A Book About My Father: George, Being George

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51epuugfeyl2“The lover of life makes the whole world into his family . . . ” Charles Baudelaire

I should perhaps start off by saying that I had almost nothing to do with George, Being George, the oral biography about my father, George Plimpton. (In honor of my dad, I wanted the chance to proofread the thing before it went to press, much the way he would pore over the galleys of each issue of The Paris Review, with great love and attention, but even this simple request was denied me.) I read it in its final form only, just like anyone else, just like the subject of the book wasn’t my only father, and like I wasn’t his only son. My point in writing this essay is not because there’s anything in it for me, but simply because I felt I had to: it is not every day a son gets to review a book about his father. More important, it is not every day a son gets to read a book about his father, to get a chance, after the great figure of one’s life has passed away, to get to know him again.1232050239-large

I resisted skipping ahead to the parts that mentioned me and read the whole thing from start to finish in three sittings.  Unable to sleep or put it down, I read the last 250 or so pages at once, crying and laughing and cursing as I went, till finally, around 5:30 in the morning, I was done. It is a very good book, and my father would most likely have agreed with this assessment had it been about someone else.

Because it was about him, he probably would have been appalled. (My father preferred being the storyteller, not the story-told, and the very thought of a book like this being done about him most likely would have made him cringe). After all, for a public, extraordinarily social figure, he was a difficult man to know in any sort of intimate detail, and I think he preferred it that way. The self-deprecation and humor, the Scotch, the old New England manners, all of this kept even (and perhaps especially) those closest to him at a safe distance. When one of his old friends and neighbors admits, “There’s a lot I didn’t know about George, and for all of his gregariousness, he was a very private person,” he is not alone in thinking so. He was a mystery, a contradiction even (and perhaps especially) to those who knew him best. I am his son, and reading this book reminds me that I hardly knew him at all.

George boxing.

George boxing

And so it is this hidden side of him the book attempts to reveal. George, Being George has little to say about his public exploits. His years of participatory journalism—pitching to the All-Star line-up at Yankee Stadium, quarterbacking for the Detroit Lions, boxing Archie Moore, playing goalie for the Bruins—all of these amazing feats are glazed over in this 378-page book in about 25 pages. I was shocked. (Of course, he had already narrated these adventures in his own books far better than anyone else ever could, and it would have been silly to spend too much time rehashing them here.) After all, that Plimpton, the comic, blundering, courageous sportsman-fool, was already known. What wasn’t known was the “private” side of him. And so, this book: close to 400 pages of 200 “friends, relatives, lovers, acquaintances, and rivals” talking about him, gossiping about him, psychoanalyzing him, and delving into his personal life in an attempt to figure out “who he was.” My dad would have hated it.

There was a part of me that hated it too. Yes, there was an immediate instinctual defensiveness I felt upon reading this book, and not just for my father, but for myself. This was my dad, and I didn’t want anyone else telling me who he was. I had my own vision, my own version, my own memories, and I didn’t want them altered. But I felt protective of my dad, too. Because just who the hell did these people think they were to treat him this way? Who were they to judge him, to qualify him and quantify him? This was not just some celebrity, some soulless public figurehead to be commodified, packaged, sold for $29.95. This was a father, a husband, a real human being, and just who the hell did these people think they were to reduce such an extraordinary man to a bunch of lifeless words and half-truths and opinions and gossip? To invade his personality, his privacy, his life?

Part of my defensiveness was simply that my father didn’t deserve this treatment: after all, he himself had never dished it out. Sure, he’d compiled and edited some juicy oral biographies—in fact, he’d pretty much invented the form—but in his own life, his manners were impeccable: you never heard his lips open to say something overtly personal or vicious about anyone. His stories, spoken or written, may have verged on the fantastical, but they were never cruel, and they never had the purpose of bringing someone down (other than perhaps himself). And with his unprecedented access to the rich and powerful, to presidents and sports icons, he had had plenty of opportunity to do just this. He could have reported on locker room gossip, on players’ and politicians’ affairs, but his point was never to sling mud. As his editor at The New Yorker points out, “George… wouldn’t be caught dead rummaging around in someone’s dirty laundry. Indeed, he was sometimes criticized for dodging the dark side of things.”

rfk_assassination_-_webAs a prime example, he could have written about RFK’s assassination (after all, he was the man who had wrestled the gun from Sirhan Sirhan’s clutch) but this was inconceivable to him. From my father’s moral standpoint, there were borders one simply didn’t cross. And yet these were the exact borders that George, Being George was violating—invading his personal life, digging around in his dirty laundry, discussing his sexual exploits, drumming up conflict—and it made me sad, because he himself was so sweet and unassuming and loving of everyone, and here they all were, tearing him to pieces. Yes, it didn’t seem right, somehow, that such an invasive, gossipy, judgmental book had as its subject a man who was none of those things. (Of course, in this way, the book is actually strangely fitting: just like in real life, here once again is George, the center of this viciously social world, the perennial host, everyone’s conversation directed at him, and yet still he refuses to be dragged down by it, he floats innocently through the crowd, six inches taller than most, wonderfully oblivious to all the talk, of it and yet above it once again.)

To be fair, while there is a lot of gossip in this book, it’s not like people were actually saying anything that awful about him. Sure, there are those who maintain he wasn’t a great writer, others who say he wasn’t a great father, still more who say he wasn’t a great husband, but all of the negative criticism pales next to the adoration, and even those who originally disliked him somehow end up in awe and love. [(Take Norman Mailer, whose journey from envious detractor to loving admirer is one of the most intriguing mini-narratives in the book.) (After all, if you can make Norman Mailer feel that way, if you can transform such a stubborn man’s vision, who wouldn’t have been transformed?)] And so it is that in spite of all the gossip and envy, the vision of my father that emerges from this biography is a remarkably positive one. Yes, almost in spite of itself, the book manages to capture who my dad really was: a man full of boundless curiosity and excitement and mischief, a man in love with life. “George was willing to be surprised and delighted by whatever life presented him with from one moment to the next . . . Life came at him in little packets of wondrousness.” Or, as another admirer puts it, “A display of skill, an eccentric character, a great deed, a fine folly, a beautiful woman, a splendid paragraph—all left him agog, and he loved them for it . . . ” And this is how I too remember him best, with this boyish glint that would light up his face as if he were watching fireworks going off, even when he wasn’t . . . as if, somehow, for him, all of life was a fireworks show.

I don’t know which hurt more for me to read: the criticism or the adoration. Sure, the criticism was tough: it’s never easy to have your idealized vision shattered, to be reminded that your father was not always a good man, that he could be cruel, petulant, distant, especially to those closest to him. (After all, did I really want to hear about the cold and dismissive way he often treated my mom and step-mom?; did I really want to hear people say he never should have married, a comment that, when you think about it, is a stab at my existence?) But the adoration stung, too, for it reminded me what an amazing person I had had for a father, reminded me who we had lost, reminded me how much I miss him.

But what was especially difficult, for some reason, was being forced to recognize the simple fact that my father was loved not just by me, but by so many others. That all these other souls had been so deeply affected by him, too. That he was not and never had been just my dad—that he was so much more than this, his life so much bigger. That he didn’t just mean something to me, he meant something to everybody.

This is why, in the end, there is this sense that I am not the only child of George Plimpton reading this book. He was a central figure, a father-figure, in so many other people’s lives: The Paris Review staff-members, young writers and editors and artists, friends, lovers, strangers, the list goes on indefinitely. . . . Part of it was that he had this amazing ability, a knack perhaps stemming from his boundless curiosity, to make you feel important to him, like you were the only one in his life, the only one in the world. As one Review staffer recollects, “When you actually had his attention, you felt like there was a shift in the weave of things. You felt like some spotlight had been turned on.” Another remembers, “The people who got to enter that private realm felt very protective of him and felt like his child. He wasn’t looking for that. But he could make you feel very special, and when you were talking to him, you felt very important to him. Everybody felt like he or she had this relationship with George, when in fact George had this relationship with so many people, and everybody had a bit of a hard time with that.” Yes, it wasn’t just those closest to him who felt like they had something special with him: he made everyone feel that way. The majority of the 200 people in this book felt that way, like they had some unique, unmatched relationship with this man. Everyone thought that they knew him, that George was special to them, and that they were special to him. “Wait a minute, no, no, he was especially kind to me! Don’t you realize?” And it’s hard to have that illusion shattered, that it wasn’t just you, whether you’re a family member or not.

gpBut it was perhaps especially tough for us. Because if everyone else had a difficult time with that, with the fact that this man loved and was loved by so many, think how I must have felt. He was my dad; I’m the one who loved him; I’m the one he was supposed to love. Think how my poor mom must have felt: “I mean, he was such an acknowledging person to his friends, to The Paris Review staff, to strangers. Why couldn’t he give some of it to me?” Yes, there was a sense in which, because he was always there for everyone else, he was never really there for us. I remember feeling sick with a kind of envy of the kids at the Review, many of whom he treated a lot more like his children than he ever did me. Here were all these young men and women who weren’t his blood but who nonetheless got to spend so much more time with him, who got to pal around with him and play softball and go out at night to clubs, all these people who got to be so much closer to him, got to know him so much better, than I ever did. (I was his real son, you know? Where was the love, the time, that spotlight of attention for me?)

There was this enormous sense of possessiveness I felt about my dad, and as the book shows, I was hardly the only one. But my dad resisted being possessed. That’s why he was no good at being a husband, at giving his life over to one woman. He was everyone’s, and anyone who tried to keep him for themselves was denying the rest of the world their fair share, and this was unacceptable to him. Maybe this is why expressing his love to those closest to him was so very difficult. His love was boundless, as long as he was not bound to you. Oh, the affection was there, no doubt—he loved his family enormously—but there was this inability to declare it, this great fear that he would somehow owe you something, that he would be trapped, chained, owned. Maybe, as with most human beings, he was simply better at loving people he didn’t have to love. (Indeed, he might have been one of the best ever at doing just that.) He had an easier time loving the world than his wife, his sister, his son.

And so this book was a painful reminder that my dad did not belong to me or to anyone, and that he never had. The book was a reminder to all of us that he was not anyone’s but everyone’s; that he was not only the “everyman,” but every man’s. The book reminded me not only that I lost him—after all, a good biography brings someone back to life, so that you then have to deal once again with their death, with the hurt of missing this great being who is in your life no longer—it reminded me that I had never really had him to begin with. He was not mine or my mom’s or step-mom’s or sisters’, he was the world’s, the universe’s, and this book, with all these adoring people speaking about him as if he were their own, seemed the final proof. As Norman Mailer says, “So many people loved George. It’s possible that he was loved in that manner more than anyone else in New York. It’s even more possible that he loved more people in that manner than anyone else in New York.” And so once again, this book was a reminder that I would have to share my father, just as I had throughout his life, just as everyone had had to share him, begrudgingly, but somehow knowing the universe was better for it.

And the great return for allowing dad to be the world’s was the strange blessing of this book. (“You were a fool to read it,” Nelson Aldrich, the book’s editor, told me, and maybe he was right. Reading the book once and then again, writing this essay, wrestling with my father’s demons, and with my own—well, let’s just say it’s been one of the most emotionally exhausting experiences of my life—but I’m glad I did it.) Because the simple truth is that though it was hard to share him then, and it remains hard to share him now, suddenly, through the medium of this oral biography, there are all these other people sharing him with me—almost like his best friends had gotten together to tell me about him and remind me what a man he was. I may not have been able to know him so well in life, but that allows me to get to know him now, in his afterlife, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity. After all, very few people are lucky enough to have their father reincarnated before their eyes, to have the chance, after he has already gone, to visit with him one more time. And if I and the rest of my family had somehow managed to keep him to ourselves, to possess this man we were forced to share with the universe, this book never would have existed, and the universe never would have returned him to us in the form of this strange blessing, this life after death, this sweet, loving immortality.

Taylor Plimpton is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City. He is a former editor at Men's Journal magazine, where he oversaw the books section, edited feature stories and literary excerpts, and wrote book reviews, travel articles, and various features. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer and editor at Dan's Papers, as well as an intern and reader at the Paris Review. He is the co-editor of The Dreaded Feast: Writers on Enduring the Holidays, an anthology of dark holiday humor. More from this author →