10.26.08 2:22 PM ET
Partying with George Plimpton
PIEDY LUMET One time, he came to a birthday party in East Hampton that I gave for Sidney [Lumet], and it was all Sidney’s friends, most of them Jewish, except for the waiters. Everybody made toasts, and George said, “I look around this room and there’s Gene Saks, and Saul Steinberg, and Peter Stone, and I see that I’m in a minority. I’m not really used to that, and I don’t really like it. So could all those people who are not Jewish please wave to me?” So the waiters all waved, and I waved, and Keren Saks, who is half Jewish, gave a half wave, and George said, “Thank you.” It was terribly funny, because they were all friends of his.
ELIZABETH GAFFNEY When it came time to select summer interns—or editors, for that matter—George certainly did not want ugly ones. One time, when we had a really brilliant, dykey, purple-haired summer intern who was terrific—she was so smart, so well-read—numerous times over that summer, I heard him say,“Why don’t we just fire her and get some charming young girl from Harvard. She’s no good. She’s no use to us.” He couldn’t have been more wrong. He just couldn’t see her, because she was overtly lesbian and had purple hair.
ELIZA GRISWOLD Was he classist? You’re not going to get a WASP to talk about class, but I’ll give it a try. First of all, anybody who’s going to work at the Review probably had some alternative source of income, because you got paid nothing. The idea was, you were getting paid in experience. So the staff came to him self-selected, in terms of their parents’ ability to pay their rent, but also in terms of class. I would have hated to come into that office as an outsider—at the age we were working there it was pretty cliquish, who knew who, who’d had what experiences, a cultural shorthand I wouldn’t have recognized then as class, but that’s what it is.
MONA SIMPSON I think I was the first relatively middle-class person to work there. I worked there during graduate school, and afterwards when I started working there more, I asked for health insurance. This was preposterous idea to George. He said, “Well, if you get sick, just give me the bill and I’ll pay it.”
WILLIAM BECKER I don’t think George had affairs of the heart, as they say. What he did do, as I did, was to go to orgies. They were called “scenes” and were presided over by a big, bearded fellow by the name of Jim Moran, one of the great characters of our time. George was much taken by Moran, and not just because of the orgies. The man was pure mischief, a lord of misrule who managed to make money at it. He was a publicist, specializing in doing crazy stunts that would get lots of news coverage for his clients. For example, when David Merrick produced Look Back in Anger, Moran planted a woman in the first row and had her climb up onstage and attack Jimmy Porter. It made all the papers, and the show ran forever. His orgies were informed by the same careful planning and imagination as his stunts. They happened about once a month, usually on weekends, starting at eight o’clock sharp, after which no one would be allowed up the elevator. He invited the men, whom he knew personally or were vouched for by someone he knew personally. Each of them had to bring a woman and he planned for a week or so to be sure that she wasn’t loony or a hooker, that she was a real person. Which in fact they all were—the sort of women you might meet at Elaine’s or at one of George’s parties. His apartment was huge—ten rooms or more, more than enough for the ten to twenty people he invited. One of them was entirely filled with costumes—what would an orgy be without costumes? Group sex, I suppose. My costume was a monk’s robe with a big cross in front, George’s was that of a French country priest, with a little hat. Moran insisted on dressing all the girls himself. Drinks were available, but I don’t recall anyone doing any serious drinking. No food. The rules of engagement, so to speak, were clear. You were allowed to approach anybody you wanted, but if she wanted to go off with someone else, you were not allowed to pursue her. I went to some other parties where there were people who were just dreadfully aggressive; they would push you off some girl and jump on. One fellow who did that later became a well-known American diplomat. At Moran’s, things were more civilized. I remember one time when he himself was in a bedroom, down on his knees giving oral sex to a girl, when some noisy people came down the hall, and he called out to them in a booming voice, “If you want to laugh and joke and whatever, the place to do that is the library, but this room is my church, and I am at worship.” And back he went to his prayers.
FREDDY ESPY PLIMPTON People used to ask me what George was like when he woke up in the morning? What was his mood like? How did he answer the phone? How did he open the door? How did he start to work? Look, this is George Plimpton. He’s done some incredible speech the night before and had a thousand people applauding him—a great night. He wakes up the next morning. He looks like hell. He’s in these crumply shorts he slept in; he bumps into things; he can’t smile; he’s grouchy as hell. Has anybody else seen him that way? No. The wife sees it. He goes and gets his coffee and toast. By now, he would have pulled on a pair of pants, zipped up the zipper, but the belt’s still open, and he’s bare-chested, so he’s halfway sort of gotten on his clothes. He’s walking around the pool table, which is littered with piles of paper, sees something, leans over, picks up a page, leans back, reads it, and puts it back on another pile across the table. He’s editing his latest book as he’s waking up, and he’s got all this in his mind, and I watched this man nobody knew, this writer who wrote all the time…
The reason I’m going on about Bobby is because during these years, George and I talked about what we should do. We tried separating from each other, and that didn’t work. We always got back together again. George just didn’t want to get married. One day, after he had decided to run for the presidency, Bobby called George and said, ‘Why don’t you and Freddy come over to the UN Plaza. I need to talk to you about something.” So we went over to his apartment, and he greets us and sits cross-legged on this huge wing chair. There was a couch opposite that, where George and I sat. Bobby looked so small and vulnerable, I just wanted to go over to him and eat him up. He said, “Why don’t you two get married?” George said, “What?” Bobby said, “Ethel doesn’t like it. She thinks it’s bad for the kids. You’re always going places together, staying in the same room, and you’re not married.” He said, “So I think you should get married.” That’s what finally pushed George into it, I think. So, shortly after that, we went down to get the marriage license, at City Hall. It was a pathetic scene, because you filled out papers at these little children’s desks. Imagine George in one of those—so cramped, so unhappy. He was kicking viciously at the desk in front of him, in a rage, in an absolute rage that he was down there—he, George Plimpton, in a marriage license bureau—he couldn’t get over it. He didn’t talk to me for a few days after we got our license. He couldn’t forgive me for having put him through that, and months went by before I heard anything about an actual marriage ceremony to follow the marriage license…
Three days before the California primary, George and I drove through Chinatown with Bobby in his car, the three of us sitting up on the backseat, top down. Bobby was waving, waving, and these shots suddenly rang out. They turned out to be firecrackers, but George and I just fell on top of Bobby, like that. I’ve never seen anyone so exhausted and so pale and shaky as Bobby was. You just suddenly realized, My God, he’s been waiting for this moment, every moment.
KRISTI WITKER My very first job was at American Heritage magazine. I had been hired as an editorial assistant, but on the spur of the moment my editor decided to send me off to California to to cover Bobby Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. I was very naïve and really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but I had been a big fan of The Paris Review, and through it I had gotten to know and admire George Plimpton. When I discovered that he and Freddy were also on the campaign, I was delighted, and I spent most of the time hanging out with them. I became sort of the campaign mascot. I was young and had long blonde hair and wore little miniskirts. I certainly didn’t look or act like a serious journalist. I was also anything but objective. In fact, I absolutely idolized Bobby Kennedy. The night of the California primary, I was really happy to be included in a small group of journalists that Bobby had invited to his suite in the Ambassador Hotel to watch the returns with Ethel and several of their children. And I was even more excited when Bobby asked me to his victory celebration, which would be later that night. George had a rental car, so I asked if he could give me a ride. He said, “Sure, but here’s what you have to do so I don’t lose you in the crowd: just hold on to my jacket when we leave the stage, because it’s going to be a total mob scene and I’m going to work my way straight to the car.” It was even more of a mob scene than he had imagined. I remember that when Bobby finished his victory speech that night we all started moving forward on the stage and someone said, “No, we’re going out the back,” and we reversed our direction. I was holding on to George’s jacket for dear life and I wasn’t aware that we had gone into the kitchen. I wasn’t aware of anything except a crush of people pushing and shoving. And then, suddenly, I heard what sounded like firecrackers. They weren’t really loud, but they seemed to be in a pattern. First, there were three, then a pause, and then—during what seemed like an eternity—there were five more. I heard voices shouting, “Get the gun…get the gun!” and at that moment I realized with horror that we were being shot at, probably by a large number of people. Most people in the crowd began screaming and stampeding out of the kitchen back toward the hotel ballroom. But I didn’t move. Everything seemed totally unreal. I remember thinking, “This can’t be happening because I already have tomorrow’s schedule!” And then, “Why run? If they’ve killed Bobby, what’s the point?” The man on my left suddenly fell to the floor. He was bleeding from his head onto my shoe, and I remember just moving my foot. And then others were shouting. “This woman’s been shot!” She was right behind me, clutching her stomach, and I glanced at her and thought, “Who cares? Don’t you realize that Bobby’s been shot and probably killed?” At that moment, I had no interest in anyone else. Bobby was the only one that mattered. As the gunman—and now I say that there was nobody else—kept firing, George and Rafer Johnson were desperately struggling to get the gun out of his hand, and finally they succeeded. We were only about four feet away and Bobby was slumped on his back on the floor. I closed my eyes and clung to George. I felt that as long as I didn’t let go of him, life as it had been only moments before would suddenly snap into back into place. Of course, it never did.
JONATHAN DEE It’s something, isn’t it, that a man who made a career writing beautifully about his own amazing autobiographical exploits would never have touched the most amazing exploit of all, would never have written about it in a million years. I remember once I was in The Paris Review basement looking for something in a file cabinet and I came across a clipping of an old AP photograph taken seconds after the RFK shooting, showing two men pinning Sirhan to the ground. The caption identifies them as “Rosey Grier and an unidentified man,” and the unidentified man is George. I brought it upstairs to show the others, and as I’m doing so, George walks in. He takes a look at what everyone is passing around, and I swear, the color just drained right out of him. It was very clear from his demeanor that he was not going to discuss it. I’m told that in later years he loosened up about that somewhat, and would actually answer questions about it if asked.