5 Things You Didn't Know About George Plimpton

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George Plimpton had an interesting niche in American letters. Although he was best known for his warm, funny narratives of his own adventures as a participatory sportswriter, he also founded the influential literary journal The Paris Review, dabbled in acting, and enjoyed seeing things blow up. Here are five things you may not have known about him.

1. He Was Shot by John Wayne

Plimpton's most memorable writings involved him inserting himself into a daunting situation about which he knew nothing and then seeing what happened. His classic 1966 book Paper Lion, for example, followed Plimpton as he went through training camp with the 1963 Detroit Lions and eventually played in a preseason game. (It's a hilarious read, particularly if you're interested in the NFL of the 1960s.)

To this end, Plimpton tried all sorts of weird professions, particularly in sports. He boxed against light heavyweight champ Archie Moore, a misadventure that ended with a partially collapsed nose. He also golfed against Arnold Palmer, rode the trapeze in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, pitched to pro baseball players like Willie Mays in an exhibition game, and had John Wayne shoot him in a film scene.

2. His Toughest Assignment Was Surprising

You might think playing in the NFL beat Plimpton down worse than anything else in his career. You wouldn't be all that far from the truth; he lost yardage on every play he ran as the Lions' third-string QB. Plimpton later said, though, that the toughest thing he ever did for a story involved playing in a professional bridge tournament.

Plimpton later described the fiasco to Sports Illustrated. "My partner, Oswald Jacoby, got mad at me, and my sense of mental inadequacy was much more excruciating than pain or not being able to run as fast as someone else or fumbling a football. Being silent at a bridge table with a vacuum for a mind is a horror."

3. He Tried to Save RFK

Despite being booted from Phillips Exeter Academy, Plimpton eventually went to Harvard as an undergrad. While he was there he befriended Robert Kennedy, and the two young students quickly became very close. (Muhammad Ali would later jokingly call Plimpton "Kennedy" because the writer was so friendly with the family.)

Plimpton was actually on RFK's private plane when Kennedy made the decision to run for President. Later, he was standing at Kennedy's side at the Ambassador Hotel when Sirhan Sirhan assassinated the presidential hopeful. Plimpton, former NFL star Roosevelt Grier and decathlete Rafer Johnson were actually the men who wrestled the assassin to the ground and disarmed him before he could fire any additional shots.

4. He Knew When to Ask for Cash

paris-reviewPlimpton and his pals William Styron and Peter Matthiessen began kicking around the idea of starting a literary journal with some other friends in Paris in the early 1950s. They were good writers and showed promise as editors, but they weren't so hot on the business end of things. One of their short-lived ideas involved printing the journal on birch bark and calling it Druid's Home Companion.

Even after common sense prevailed and the name The Paris Review stuck, this dream team had a problem: they didn't have any cash. So they sought out investors. Plimpton eventually hit the gold mine during the running of the bulls in Pamplona. He was there watching the spectacle with Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, and he asked mid-race if the prince could slide his magazine some dough to become its first publisher. To Plimpton's surprise, they made the deal. Plimpton later recalled, "We had no money. It seemed to me an unusual moment to ask him. He had his mind on the bulls, and he said yes."

5. He Really, Really Liked Fireworks

Plimpton obviously loved sports and literature, but he was far from immune to the allure of a colorful explosion. He wrote a book on the topic, Fireworks, and hosted an A&E documentary in which he narrated tales of his own fireworks hobby, a passion that took him to exotic locales like Monte Carlo in search of the next boom.

pc-plimpton190Plimpton took his fireworks seriously. He ran with New York's famous Grucci family of fireworks masters, and Plimpton soon became the world's best-known connoisseur of bangs. Former New York Mayor John Lindsay gave Plimpton the unofficial post of "Fireworks Commissioner," and when Caroline Kennedy got married, Plimpton gave her a fireworks show as a wedding gift. In 1981, the Sakowitz catalog offered a rare treat: customers could purchase a fireworks show choreographed by the Gruccis and narrated by Plimpton. The asking price? A mere $1 million.

Here's a clip of Plimpton's fireworks documentary:

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. If there's someone you'd like to see covered, leave us a comment. You can read the previous installments here.

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February 12, 2010 - 5:10am
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