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George Plimpton boxed with Archie Moore, played quarterback for the Detroit Lions, and played percussion for the New York Philharmonic. He did these jobs, and many others, as an amateur. Plimpton was a professional writer. A new documentary about his life makes the case that Plimpton's best story was his own story, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When you listen to George Plimpton's voice, it's like hearing echoes of a New York that no longer exists.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GEORGE PLIMPTON: I decided finally to pack the football. I carried the suitcase down to the street, and went out to Idlewild Airport to catch an airplane to Detroit. I was going there as the Lions' last-string quarterback...
TOM BEAN: It's that old Yankee aristocratic accent. It seemed effective when George did it, but it was kind of a product of his background, I think.
ROSE: Tom Bean co-directed the documentary "Plimpton." He says Plimpton's voice was shaped by his upbringing on the Upper East Side, and his education at boarding school and Harvard. Bean says there was never any question about who should narrate the film.
BEAN: From the get-go, we felt that making a film about a guy who is a memoirist, who is a writer, who is a storyteller, it was absolutely essential that we have him tell as much of the story as we possibly could, in his own words.
ROSE: Luckily, Plimpton left behind lots of words for the directors to use. When he wasn't pitching to Willie Mays or acting next to John Wayne or taming lions, Plimpton was often on speaking tours, or talking about his work on TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Imagine, though - you know, a lot of us think about fantasies. You not only get a chance to live them out, but you get paid for it.
PLIMPTON: Well, I have to write. A lot of people forget that. They think I'm some sort of a crazy buffoon who can't quite make up putting his mind what he wants to do in life. But it's not that at all. It's, I'm a professional writer and have this device, really, of trying other people's professions.
ROSE: Plimpton wasn't sure what to do with his life when friend and author Peter Matthiessen invited him to help start a literary magazine in France, in 1953. "The Paris Review" didn't actually publish reviews. The quarterly magazine focused instead on short stories by young writers and long, deep interviews with masters of the craft. "The Paris Review" moved to New York in the 1970s, and Plimpton ran it out of his house.
Jeanne McCulloch is a former managing editor at the magazine who now sits on its board.
JEANNE MCCULLOCH: One of the most amazing things, to me, about George, is of course, when he started this magazine it was his peer group he was working with, right? By the time I came along - I mean, he could have been any of our fathers and yet, he still had this great spirit and wanted to be one of the gang - and really was.
ROSE: "The Paris Review" helped launch dozens of literary careers, including those of Philip Roth, Terry Southern, V.S. Naipaul and Jeffrey Eugenides. He remembers showing up at one of the Review's famous parties with a manuscript in his pocket.
JEFFREY EUGENIDES: As reassurance that...
EUGENIDES: ...you know, I had some reason to be there. And it was almost like a secret weapon in my pocket, and allowed me to get through the evening.
ROSE: That manuscript became the first chapter of "The Virgin Suicides," and it was published in "The Paris Review" not long after.
EUGENIDES: That was a crucial moment. It's almost like your big break; it's almost like show business, in a sense. It was after being published in "The Paris Review" that things started to turn around for me.
ROSE: But for all the young talent Plimpton helped to nurture at "The Paris Review," his own writing wasn't always taken as seriously. The film's co-director, Luke Poling, thinks that's partly because Plimpton's magazine articles and books were often about sports.
LUKE POLING: Those who write and appreciate great literature perhaps don't appreciate sport as much, and vice versa. And so George was kind of stuck in this between world where both sides admire him to an extent, but maybe don't fully grasp the greatness of what he was able to do.
ROSE: The documentary doesn't shy away from this criticism of Plimpton. The filmmakers interviewed writer James Salter.
JAMES SALTER: Perhaps unfairly, I thought of him as a dilettante. And you can admire his guts, his courage in doing some of the things he did, but he was writing in a genre that really doesn't permit greatness.
ROSE: Plimpton may not have helped his own literary reputation by doing TV commercials for all kinds of stuff.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST AD MONTAGE)
PLIMPTON: See your dealer today about value-priced Buicks.
It's a knockdown, screw drive, automatic Genie garage door opener system.
Excuse me, have you compared them to Intellivision?
ROSE: Plimpton wasn't doing this to line his pockets. He pumped the money from the commercials and his grueling speaking tours back into "The Paris Review." For many years, as Plimpton says in the film, the magazine's finances were basically indistinguishable from his own.
PLIMPTON: An accountant came to me the other day and said, do you know how much this magazine has cost you? And he named something that sounded like the national debt.
PLIMPTON: I couldn't believe it. But you just - you would feel that if it did collapse or couldn't continue, that you'd lose something even worse than a limb. And so, I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever. I would give up, I think, my own writing before I would give up anything in "The Paris Review."
ROSE: George Plimpton died in 2003, just a few weeks before the magazine's 50th anniversary. "The Paris Review" just celebrated its 60th birthday. The film "Plimpton" opens tonight in New York, and next month in Los Angeles.
Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.