Literary Birthday: George Plimpton

A snootily-dialected, aristocratic, and yet somewhat clownish enthusiast of many pursuits, George Plimpton (born today in 1927) was not only a load-bearing pillar of 20th century New York publishing, he made the writing life look positively a gas. Besides running The Paris Review (which, he often noted, was not based in Paris and did not publish reviews), Plimpton had a lucrative—and more importantly, fun—sideline gig in what he called “participatory journalism.”

Throwing his gangly Ivy League frame into one unlikely sport after another, he published a string of self-deprecating books about competing in baseball (Out of My League), golf (The Bogey Man), and hockey (Open Net). In Shadow Box (1977), Plimpton described training for a 1959 fight with boxer Archie Moore by studying The Art and Practice of English Boxing (1807). A Sports Illustrated photograph of the results shows Plimpton beaming widely through a bloodied mouth.

Department of Weekend Reading: April 25, 2014


Readers’ Corner: Writers Imagine How They Will Die


Since the late and mellifluous George Plimpton knew just about everybody, when he came up with a random query, there were always plenty of good sources to chat up. So, when after hearing Norman Mailer talk about a supposed close call with lion in Zaire which he later determined was a good way to die, Plimpton tracked down some literary figures and asked them for how they imagined their final moments.

Here’s some of what he received in reply:

  • “When I go, everyone goes with me. You are all figments of my waking dreams and I suggest that each and every one of you shapes up and prays that I live long.” — Gore Vidal
  • “I enter a house where I have been invited. It’s dark. Two large, silhouetted figures emerge from hiding. Their voices are familiar, though I can’t place them accurately. One says, ‘It’s him.’ The other says, ‘I hope so.’ Suddenly one grabs me and pins my arms to my side while the other holds a small pillow across my face. At first, the pillow is not centered properly and it takes some effort for me to adjust it…. Just before I succumb I hear one of the figures say, ‘we did this because it was important, though not absolutely necessary.’” — Woody Allen
  • “I can’t decide if I’d rather go after the thirteenth or the fourteenth line of a sonnet; the thirteenth would give you something to do in the afterlife. By the same reasoning, while the ball is in the air, off the face of a perfectly swung five-iron, and yet has not hit the green where it is certain to fall.” — John Updike
  • “I really don’t care much how it will happen, and I don’t think I will care much more when it does.” — Joseph Heller

Reader’s Corner: Diana Vreeland


When it comes to quoting from books, people tend to focus on the beginning. It makes sense, as that’s what gets us all hooked anyway—and some of us never get any further. But every so often you come across a book whose ending is much better than the start.

Take for instance, the last few lines from D.V., the memoir of late, legendary Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue editrix Diana Vreeland (1903-1989). A looping oral history of a life enthusing about fashion and things that were beautiful (George Plimpton was responsible for writing it all down), this is how she ends things:

‘In my end is my beginning.’ Who said that?—Mary, Queen of Scots, no? Look it up.

But where do you begin? The first thing to do, my love, is to arrange to be born in Paris… After that, everything flows quite naturally.