There’s a tall thin man standing in the shadows
When he calls your name his voice is strong and clear
It’s a dark and smoky place, so you can’t quite see his face
He pulls you close and whispers in your ear
And he tells you he was born into some money
But it didn’t mean he had to sit around
And he knows a thing or two about the things that you should do
If you don’t want to take life lying down
So, here’s a documentary about George Plimpton, the New England patrician who made a name for himself interviewing the greatest writers of the 20th century, and parlayed that into a Sports Illustrated gig where he, himself, took part in the sports and activities he wrote about.
The lyrics posted above are to Jonathan Coulton’s “A Talk With George”, which he wrote after reading a bio about him that he has credited with inspiring him to strike out on his singing/songwriting career. And it encapsulates neatly a lot of the fascination in the form of advice:
First of all hang out a lot with Hemingway
Spend some time fighting bulls in Spain
You should go three rounds with Archie Moore and Sugar Ray
So damn scary you won’t mind the pain
The premise of Plimpton! is that George was born into this New England blueblood family and the pressure on him was so great to uphold the honor of the family and make a name, and George really bought into this but, apparently, wasn’t really clear on the connection between work and success. It’s almost like he’d been told “Well, this must happen” and interpreted that to mean that it would happen, and he needed only to be their to receive the bounty.
And when that proved to be a failure, he ended up kicking around in England, not doing much of anything until a friend called on him to edit the Paris Review. He introduced the idea of interviewing writers about writing, rather than just reviewing materials, and this resulted in him becoming close with a lot of great writers.
And they were all gaga about Hemmingway back then, so the big victory was that George managed to get Papa to actually like him, even if he remained reticent about discussing craft to the very end.
Be ringside at the Rumble in the Jungle
Make friends with Hunter S. and Jackie O.
And when they shoot poor Bobby down, you wrestle Sirhan to the ground
Love your friends and miss them when they go
You should write a book or two and start a magazine
Even if it never makes a dime
You should swing out by your feet above the circus ring
At the very least throw parties all the time
The Paris Review led to the Sports Illustrated gig, where George lit upon the idea of “participatory journalism”. He hadn’t invented it, but he took it to new heights, becoming famous for boxing Archie Moore, and then especially for playing with the Detroit Lions.
He was not good at this stuff. But he was good at writing about it.
Time and tide will never care
Not so far from here to there
The movie spends most of its time talking about George’s accomplishments, with a lesser emphasis on his family life, full of spontaneous parties and a late-in-life second marriage complete with twins. Happily it doesn’t spend much time on his critics, who consist of people who say he would’ve been taken more seriously had he written serious stuff and stayed away from the celebrity talk show circuit and product endorsements.
The product endorsements, by the way, were how he kept the Paris Review afloat after decades of unprofitability. And kind of amazing: New England Patrician isn’t something you could expect to move a lot of product, especially not beer or garage door openers, but it did, and he came across as eminently likable, even when speaking with an accent probably best identified with Thurston Howell III.
So enjoy yourself, do the things that matter
Cause there isn’t time and space to do it all
Love the things you try, drink a cocktail, wear a tie
Show a little grace if you should fall
Don’t live another day unless you make it count
There’s someone else that you’re supposed to be
Something deep inside of you that still wants out
And shame on you if you don’t set it free
This is a fun documentary, for the history, for the good-natured-ness, and not least for the man who, for all his flaws, lived an amazing life, pursued passion, and even pursued failure as means of communicating how skilled people make the impossible look easy. Hard not to recommend, unless you’re a sourpuss.
Bonus: Toward the end of the movie, we get to see his last stint (as a hockey player) and he does really well at it. (There’s also a fun stinger of the trapeze.)