November 13, 2016


The George Plimpton Story (Nathaniel Rich OCTOBER 13, 2016, NY Review of Books)

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.

Posted by at November 13, 2016 12:07 AM