ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
SIEGEL: The writer George Plimpton was many things: highbrow editor, participatory journalist, fireworks enthusiast, New York man about town. Plimpton died in 2003, and he's the subject of a new oral biography edited by his friend, the writer, Nelson Aldrich. The book is called "George, Being George." The Los Angeles Times said recently that our own regular sports commentator, author Stefan Fatsis, might be Plimpton's true heir. Well, here he is with a book review which is an appreciation, but also a denial.
STEFAN FATSIS: George Plimpton did it all. He co-founded the literary magazine "The Paris Review." He boxed and pitched and quarterbacked and dribbled with the pros. He wrestled the gun from the hand of the man who had shot his friend Bobby Kennedy in Los Angeles. He interviewed Hemingway in Madrid and Ali in Zaire. He was in "Lawrence of Arabia" and "The Simpsons." He threw legendary parties. He was tall, erudite and impossibly enthusiastic. In "George, Being George," a friend of his puts it this way: "George saw everything out there as one huge old swimming hole to plunge seriously into and come up with a fish in his mouth." It would have been easy to resent George Plimpton. He grew up a child of old money, New York WASP privilege. He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. And that voice.
(Soundbite of recording)
Mr. GEORGE PLIMPTON: I decided finally to pack the football.
FATSIS: That's Plimpton reading the opening of "Paper Lion." His 1966 book about becoming a training camp quarterback with the Detroit Lions. The book that would inspire me, 40 years later, to spend a summer as a placekicker with the Denver Broncos and write my own book.
(Soundbite of recording)
Mr. PLIMPTON: It was a slightly used Spaulding ball. An expensive one with the information printed on it that it was triple-lined and lock-stitched.
FATSIS: It's hard to imagine how Plimpton got athletes to play along, and to take him seriously, and to like him, which they invariably did. There's a great story in "George, Being George" about the time Plimpton fought the light heavyweight champion Archie Moore. Moore bloodied Plimpton's nose, and afterward, the trumpeter Miles Davis, who was there at Stillman's Gym in New York, inquired, George, is that black blood, white blood or red blood? Plimpton replied perfectly, that's blue blood. That sort of self-awareness was the heart of Plimpton. As his life unspools in "George, Being George" you sense that Plimpton understood that he enjoyed advantages unavailable to others, and something about that bothered him. So he chased things that would have been unavailable, even to him. He recognized because of his background and his charm that he could, and so he did. The writer Calvin Trillin remarks that it took confidence to think of Plimpton's voice "as an accent instead of a speech impediment." But Plimpton used it as a tool it enhanced the self-deprecation inherent in his exploits. There is a flipside, though. Here's the author and editor Thomas Beller, reading one of his entries in the book.
Mr. THOMAS BELLER (Author/Editor): Self-deprecation is fine, but in the literary aristocracy that Plimpton embodied, it's a dangerous position. Precisely because it's sort of debonair and easy, he somehow exempted himself from really trying from what the athletes had to do to get where they were or, for that matter, from the dangerous, emotional daring thing that the writers he ended up publishing in The Review did.
FATSIS: As a reader and a copycat, I think that's true. Plimpton was an optimist, a teller of amusing and amazing stories. He once said that, in writing "Paper Lion," he wanted to reveal the humor and grace of football. He saw athletes as heroes. He didn't want to visit their dark places. He preferred everything to be Mah-velous! or Ex-trohr-din-aree! Was it a weakness? It wouldn't have been his only one - the women in his life attest to that. But it certainly wasn't a disqualifying one. Terry McDonnell, who edited Plimpton for various magazines, comments that, as a writer, Plimpton was half-an-inch away from Thurber - if he cared. What Plimpton didn't do - write the big novel or the big memoir, become James Thurber, or Norman Mailer, or Philip Roth - is a fascinating thread in "George, Being George." Plimpton would remark - jokingly, his widow Sarah says - that he could have been a contender. Instead, he chose a nonstop public life to fit his extrovert personality. But there was an irony in George becoming George. Listen to how the novelist and journalist Jonathan Dee, another former Paris Review staffer puts it.
Mr. JONATHAN DEE (Novelist/Journalist): The irony is that is his whole participatory method was devised as a way to get a better picture of the subject. It wasn't supposed to be about George. But over time, and more or less against his will, his celebrity became such that it overshadowed whatever else he might have wanted you to get out of the story. His persona was his livelihood, and it was also a kind of a trap for him.
FATSIS: Intentionally or not, "George, Being George" reinforces that theme. The book gives Plimpton's writing short shrift. Plimpton acknowledged that he didn't invent the participatory genre, but Plimpton made it his own. The way he bonded with the players; his remarkable attention to detail, his thick, anecdotal, rolling prose; his sense of whimsy. I asked Sarah Plimpton what George would have made of a remark like mine.
Ms. SARAH PLIMPTON (George Plimpton's widow): He, by no means felt he cornered the market on participatory sports journalism. He would have encouraged you and he would have a lot fun with it. You know, he was an athlete too, and he would have been competitive about it certainly, but I think he would have been very amused to see what you've made of it.
FATSIS: I'm flattered to be mentioned favorably in the same sentence as Plimpton, and now I'm flattered by the spirit of Plimpton himself. That was the effect you learn in "George Being George" that he had on everyone. By the end of the book, you just can't believe that someone like George Plimpton existed, someone so gracious, so curious, so out there - with all the complications that might involve. Here's what Norman Mailer says on the last page of the book. There was something immensely impersonal about George. He wasn't doing it for himself, he was doing it for the spirit of the universe, or rather, he was doing it for the spirit of the occasion, because if you improve the spirit of the occasion, maybe that wouldn't be altogether bad for the spirit of the universe. No one will ever be George Plimpton. But it sure feels good once, in a while, to try.
SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis is the author of "A Few Seconds of Panic." It's about playing in the NFL, and "Word Freak" about playing competitive Scrabble. He is also a regular voice on All Things Considered.
You are listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.