TV Picks: PBS’ American Masters Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, premiers nationwide Friday, May 16 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).
George Plimpton was an American writer and personality whose unusual “participatory” approach to reporting made him seem larger-than-life. In order to write stories on stand-up comedians, football or circus performers, he would become one. He put himself on the line, learning as much as he could and then entering the fray, the field or ring and any number of arenas to experience the thing for himself and for his readers.
Plimpton was a high profile figure in the pulsing Manhattan social world of the 60’s and 70’s, friends with the best and brightest. But none of this describes him nearly well enough. Plimpton’s fascinating story comes to life in PBS documentary this week and we had the chance to speak about him with his friend, renowned American writer and reporter Lewis Lapham.
Monsters and Critics – The American Masters documentary on George Plimpton is most welcome. He is an interesting man and a bit of an enigma. I asked various friends who Plimpton was and they all had different answers.
Lewis Lapham – He was not an enigma; he was an adventurous exuberant, enormously curious, participant in the joyousness of life. He was an extremely good writer, a better writer than many of the writers he published in the Paris Review. He never got credit for his talent as writer but he was a gracious after dinner speaker, a bird watcher, and raconteur. He had boundless energy and he never said in all years I knew him, he never spoke unkindly of anyone. He would not listen to malicious gossip. He looked to find the best in people and appreciate whatever talent they brought to the table and he would walk away from any malicious conversation like he would a dead fish. Celebrity media deals with the dead fish.
M&C – What drove him so hard to succeed at these things he would only do once?
LL – He had the appetite, curiosity and energy and a very broad appreciation of human nature and he regarded New York as a Circus Maximus to which performers of every conceivable description came to play and use their imagination.
M&C - How did you know Plimpton?
LL: We knew a lot of the same people. George went to Harvard and I’d gone to Yale. He edited The Paris Review in Paris on a barge downstream from the Louvre then brought to East 72nd St. upstream from the Brooklyn Bridge. He edited out of his apartment which was also his office in two or three floors of what had been a row house building. There were constant parties, he loved to entertain, and it was always an open house. Sometimes invitations were sent; sometimes they weren’t, throughout the sixties and seventies. The parties were at all times of the day or night and were filled with writers and actors.
I had been writing for newspapers in San Francisco and came to New York in 1960 to work for the Herald Tribune, then the Saturday Evening Post and Life. So I was in New York 3 or 4 months and I’m at one of George’s parties and ever since we were friends. We’d see each other in different parts of town and run across each other. I was then editing Harper’s and he wrote a lot of pieces for us, all of them good. We had a longstanding and warm acquaintance. Everyone misses him, he cared about people.
M&C – You and he had planned a trip just before his death in 2003?
LL – He and I were about to go to Cuba together. We were doing readings of the Fitzgerald Hemingway letters from the 20’s and 30’s and George was Fitz and I was Hemingway. He took it to Broadway, and read at a high school in New Jersey. But George had been invited by Castro to come down to Hemingway’s villa and he believed Hemingway had hidden the epilogue to For Whom the Bell Tolls under the floor so he accepted the invitation. He was going to find time to ransack the basement but then he died. We were going to leave Monday for Cuba and he died on the weekend, in his sleep. He was immensely generous to his friends and encouraged them. I wrote a piece on him for Harper’s in Lapham’s Notebook called Pilgrim’s Progress. It came out in December 2003.
M&C – What would he have made of the power of social media today?
LL – I have no idea. I can’t even guess. He had it all going for him at all times in the apartment office on 72nd St. He would have missed the human contact. Social media is a strain and an abstraction and there is no reality to it. George was interested in the “there”.