George Plimpton, a “participatory journalist” and “professional amateur” as well as a generous and important literary editor, was born in New York City on March 18, 1927.
He is famous for his self-deprecatory books about his immersion in elite professions — pitching half of a Major League baseball game, training as quarterback with the Detroit Lions, sparring with light-heavyweight boxing champions Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson, playing with the New York Symphony, getting outdrawn by John Wayne in the movie Rio Lobo, doing stand-up comedy at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, and competing in an international fireworks competition, among other exploits.
He was also the editor and patron of The Paris Review, a small but influential journal that helped champion the careers of writers from Philip Roth and V. S. Naipaul to Italo Calvino and David Foster Wallace. The Paris Review’s in-depth interviews with famous writers (some, like the one with Ernest Hemingway, conducted by Plimpton himself) are legendary.
Plimpton came from a background of wealth and privilege, the descendant of two 19th century governors of Massachusetts. His father was a prominent attorney in New York and later a diplomat.
Plimpton graduated from both Harvard and Cambridge universities. He also fought in World War II as a tank driver in Italy.
Starting in his Harvard years Plimpton became close to the Kennedy family. He was friends with both John and Robert Kennedy. He worked on John’s presidential campaign and later on Robert’s.
He was standing next to Robert Kennedy when Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles and helped wrestle his killer, Sirhan Sirhan, to the ground and disarm him.
Plimpton was tall and lanky with a patrician air and accent. The contrast between his upper class demeanor and his manly pursuits in the sporting world was part of Plimpton’s appeal and he played it up in his books and television specials. His tongue was always firmly in his cheek, and he was always in on the joke.
His books Out of My League in 1961, about his baseball “career” pitching in an exhibition game, and Paper Lion in 1966, about his time practicing with the Detroit Lions were bestsellers. Paper Lion was made into a popular movie with Alan Alda perfectly cast as Plimpton.
Plimpton is also famous for one of the most audacious April Fools’ Day hoaxes. He wrote an article for the April 1, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine called “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” about a New York Mets rookie player named Siddhartha “Sidd” Finch, a Buddhist yogi who wore a boot on one foot and could pitch accurately at 168 miles per hour. The story was accompanied by photographs of an actor playing Finch in a Mets uniform along with actual Mets coaching staff.
George Plimpton died in 2003 at the age of 76.