YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Writer-Literary Patron Lived Out His Fantasies

September 27, 2003|Mary Rourke and Claudia Luther | Times Staff Writers

George Plimpton, the urbane and eclectic writer and editor who in wry books like "Paper Lion" described his experiences as an amateur player in professional sports, music and other specialized fields, died Thursday night. He was 76.

A founding editor of the Paris Review literary magazine in 1953, Plimpton published and befriended many of the great writers of his day, including Ernest Hemingway, John Updike and Philip Roth.

He died at his home in New York City, a townhouse on East 72 Street upstairs from the magazine's office. The cause of death was not announced, but friends said he had a history of heart problems.

"George had a rare gift," writer Norman Mailer, a friend of Plimpton's, said Friday. "He was so open to life and all of its new and unexpected situations."

Having played character roles in a number of films, Plimpton was preparing for a trip to Cuba, where he was to have performed in a play based on Hemingway's "A Movable Feast," said Robert B. Silvers, co-editor of the New York Review of Books.

Silvers and Plimpton had been friends for more than 50 years and dined together early this week. At the time, Plimpton seemed to be in good health, Silvers said. "George was a man of immense natural charm, with a curiosity about many things and a tremendous sense of adventure," Silvers said. "He was the ringmaster of the Paris Review. He found backing; he recruited writers to contribute and young people to work for the magazine."

A native of New York City, Plimpton spoke with a patrician accent and, at 6 feet 4, he towered over most people.

Friends compared him to Walter Mitty, the literary character whose vivid imagination didn't fit with his everyday life. The difference was that Plimpton acted out his fantasies, portraying himself as a comic figure in each story he wrote. What he lacked in professional prowess in his endeavors, he made up for with trenchant good humor.

Among his dreams fulfilled: He pitched in an exhibition game against All-Star baseball players at Yankee Stadium; golfed in Pro-Am tournaments; got onto the basketball court with the Boston Celtics and into the boxing ring with former light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore; and played goalie for the Boston Bruins and the Edmonton Oilers hockey teams.

He also performed a flying trapeze act with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, tried to tame a lion, performed as a clown, and played percussion with the New York Philharmonic.

The latter prompted conductor Leonard Bernstein to say, "He did very well for an amateur, but then ... that's his profession, isn't it?"

Most famously, Plimpton took the field as a third-string rookie quarterback for the Detroit Lions, writing about it in "Paper Lion," which was made into a 1968 movie starring Alan Alda as Plimpton.

The book came about when Plimpton, writing for Sports Illustrated magazine, had an idea for a first-person story: Play on a professional football team incognito and then write about it. He got the Lions to agree to it, but his cover was blown almost immediately. The best-selling book wittily portrayed the grunt and grit of a major football team.

"I ran one series in an intrasquad scrimmage and lost 34 yards," Plimpton recalled at a team reunion held last weekend in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of "Paper Lion."

Plimpton wrote other memorable stories for Sports Illustrated, including a 1985 April Fool's Day piece in which he created Sidd Finch, a former Tibetan monk who supposedly could throw a fastball at 168 mph.

Some duped readers of the magazine weren't very pleased, Plimpton later said with some glee, but it remains one of the best jokes in baseball. Plimpton eventually turned the episode into a book.

But among writers, Plimpton was treasured most for his lasting relationship to the Paris Review.

"It's a very honorable thing, to have a literary magazine," writer Mona Simpson told The Times on Friday. She said the magazine, on which she worked with Plimpton for six years and which later printed excerpts from several of her novels, gave many new writers a chance.

Of all his passionate interests, Simpson said, "unquestionably the Paris Review was the most important thing to him."

A quarterly with a small circulation, the Paris Review became well-known for its "Writers at Work" feature. Plimpton wrote a number of them, most memorably a 1959 interview with Hemingway.

He often recounted how he met Hemingway in the bookstore of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, where he noticed the famous author flipping through an issue of the Paris Review. He went bravely up to him and suggested his idea for an interview about writing, and Hemingway agreed.

As with many of his interview subjects, Plimpton became a life-long friend of the author, although Plimpton recalled that the interview didn't go very well.

Los Angeles Times Articles