Nov 21, 2009

Describing Around Plimpton

I've just finished an oral history of George Plimpton (George, Being George edited by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.). I had always wondered why Plimpton was so famous, believing that literary magazines make no one famous, a belief which I still hold.

His distinguishing traits were his great gifts as a host, an apparently endless and varied store of stories, and an ability to make anything into an adventure.

This is the second such oral history I've read. The other was Val Ross's Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic. It is a strange and curiously enlightening way to see a person. The books are composed of bite-sized quotes from numerous interviews of people around the subject. The quotes are arranged by theme and chronology.

Here's an example from the section BASIC EXPECTATIONS (a.k.a. parental baggage) from Remar Sutton:

"George loved to tell the story about how his mother once saved his life. It was the time he and Freddy went rafting with Bobby Kennedy on the Colorado River, and he fell overboard. The water was rough and running fast, and George seemed to be making no headway swimming toward shore. In fact he went under - twice, as he told it - but then, as he was going under for the third time, he had this vision of his mother collecting his things after his death, poking around the apartment, and finding a few reels of a movie called The Nun's Delight that he'd stashed away in a wooden box. Instantly he found the strength to struggle to the surface and swim to shore."

It is a strange way for Plimpton to declare his overiding problem. He apparently never shared his personal issues with anyone. But there it is, the idea that his mother would find his porn gave him the strength to save himself.

He had to be browbeaten into both of his marriages, once by Bobby Kennedy and once by A. E. Hotchner (partner with Paul Newman for Newman's Own). Both of his wives said that they were the only people in George's life - and there were a lot of people in his life - whom he didn't support. His first wife, Freddy, said that he was wonderful as long as there was no legal obligation to her.

He was an eternal youth, one of those men who delighted everyone and who was impossible to harness.