ahhs!’ . . .
“I remember Norman Mailer at one of our July fireworks parties in the Hamptons. He wanted to fire a shell. He had his bourbon drink in a blue glass, really more a vase, the sort of receptacle one usually finds in the back of a kitchen cabinet when everything else in the house, even the plastic cups, has been commandeered. He held the drink in one hand, safe out behind him, and he approached the fuse with the railroad flare in the other. The mortar held a six-inch Japanese shell. I watched him—struck again by the grotesque attitudes that people get into when faced with igniting a shell. In his case, he seemed not unlike a scientist intent on catching a lizard by the back of the neck. The shell came out almost instantaneously. His surprise at the shock of its emergence—a six-inch shell of that type weighs about eight pounds—toppled Norman into a complete backward somersault through the sawgrass. Astonishingly the blue vase remained upright as he pinwheeled around it; not a drop of bourbon splashed out. He got up and took a sip and asked if he could do another. ‘Do you have anything slightly larger?'”
Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, And Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career (1997)
The Best of Plimpton (1990)
The Curious Case of Sidd Finch (1987)
Mad Ducks and Bears (1973)
The Bogey Man (1968)
Paper Lion (1966)
Out of My League (1961)
Slate.com: An Oral History of George Plimpton
Satirical letter to Britney Spears from Plimpton