George Plimpton certainly had pedigree. His father was “a successful corporate lawyer who became the American ambassador to the United Nations,” the New York Times noted in his obituary. “The family traced its roots in this country to the Mayflower. He was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard and Cambridge.”
This pedigree no doubt accounted for his Plimpton’s distinguished speaking voice, which “came from a different era,” Plimpton’s son Taylor once wrote. “Old New England, old New York, tinged with a hint of King’s College King’s English. You heard it and it could only be him.”
Now the voice, style and the rest of Plimpton’s incredibly rich and varied life are all on display in a new documentary, “Plimpton!” which premiers today in Silver Spring, MD.
The great irony — and the great gift that Plimpton gave to everyone — was that he was so willing to shed “his usual blue blazer, oxford shirt, and tie” in order to engage in the participatory journalism for which he became so well known. As the New York Times noted, Plimpton “believed that it was not enough for writers of nonfiction to simply observe; they needed to immerse themselves in whatever they were covering to understand fully what was involved.”
An avid sportsman, Plimpton variously boxed Archie Moore, quarterbacked the Detroit Lions in a scrimmage, and played goalie for the Boston Bruins. These experiences produced the books “Shadow Box,” “Paper Lion” and “Open Net,” plus at least a dozen others, along with many magazine articles and over twenty film and TV appearances, in several of which he played up his blueblood image for laughs.
Plimpton even did commercials for Oldsmobile, Pop Secret (“leaves fewer unpopped keh-nehls“), and a video-game system called Intellivision.
But the best pairing of all — for us, at least — was in 1993 when Brooks Brothers asked him to write a six-page tribute in The Atlantic in celebration of the store’s 175th anniversary. For a visit to the Brooks flagship at 44th and Madison, Plimpton tried to outfit himself in Brooks from head to foot.
It was not too difficult, since I have been a patron for years, as was my father before me, and his father before him. I missed out only on the shoes. I have an unnaturally wide foot, a triple E, and their shoe department stops at a single E, shoes that would have caused a wince at every step if I could have squeezed into them. But the rest was all theirs – socks, underwear, tie, a white button-down shirt, and a slightly rumpled seersucker suit, which was appropriate because it was a hot summer day.
Now that’s participatory journalism at its most well-attired. — MATTHEW BENZ