Tuesday, February 20, 2007

George Plimpton

George Plimpton and Sara Whitehead Dudley at the PEN Literary Gala at The Pierre. April, 2003.
In Memoriam. 9/29/03 - George Plimpton died in his sleep last Thursday night here in Manhattan. He was seventy-six years old. Although I met him many times and even interviewed him once for a cable television program, I really didn’t know him other than as a passing figure in the New York cavalcade.

He was one of the great literary men of his age which was the last half of the 20th Century, not so much for his writing (which was fairly prolific) but especially for his lifelong work as editor of the Paris Review.

He also cut a wide swath on the New York scene, most welcome in the most exclusive (and/or expensive) drawing rooms and dining rooms. He was also a habitue of those places where the nighttime crowds congregate – discos, nightclubs, concert halls, restaurants; uptown, downtown, all around the town.

He gained fame as America’s most prominent amateur who wrote about his experiences as an athlete, musician, and/or actor who played with the pros and lived to write about it. He was always industrious and enterprising with his projects literary and cultural, but to this observer, he just always seemed to be having a good time taking it all in.

I often saw him at parties – cocktails, book parties, fund-raisers. He was very generous with his presence in supporting friends and causes. Tall and lanky, he often looked just a little bit disheveled like a professor at the end of his day. In the past few years it was interesting to see the longtime craggy yet boyish looks take on advancing age because despite the changes wrought by time, he never lost his youthful aura. George was essentially age-less.

His ancient mid-Atlantic accent was a reference to his Edwardian antecedents, including an early mentor, the late sportsman and bridge champion Harold Vanderbilt. He was born into old Massachusetts stock which traced its origins back to the Mayflower, a connection without peer in that world. He also came from great, old New England wealth (the Ames family) on his mother’s side. Unlike most people of his generation and crusty background, he was able to navigate comfortably down many roads, high and low, and count among his friends people from all walks of life.

It was a charmed life, no matter how you slice it. Intelligent, creative, full of bonhomie and camaraderie, and loaded with privilege unfamiliar to most of us. His celebrity, however, was not accidental but the result of a curious and perspicacious mind. He had the ability to learn from his experiences in the arena, and brought from them a shrewdness about conducting himself publicly. People will remember him as they knew him in life, a man who lived out his days to the fullest, always acquiring knowledge while reveling in whatever took his fancy.

Although he never attained great stardom or great wealth or highly lauded distinguished achievement, there were probably few with those attributes who were not in awe of his joie de vivre and the freedom with which it graced him.