Essay: George Plimpton: The Professional Amateur

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If he ever writes his memoirs, George Plimpton will almost certainly have another bestseller: his circle of acquaintances is wide, and his stories about them are inexhaustible. One chapter, for instance, might be titled "The Night Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer Almost Met." Knowing of Mailer's obsession with Hemingway, Plimpton set up their first meeting, the prospect of which drove Mailer, as George recalls, "almost crazy with excitement." Papa was still shaky from his accidents in Africa, however, and the meeting was canceled at the last moment. Perhaps it was just as well. A Hemingway-Mailer encounter might have been historic, but it would not necessarily have been happy, as Plimpton has reason to know. Thumb-wrestling over dinner at the Colony that very night, Hemingway, a fierce and not always fair competitor, drove his fingernail deep into George's palm, so deep that the wound left a scar for several years.


Hemingway liked Plimpton, however—he even wanted to train him in Wyoming for the bout against Archie Moore—and so does everyone else who knows him. Without exception, his friends testify to his extraordinary, almost ingenuous kindness and his nearly perverse refusal ever to be glum. His whole life, in a very broad and somewhat simplified sense, is an attempt to re-create around himself the intimate, boisterous atmosphere of a boys' tree house or a college-humor magazine, where no one is ever envious and no one is ever mean. He draws his friends into his fancies and fantasies "like a group of boys starting out on an adventure at the beginning of a vacation," one notes. Every day he sets off down the Mississippi with Tom, Huck and Jim. In this world the cardinal sin is to betray a friend. About the only time Plimpton displays real dismay is when he talks of a fellow writer who revealed a confidence in print: "I think that's just awful, reprehensible! Don't you?"

Paradoxically, very few of Plimpton's friends claim to know him well. Says Novelist William Styron: "You have an entree into the innards of most people you know for 18 or 20 years. With George you don't. He doesn't set up walls; they just exist." One reason may be that George does not want his innards examined; he frequently hides behind a cloud of vagueness so thick as to defy all but the most pointed questions. Another may be that he moves too fast for anybody to look very closely anyway. "A large part of my makeup," he observes, "is the pleasures of travel, being alone, moving from one place to another, not being bedded down in my own compartment. I think people can't bear the idea of someone not being settled down, either to marriage, or to a job, or to a sort of regimen. It's mostly be, cause they're bothered exactly by that themselves."

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