A Vintage Interview with George Plimpton

In celebration of the Fourth of July, we re-publish an interview with George Plimpton, the late unofficial fireworks commissioner of the Hamptons (and also the Official Fireworks Commissioner of New York City) that took place for Dan’s Papers in February 1992. George was famous for orchestrating the fireworks over Three Mile Harbor for 20 summers, and before that at his oceanfront home in Wainscott, and before that at the Devon Yacht Club. 

George Plimpton lives in Manhattan over the store. The store in this case is The Paris Review, the celebrated literary magazine that Plimpton has been editing since the early 1950s. It occupies the first floor. George and his family live on the second. This building may well be one of the most spectacular buildings in Manhattan. It is a four-story brownstone, directly waterfront on a small cobblestone street on the East River. Big barges and ships glide by. Gulls circle overhead. My appointment was for 9 a.m., and I was a few minutes early. So when I banged the knocker on the front door of the store, George himself answered. He—and there is no other way to describe it—is a 65-year-old boy. The hair, now turning gray, still falls over his eyes. He stands tall, slightly awkwardly stooped and he smiles with the same mouthful of teeth that must have graced St. Barnard’s Boy’s School in the 1930s. George leads me up a flight of steps to a rabbit warren of rooms.

It seems that the Plimpton pad has taken over two and possibly three apartments on this floor. And after meeting his beautiful wife, Sara, who recently presented him with twins, we repair to the living room, where we settle into sofas and talk, as tugboats, container ships and private yachts steam by outside the picture window.

“What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever seen out there?” I ask, waving to the East River.

“Floaters,” he says. “Up at 98th Street,” he said, “there is this whole colony of Puerto Rican fishermen who are out there every day fishing for striped bass and blue fish. They play reggae music and they have fishing poles along the fences with little tinkle bells attached that go off when a fish is hooked.

“I did a story for a magazine about them once. One of the fishermen told me that he and a boy had caught a striped bass as long as a man, but when they tried to haul it up the sea wall, it had broken the line. And they had seen floaters, dead bodies that had come down from Long Island Sound.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Well, the swimmer, Diane Nyad, swam by once. She’s a friend of mine. She was swimming around Manhattan. She’s swum the Hellespont, and once she tried to swim to Cuba from Key West in a cage.

“I remember she always wanted to be a great squash player. Once she challenged me to a game. She was 29 and I was 50. We played in the Athletic Club at the Grace Building on 59th Street. And before the game I called Jack Barnaby, who was the coach of the woman’s team and he told me always move her up and back, never side to side–something about women and how their breasts and hips encumber them when they move that way. Anyway, I won.”

I asked Plimpton to tell me a little bit about his family.

“We are a Massachusetts family. My mother was an Ames. Her family made shovels. You may have heard of the famous Ames shovels that they say built the Union Pacific Railroad. They were also in the publishing business, Ginn and Company, publishing schoolbooks.

“Both of my parents’ families dated back to the Mayflower. They were members of the Mayflower Society. At these meetings they would state the names of all the people who came over on the Mayflower, and ask the members to stand when their antecedent was named. My mother could stand up three times, my father two. I suppose if I had joined the Society, I’d be able to stand up five.”

George was born in 1927 and brought up in a fine home at 98th Street and Fifth Avenue. His father was a corporation lawyer, one of the principals in the prestigious firm of Deboise and Plimpton, that continues on today.

George has two brothers and one sister, none of whom have gone into the firm. One is an architect in Florida, another runs a cooperative farm in Massachusetts, and their sister is married to Bob Paxton, a French artist.

“How could your family have failed to get even one of the four of you to go into the firm?” I asked.

“Well, we’d sit at the breakfast table and father would lecture us on mortgage indentures. And he’d tell us that one misplaced word could mean the loss of millions of dollars. Accuracy and discipline–those were the things that were important. We were all terrified of it.”

At St. Barnard’s George thought he might grow up to be a professional baseball player. He was even then tall and lean, and he had developed a huge curveball as a pitcher on the school baseball team and on one occasion had struck out 17 men in one game.

“One of my classmates was Charley Lee, who played leftfield,” George said.

“Recently I told a story about a game I pitched which resulted with Charley calling me from where he now lives in Ohio. I was telling the story on a television show. We were playing Hackley, and I had a no-hitter going into the ninth inning. And this guy stepped up who looked to me to be about 28 years old. He hit a lazy fly ball to leftfield to Charley. It would have ended the game. He dropped it.

“We were all very young boys then, and I remember there were a lot of tears after the game. In any case, Charley called to tell me that his whole family now had had the opportunity to relive one of the worst moments of his life. He reminded me he was a year younger than me, and wondered why I couldn’t’ve referred to him simply as a ‘comer.’

“It kind of made me think of that wonderful headline that appeared in the obituary section of the Times once. It read: FRED SNODGRASS DIES AT 81. MUFFED FLYBALL IN 1913. People just don’t forget.”

Plimpton went to Exeter, where his father and his father before him had gone.

“I remember the moment when I realized I ought to consider writing rather than baseball. I was in a class given by Toby Wary. It was after a play and we were sitting around and Toby told us all to write about a man who goes into a forest and comes out differently and what was it that happened to him? We had to do this in 10 lines.

“When we handed them all in, Toby looked at them and said ‘All these others are very accomplished, but you, Plimpton, you are the writer.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”

Plimpton’s father and his father before him had gone to Amherst. But when Plimpton graduated Exeter at age 16 the war was on, and Amherst had been turned over to the Air Cadets. He went to Harvard. After completing two years, he enlisted in the army. He was trained as a demolitions expert in Louisiana and then was sent to Italy as a tank driver.

“I guess that’s where I got my interest in things that explode,” he said.

“In Louisiana we had these village mock-ups built, and half of our team would booby trap the village, and the other half would have to unbooby trap it. Things that blow up would be put behind doors and under pianos and so forth.”

When the war ended, Plimpton, attached to the 88th Division, known as the Blue Devils, was stationed on the border between Yugoslavia and Italy. He was part of an Allied military presence to see that a border war did not break out between the Bosnians and the Italians.

In 1948, Plimpton returned to America. He was mustered out of the States and returned to Harvard, where he took a degree in English. Among his activities there was to be president of the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine. He also took a course with Pulitzer Prize–winning author Archibald MacLeish.

“One of our assignments,” Plimpton said, “was to write a novel. I couldn’t seem to write one. What did interest me, though, was the secret society at Yale known as Skull and Bones. No one knew much about them, but when I had worked as a copyboy in the summertime at Time-Life I had found enormous amounts of material about them in my files. In the end, I turned in a 90-page paper about Skull and Bones. ‘There’s no novel here,’ I confessed to MacLeish—but he gave me an A anyway.”

After Harvard, Plimpton studied at Cambridge in England. One Easter vacation he was in Paris and ran into an old friend, Peter Mathiessen. “’We’re starting a magazine,’ Mathiessen said, ‘and we need an editor. I was thinking of doing it, but I’m writing a novel. H.L. Humes was supposed to do it, but he’s not doing it. How about you?’”

Plimpton was finishing up his courses at Cambridge and had been thinking about returning to America to take a training course to become a TV executive, but how could he turn this down?

“We opened in a tiny office on the Rue Granciere near the Place Sulpice on the Left Bank of Paris. There were lots of literary reviews out at that time: The Partisan Review, The Kenyon, The Hudson, but they were largely critical reviews, where the magazine would get “A” to write about “B.” We decided that our review would bypass A and go directly to B. We would have our writers write original pieces for the magazine.”

During those years in Paris, the early years of The Paris Review, some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century published their work under the wet-behind-the-ears editorship of George Plimpton. They included Terry Southern, Jack Kerouac, Philip Larkin and Philip Roth. Another section of the Review consisted of profiles of these literary figures. Many of these George wrote himself. He interviewed Dorothy Parker, James Thurber and Ernest Hemingway.

“What was Hemingway like?” I asked.

“He didn’t want to talk about writing,” Plimpton said. “He really wanted to know about literary gossip. I guess he felt himself out of touch living in Cuba, which was where I interviewed him.”

George remained in Paris for five years.

“I never made a dime working at The Paris Review,” George said. “And though I continued to edit it, I knew I had to earn money to make a living. So I returned to New York.”

Plimpton set up shop at his parents’ apartment and got a job teaching English at the Barnard College of Columbia University and began to freelance articles to magazines.

“One of the most elaborate that I did was an interview with Harold Vanderbilt, the great yachtsmen. Vanderbilt also invented contract bridge. I went to Florida where he lived, to interview him. My piece went for four issues and was the longest article that Sports Illustrated ever published.”

The following year Plimpton bought the apartment we were now sitting in and wrote the first of his many books of what he calls Participatory Journalism. On assignment from Sports Illustrated, he attended the All Star game of 1956 and arranged, for charity, to pitch to an array of all stars before the beginning of the regular game. His pitching to major leaguers was a sensation and the book he wrote about it, Out of My League, was a bestseller.

A whole string of books followed, each one a rich study of sport, based around George Plimpton participating where he had no business participating. He fought a round against the light heavyweight champion Archie Moore. He was a goalie with the Boston Bruins. He quarterbacked with the Detroit Lions and the Baltimore Colts. The books Shadowbox and Paper Lion, followed.

And he strayed into the crabby waters outside of professional sports. He played triangle for the New York Philharmonic as conducted by Leonard Bernstein. He became a photographer for Playboy. He was a parachutist, a bullfighter and sports car driver. And after he developed his incredible storytelling style to its fullest, he worked as a standup comic at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

And he remained one of New York’s most eligible bachelors until the age of 41.

“I was having dinner at P. J. Clarke’s,” he said, “and met Freddy. I was absolutely taken by her. She must have been 17 or 18 at the time, I couldn’t take my eyes off her.”

George said that he kept putting off getting married to Freddy. Marriage seemed a very difficult idea to him. But he finally did marry her, in 1968.

By 1970, George and Freddy Plimpton were summering in the Hamptons.

“Freddy found this domed house on Gardiner’s Bay, next to the Devon Yacht Club,” Plimpton said. “We lived there for a while and then we bought our house in Wainscott on the ocean, on Town Line Road. We lived there for six or seven years.”

During this time, Plimpton gave annual fireworks parties at his home. They became legendary. They were held every year on Bastille Day (July 14).

“How did you really get interested in fireworks?” I asked.

“I guess it came from my experiences as a demolition expert,” he said. “I really like shooting off fireworks and do so on every occasion I can. I give them out as
presents to people. Then I began buying fireworks for fireworks displays. I used to buy them from John Serpico out in Pennsylvania. And then later, from the Gruccis here on Long Island.”

By this time Plimpton had become a minor national celebrity. Now he began appearing on TV shows and in the movies.

On television he did a series called Greatest Sports Legends. His film credits include Lawrence of Arabia, Rio Lobo, Reds, The Detective, The Secret Files of H. Edgar Hoover and If Ever I See You Again.

Meanwhile, he continued, as he does today, to edit The Paris Review. It comes out quarterly. Here on the East End, Plimpton is probably best known as the first baseman for the writers in the Annual Artist-Writers Game and as master of ceremonies in the Bastille Fireworks Display, now given by Boy’s Harbor.

“In the mid 1970s,” Plimpton said, “Guild Hall and Boy’s Harbor took over my fireworks display as a fundraising event. After the first year or two Guild Hall backed out. I don’t know why. Now it’s entirely to benefit Tony Duke’s Boy’s Harbor camp.”

George and Freddy Plimpton had two children. Medora, the elder, is working this winter at Sugarbush. Taylor, the younger, is at Reed College in Portland. Though George and Freddy divorced, they remain friends.

“In 1984,” George said, “I was covering the Olympics in Los Angeles on assignment by American Express, and I met Sara, my present wife.”

The twins, Olivia and Laura, were born last fall and were on good behavior during our interview. They made not the slightest sound.

Another freighter went by. The people were beginning to bang around in the store below. It was time to leave.

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