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"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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."