In Praise of Plimpton

It's poetic justice that the late George Plimpton should be the subject of an oral biography, since he perfected the form wherein people's recollections of a subject are stitched together to form a composite portrait ("Edie"). It's a method that works best when the subject is widely known—the more friends, enemies and acquaintances who testify, the richer the result. In that regard, Plimpton is the perfect candidate, and the proof is in "George, Being George," the compulsively readable oral biography edited by his friend Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. It is hard to think of a contemporary figure who bestrode more universes more successfully—or more publicly. The literary world knew him as the cofounder and editor of The Paris Review, and as the host, at his New York City townhouse, of thousands of cocktail parties launching books and careers. Sports fans knew him as the author of a series of hilarious—but always beauti-fully written—books ("Paper Lion," "The Bogey Man") in which he attempted to hold his own with professional football players, boxers, golfers and baseball players. In television commercials, he deployed his comically patrician accent (Katharine Hepburn with a cold?) in the service of products ranging from microwave popcorn to swimming pools. He was in such demand as an after-dinner speaker, emcee, toastmaster and eulogist that, according to his widow, Sarah Dudley Plimpton, "at his memorial service, a number of people came up to me saying how disappointed they were because he was supposed to speak at their funeral."

You never knew where Plimpton would turn up (there is a photo of two men wrest-ing the gun away from Sirhan Sirhan after he shot Bobby Kennedy—one of the men is Plimpton), but wherever he appeared, he never seemed out of place. Because he never pretended to be other than what he was, or because he was anything but a snob, he managed to inject himself successfully into a multitude of scenes and roles. "He wasn't snooty," says Gay Talese, "he wasn't arrogant, he wasn't full of himself—well, he was full of himself, but in a nice way. It isn't often that you get from that privileged background a man who would be almost always acceptable and approachable."

His signature qualities were an unquenchable curiosity, admiration for almost any kind of skill, and, in the words of his lifelong friend Peter Matthiessen, "his affectionate response to human folly"—especially his own. He was never afraid to fail or make a fool of himself and never shy about laughing at his own mistakes. His participatory sports books are book-length exercises in self-mockery—and earnest celebrations of the talent against which he pitted himself. Yet if he was the epitome of Yeats's "smiling public man," a friend to people as different as Archie Moore and Marianne Moore, he was also elusive. The more people talk about him in this book, the more his ghost seems to hover just beyond the page, not quite defined and never pinned down. Significantly, the people who knew him best are the least willing to sum him up. Perhaps it is enough to point out that the achievement of which he was most proud was being named fireworks commissioner for the City of New York, a title created for him by Mayor John Lindsay. Fireworks were his passion—beautiful, ephemeral fun: what a perfect metaphor for Plimpton. The position has not been filled since his death.