George Plimpton, author of best seller 'Paper Lion,' champion of young writers, dies at 76

NEW YORK (AP) -- George Plimpton, the gentleman editor, literary patron and "participatory journalist" whose fumbling exploits included boxing, trapeze-flying and, most famously, quarterbacking for the Detroit Lions, has died at 76.

Plimpton died Thursday night at his New York apartment, his longtime friend restaurateur Elaine Kaufman said Friday. She had no information on the cause.

"Friends were almost always happy to see him because you knew he was bound to improve your mood," author Norman Mailer said Friday. "What fine manners he had! Few could give a toast or tell a story with equal humor."

Praised as a "central figure in American letters" when inducted in 2002 into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Plimpton was beloved among writers for The Paris Review, the literary quarterly he helped found in 1953 and ran with boyish enthusiasm for 50 years.

The magazine's high reputation rested on two traditions: publishing the work of emerging authors, including Philip Roth and Jack Kerouac, and an unparalleled series of interviews in which Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and others discussed their craft.

Plimpton also enjoyed a lifetime of making literature out of nonliterary pursuits. He boxed with Archie Moore, pitched to Willie Mays and performed as a trapeze artist for the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus. In his book "Paper Lion," he documented his punishing stint training with the NFL's Detroit Lions in 1963.

He acted in numerous movies, including "Reds" and "Good Will Hunting." He even supplied his voice for an episode of "The Simpsons," playing a professor who runs a spelling bee.

A native of New York, Plimpton was born into society -- diplomat's son -- and was a Harvard man with an upper-class accent.

But the public knew him better as an amiable underdog, towered over by the giants of sports and other professions. Much of his career served as a send-up of Hemingway's famous credo, "Grace under pressure."

Starting in the 1950s, when he began his vocation as a "participatory" journalist, he practiced the singular art of narrating panic. In a culture where millions fantasized about being movie stars or sports heroes, the lanky, wavy-haired Plimpton dared to enter the arena himself, with results both comic and instructive.

During his stint with the Lions, he was allowed briefly to play quarterback during a scrimmage. He remembered the crowd cheering as he left the field after a series of mishaps.

"It verified the assumption that the average fan would have about an amateur blundering into the brutal world of professional football," he wrote. "The outsider did not belong, and there was comfort in that being proved."

Just days before his death, Plimpton reunited with 40 Lions to mark the book's 40th anniversary. "We had a good time last weekend. I got to roast him a bit. I told him how he was a light in my life," said former Lions star Roger Brown.

Plimpton's other books included "Bogey Man" and "Out of My League." He could also take credit for at least one memorable fictional character: Sidd Finch, a baseball pitcher of unprecedented gifts (168 mph fastball) and unlikely background (reared in the mountains of Tibet). Finch was portrayed so vividly by Plimpton in a 1985 Sports Illustrated article that many believed the man really existed.

The Paris Review remained more respected than read. The subscription base was rarely higher than a few thousand and the bank account seemed to descend at will. At one point in 2001, Plimpton reported, funds dropped to $1.16.

A 50th anniversary celebration had been scheduled for Oct. 14 in New York, with Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut among the guests. A spokeswoman for The Paris Review said no decision had been made on whether the event would take place.

"Like probably a hundred other writers, he started my career. I always felt the greatest debt of gratitude," said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, who recalled that The Paris Review ran excerpts of his first book, "The Virgin Suicides."

Over the summer, Plimpton decided to write his memoirs, signing a $750,000 deal with Little, Brown and Co. "I have a lot of life left to go, but now is the time to think about it and put something together," Plimpton told The Associated Press at the time.

Plimpton seemed to know everybody: writers, actors, athletes. He had deep connections to the political world, dating back to childhood, when Adlai Stevenson -- the two-time presidential nominee -- was a family friend and Jacqueline Kennedy a debutante he would see at dances.

Plimpton maintained a light touch in his work, but he knew tragedy firsthand. He was a volunteer with Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign and was walking in front of him as the candidate was assassinated in the kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel.

"I had my hands around his neck," he recalled in a 2002 interview with The Associated Press, referring to gunman Sirhan Sirhan, whom he helped wrestle to the ground. Plimpton turned his head away as he spoke, his clear voice turned foggy.

"Bad stuff."

He sailed with John F. Kennedy, played tennis with former President Bush and rode on Air Force One with President Clinton. He witnessed a baffling encounter between Richard Nixon and Casey Stengel, when the president wanted to talk baseball and the former baseball manager wanted to discuss banking.

Sports was the common bond between Plimpton and politicians. He knew the current President Bush from his days as owner of the Texas Rangers and chatted with him shortly after Election Day 2000, when the outcome was still in doubt.

"He wanted to talk about Sidd Finch," Plimpton recalled. "I thought that was rather odd."

Plimpton was married twice: to Freddy Medora Espy, whom he divorced in 1988, and to Sara Whitehead Dudley. He had four children.


Associated Press writer Ula Ilnytzky contributed to this report.


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