George Plimpton, the protean journalist, editor and professional dilettante, towers over the galleys and audio cassettes amassed on his desk at the Paris Review and shouts amiably into the phone: "Anne, bring me a Python. One of the longer ones."
It's not hard to imagine Plimpton -- an impresario of high-spirited pranks who once claimed as an April Fool's jest that he'd been bitten by a cobra, and who tells PW that he's recently returned from a birdwatching expedition in the Chihuahua province of Mexico -- producing a live snake. In short order, much to our disappointment, an assistant arrives unfurling a 15-foot segment of the manuscript of Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, out from Doubleday.
Like Edie: An American Biography (Knopf, 1982) and American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy (Harcourt, 1970), both collaborative efforts of Plimpton and Grand Street editor Jean Stein, the Truman Capote book is what Plimpton calls an "oral biography," a tapestry of recollections and impressions assembled from interviews he conducted and then literally spliced together atop the pool table in his apartment. "It's like doing a puzzle," he says of the editing process, "trying to make one section fit to another. What I did is to paste them all together into long snakes, I call them pythons. Some of them are as long as this room. And each of these rolls, these pythons, is a chapter unto itself."
In the battleship-gray townhouse on Manhattan's East River that has served as the headquarters of the Paris Review since 1973, Plimpton, at 70, is surrounded by the trophies of his maverick, globetrotting career. Although he lives upstairs with his wife, Sarah, and young twin daughters (an earlier marriage produced two other children), this office is stuffed with pieces of primitive art, pictures of writers, piles of baseball hats, campaign buttons and other items that lend it the antic ambiance of an art-house fraternity.
Plimpton's life is nothing if not antic. Today, he has a cold, which imparts a world-weariness to his boyish good looks and lanky, Cat-in-the-Hat build. But neither a runny nose nor the unrelenting ring of the telephone prevents him from clearing half his day to discuss his own tumultuous writing life with PW. After all, this editor's interviews on the craft of writing -- a staple of the Paris Review since E.M. Forster graced the first issue in 1953 -- have set the standard for author interviews everywhere. A font of anecdotes and publishing lore, Plimpton proves as ready to discuss his falling out with Stein, the details of which have been well bruited about in recent gossip columns, as to reminisce about the subjects of his three biographies.
Kennedy, the dashing Democratic standard-bearer; Sedgwick, the aristocratic, self-immolating superstar; and Capote, the iconoclastic writer and cosmopolitan gadfly: each suggests a different sort of parallel life for Plimpton. With his Zelig-like gift for ubiquity, Plimpton plays a minor role in each of the books: wrestling the gun out of the hands of Kennedy's assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, mingling with the Sedgwicks at Harvard and careening around Capote's famous Black and White Ball at New York's Plaza Hotel.
As Plimpton's python lies on the floor between us, it is this particular quality that comes into sharpest focus: Plimpton's tendency to be present at spectacular events, then to withdraw to the margins, the better to provide his reader with a wide-angle report on the events he chronicles. For someone who, at every turn of his career, seems to have sought glamour, fun and access to the loftiest realms of American life, Plimpton still prefers to be seen as a kind of everyman. "I'm exactly the sort of person you are," he tells PW. "As a reporter, I drift through these worlds. I think reporters tend to do this. Dip their beaks into various soups and come away."
Few reporters came of age in such prestigious surroundings. Like the Sedgwicks, whose pedigree Edie traces to the ruling class of 19th-century New England, Plimpton was born into an affluent family, the oldest of the four children of a well-known corporate lawyer and U.N. diplomat. "I had a very fortunate upbringing in the sense that I was surrounded by rather formidable people in the arts," he says.
Plimpton speaks with a singular accent, which he once characterized as "eastern seaboard cosmopolitan." One guesses it is the product, in part, of our most elite schools, social clubs and universities. From St. Bernard's in Manhattan, where his class of 15 included Peter Matthiessen and "Punch" Sulzberger, Plimpton traveled to Exeter and Harvard, then was drafted into the Army as "a demolition specialist" (an interest that led to Plimpton's appointment as New York fireworks commissioner in the '60s). After returning to Harvard to edit the Lampoon and take his B.A. in 1950, he studied at Kings College, Cambridge, but was soon summoned to Paris by Matthiessen and Harold Humes to help launch the Paris Review.
"I didn't think I could make it as a writer, largely because everyone around me at college seemed to write with great facility," he says. "Particularly at Cambridge, where the students have had grammar pounded into them from infancy. But I felt I could edit, I had a good eye for what was particularly well written and felt I could perhaps "make betters," as William Shawn used to say about writing in the New Yorker."
The Review soon became a magnet for distinguished editors, authors and avant-gardistes of all stripes, many of whom were drawn to the saturnalian literary world, and the low cost of living in 1950s Paris. Describing a visit to New York during those first precarious days of the Review, Plimpton recalls a chance meeting with New Directions publisher James Laughlin. "He said 'I very much admire your publication.' I remember asking, 'Do you think I should continue with it?' And he said. 'You must continue with it.' It was like being touched by the hand of some great potentate. I went back to Paris mostly on that touch."
Within three years, the ever-peripatetic Plimpton had returned to New York, begun teaching at Barnard and completed a children's book, The Rabbit's Umbrella (Viking, 1955), all while continuing to edit the quarterly. He also wrote a series of articles for Sports Illustrated on Harold Vanderbilt, the 1930s America's Cup champion and inventor of contract bridge.
Out of His League
Emboldened by his first magazine assignment, Plimpton approached SI editor Andre Laguerre with an idea he had borrowed from former Daily News sportswriter Paul Gallico (today best known as the author of The Poseidon Adventure). "What Gallico did was to climb down out of the press box," Plimpton explains. "He thought you couldn't really criticize somebody for striking out in the bottom of the ninth inning with the bases loaded in the World Series unless you yourself had faced a major league curveball. He got into the ring with Jack Dempsey and wrote a wonderful description of what it feels like to be knocked about by a champion."
SI arranged to have Plimpton, an unremarkably talented sports fan, to pitch to a roster of major league all-stars, including Willie Mays and Ernie Banks, before a crowd of 20,000 people at a post-season exhibition game in 1960. What proved a humiliating ordeal became the basis for his first book of participatory journalism, Out of My League (Harper, 1961). For his next book, Paper Lion (Harper, 1966), Plimpton actually joined a professional football team, scrimmaging with the Detroit Lions with a pen and notepad tucked in his helmet.
He also gradually gained faith in his own skills as a reporter. "I'm very nervous about my writing because it does not come easily at all," he reflects. "When I'm praised, I tend to think they're just flattering me. As I moved along I began to learn that the one gift I have is humor." This quality is all to rare among journalists, he realized.
By the mid-1960s, participatory journalism had become Plimpton's trademark. By joining the Boston Celtics, boxing lightweight champ Archie Moore and clanging the triangle for the New York Philharmonic, Plimpton demonstrated, as Capote biographer Gerald Clarke once put it, "that in an age of constricting specialization a man can do almost anything he sets his mind to, if only for a moment."
Not coincidentally, as Plimpton was planning the first of these stunts in 1959, Truman Capote was setting out for Garden City, Kans., to cover the murder that became the subject of In Cold Blood, a book that shattered the conventions of true-crime reporting. Like Plimpton, Capote insisted on depicting his subject -- a crime and its aftermath -- from the inside, ingratiating himself into a rural community with the enchanting insouciance of Holly Golightly. Tom Wolfe would later compare the two authors in an anthology on New Journalism. Both authors, Wolfe writes, "had the moxie to talk their way inside any milieu."
If today Plimpton isn't exactly a New Journalist, he continues to bridle at the limitations of genre, preferring to explode the conventions of fiction and nonfiction with the avidity of a trained demolitions expert (his only novel, The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, published by Macmillan in 1987, began as an SI hoax about a Buddhist pitcher with a 168-mile-an-hour fastball). Plimpton has even turned to Henry Fielding for the structure of Truman Capote, adopting Fielding's habit of giving his chapters lengthy, discursive and often humorous titles.
In his preface, Plimpton compares this biography, with its contradictory episodes and gossip, to a cocktail party. If indeed it succeeds better in replicating the experience of table-hopping at Elaine's (another milieu familiar to Plimpton) than as an exegesis of Capote's life and work, that effect is intended.
"It's like Rashoman, that famous film in which you have five different interpretations of the same event," Plimpton explains. "It's one of the charms of this kind of book, these varied views, these varied glasses through which he is peered at.
"I think there are some problems with oral narrative," he continues. "One is that you don't really get an absolute fix because you have so many voices offering their opinions. There's never a point at which you synthesize all the voices and give what would be a true portrait. The image of the cocktail party is suitable because you hear inaccurate and scurrilous things about people, and the listener has to pick through all these various voices and come up with his own portrait, his own conclusion."
As Plimpton tries to envision his own next project, which could be anything from a book on birdwatching to a children's opera, the one fixed point in his professional life, besides the Review, is his agent, Russell &Volkening's Tim Seldes, a classmate from Exeter. "I'm supposed to be putting together a list of things I'd like to do which is very long. Tim is always trying to control me. Sometimes I go off and do these deals on my own. He's horrified."
Nan Talese, who edited Truman Capote at Doubleday, is only the latest of Plimpton's illustrious book editors, whose ranks include Cas Canfield at Harper, Jackie Onassis at Doubleday and Starling Lawrence at Norton. "I think for an editor you really want somebody who is going to feel that the book is their own," he says. "Who's going to try to get the best deals for it, make sure the right ad copy is done for it, mother you through the parties that are held for it and give you confidence. They're like guides on safari moving their clients through difficult country."
In an introduction to a Paris Review anthology released by Norton in 1990, Jonathan Galassi writes that "editing is nothing less than the art of the possible." That attribute may apply to all editors, but is particularly true of this snake-charming editor-author, who has not only extended the art of the possible on the printed page, but has also made it a way of life.