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A final roar
On editing George Plimpton’s last book, and getting to know his remarkable world in the process

THE INEVITABLE cold snap that finally stilled the crickets up here in Maine came on the heels of another moment of chilling quiet — hearing news of author George Plimpton’s sudden death on September 25. I had spent a good part of the past year editing a book by George — his last, it turned out — and his demise would have struck me hard in any season, but the melancholy of impending fall seemed to make it somehow sadder.

I’d been hired by Will Balliett, the editor in chief of Avalon Publishing, to edit a series of adult biographies that Avalon was producing for a British publisher and the A&E cable network. Plimpton had signed on to write a book about Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer whose survival odyssey in 1915-’16 has threatened to become an entire new sub-industry of the media. Exactly what George — whose previous books like The Bogey Man and Paper Lion were all pointedly original — planned to bring to the groaning Shackleton bookshelf was unclear; as time went on, it became obvious that he had no clue either, though he did harbor a desire to visit Antarctica and possibly to write an additional book about penguins.

The first sign of trouble came during a December 2001 phone call. George was at first delightful, chatting away and expounding in that aristocratic lockjaw about penguins and his upcoming trip to Antarctica. But when I reminded him that his manuscript was due in six months, the chatter ground to a halt. "Well, that’s simply not possible," he intoned. "Why, Balzac and all his assistants couldn’t write a book that fast."

I shifted instead to a discussion of the book’s theme and organization, and things got worse. George admitted that he didn’t know what he was going to say about Shackleton, but he was quite certain he could not write a conventional biography. Since a conventional biography was more or less what the publisher had in mind, this was going to be tricky.

Down in New York, Will, a man of formidable charm and tact, kept up the pressure during a series of lunches with George at the Century Club, the literary hangout for Manhattan writers of a certain age and a purveyor of legendarily excremental cuisine. Highly favorable to writers on deadline is the club’s quaint rule forbidding business papers at tables — a rule enforced with enthusiasm by the club’s nonagenarian waiters, who may be deaf to requests for more wine but who can detect the click of a briefcase latch from across the room.

In March 2002, George still had no outline, much less a coherent concept for the book. "I’m thrashing about," he said over the phone one day. He’d been e-mailing me vast tracts of notes from his trip to Antarctica — 50,000 words’ worth, at one count. It was a fascinating mess. Plimpton, who once boxed with Archie Moore and tended goal for the Bruins, wasn’t the type to let computers intimidate him, despite evidence that he was, to borrow from the title of his most famous book, out of his league. The process of electronic cutting and pasting flummoxed him, and files read like missing pages of the Dead Sea Scrolls. With the photo editor begging for something, anything that would allow her to start research, I flew down to New York to help George get organized.

We met in his commodious apartment above the Paris Review, which he edited for half a century, then walked in the rain to a nearby restaurant (not the Century Club, thank God) for lunch. George ordered a Tom Collins.

Two hours later we had covered a lot of ground — none of it, unfortunately, about Shackleton. We talked about 9/11. George related how he had slept through the attacks because the night before, Paul McCartney had been over until late, holding everyone rapt at the piano. Only George could make an "I slept through 9/11" story interesting.

After lunch George had to go give a talk or something, and I asked when we could sit down and work on the outline. "We’re having a little pour tonight for an Indian journalist," he said. "Do come."

I arrived at nine o’clock to find the party winding down; a handful of Paris Review interns were lazily shooting pool in the game room. George was in his office, wearing a rep tie and blue blazer, watching a Celtics game. "Come on in," he said. "Pull up a chair. Get you a drink?"

We watched the game and talked about the Red Sox. (Though a native New Yorker, Plimpton retained a fondness for Boston teams from his Harvard years.) I inquired about a photo of Hemingway over his desk, and George told me about the time the great author socked him. "We were having lunch in Havana, and he was getting drunk," recalled George. "When he got drunk he got mean, and he kept insisting he wanted to box with me, right then. I said, ‘No, I don’t want to box now, we’re eating lunch.’ Finally he kicked out his chair, lunged across the table, and popped me in the jaw. Extraordinary man."

I assured Will we were making progress.

The summer of 2002 went by, and the book started taking shape. George went from "thrashing" to "plodding," which I took as a good sign. Still, fall came and started to merge into winter, and George seemed unable to deliver a finished manuscript. I offered to come down and help him for a week. "You can stay here," was his answer.

I booked a room in a nearby hotel, not wanting to impose on his family. The first morning I showed up, George was near tears. "I’ve lost a major section of the book," he said, gazing hopelessly at his computer. "It’s gone. I’ll never be able to reconstruct it."

George’s computer screen looked like a Byzantine mosaic of Microsoft Word files. In fact the entire screen was nothing but file icons, layered in the hundreds like roof shingles. It was the bottom of the ninth, and Plimpton was out of pitches.

I sat down at the computer and showed George how to use Apple-key-F to search for text. As I suspected, the missing file was buried on his desktop. Then I showed him how to organize his files into folders, and how to store them on his hard drive. For good measure I cleaned up his e-mail lists, silently wishing my father (the same age as George) would let me do the same for him. "Extraordinary," George said.

Every day we worked from 8:30 to six, stopping only to order sandwiches from a take-out menu. "Mine has the tomahto," George would remind me when the food showed up. And all day long, his intercom buzzed as his assistant downstairs announced callers. "It’s Conan O’Brien; wants to know if you can come on the show tonight. Don’t forget you’ve got dinner at Nan Kempner’s — black tie." (George, the Manhattan penguin, glanced at his rumpled tux on an arm of the sofa.) "It’s Norman Mailer; he’s in town." A writer called for a book-jacket blurb; George composed it over the phone. Another called inquiring about an overdue check for something he’d contributed to the Review. "I’ll get it out to you today," promised George, who then summoned the bookkeeper.

"This is embarrassing," George told her. "We must pay this."

"Actually, George," she replied, "we owe other writers for even longer."

"Yes, but he called me. Well, pay him out of my own account."

Somehow we managed to finish Ernest Shackleton and have some laughs in the process. The only time George got testy was when I suggested a passage exploring Shackleton’s motivations for leaving his wife behind all those years. "That’s surmising, and I don’t do that," he said. "I realize a lot of writers make that their stock in trade, but I simply have never written that way."

I was glad to see that George cared enough about this book to put his foot down. Months later, George gone, I find the book holds up well — a respectable mix of conventional narrative and George’s first-person adventures, which, naturally enough, include a frightening encounter with an angry sea lion. In short, it reads like a George Plimpton book. As an editor, I wish every author just needed to be strapped into a chair and shown Apple-key-F. Extraordinary man.

Max Alexander is a regular contributor to the Portland Phoenix and can be reached at malex@pivot.net

Issue Date: October 3 - 9, 2003
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