George Plimpton

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The Paris Review is better known for its poetic frenzy than for its punctuality. This year it is celebrating its silver anniversary -- three years late. "The 25th year slid by without anyone raising any hoopla; no one can remember why," explains editor George Ames Plimpton, who decided simply to "designate another year."

"Our approach to deadlines has always been rather Moroccan. Time doesn't seem to mean Very much," said Plimpton recently after breakfast in Los Angeles.

Plimpton, a hired gun for Sports Illustrated, makes a business of stepping into lions' cages and NFL huddles, and living to write about it with characteristic wit and aplomb. He was here to regale an "early bird breakfast" of insurance lawyers with tales of his antics in the world of sports literature. After blueberry blintzes and hash browns, he adjourned to his hotel room, loosened his paisley necktie, kicked off his loafers, and began explaining the joys and tribulations of his "hobby": The Paris Review.

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He had arrived late the previous evening with a clean shirt and canvass briefcase stuffed with manuscripts. "I edited an interview with Paul Bowles on the flight out, and going back I think it's Erskine Caldwell. It always puzzles contributors when their manuscripts get sent back from the circus, or the Boston Celtics training camp," says Plimpton, a tall man with handsome boyish looks, a deep country-club tan, and an indefatigable charm, which has become his trademark.

The editor's casual elegance befits the magazine that can boast having recruited its first publisher, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, at the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and for a while had its editorial headquarters in Peter Duchin's barge moored on the Seine.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its panache and eccentricities, the Review has survived as a robust literary institution, an island in a sea of sinking literary magazines. Backed by its 4,000 paid and freeloading subscribers, the Review has developed over the years into a cross between a salon and a pioneering literary showcase. It was the first to publish Samuel Beckett in the United States and one of the first to print the works of Philip Roth, Jack Kerouac, Terry Southern, and V.S. Naipaul. Many of its fledging editors have gone on to considerable literary heights: William Styron ("Sophie's Choice"), Peter Matthiessen ("Far Tortuga"), and Robert Silvers, a managing editor who went on to found the New York Review of Books. Over the years its "Apotheckers, have included Frances Fitzgerald ("Fire in the Lake") and Lena Horne's daughter Gail Lumet. Jane Fonda left her mark in issue No. 18 with her line-drawing of a coffee urn. Jacqueline Onassis spent much of her Vassar junior year abroad hanging out with the Paris Review staff.

The Review's heady tradition is mirrowed in a 25th anniversary issue whose credits read like a Who's Who of modern and contemporary writers with fiction by Jerry Bumpus, Raymond Carver, and William Gass, and poetry by John Ashbery, James Dickey, Louis Simpson, Anne Sexton, and Philip Levine. It also includes a controversial and previously unpublished essay by Ernest Hemingway on "The Art of the Short Story," a previously unpublished ghost story of William Faulkner's, artwork by David Hockney, and an interview with Rebecca West, the 93-year-old grande damem of British letters.

In 1953 expatriates Peter Matthiessen and Harold Humes founded the Paris Review and invited Plimpton, Matthiessen's long-time friend and a former editor of the Harvard Lampoon, to edit the magazine. Its first office was a boxlike room rented from Plon, a conservative and austere publishing house, on the large courtyard at 8 Rue Garanciere, opposite the walls of the Garde Republicaine. At 6 each evening, the concierge locked the courtyard door and Review editors, often working late, had to hang from a second story windowsill by their fingertips and drop into the street below.

"It was a jarring descent, especially for the shorter members of the staff," recalls the 6 ft., 4 in. Plimpton in the Paris Review Sketchbook, a loopy and lilting history of the magazine in the 25th anniversary issue. "On occasion, this exodus--which must have looked like the flight of second-story men surprised in mid-job--coincidd with the return of the mounted Garde Republicaine from an official function.

"As they turned into their quarters across the street, their horses' hooves clattering on the cobblestones, they would glance haughtily from under their brims of their plumed helmets at the editors . . . as if a decent of cat burglers, their legs flailing briefly as they dropped from the facade of Edition Plon, was beneath their dignity to do anything about."

Plimpton, alternatively referred to in the history as GAP, or The Editor, added in his Los Angeles hotel room, "The office was so small. You couldn't fit more than two people in there at once. We had one woman who weighed almost 400 pounds and when she was in the office we spent a great deal of time at the Cafe de Tournon."

The Tournon, just around the corner, was where the editors spread out their proof sheets, read new manuscripts, and discussed plans for the next issue. It was a slightly seedy establishment, but comfortably removed from the crowded cafes of St. Germain-des-Pres such as the Deux Maggots where tourists went hoping to glimpse Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir.

"I remember sitting in the Cafe de Tournon afternoons," Plimpton says. "It was where everyone collected. Very smoky and very bright. There wasn't a dark corner in the place. I remember two pinball machines by the front door and an Irish setter named Arnauld."

The former literary beehive is now a working-class cafe. Arnauld is gone, and so is the marmalade cat who once lived across the street in the Hotel Helvetia. Most of the trappings of the Paris Review days have disappeared. There are no singing Brazilians or would-be novelists scanning the ceiling for inspiration. The proprietor, M. Alezard, sold the cafe three years before; Charles the infamous waiter has been replaced by Annie. The literary types have given way to ruddy-faced workmen in sooty overcoats and soggy boots who order grilled sandwiches variees.m The flippers on the pinball machines by the front door are in constant use.

Following a lait chaudm at the Tournon, I stopped by 8 Rue Garanciere, looking for the cubbyhole the Review editors had worked in. At the offices of Plon, now long since taken over by a publishing conglomerate, an editor in white sailor trousers informed me the building and business had been totally revamped since the Review moved away. Not only had the building been gutted and remodeled, but also, my informant confessed, she had never heard of the Paris Review.

"Everybody left, as far as I know, that used to be in our crowd," Plimpton says. "Mostly because of the expense. I don't know of any American colony in Paris today. My sister is a painter and writer living there, and she doesn't know of one either. It all seemed to move to New York and San Francisco to a certain degree."

Why had so many young American writers flocked to Paris in the '50s? Were they looking for the "movable feast" of Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald?

"I don't remember going there trying to emulate [the Lost Generation]. That would have been too pompous and pretentious. A lot of us were on the GI bill after the war and had money to continue our education and apprenticeship as writers. Paris was extremely inexpensive. One dollar would buy a dinner of biftekm and pommes frites.m Rent for a room in the studnt quarter was $15 a month, " recalls Plimpton, who bedded down in everything from a cat-infested toolshed to a spider-bitten Left Bank Hotel.

"It was the greatest city to be 20 in there was in the world."

When the Review published its first issue in the spring of 1953, it was a radical departure from its political predecessors. It was a time in Paris when "You were not considered serieuxm unless you were politically engage,"m recalls one staff member of the Review, which gave wide berth to words such as "Zeitgeist" and "archetectonics."

"Most of the magazines at that time were concentrating on scholarly essays and were pretty gray in terms of makeup," Plimpton says. "They were really academic or political journals. The big struggles in the Partisan Review was between the Trotskyites and the Stalinists. Our intent was to have none of that. If we were going to do scholarly work on an author, we would go straight to the horse's mouth, so to speak, and ask him the questions ourselves."

Over the years, The Paris Review's probing interview series with famous writers has become its raison d'etre.m The interviews have been collected in a five-volume series, the most recent of which was just published by Viking. It started out with a resounding literary bang, and interview in its first issue with E.M. Forster, then considered the greatest living novelist in the English language ("Passage to India" and "Howard's End"). It just so happened that Forster was a don at King's College, Cambridge, where Plimpton was reading English literature after World War II.

"Everybody called him Morgan, and I knew him as well as anybody. He used to have these terrible parties. Oh, they were awful. He always invited representatives from the different factions of the college. There was the head of the Communist Party, a fellow called Bunny Leff, and for balancing he invited Adrian Cadbury, the young heir to the chocolate fortune who rowed in the college's first boat. There was a South African who owned 60,000 acres of Botswana. He would balance with a scholar from Soweto. Everybody would stand around and glare at each other, and Morgan would stand in the corner and eat cake.

"He was very shy, and had that wonderful Oxford and Cambridge way of asking youm questions. I remember going and having tea with him once, and he said, 'George, what do you know about opera?' It was one of those big sort of questions, and I said, 'I've always been fond of Wagner.' He would then say, 'The reason I ask is, that I'm writing an opera with Benjamin Britten, and thought I would ask your advice.'

"When he agreed to do the interview, we were all very excited because here was this great novelist telling us why he hadn't written a novel since 1926. It made the first issue and was grabbed up by scholars everywhere. He told us he hadn't finished more novels because he couldn't control his characters. There was a novel he was writing called 'Arctic Summer.' The characters all set off from King's Cross and were to go out into the countryside and come back. They got into trains and went whistling off and he couldn't get them back."

Since the Forster interview, the Paris Review has interrogated such luminaries as William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Dorthy Parker, Truman Capote , Lillian Hellman, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, Boris Pasternak, Eudora Welty, Allen Ginsberg, and Vladimir Nabokov. How did the Review lure all these authors into their graceful inquisitions?

"The interviews are about the craft of writing, therefore the subject is not being bushhacked," Plimpton says. "He gets the best opportunity we can give him. We send the thing back to him, and often the novelist revises his own interview and gives it the flavor he would give his books.

"Some of them talk rmarkably about the creative process. Joe Heller, for example, talks about how novels come into his mind a one brief leap. They always start with the first sentence, which leads to a second, to a third, a fourth, and then a whole novel unrolls like a gigantic roll of toilet paper.

"In his bed one night over on the West Side, suddenly this line came into his head: 'Wehn Yossarian met the chaplain, it was love at first sight.' That's the first line in 'Catch-22.' Five years ago on a bench on a Sunday on Fire Island, this line came into his head: 'In the office where I work there are four people scared of me and I am scared of five.' And into his mind came all of 'Something Happened.'"

Samuel Beckett and John O'Hara have consistently refused to submit to an interview, though most authors have been willing subjects. "The series has gone on now for 25 years, or whatever it is, and is really sort of a pantheon of writers. There they all are, Faulkner, Hemingway, Miller, and Jones. I think that's the only reason I'm invited to parties by writers. They want to be interviewed."

In the next issue the Review will add to its trophy collection an interview with recluse J.D. Salinger, who was unsuspectedly snagged last year near his home in New Hampshire. A girl called Betty Eppes wrote him a girlish letter and said she would wait for him at the mouth of the covered bridge in Windsor, Vt., across the border from Cornish where he lives, for a half hour at 9:30 in the morning. She said the next day she was going back to Baton Rouge.

"I think he thought this was going to be a rather lovely tryst or something and couldn't resist the idea of this girl waiting for him in a sky-blue Pinto. She wore a tape recorder inside her blouse and had a hidden camera. They talked for about 20 minutes and she got this strange interview with him which we're putting in the next issue and calling 'What I Did Last Summer.' The answers are not particularly responsive, but that doesn't make any difference. she actually got the interview, and she's a tennis columnist for the Fun section the Baton Rouge Advocate."

Long before the Review moved its headquarters to Plimpton's Manhattan townhouse on East 72nd Street, the editor returned to Gotham "to make a living." He taught for a while at Yale and Barnard College, sister college to Columbia, and then left the classroom to begin writing for Sports Illustrated, through which he has become well-known for fulfilling the universal fantasy of an amateur challenging the champions.

"I suppose like any kid I became interested in sports when I was old enough to throw things, probably 8 or 9," Plimpton recalls. "It wasn't pathological. My baseball card collection had only 40 cards in it, unlike the true demons who had thousands. But I did send away for autographs, and lived and died with the New York Giants."

He confesses to having been more dreamer than varsity letterman in his youth, although he says he used to be a pretty good pitcher.

"When I was a youngster I used to think that to pitch in the major league was the highest position that one could aspire to in life."

Plimpton eventually lived out that boyhood daydream of standing on a big league mound and pitching to all those familiar faces on the bubble gum baseball cards; in gathering material for his book "Out of My League," he pitched part of a post-season all-star exhibition game in Yankee Stadium.

"The first two batters were Richie Ashburn, who used to play for the Philadelphia Phillies, and the great Willie Mays. I got both of these men to pop the ball in the air. It is true that Willie Mays's pop-up was clear out into the monuments that are deep in center field in Yankee Stadium.

"Ernie Banks stepped up and tripled off the left-field wall and Frank Robinson hit a double that went right between my legs and just kept on rising. I knew my control had disappeared. Then up stepped a man named Frank Thomas who used to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Mets. He took a look at this little curve ball I threw him and put it up in the triple tier, one of the longest home runs ever seen there. As a matter of fact, it was hit so far that my own reaction was that I had somehow helped engineer this extraordinary feat; it was something that he and I had done together. That's not the way the pitcher is supposed to feel."

Sports Illustrated enthused over the pitcher's prose and sent him off again into battle--in the boxing arena: "I wrote this enormously polite letter to the then light-heavyweight champion of the world, Archie Moore," Plimpton relates. "They used to call him the Mongoose and he had one appalling statistic after his name in the record books which was that he had knocked down more people than anyone else in the history of the ring. So you can imagine how polite my letter was. I wrote and asked 'in the interest in literature,' which is a phrase I underlined, would he be interested in coming to the old Stillman's Gym in New York and go through a three-round bout with me."

The prize fighter accepted the challenge and that night Plimpton flashed an "enormous innocent smile" and lifted the ropes for the Mongoose's "tanklike figure." "As you can well see I'm not a properly constituted fighter," says the writer, whose lower lip twitches ever so slightly as he recalls entering the ring with Moore. "I have a very thin, delicate nose that bleeds at the slightest touch. Not only that but I suffer from something called 'sympathetic response.' That means if you're hit, you weep.

"The fight started and in the first round Moore made some very impressive moves indeed, lots of stiff jabs. and I had a tremendous amount of sympathetic response. I think I rather startled Archie Moore with all my weeping and so he held me up for three rounds. But I didn't want to be held up for three rounds. I wanted to go down and get it over with, 'to rest' as they say in boxing parlance. He kept whispering in my ear: 'Breathe, man! Breathe!'"

While Plimpton felt he had taken enough punishment in the ring, the media thought otherwise; the BBC asked if he would engage Muhammad Ali in a similar match in Louisville, just prior to the Kentucky Derby. "Muhammad Ali was pretty sulky about this because he didn't understand what he was supposed to do with this writer in the ring. Then all of a sudden the idea caught his fancy and I began to understand what it is like to be put in the force field of that incredible fighter when he was at his prime.

"What he does is to put you into a sort of compartment is his brain and then from time to time, three or four times a day, he takes you out and puts you down on a sort of metaphysical table and toys with you like a child fiddles around with a plaything. He would call up at 2 o'clock in the morning, I would pick up the phone and recognize his voice on the other end. He would say: 'YOU IS GOING TO FALL DURING THE RING INSTRUCTIONS!' And then he would hang up and let me think about that. . . . Happily or unhappily as the case may be, Muhammad Ali had his jaw broken in San Diego by Kenny Norton and our fight was canceled."

Plimpton's first book, "Paper Lion" (which was eventually made into a movie of the same title), was an account of his experience as the last-string quarterback with the Detroit Lions. Knowing he would make all sorts of mistakes at the Lions' summer training camp, he used the cover story that "I had played for a semiprofessional Canadian team known as the Newfoundland Newfs. If I made an appalling mistake I could say that's the way we used to do it with the Newfs."

This ex-Newf graduated from training camp and called signals in two professional football games, once for the Detroit Lions and later for the Baltimore Colts. For the Lions he lost 29 yards in four plays. When the Colts sent him in to quarterback a set of downs, the team gained 18 yards--15 of those were on roughing the passer penalty.

The sport which Plimpton thought would be a breeze was golf. He had a handicap of 18 and figured if he joined a tour of great golfers he would get a good story and at the same time pick up some free advice from the pros and whittle his handicap into single figures. As usual his interloping made for snappy copy. As for professional skills, they never seemed to rub off on George. He didn't see enough of the pros. He'd tee off with them, but they'd be putting while he was digging his ball out of the underbrush.

"For example, I was playing in this tournament in San Francisco and my partners and I came to this tremendously high elevated tee. They sent tremendous shots down the fairway and I topped my ball and it rolled down into this sort of gulch. It went about 70 feet and most of that down. My partners didn't want to hold up the tournament so they went on and I went down into this gulch to find my golf ball.

"After about 10 minutes I found it and happened to look up at the tee where we had been and there was Arnold Palmer who was in the foursome behind us. He saw my people hitting their second shots but he didn't know I was down there. It was hardly the place you would think to look, nearly straight down. So I let him know that I was still playing the hole and from out of this gulch came a sort of croaking sound and a raised club. Arnold Palmer looked over the precipice and saw me down there and across his face came the look of a businessman sitting at his desk, who has suddenly become aware that something has moved in the bottom his wastepaper basket."

How does Plimpton get into such humiliating predicaments? Why does he put himself there?

"As a writer one always looks for confrontation, people who are being driven to some sort of limit," Plimpton says, moving from a chair by the window to his unmade bed. There he props his back against the headboard and stretches out his long gray-trousered legs like a suspension bridge over a bay of rumpled yellow sheets. "George Simenon once wrote that he always put his characters on the end of limbs and then would start cutting the limb off to see how they behaved out there, under pressure.

"Sports, of course, does that within a very controlled time frame in an arena where you can see it all happening right in front of you. It's no surprise, really, the number of writers who have written about sports: Faulkner, Hemingway , Turgenev, Shaw. It has a built-in, ready-made climactic course. I happened to use participation [in sports] as a device, but it's not necessary. Heavens, the best writing done about baseball is done by Roger Angell who sits in the stands and sees things that most of us don't."

In the line of duty as journalist-voyeur and literary stuntman, Plimpton has swung on circus trapezes, jumped out of airplanes, driven--and nearly killed himself--in a Baja sportcar race, and lost a tennis match six-love to Pancho Gonzales. Ironically, one of the worst bruisings his ego took was during a rubber of bridge with Oswald Jacobi, of which Plimpton later said, "That was the most frightening of all. There seemed to be an excuse for not being a better athlete, but not for not being able to think better."

Not long ago Plimpton put himself through a similar ordeal. The New York Philharmonic agreed to take him on as a percussionist, gave him a crash course in playing the triangle, bells, and gong, then sent him on the road to perform with the orchestra.

"Sports are almost entirely made up of somebody making an error. You try to make somebody else make an error," he says, rolling back the sleeves of his white button-down Oxford shirt. "But in music there is not supposed to be any error at all, so when you make one you are literally destroying something which is not supposed to be destroyed.

"The conductor [of the New York Philharmonic] was Leonard Bernstein and I would get absolutely terrified. I spent one month having the most awful nightmares. At the performances the sweat used to pour down. I'm not a musician at all and I had all these things to play and when you're playing the gong, they can hear you in Dubuque.

"Gustav Mahler's Fourth Symphony has a section of bells at the front of it and I misplayed them, made a terrible mistake and absolutely destroyed the symphony. Bernstein had a fit and fired me. The persussionist said 'Listen, you mustn't lose heart. We'll go to him. And to get your confidence back, see to it that you play the gongs in Tchaikovsky's Second.'

"Well, I did play the gong in Winnipeg. I hit it very, very hard, so hard that it caused quite a commotion. But it was right on the button. It was an interpretation rather than a mistake. It was at the very end of the last movement. The violins come up for about four measures and it's over. Out of the desperation and nerves and fright, I really bumped it, and Bernstein, up at the podium, burst into laughter."

Plimpton can't read music but improvises on the piano and recently composed a four-minute concerto, which was performed by the Cincinatti Symphony Orchestra under the direction of, you guessed it, maestro George Ames Plimpton.

Are there other musical stunts up his sleeve? "Well, I would like to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, and wouldn't mind singing with a rock group just to see what that's like. If I had my choice, it would probably be the Stones. Or maybe Kiss, though some heavy disguise would be necessary.

Not long ago, Plimpton blasted his way into the Guinness Book of World Records with a bravura that had nothing to do with music or sports. He now holds the record for detonating the world's largest firework. "The first one went off in Bellport, Long Island, and created a great hazard there. It weighed about 800 pounds, and was supposed to come out of the mortar and go way up into the sky and burst in a whole umbrella of white magnesium stars. It would have been very impressive, had it not exploded in the ground. It was called Fat Man, and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the 'lowest firework.'

"The second one, Fat Man II, was fired out of a mortar on the Indian River opposite Cape Canaveral with all the gantries in the background. That went up about 50 feet, exploded, and broke 700 windows in Titusville, Fla., including a plate glass window in a bank," the editor recalls with an impish grin.

When it comes to pyrotechnics, Plimpton indeed knows a hawk from a handsaw. He was a demolition expert in the Army during World War II. "My specialty was 700-pound Japanese beach mines. After the war they relieved me of that duty and made me a tank driver. In northern Italy, by mistake, I drove my tank through a house. They promoted me from tank driver to tank commander."

When he returned from Paris to live in New York, Plimpton would periodically travel to a fireworks company in New Jersey, buy a bagful and shoot them off at an evening party. His hobby grew, and eventually New York City mayor John Lindsay asked him to be his honorary fireworks commissioner. The position was invented for Plimpton, but the appointment has survived the political housecleaning of two subsequent administrations. Several years ago, the writer engineered that famous Central Park firework display, set to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in the opening of Woody Allen's film. "Manhattan." Most recently, he choreographed the fireworks at President Reagan's inauguration.

Plimpton, who has a number of books in the works (including ones on hockey, tennis, boxing, the New York Philharmonic, a "sports bestiary") recently signed a contract with Doubleday to write a volume on fireworks. "Jackie Onassis is my editor, and there is a great deal of fascinating material. Versailles was probably built because of fireworks," says Plimpton, who over the past two hours has been hurling such verbal hand grenades and watching them explode in my lap. "Louis XIV, Charles X of Sweden, and Peter the Great were huge firework freaks. They will go into the book along with my own adventures such as winning the fireworks championship of the world at Monte Carlo four years ago.I went with the Grucci family from Bellport. They are Italian and love noise. The main attraction of their show was the racket, and we practically blew Monte Carlo apart."

As was the case with his first Fat Man, Plimpton's explosives do not always behave as they should. "About three years ago, I shot off a firework at a party i was giving on Long Island, and part of this firework came down on the arm of a Chicago television executive who had not been invited to the party," Plimpton says. "I wasn't trying to clear him out or anything. It was just an accident, but he took umbrage, and sued me for $11 million. The papers got ahold of it, and I told one reporter from Chicago that anybody with an arm worth $11 million should be pitching for the Chicago White Sox.

"Later I got a call from Frank Sinatra's lawyer who had heard about the case and asked me who was handling it. I said my father's firm was, and he said 'Well, you've got the wrong people. You should get a tough lawyer to countersue and suggest he is causing you psychological damage. And if that doesn't work, I will make some phone calls to people in chicago.'"

George Plimpton, a man of extraordinary charm and talent, seems to have friends and fans everywhere. It is sobering to think, as critics have suggested , that in years to come, his fireworks, his quarterbacking, his brief careers with the circus and symphony, may well be forgotten, and GAP may be solely remembered for his "hobby," the Paris Review.

To ensure that the magazine has many happy birthdays to come, Plimpton unabashedly presses his calling card on any open palm. On the front is his name; on the flipside a subscription form to the magazine. Plimpton confesses that he "leaves them on bus seats and slips them into the occasional open pocket. No harm done. No harm in filling one out."

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