Sunday, October 2, 2016

The George Plimpton Story

[ed. My life-long love of reading started with Paper Lion.]

Six books and several dozen Sports Illustrated articles into his journalistic career, George Plimpton still couldn’t type the words “participatory journalism” with a straight face. “‘Participatory journalism’—that ugly descriptive,” he writes in the first pages of Shadow Box (1977), sighing over his Underwood. Though he became nationally known as the subgenre’s paragon and the term pursued him into his obituaries, Plimpton was only a journalist in the sense that James Thurber was an illustrator and Robert Benchley a newspaper columnist. He went places, spoke to people, and wrote down his observations, but the reporting wasn’t the point. What was the point? The storytelling, the humanity, the comedy.

It was an odd match to begin with: for a writer of Plimpton’s background, journalism ranked on the literary hierarchy somewhere below light verse and pulp westerns. In George, Being George, Charles Michener, Plimpton’s editor at The New Yorker, explained:
Journalists were from a rougher background. They tended not to be Ivy League, white-shoe boys, which George was certainly the epitome of. When I came into that world, I was at Yale and people would say, “Why do you want to be a journalist? It’s sleazy. That isn’t for people like you.”
Journalism was not to be taken seriously, but comedy writing was even more of a joke. What was the president of the Harvard Lampoon, class of 1948, to do?

After two years at Cambridge, where Plimpton earned a master’s in English, he moved to Paris to run a fledgling literary quarterly, while working in secret on various novels he would later abandon; one began with a long set piece in which a fire breaks out at a society party. As contemporaries and friends—Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gay Talese—began to revitalize the journalistic form, placing themselves in the middle of the story and writing with the depth, nuance, and narrative richness of novelists, Plimpton saw an opening.

In 1956 he began writing for Sports Illustrated, which Henry Luce had founded two years earlier with the hope of targeting men of leisure. The editors had as much interest in hunting, boating, and polo as in the major spectator sports; the main athlete profiled in the debut issue was the Duke of Edinburgh, an enthusiastic amateur archer, cricketer, and high jumper. The first significant paid writing assignment of Plimpton’s career was a 30,000-word cover story, published over four consecutive issues, about Harold Vanderbilt’s passions for yachting and bridge.

The refined approach required refined authors. Sports Illustrated’s founding editor, Sid James, who had previously edited Ernest Hemingway at Life, sought novelists to serve as contributors: William Faulkner covered hockey and the Kentucky Derby, John Steinbeck wrote about fishing, Budd Schulberg about boxing, James T. Farrell was the roving baseball correspondent, and John P. Marquand wrote a series about country clubs. The editors also touted the return of Paul Gallico, who had been the highest-paid sportswriter in New York as a columnist for the Daily News before abandoning his post to write novels and screenplays (the best known today are The Poseidon Adventure and The Pride of the Yankees). Gallico got his start as a young journalist by sparring a round with Jack Dempsey, who knocked him out cold in about ten seconds. Gallico repeated the gag with many of the professional athletes he covered in order, he wrote, to understand more intimately “the feel” of the game. In the opening pages of Out of My League (1961), Plimpton writes of his admiration for Gallico:

He described, among other things, catching Herb Pennock’s curveball, playing tennis against Vinnie Richards, golf with Bobby Jones, and what it was like coming down the Olympic ski run six thousand feet above Garmisch—quite a feat considering he had been on skis only once before in his life…. I wondered if it would be possible to emulate Gallico, yet go further by writing at length and in depth about each sport and what it was like to participate.

Thus marks the first appearance of “participate” in Plimpton’s writing.

Little, Brown has published in attractive Skittles-colored editions a slightly eccentric selection of Plimpton’s works of sports journalism. The one for which he is best known, “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” which was the cover of Sports Illustrated’s April 1, 1985, issue and was later expanded into a novel, is omitted, perhaps because it is a work of fiction (though his other books, it should be noted, contain plenty of fiction). Also missing is One More July (1977), a conversation with the offensive lineman Bill Curry, and The X-Factor (1990), an inquiry into what distinguishes superstar athletes from mortals, a quality he discussed as early as the opening paragraph of his Vanderbilt piece. The new set includes the five books that Plimpton counted as works of “participatory journalism”—Out of My League, Paper Lion (1965), The Bogey Man (1968), Shadow Box, and Open Net (1985)—as well as Mad Ducks and Bears (1973), a weightless postscript to Paper Lion that mainly concerns the off-field hijinks of two Lions linemen, and One For the Record (1974), which follows Henry Aaron’s quest to beat Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. But all of Plimpton’s books were participatory in the sense that he is always tangibly present, his sensibility—beguiling, lyrical, charming, deeply funny—singing from every paragraph. The joy of these books comes less from sharing the company of Muhammad Ali or Alex Karras than—a point lost on his many imitators—from sharing the company of George Plimpton.

by Nathaniel Rich, NY Review of Books |  Read more:
Image: Larry Fink