George Plimpton’s Illegal Fireworks Display



The Paris Review’s founding editor George Plimpton was a man of many enthusiasms, but fireworks were chief among them. His lifelong affair with pyrotechnic explosives began when he served as a demolitions expert in the U.S. Army. He even wrote a book on the subject—Fireworks: A History and Celebration. Needless to say, he loved the Fourth of July.

George could be counted upon to supply and launch fireworks for all manner of occasions: weddings, celebrations, and, of course, Fourth of July parties, such as one held in the late sixties on Martha’s Vineyard, which Rose Styron—poet, activist, wife of founding editor William Styron, and member of The Paris Review’s extended family—recalls as particularly full of misadventure. In celebration of this year’s Independence Day, we called her up to hear the story.

The Fourth of July party in question was to be held at the Vineyard home of John Marquand, an early Review adviser and contributor who published fiction under the name John Phillips. George arrived on the Vineyard on July 3 and called Styron to ask her to pick him up at the ferry.

“He emerged carrying more fireworks than anyone had ever seen,” Styron recalled. “Up above his head, behind his shoulder, dragging on the ground—and he said, ‘You have to hide me right now. I’m being pursued for having brought all these fireworks by plane, then bus, then ferry—all of it illegally.’”

“So we piled everything into our station wagon, and George said, ‘Would you please call John and ask if we could do the party tonight instead of tomorrow night just in case the cops are coming?’”

It was necessary to dispense with the evidence as soon as possible.

John was amenable to the change of plans, so the July 3 celebration was on. “Little did we know,” continued Styron, “that John had forgotten to ask for permission to set off fireworks, even for the Fourth. That was forbidden on the island.”

“So, at the proper moment, on the evening of July 3, which was a beautiful night, we all gathered on John’s beach, and I helped George set off fireworks, which I always loved to do. It was just a great, noisy display up in the air, and we were all really happy.”

Of course, that was not the end of the story.

“Suddenly,” Styron said, “a bunch of warplanes flew over us, and pretty soon they flew back in the other direction. As it turned out, Otis Air Base had gotten an alert. It happened to be the summer that the Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming was being shown on the Vineyard. Knowing the Vineyard, it may have been the year after it came out, but everybody had seen it, including whoever was at Otis Air Base, and they panicked.”

“When they came over and saw it was just fireworks, they were outraged. They let John know that he would have to answer for it. George instantly left the island. I mean, the next morning on the first boat.”

Many years later, Styron recalled, she was invited along with her husband to be the only members of George’s “entourage” in his official ride down Fifth Avenue as Fireworks Commissioner, in an open-top car.

From illegal fireworks on the beach to being appointed New York City Fireworks Commissioner by Mayor John Lindsay, Plimpton’s love of fireworks got him far. And while we will never see another of his legendary displays, his legacy lives on. Happy Fourth of July from The Paris Review!