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George Plimpton

(Page 6 of 7)

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

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"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.'