- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2003

George Plimpton nearly promoted one of the greatest literary fistfights of all time — a battle between Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer. Plimpton was supposed to arrange a meeting between the two volatile men, but it failed to materialize.

Mailer told Plimpton in Plimpton’s book “Shadow Box” how the meeting might have gone: “What seemed to concern [Hemingway] were insignificant private preoccupations that bored the hell out of us … the feuds between his friends Leonard Lyons and Walter Winchell. I would have said, ‘Stop perfuming your vanity, get your hands dirty; we’re tired of you and your little hurts.’”

“Perfuming his vanity,” Plimpton replied. “Well, that would have made for a hell of an evening.”

“Oh, I think so,” Mailer said.

That was the world that George Plimpton, who died Thursday night at the age of 76 at his Manhattan apartment, lived in — dinner with Ernest Hemingway, phone calls from Norman Mailer. He made a name for himself as the “participatory” journalist who trained as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions, pitched to Willie Mays and boxed against Archie Moore.

Plimpton was a man who lived in two worlds — editing the Paris Review and writing about characters like Detroit Lions tackle Alex Karras. His most famous work in sports was “Paper Lion,” the best seller about going to training camp as a backup quarterback with the Detroit Lions in 1963, but “Mad Ducks and Bears,” a book about the relationships he developed with Karras and Lions offensive tackle John Gordy, was much more entertaining. And if you are a boxing fan, then “Shadow Box” is required reading.

Here was one of his observations while boxing against Moore before a small crowd at the legendary Stillman’s Gym in New York: “Occasionally, I could hear my name being called out. ‘Hey, George, hit him back, hit him in the knees, George.’ I was conscious of how inappropriate the name George was to the ring, rather like hearing ‘Timothy’ or ‘Warren’ or ‘Christopher.’ Occasionally, I was aware of the faces hanging above the seats like rows of balloons, unrecognizable, many of them with faint anticipatory grins on their faces, as if they were waiting for a joke to be told which was going to be pretty good. They were slightly inhuman. I remember thinking, the banks of them staring up, and suddenly into my mind popped a scene from Conan Doyle’s, ‘The Croxley Master,’ his fine description of a fight being watched by Welsh miners, each with his dog sitting behind him. They went everywhere as companions, so that the boxers looked down and everywhere among the human faces were the heads of dogs, yapping from the benches, the muzzles pointing up, tongues lolling.”

That was vintage Plimpton — recalling a scene from a Doyle novel while getting beat up by the light heavyweight champion of the world. You won’t find that kind of perspective coming out of the fingers of any ringside scribes, myself included.

Often, when men who are considered to be serious writers dabble in writing sports, they are revealed to be the self-important windbags that they are. (If somehow the Red Sox and the Cubs wind up in the World Series, they’ll come out of the woodwork like roaches.) Plimpton never came across that way, though. He never gave the impression that he was slumming or that he had some sort of particular expertise that accompanied his IQ. He did have that unique perspective that respected both the worlds that he operated in.

A significant portion of “Shadow Box” is devoted to the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire in 1974 — the greatest sporting event in the world in the second half of the 20th century — and his writings are much more entertaining and revealing than those of his friend Mailer, who wrote an entire book on the fight and the hoopla that surrounded it. Plimpton gave readers a better sense of how marvelous it must have been to be part of that circus, beyond what happened in the fight, such as this conversation he recalled with Hunter Thompson that took place the day before the fight.

“Nothing’s gone right,” Thompson told Plimpton. “I don’t know anything about what’s going on around here … except that they’re closing in … don’t you think they’re closing in?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Plimpton said. “Who do you think is closing in?”

“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” Thompson said. “I went looking for Bill Cardoza — he’s the guy from New Times — at 4 a.m. last night to ask him if he felt they were closing in. I found him, but then I felt we should have some preliminary drinks, and before I could ask him I lost him somewhere in Kinshasa. I couldn’t remember the number of his room in the Memling Hotel. That’s probably where he had gone. I believe in kicking in a door if you really want to find somebody — especially in a good police state hotel like the Memling. So I got up into the corridors and I gave a couple of doors one of my Kung Fu sneaker shots. The people inside really got tightened up.”

Plimpton spent much of his career trying to see what it was like to be somebody else. Most writers would have loved to try to see what it was like to be George Plimpton.

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