CURIOUS GEORGE ET LA PARIS REVIEW
"Plimpton rarely made eye contact, and as Ed was talking on and on, I wondered if Plimpton was listening at all. But he was quite responsive to what was being said, and respectful of every comment. Occasionally when Plimpton spoke, he would turn his head slightly to acknowledge that I was listening in the back seat."
Jane Friedman on the recently departed George Plimpton
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I never knew George Plimpton, but we both happened to be speaking at the same writers' conference this past July, in Muncie, Indiana. I was giving a lunch talk, and he was delivering the featured keynote during the awards banquet. In a series of strange events, I won a lottery granting me the privilege of picking up Plimpton from the airport and having dinner with him.
When I first learned I was on a speaker list that included George Plimpton, I felt my status jump a few notches. Here I was, a peon worthy enough to be featured alongside a writing icon -- icon whom I had never read, but an icon still! I proudly displayed the conference brochure in my work cubicle, for all to see -- my photo underneath Plimpton's, his photo above mine, Plimpton and me, me and Plimpton, basking in the glory of all things Plimpton!
My family, having no literary education whatsoever, had to ask who George Plimpton was. They never seemed to fully understand the grandiose of Plimpton. In fact, they never even got his name right. My husband -- who had better things to do than attend a weekend writers' conference and hear a literary legend speak -- started calling him Mr. Pumpkin.
Plimpton was traveling to Muncie from San Francisco, where he had been searching for the California condor. (He managed to spot two.) I drove with one of the conference organizers, Ed, to collect Plimpton at the Indianapolis airport. Unfortunately, Plimpton missed his flight out of San Francisco because he couldn't figure out where to return his rental car, but he still managed a series of flights that delayed his arrival only an hour.
I didn't spot Plimpton first, Ed did, and he simply said, "That's him, right?" Plimpton looked slightly dazed, and not at all confident that anyone would be there to collect him, almost surprised we were there waiting. He wore ordinary blue jeans -- he'd probably had them a good many years. (I saw an ink stain or two.) He wore shoes suitable for hiking, which, if hunting for condors, is what you'd want to wear. He had on a navy blue suit jacket, creased in the back from sitting in coach all day, and a white dress shirt underneath. His accent was exactly how I remembered it from the Saturday Night Live commercial that advertised a game teaching children how to pair cheeses with food.
When we all reached the car, I figured he would automatically head for the front seat, but there was a pause, during which I hastened to say Plimpton should take the front. (I wanted to say "shotgun" but felt silly for even thinking the word in his presence.) When Plimpton sat down, his knees practically reached sedan's ceiling. Everywhere we went, without exception, he seemed too big, his motions too expansive for the space allotted him, always contained.
Plimpton rarely made eye contact, and as Ed was talking on and on, I wondered if Plimpton was listening at all. But he was quite responsive to what was being said, and respectful of every comment. Occasionally when Plimpton spoke, he would turn his head slightly to acknowledge that I was listening in the back seat.
Soon, of course, we had to discuss why in the world I was there. Ed explained the lottery. Plimpton asked why I would choose to drive 70 miles to the Indianapolis airport, wait a couple hours, then drive 70 miles back to Muncie, and I said (and I had planned exactly what I would say), "To soak up your culture." I added that I was determined to take back to my co-workers a killer Plimpton anecdote, and Plimpton said that we would certainly have to come up with something impressive, since, after all, it seemed he now owed me five hours of his time since that's how long I had inconvenienced myself.
Ed asked Plimpton if he wanted to go for dinner, and Plimpton specified he wanted to eat at a place where he could get a drink. At the restaurant, he ordered Dewar's scotch and water. He had two. For dinner, he had New England clam chowder, a medium-rare prime rib sandwich, and baked beans. He ate with great relish. I sat next to him in a tight booth, and his elbows bumped me about every 10 seconds. I tried to squeeze myself into the wall of the booth, clearing the way for him to cut his sandwich and be free, but to no effect -- he always bumped me.
Plimpton was easy to talk with because he knew so many people and had so many stories. He could've probably talked for days without needing a prompt from anyone else, and I thought it very nice that he allowed others to speak. When Plimpton discovered I was a conference speaker (I had spoken earlier that day), he asked what I had told those 90 people he would have to face the next morning. I said that I had given them tips on how to survive in the increasingly Hollywood-style publishing industry. He said he wished he could've been there to hear my talk. I've never received a nicer compliment.
Something I didn't expect was that Plimpton seemed entirely flummoxed by the conference and why he was traveling to Muncie at all. One of the first questions he asked Ed was, "Now what exactly am I doing here?" I'm not even sure he knew he was attending a writer's workshop before he landed in Indianapolis. (The last time Plimpton spoke at the workshop, he actually began his speech by saying, "I don't know what I'm doing here.") I don't think it really mattered what came out of his mouth that weekend, everyone was going to be happy just having him present. For his keynote, Plimpton decided to read selections from The Writer's Chapbook, a compilation his own writer interviews.
After dinner, as we rolled into the outskirts of Muncie late into the evening, Plimpton was mostly silent. We began to pass the familiar marks of any American city -- Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and stretches of car dealerships. Plimpton commented on the Steak n' Shake. He'd never seen one before. And also, as we passed the car lots, "Look at all those cars. Goodness. Look, more cars?" After 70 years, he still had the wonderment of a child.
Later that weekend, I asked him to sign my Paris Review 50th anniversary book, and I also had a photo taken. In the picture, I'm looking up, smiling bright, as if to say, "Look at me, soaking up culture!" Plimpton is sitting in a too-small chair, looking tired and signing books.
When I learned of his sudden passing last Friday, I immediately e-mailed my husband the news with the subject line "Mr. Pumpkin." He replied, "Sad. So sudden."
Now I see how lucky I was this past summer, even if I spent only a few hours in his presence, even if it was only because of lottery's chance. George Plimpton was one of a kind, not likely to ever again be matched in stature, grace, or presence -- either in my own generation or any other.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jane Friedman is acquisitions editor for Writer's Digest Books, and former managing editor of Writer's Digest magazine. She resides in Cincinnati, Ohio.