Befriending George Plimpton.
George’s questions were like trampolines, a technology he admired. They bounced you higher—to the next question. This was particularly true when he was talking about writers and writing.
“Did you know that the great Camus played goal for the Oran Football Club?” he asked me when we were walking past an Algerian restaurant near his apartment on Seventy-Second Street. I was unaware but said that I did think Gabriel García Márquez had written a soccer column for a while in Bogota.
“Alas,” George sighed, “Le colonisateur de bonne volonte was never moved to write about it. Imagine, the existential goalkeeper.”
“Alas,” I said, and he gave me a look.
To be or not to be was never a question for George. What to do next was his question, although existential imaginings were at the heart of all his stories. He would develop ideas—What would it be like to … ?—then find a way to put himself into the action. I asked if he had considered becoming a soccer goalie. He had, but he had already written about guarding the hockey net for the Boston Bruins.
“So are you going to write that memoir?” I asked. Several publishers were interested, and one had offered close to a million dollars.
“I don’t want to write about my life,” he said.
“That’s what you do now,” I said.
“Well, shouldn’t that be enough?”
The memoir came up often. People were always asking when he was going to write one, and thinking about it darkened him. He said it smacked of vanity. If he wound up having to do it for the money so be it, but not yet.
The lure of the memoir for publishers was that George knew everyone and had many stories about them. Any list would be incomplete: Sinatra (neighbor and late-night drinking cohort); Hugh Hefner, whom everyone called “Hef” (offered him the editorship of Playboy many times); Warren (Beatty would call and shout, “Is this the man who has never eaten an olive?”); Jackie (his brother Oakes said George had “dated” her); Elvis (both Presley and Costello) … But no matter who you were, if you were with him or just at the same party, his manners pulled you in, making you feel comfortable and in on at least some of his secrets.
George couldn’t remember names, especially men’s names, but that didn’t matter. “There’s the great man,” he would say at his parties, and the unnamed guest would beam. “There’s the great man” is how George once greeted a kid delivering a pizza.
The Lesson of George, I came to think, was “Good times should be orchestrated and not left to the uncertainties of chance.” This was the most important thing A. E. Hotchner said he learned from Hemingway, and George said “Papa” had taught him that same lesson. There is nothing sadder than small regrets, and when I first met George I thought he had very few of those. When I knew him better, I wasn’t so sure.
A story I heard over and over about George was that he’d been very nervous before his first wedding—to Freddy Espy, who was even more beautiful than Lauren Hutton, the model who made her acting debut playing Freddy in the movie of Paper Lion. George’s friend Thomas Guinzburg tried to calm him by praising Freddy and suggesting that whatever else George was thinking, he should realize that after he was married he would never be lonely again. The punch line was George’s response: “But I’ve never been lonely in my life!”
I believed that story, but I also believe that as he got older George was bothered by the transience of the people he knew and loved, and there is no deeper definition of loneliness than that, even as the party swirls around you. When famous friends die, do you miss them more? That was a question I wondered about. George said no, but you were reminded more often that they were gone.
We went out a lot—to book parties and sports events at Madison Square Garden, where all the floor security guys knew him, and, mostly, we went to dinner, and George would order macaroni and cheese or a simple pasta that was close to it. There were the parties at his house, too. It was the 1990s now and the celebrities there weren’t as bright as they had been in the sixties and seventies, but the parties were still crowded with good-looking, accomplished people. At least the kids at The Paris Review office downstairs were good-looking, especially the young women, who, unbeknownst to George, were having a contest to see who could wear the shortest skirt.
The pool table would be covered so food and drink could be laid out, and there was always another bar in the kitchen. A long wall of windows looked out on the East River. The boat traffic on the flat water at night was beautiful but few guests noticed, more interested in where George was standing, what George was talking about.
When John Kerry was running for president, George gave him a fund-raiser at the apartment. Kerry went on too long, and the crowd was fidgeting. I looked at George and could see that this was bothering him. When Kerry finally wrapped up, some of the crowd gathered around him but just as many collected around George. “Please go say hello to the senator,” George told them. “It’s his party.” But of course it wasn’t.
From its first issue, in 1954, Sports Illustrated kept careful record of freelance assignments on four-by-nine index cards, noting subject, deadline and fee. One of the tallest stacks belonged to George, a collection that I didn’t discover until I was writing his obit. The first card was from 1956, only three years after George began editing The Paris Review, the literary quarterly he founded in 1953 with Peter Matthiessen and several other friends. It was a hot start-up before anyone used the term, and much has been written about the good times in Paris and the careers that came later.
For George, The Paris Review became a spiritual hideout for fifty years. He admired writers and creativity even more than he admired athletes and beautiful women, and he could exercise that admiration through the Review. It paid nothing, of course, so George had decided to make his way as a journalist until he settled on what his more serious work might be. In the meantime he would write about sports, and have some fun at the same time.
In the fall of ’58 George visited SI’s first managing editor, Sidney James, with an idea he was uncertain of himself. A group of major-league baseball players were staging an unofficial postseason all-star game at Yankee Stadium, and George thought he could write an interesting article on what it was like to participate—pitching, say, to Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. The only problem would be arranging it.
In those days, the most influential man in sports was Toots Shor, whose boozy, eponymous restaurant was a couple blocks from the SI offices. James led an expedition of editors there and bought drinks as he and George explained the idea to Toots, who said the solution was simple: offer a thousand dollars to the winning team. By evening, word came back to the bar that George’s pitching exhibition was on, whereupon Toots pulled him aside for a question: “You gonna box, too?”
George was flattered. The saloonkeeper understood that George was building on the work of their shared sportswriting hero Paul Gallico, who had spent a round in the ring with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey back in 1923. But what George had in mind was more complicated than just looking for “the feel,” as Gallico had put it. George wanted to unlock the secrets kept on the highest level of the games—the ones he believed you could share only in an NFL huddle or a conference on the mound.
On game day at Yankee Stadium, the public-address announcer bungled George’s name, calling him George Prufrock, an irony not lost on George, a T. S. Eliot aficionado of sorts who had lived for a time in the same room used by the poet when he had attended Harvard. George did not write about this, but he used it in his storytelling with a reference to a famous line from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Well, my arm was rather like a ‘ragged claw.’ ”
The setup at Yankee Stadium was for George to be a facsimile batting-practice pitcher, with the hitters allowed to wait for their perfect pitch. George got Mays to pop up, but many of the hitters made him throw a dozen or so pitches—Ernie Banks let twenty-two go by—and after nine National Leaguers had batted, George called for a time-out. He could no longer lift his arm. I have a photograph of George taken in the dugout after he came off the mound. He looks shell-shocked, his eyes blank and faraway.
The expanded SI story would become George’s first best seller, Out of My League. Ernest Hemingway wired George from the Mayo Clinic, where he was being treated for depression, that it was “beautifully observed and incredibly conceived [with] the chilling quality of a true nightmare … the dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty.” It was a gift from Hemingway intended as a marketing blurb but, intentionally or not, it spoke to a truth beyond that cliché about the moon.
Hemingway was George’s greatest hero, and George knew him well enough to call him “Papa” without affectation. They had been together in Spain and Cuba and New York and, of course, Paris, where George first saw Hemingway in the Ritz Hotel, buying a copy of The Paris Review.
“It was the only time I have ever seen anyone actually purchase a copy of the paper,” George would say. He always called it “the paper,” as if to deflate any pretension, but he had great ambition for it, especially when it came to the Review’s interviews with writers, the Art of Fiction series, which George refined by pushing his subjects for clarity with back-and-forth editing, often for months after the interview.
His interview with Hemingway began in a Madrid café with Hemingway asking George, “You go to the races?”
“Then you read the Racing Form,” Hemingway said. “There you have the true art of fiction.”
The interview was brilliant, deconstructing as it did every detail of how Hemingway worked and how he thought about the work of writing. At the end George coaxed out a quintessential Hemingway sentence. You can see both of their minds working in the interchange.
Finally, a fundamental question: as a creative writer, what do you think is the function of your art? Why a representation of fact, rather than fact itself?
Why be puzzled by that? From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?
George had many Hemingway stories. One he told often was set up with George’s puzzlement by the white bird that flies out of the gondola in the love scene between the young countess and Colonel Cantwell in Across the River and into the Trees.
“Papa,” George asked after a day of fishing, when he was carrying a picnic hamper on Hemingway’s dock in Cuba. “What is the significance of those white birds that sometimes turn up in your, um … sex scenes? I’ve always—”
George said that Hemingway stopped and whipped around toward him, and he could see that he had made a mistake.
“I suppose you think you can do better,” Hemingway shouted at George.
“No, no, Papa,” George said. “Certainly not.”
George would say that Hemingway’s eyes had become small and “his whiskers seemed to bristle like an alarmed cat’s.”
A story I heard only once from George was about being fitted for a safari jacket at Hemingway’s Finca Vigía on another visit. The jacket was made of antelope skin and Hemingway already had one like it. George had his new jacket on and the tailor was adjusting the sleeves when Hemingway said the fit was wrong and began smoothing it on George’s shoulders and back.
“It went on too long and made me uncomfortable,” George said. “But it was the only time that happened.”
It was one of the stories he would never include in that annoying memoir, if he ever wrote it. I was not surprised, and it was no big deal anyway. One way or another, everyone fell in love with George.
Excerpted from the book The Accidental Life by Terry McDonell. Copyright 2016 by Terry McDonell. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Terry McDonell is the president of the Board of The Paris Review Foundation. His memoir, The Accidental Life, is now available from Knopf.