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'Plimpton!' documentary looks at George Plimpton's lives

George Plimpton, the late Paris Review editor whose participatory journalism in works such as 'Paper Lion' made him famous, is remembered in a new documentary.

June 04, 2013|By Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times
  • George Plimpton watches the America's Cup races with President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy in 1962.
George Plimpton watches the America's Cup races with President John… (Laemmle Zeller Films )

George Plimpton's greatest story was his own life.

There was very little the renowned journalist, writer and longtime editor of the literary journal the Paris Review didn't try. During a career that spanned the second half of the 20th century, Plimpton was a quarterback for the Detroit Lions, pitched at Yankee Stadium, sparred with Archie Moore, played the triangle with the New York Philharmonic, performed stand-up comedy, flipped on a trapeze and much, much more.

He was an early practitioner of what was then called "participatory journalism," throwing himself into unfamiliar situations in the service of writing about them. His goal was to give his readers a glimpse of what it was like to be on the inside of any number of challenging and coveted vocations — in a witty and entertaining fashion. In sports he always wore the number 0 as a sign of his amateur status. Over time, his name made headlines and his career augured the rise of reality television and blogging, an era in which the personal becomes public and the scribe, the star.

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A new documentary about his life called "Plimpton!," which will be released Friday, is a fond look backward at his remarkable life. Directed by Tom Bean and Luke Poling, the film taps into never-before-seen footage from Plimpton's archives to draw a picture of a man who, despite his insider status, felt like an outsider.

Plimpton lived multiple lives within one life, many of them contradictory, as evidenced by his proudest accomplishment: his role as the editor of the Paris Review. For 50 years he quietly kept the seminal literary magazine afloat, often with money earned through his publicized exploits, in order to promote and launch the careers of some of the most vaunted American writers of the 20th century, including William Styron, Terry Southern, Jack Kerouac and Philip Roth.

"George's life was recorded mostly for the stunts and derring-do that he had. What people don't realize is that was a very small part of his life — he was a working writer and editor. He worked seven days a week at it," says his widow, Sarah Dudley Plimpton.

She gave the filmmakers access to old film reels, video and audio cassettes, and notebooks and journals that were sitting in the basement of her apartment on East 72nd Street on the Upper East Side of New York. The apartment also doubled as the offices for the Paris Review.

Plimpton wrote thousands of articles and more than a dozen books, including the famed "Paper Lion," about his experience with the 1963 Detroit Lions. Yet some of his contemporaries in the film, including novelist James Salter, speculate that Plimpton would have preferred to have been in "deeper water" as a writer. Some of his friends and family, including Dudley Plimpton and his first wife, Freddy Espy Plimpton, brush that notion off as nonsense.

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"The closest thing we found to a smoking gun as far as what he really wanted to do with his life was the photo in his high school yearbook," says Poling, who with Bean spent more than two years combing through Plimpton's effects, and another two years assembling them for the film. "Underneath it says, 'Dream job or career,' and George put 'journalist,' not 'novelist' or 'writer.'"

In this pre-Internet era, famous writers were rock stars, with authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer as well known as movie stars. At the time, writing the "great American novel" was considered the Holy Grail, the quest of the true literary man.

"George's peers were the generation who survived World War II and matured during the Cold War; that was a pretty serious crowd," says Dudley Plimpton. "I think they just didn't get him.... George was a lampoon man; he had a great sense of humor. He wanted to be out in the world having fun with life, not sitting at a typewriter all day."

For Plimpton, however, fun was also serious business. For decades his apartment was the site of some of New York City's most legendary parties. Among the black-and-white footage from the 1960s that Bean and Poling were "bug-eyed" to discover was a reel of film panning through a crowd at one of Plimpton's soirees that included Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Matthiesen, Ralph Ellison and more.

"I think half of New York tromped through our apartment," says Dudley Plimpton, adding that Plimpton was known as the "Iron Man," and that the night before 9/11 Bill Murray attended one of his parties and Paul McCartney sang to her. "Our whole generation drank — writers drink — and the clouds of smoke in the apartment … I don't think it was a healthy lifestyle. That was how it was in New York in those days, George just dragged it out a bit longer."

Dudley Plimpton suspects the excess contributed to Plimpton's death in his sleep in 2003, at the age of 76.

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