- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2002

The 50th anniversary of the Paris Review will be celebrated in the "city of light," of course, and in New York City, too. How kind of French Ambassador Francois Bujon de l'Estang to ensure that the famous expatriate literary journal and its founding editor, George Plimpton, received a magnificent tribute in Washington as well.

There was nary a political figure in sight among the 100 guests who gathered for the celebratory dinner hosted by the ambassador and his wife, Anne, at their residence Wednesday (unless you count Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whose recent autobiography is a best seller). Most were literary types who know Mr. Plimpton from his work on the PEN/Faulkner board, or former cohorts sharing memories of glory days in postwar Europe.

Art Buchwald had a few tales about his erudite friend, once a rival for the affections of Paris' many beauties.

"George was very attractive to women," the humorist said, joking that the two had to divide the city between them. "I had the Right Bank; he had the Left."

The duo also ran the bulls in Pamplona with Ernest Hemingway and Irwin Shaw in 1952. "We ran all day and drank all night," Mr. Buchwald remembered. "It was a very macho experience."

Mr. Plimpton's extraordinary life and eclectic achievements were the subject of much conversation throughout an evening that had its formal parts as well, including a reading from poet laureate Billy Collins and piano prodigy Ilann Maazel performing Chopin "the other expat who played in Paris."

Timothy Seldes, Mr. Plimpton's longtime agent, said it always was impossible for anyone to keep up with the extremely talented writer-editor, who could play basketball with the Boston Celtics, play football with the Detroit Lions, face Archie Moore in the ring, photograph nude women for Playboy or sound sleigh bells and gongs for Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

"He raised the bar on being a dilettante," Denver pal Carol Waltz noted with a chuckle.

The only time the prodigious Mr. Plimpton may have raised the bar too high was when he joined the circus. "He had a terrible time with the flying trapeze," Marie Ridder recalled.

After a dinner of foie gras, Moroccan lamb and a charlotte aux pommes each course accompanied by wine, naturellement guests congregated in the foyer for the ambassador's surprise presentation of the order of the chevalier of the Legion d'honneur to Mr. Plimpton for acting as a "bridge" between the French and American cultures over the course of the past half-century.

"He is brilliant, colorful, mercurial and at times effervescent, with a curiosity about the world and everything in it that has not stopped," Mr. Bujon de l'Estang told the crowd, not forgetting to mention the recipient's openness, self-deprecating humor and "penchant for the marvellous."

Not to forget having the wisdom and taste to publish all those French authors, including Celine, Francois Mauriac, Georges Simenon and Marguerite Yourcenar.

Most important of all, "You've given back to all of us the stuff of dreams," the ambassador said before affixing the medal to Mr. Plimpton's chest,

The honoree, of course, was terribly pleased, especially as his father, the late banker Francis T.P. Plimpton, had received the award more than a quarter-century before. It wasn't too surprising that he gently deflected attention away from himself with a heartfelt thanks to the many writers who have toiled for the Paris Review over the years, almost always without monetary reward.

"We had one of the longest mastheads in the world because we could never pay anybody. They all deserve a part of this ribbon," Mr. Plimpton said, going on to credit the "extraordinary culture that is France" for nurturing so many Americans who were able to learn and enjoy from their wonderful experience living there.

The guest of honor is also an authority on fireworks (he serves as New York City's longtime fireworks commissioner), so it was perhaps appropriate that the evening ended with champagne on the terrace and Mr. Plimpton looking terribly pleased as a "petit display of pinwheels and flares" exploded into the air.


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