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George Plimpton (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Tasting The Flavors Of Life As Only 'George' Could

by Simon Van Booy
Apr 21, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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George, Being George by Nelson W. Aldrich George, Being George

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Simon Van Booy is the author of two story collections: The Secret Lives of People in Love and Love Begins in Winter. He is currently editing three philosophy titles to be released in August.

Writers are often alone when they work. Hours pass in silence as one, long moment; light fades as day turns back to face the coming night. That's when I take down one of my favorite books: an oral biography of the charismatic American aesthete George Plimpton. It's a book that forces me to leave my desk and drop into the messy world of people and parties, restaurants and park benches.

This is one of my favorite books, because Plimpton's charisma and joie de vivre spill from the pages. The oral biography form presents a life as told by people who had some connection to the subject. It's like listening in at a cocktail party when someone has gone to the bathroom and is being discussed in whispers with fervent candor. Plimpton himself had great success with this form of biography (with his book Edie, about Edie Sedgwick), and so Nelson Aldrich's choice of this particular genre is a poignant one; it reminds me of how Chopin's Funeral March was played at Chopin's own funeral.

But there's more to the story of why I love this witty, intimate portrait of Plimpton. When I first moved to New York, an early writing assignment was to interview a man I had never heard of but who had presided for 50 years over The Paris Review. I interviewed my subject over the telephone and wondered if he was British, not only on account of his deliciously austere voice, but also because of his old-world manners and the way he treated a rookie with the same respect as he would have a senior war correspondent.

This book is full of Plimpton's most famous antics: his love of fireworks, his experiences with the New York Philharmonic and the Detroit Lions, and his exploits as a trapeze artist for the Barnum & Bailey circus. It also contains more tender, private sentiments of the man who wrestled the gun from Robert Kennedy's assassin and who was a husband, a father and a mentor.

He died soon after my interview, and I forgot about him until a few years later, when someone handed me a book about a very literary man she thought I would admire. I devoured the biography the way Plimpton devoured life. As one of Aldrich's sources confides, "Whether it was culinary, literary or in bed, he taught me everything. I expected there to be another George in my life, but there never was. There was either passion and no manners, or there were lots of manners and no passion. ... He was a whole man."

Through the laughter and longing that echo in the pages of George, Being George, Plimpton has been returned to me, more alive than he ever was, an apparition hovering somewhere between my own life and the ones I can only imagine.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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