Tasting The Flavors Of Life As Only 'George' Could
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Author Simon Van Booy was born in London and grew up in rural Wales. When he asked his parents if he could wear tails to church, the closest he could get was wearing his school uniform on weekends. He's been inspired by a particular New York sophistication embodied by author George Plimpton. And for our series You Must Read This, where authors talk about a book they love, Van Booy chooses "George Being George: George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals - and a Few Unappreciative Observers."
Mr. SIMON VAN BOOY (Author): Writers are often alone when they work. Hours pass in silence as one, long moment. Light fades as day turns back to face the coming night. Thats when I take down one of my favorite books: an oral biography of the charismatic American aesthete named George Plimpton. Its a book that forces me to leave my desk and drop into the messy world of people and parties, restaurants and park benches. A book that glorifies the accidents and chance meetings that over time, after pain and happiness, evolve into the lives of my characters.
As writers, we use our real lives to create imaginary ones, and thats why this is one my favorite books, because Plimptons charisma and joie de vivre literally spill from the pages.
The oral biography form is a life told literally from the lips of people who had some connection to the subject. Almost like a series of cocktail parties when the person has gone to the bathroom and is being discussed in whispers with fervent candor. Plimpton himself had great success with this form of biography, but theres more to the story of why I love this witty, intimate portrait of Mr. Plimpton.
When I first moved to New York, an early writing assignment was to interview a man I had never heard of but who had presided for 50 years over The Paris Review. I interviewed my subject over the telephone and wondered if he was British, not only on account of his deliciously austere voice, but his old-world manners and the way he treated a rookie with the same respect and gallantry as he would have a senior award-winning war correspondent.
This book is full of Mr. Plimptons most famous antics: his love of fireworks and his experiences with the New York Philharmonic, the Detroit Lions and as a trapeze artist for the Barnum & Bailey circus.
This book, however, also contains more tender, private sentiments of the man who wrestled the gun from Robert Kennedys assassin, the man who was also a husband and a father and a mentor.
He died soon after my interview, and I forgot about him until a few years later, someone handed me a book about a very literary man she thought I would admire. I devoured the biography the way Plimpton devoured life. Whether it was culinary, literary or in bed, he taught me everything. I expected there to be another George in my life, but there never was. There was either passion and no manners, or there were lots of manners and no passion. He was a whole man.
Through the laughter and the longing that echo in the pages of George, Being George, George Plimpton has been returned to me, and more alive than he ever was, an apparition hovering somewhere between my own life and the ones I can only imagine.
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SIEGEL: Simon Van Booy is the author of two story collections: The Secret Lives of People in Love and Love Begins in Winter. If you'd like to comment on his essay, you can do it at npr.org.
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