THE GREAT PLIMPTON: A Tribute To A Real Sportsman

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THE GREAT PLIMPTON: A Tribute To A Real Sportsman

How old was I when I witnessed first sight of George Plimpton?

Honestly, I don't recall, but, I remember this distinguished-looking man, his voice, and the fact that my father liked him very much.

He was a star, as far as I could tell, a brilliant light, a genius, I thought.

He did what he wanted to do, and this represented freedom and adventure in the most exciting way.

I told my father, "I plan to do what he does one day."
My father looked at me smiled and said, "You better eat your Wheaties."
I figured, Plimpton, like myself, loved sports and loved to read and to write—what a connection!
The first time I heard about him playing quarterback with the Lions and hanging out with Ali, I mentioned it to my best friend Kurt. He said, "That's too cool."
"Wow! Too cool," I thought. "I gotta follow this dude."
I discovered that Plimpton wrote books, traveled with sports heroes, met beautiful people, and lived well.
"Man, he's got it going on. My kind of lifestyle," I said.
When I got to Hernando High School, I patterned my game after Plimpton.
I lettered in five different sports (football, basketball, track, cross-country, and tennis), captained all of these teams, and served as sports editor of my school newspaper.
I did a weekend sports show on WWJB radio and managed to box Daryl Washington, the school's champ who knocked me out cold.
But that's OK! I was in the arena.
At least, I didn't get my nose broken the way that Plimpton did against boxer Archie Moore.
I stood my ground, so to speak, before I went down for the count.
Plimpton was tall, square, hip, cool, dapper, intelligent, funny, witty, with it, inside, outside, relevant, and a renegade—all at the same time.
How did he do it?
He maintained his class, dignity, and style on his own terms and always with passion.
Passion is the key. He looked at every assignment with personal passion.

Plimpton was a teacher—a professor who taught me how to approach my work, my art, my craft.

His lessons appeared in the form of books, television interviews, commercials, magazine articles, movies, plays, TV shows, and great parties that included fireworks.

 

Plimpton's Paris Review

The Paris Review, the bold literary magazine, was founded by Peter Matthiessen, Harold L. Humes, Thomas Guinzburg, Donald Hall, and George Plimpton in 1953.

During his lifetime, Plimpton was the first and only editor.

Through The Paris Review, he introduced writers Terry Southern, Phillip Roth, Evan S. Connell, and Samuel Beckett to the world.

He would go on to edit "The Paris Review Interviews: Writers At Work," a series that included interviews with literary giants such as Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Allen Ginsburg, Truman Capote, Jean Cocteau, William Carlos Williams, William Burroughs, Lillian Hellman, James Jones, Blaise Cendrars, Evelyn Waugh, and many more.

The passion Plimpton had for The Paris Review would forever remain in his heart.

In fact, for financial reasons he moved the headquarters from Paris to his Manhattan apartment, which occupied two floors for its offices.

He never took a dime for his duties as editor and said, "It was a gas."

I was 16, a sportsman, and a student reporter at the Sun Journal in Brooksville, Fla., when I read The Paris Review for the first time.

I knew George Plimpton made his living as a journalist, writing articles about his adventures.

Plimpton's spirit gave rise to my desire to have my work published in The Paris Review, since it represented the "top."

He was the inspiration for my vision to create Brewcups, an online literary paper.

Plimpton himself said, "The Paris Review afforded me this lifestyle."

His lifestyle included sports, travel, romance, adventure, and great coffee time with literary greats of his day.

He always believed that The Paris Review would remain relevant.

Today, The Paris Review presents a number of awards including the Plimpton Prize, a $10,000 prize awarded annually for best fiction or poetry.

In the autumn of 2009, I wrote this poem titled:

 

The Paris Review

Written for joy by few
In writer's ink and way,
Each knowing how the dog barked,
Task to table they worked
Yet they do not in vain—yet they do not complain.

Let man toast with thrill
And step forward to toast
Those who knew such and such.
For passion in the heart
Note that of writing legends we cheer
What a group—a few.

A glorious time for such a job,
They in their day designed;
But much for they as for you.

Come we together as one
This literary pack—it's true
Began with three words—The Paris Review.

 

Plimpton Participates

In this slice of life, subtitled "Plimpton Participates," I write about an imaginary walk with Plimpton.

Plimpton said to me that he was born in New York to Francis T.P. Plimpton, a lawyer and diplomat, and Pauline (nee Ames) Plimpton, on March 18, 1927.

Plimpton's bloodline is deeply rooted in America, by the fact that Adelbert Ames, a maternal grandfather, was a highly-decorated Union Army general and Reconstruction-era governor of Mississippi during and after the Civil War.

His great-great grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Butler (aka "Beast") was a Union general and quite a controversial one.

It was autumn, a bit cool, so I thought coffee served outside with blueberry scones was perfect for the occasion.

We sat at a picnic table near the UF College of Journalism. I asked, "Would you be so kind to talk about your education?"

"I attended St. Bernard's School, Phillips Exeter Academy, and actually received my high school diploma from Daytona Beach High School," said Plimpton.

"What a marvelous experience—surf, sand, and babes!

"I trekked from the warmth of Florida to Cambridge in July 1944 to enter Harvard University.

"Loved every minute of it!

"I became a member of the Hasty Pudding Institute, Pi Eta, and the Porcellian Club, and I wrote for the Harvard Lampoon.

"English, my boy, was my concentration.

"Duty to country interrupted, I served in the military for two years, returned to my beloved Harvard, and graduated in 1950.

"In fact, at Harvard, a chap by the name of Robert F. Kennedy was a good friend and classmate.

"What good times we shared, especially by telling jokes, laughing, and playing touch football."

We finished our Colombian brew, visited the J-school and decided to walk over to Florida Field.

"This place remains me of my days with the Detroit Lions," he said. "I attended preseason training camp as a backup quarterback and participated in an intra-squad scrimmage.

"I recalled the events in my book, Paper Lion. Hollywood turned it into a movie starring Alan Alda in 1968.

"I joined the Baltimore Colts in 1971, in an exhibition game played against my former team, the Lions.

"This time, I served up a book titled Mad Ducks and Bears featuring the off-field follies of my football friends, Alex Karras and Bobby Layne. Hey, run a post pattern, I'll throw you a pass."

I was truly excited about the day; I was hanging out with one of the most successful literary journalists in the world, and we were having a blast.

It's funny what a little imagination can produce.

I told Plimpton that I heard professional tennis player Pancho Gonzales demolished him in a match, so I arranged an opportunity for him to display his skills and redeem himself at UF's tennis complex.

Plimpton eagerly took me up on this because of his competitive nature.

He blew me off the court in three straight sets.

I thought I had game; I was a tennis star in high school with scholarship offers to boot.

But, on this day, I was no match for "The Great Plimpton."

OK, I was a baseball freak, as well—a catcher and pretty good at it, I might add.

Plimpton had no problem walking over to McKethan Baseball Field to toss a few.

I said, "Legend has it that you pitched against the National League and wrote a book titled: Out Of My League; well, I just want you to know, I met Hank Aaron—so, we're even."

He laughed. Let me see your stuff, old man. Who you calling old? Try this kid!

He released, and I saw the ball move like a butterfly and sting like a bee when it hit the center of my mitt.

Boy, it still hurts.

I wanted revenge, so I rushed him over to the "O" Dome, the O'Connell Center, to show off my free-throw shooting skills.

I was a 93 percent from behind the free-throw line shooter.

He has no chance.

He politely allowed me to go first, and I nailed 8-of-10 shots.

Plimpton tossed in his first shot, Wilt Chamberlain style—underhand; then this guy buried 9-of-9 in a row.

I just held up my hands like Michael Jordan in total disbelief, like, "what is this sh--?"

Later that day, I drove over to Plimpton's hotel, which happened to be one of the best in Gainesville.
I waited in the lobby, observing some attractive women wearing what appeared to be cheerleader uniforms. Ah! School spirit.
I was ahead of schedule because I heard that Plimpton was always on time.
I didn't want to tick him off, but he seemed to be the type of gentleman who would say something brilliantly funny to excuse a person's tardiness.
In the lobby, I discovered, I could have my shoes shined and returned in five minutes.
After looking at my watch, I accepted the offer.
"Polished shoes reflected a polished mind," I thought.
Soon, a butler arrived with my shiny shoes and, a white envelope addressed to me.
I opened it, immediately and found the following:
 MR. GEORGE PLIMPTON
Cordially Invites You To A Dinner Honoring
 RONNIE C. WRIGHT
Literary Journalist
 TODAY
6:00 - 7:30 P.M.
 THE WRITERS CLUB
 _____
 
No time to waste.
I quickly placed my shoes on and dashed over to this prestigious club located inside the hotel.
I had the good fortune to wine and dine in luxury before, but this was truly the lap of luxury. Good thing I wore my white suit.
I felt like I blended in with the crowd.
The host said, "Good evening, sir, let me escort you to your table."
Plimpton greeted me with a smile, gave me a hand pump, and said, "Come, my boy, have seat. By the way, nice shoes."
"What?" I thought to myself. "This guy actually noticed my shoes. What an eye for detail."
Over dinner, Plimpton shared a vision with me.
"Ronnie you should hop into the arena and write a book about your experience as a professional chef at a pro training camp. Trust me! it will be a hit. By the way, how do you like the duck? You haven't touched it." 
I replied, "I'm a vegetarian."
"Oh!"
Plimpton stood and proposed a toast in my honor: "To the future participatory journalist who has passion in his eyes and fire in his belly. Cheers!"
 
Style and Sensibility
The sun began to peek through the morning clouds.
I sat in my car while I waited for Plimpton in the hotel's entrance way.
He arrived at 9 a.m. sharp.
"Good to see you my boy," he said. "How did you sleep?"
"Light as a feather," I replied.
He jumped into the passenger seat with energy and enthusiasm. "Off we go go, my good man," he shouted. And, off we went.
As we drove, he turned and said, "You never asked about my personal life, so I shall tell you because you demonstrated respect.
"I was married for nearly 20 years to Freddy Medora Espy, the daughter of writer Willard R. Espy, from 1968 to 1988.
"She worked as a photographer's assistant.
"We created two beautiful children whom we named Medora Ames Plimpton and Taylor Ames Plimpton, aka 'MAP and TAP,' appropriately.
"I married Sarah Whitehead Dudley, a freelance writer in 1992, and we created twin daughters. We named the girls Laura Dudley Plimpton and Olivia Hartley Plimpton.
"So, you see, I kept my gun fully-loaded, so to speak. My children are the light of my life.
"As you know, New York mayor John Lindsay once appointed me as Fireworks Commissioner.
"I always had this thing for fireworks, which inspired me to write a book titled Fireworks and, I followed it as host of an A&E Home Video of the same title.
"See that Starbucks ahead? Pull in there, let's have one of those expensive coffee drinks."
I followed Plimpton's request and instructions.
I must admit, I was eager to stop and relax for a spell because I had a list of questions.
 
Q & A
RCW: You enjoyed acting. What was the experience like for you?
GP: Frankly, it was like sipping soup—warm, hearty, delicious soup—the kind that stuck to your ribs and made you feel good inside and all over.
RCW: You appeared in the episode of The Simpsons, "I'm Spelling As Fast As I Can," as host of the "Spellympics." How was that?
GP: It was like running thick sandpaper over thin glass—in essence, it was a very slow grind, but, an enjoyable one, I must add.
RCW: Ali or Frazier?
GP: They are both compelling figures, but what's not to like about "The Greatest?"
In fact, Ali spoke at Harvard and had them all eating out of his hand. You could have heard a pin drop.
RCW: Why do you pursue this line of work?
GP: In the words of my dear personal friend, Robert Kennedy, "Why not?"
RCW: You have an asteroid named after you. Sum it up in words.
GP: Far out!
RCW: What's up with you and Michael Jackson?
GP: Go figure. I have an asteroid with my name on it and I thought, "Why not moonwalk?"
RCW: Who made you laugh?
GP: Capote. He was high drama to the point of comedy central. And, he knew it. The man was a genius.
RCW: Movie role you truly wanted?
GP: James Bond—007. I did enjoy my martini shaken, not stirred.
RCW: You are an accomplished birdwatcher. What motivated this?
GP: As a boy, I observed a beautiful woman sunbathing in the nude through a pair of binoculars, and I was hooked.
RCW: Did you ever take The New Yorker cartoonist Whitney Darrow, Jr.,up on his challenge to scrub office floors?
GP: I attempted to but, the White House turned me down.
RCW: On "Late Night with Johnny Carson," he asked a professional golfer's wife to share one ritual she performs before he plays a golf match. She replied, "I kiss his balls."
GP: I know this golfer well. His punter was always perfectly straight.
RCW: Alex Karras and Bobby Layne.
GP: Almond Joy bar with nuts.
RCW: How do you want to be remembered?
GP: As the guy who participated in the game of life with passion. Enough said.
I decided to leave it at that. So I wrote a poem:       

Style And Sensibility

For one moment in time
While in that arena I met
On center stage the true key,
I discovered that pen is king,
Man in uniform is door—open.

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