George Ames Plimpton

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George Ames Plimpton

Birthplace: New York, New York County, New York, United States
Death: Died in New York, New York County, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Francis T.P. Plimpton and Pauline Plimpton
Husband of Sarah Plimpton
Ex-husband of Freddy M. Plimpton
Brother of Francis T.P. Plimpton, II; Oakes Ames Plimpton and Sarah Gay Plimpton

Managed by: Gene Daniell
Last Updated:

About George Ames Plimpton

George Ames Plimpton (18 March 1927 – 25 September 2003) was an American journalist, writer, editor, and actor. He is widely known for his sports writing and for helping to found The Paris Review.

Early life

George Ames Plimpton was born in New York City on March 18, 1927, and spent his childhood in New York City, growing up in an apartment duplex on Manhattan's Upper East Side located at 1165 Fifth Avenue. During the summers, he lived in West Hills, a hamlet located in the Town of Huntington in Suffolk County, New York. He was the son of Francis Taylor Pearsons Plimpton, and the grandson of Frances Taylor Pearsons and George Arthur Plimpton. His grandfather was the founder of the Ginn publishing company and a philanthropist. His father was a successful corporate lawyer and a founding partner of the law firm Debevoise and Plimpton. He was appointed by President John F. Kennedy as U.S. deputy ambassador to the United Nations serving from 1961 to 1965.

His mother was Pauline Ames, the daughter of botanist Oakes Ames and artist Blanche Ames. Both of Plimpton's maternal grandparents were born with the surname, Ames; his mother was the granddaughter of Medal of Honor recipient Adelbert Ames, an American sailor, soldier, and politician, and Oliver Ames, a U.S. political figure and the 35th Governor of Massachusetts (1887–1890). She was also the great-granddaughter on her father's side of Oakes Ames (1804–1873), an industrialist and congressman who was impeached in the Crédit Mobilier scandal; and Governor-General of New Orleans Benjamin Franklin Butler, an American lawyer and politician who represented Massachusetts in the United States House of Representatives and later served as the 33rd Governor of Massachusetts.

George had three siblings: Francis Taylor Pearsons Plimpton Jr., Oakes Ames Plimpton, and Sarah Gay Plimpton.


He attended St. Bernard's School, Phillips Exeter Academy, and Daytona Beach Mainland High School, where he received his high school diploma before entering Harvard University in July 1944. He wrote for the Harvard Lampoon, was a member of the Hasty Pudding Club, Pi Eta and the Porcellian Club. His field of concentration was English. Plimpton entered Harvard as a member of the Class of 1948, but did not graduate until 1950 due to intervening military service. He was also an accomplished birdwatcher.

His studies were interrupted by military service lasting from 1945 to 1948, during which he served as a tank driver in Italy for the U.S. Army. After graduating from Harvard, he attended King's College at Cambridge University in England. He earned a second bachelor's degree at Cambridge and took a master's in English there in 1952.


In 1953, Plimpton joined the influential literary journal The Paris Review, founded by Peter Matthiessen, Thomas H. Guinzburg, and Harold L. Humes, becoming its first editor in chief. This periodical carries great weight in the literary world, but has never been financially strong; for its first half-century, it was allegedly largely financed by its publishers and by Plimpton. Two articles by Richard Cummings, "An American in Paris" (The American Conservative) and "The Fiction of the State" (Lobster), disclose that the CIA provided funds for The Paris Review, using publisher Sadruddin Aga Khan's foundation as a conduit, and that Plimpton was an "agent of influence" for the CIA. Peter Matthiessen took the magazine over from Harold Humes and ousted him as editor, replacing him with Plimpton, using it as his cover for his CIA activities. Plimpton was also associated with the literary magazine in Paris, Merlin, which folded because the State Department withdrew its support. Poet laureate Donald Hall, who had met Plimpton at Exeter was Poetry Editor. One of the magazine's most notable discoveries was author Terry Southern, who was living in Paris at the time and formed a lifelong friendship with Plimpton, along with future classical and jazz pioneer David Amram.

At Harvard, Plimpton was a classmate and close personal friend of Robert Kennedy. Plimpton, along with former decathlete Rafer Johnson, was credited with helping wrestle Sirhan Sirhan to the ground when Kennedy was assassinated following his victory in the 1968 California Democratic primary at the former Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Outside the literary world, Plimpton was famous for competing in professional sporting events and then recording the experience from the point of view of an amateur. In 1960, prior to the second of baseball's two All-Star games, Plimpton pitched against the National League. His experience was captured in the book Out of My League. (He intended to face both line-ups, but tired badly and was relieved by Ralph Houk.) Plimpton sparred for three rounds with boxing greats Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson, while on assignment for Sports Illustrated.

In 1963, Plimpton attended preseason training with the Detroit Lions of the National Football League as a backup quarterback, and ran a few plays in an intrasquad scrimmage. These events were recalled in his best-known book Paper Lion, which was later adapted into a feature film starring Alan Alda, released in 1968. Plimpton revisited pro football in 1971, this time joining the Baltimore Colts and seeing action in an exhibition game against his previous team, the Lions. These experiences served as the basis of another football book, Mad Ducks and Bears, although much of the book dealt with the off-field escapades of football friends such as Alex Karras and Bobby Layne. Another sports book, Open Net, saw him train as an ice hockey goalie with the Boston Bruins, even playing part of a National Hockey League preseason game.

Plimpton's classic The Bogey Man chronicles his attempt to play professional golf on the PGA Tour during the Nicklaus and Palmer era of the 1960s. Among other challenges for Sports Illustrated, he attempted to play top-level bridge, and spent some time as a high-wire circus performer. Some of these events, such as his stint with the Colts, and an attempt at stand-up comedy, were presented on the ABC television network as a series of specials. After being demolished at tennis by Pancho Gonzales, he wrote that he considered himself to be a fairly accomplished tennis player and that the drubbing by Gonzales was the most surprising of his ventures against the great athletes of his time.

A 6 November 1971 cartoon in The New Yorker by Whitney Darrow, Jr. shows a cleaning lady on her hands and knees scrubbing an office floor while saying to another one: "I'd like to see George Plimpton do this sometime." In another cartoon in The New Yorker, a patient looks up at the masked surgeon about to operate on him and asks, "Wait a minute! How do I know you're not George Plimpton?" A feature in Mad Magazine titled "Some Really Dangerous Jobs for George Plimpton" spotlighted him trying to swim across Lake Erie, strolling through New York's Times Square in the middle of the night, and spending a day with Jerry Lewis. Plimpton was inducted as an honorary member of the Adelphic Alpha Pi Fraternity at Olivet College, in Olivet, Michigan, in 1979.

Plimpton also appeared in a number of feature films as an extra and in cameo appearances. He had a small role in the Oscar-winning film Good Will Hunting, playing a psychologist known for his best-selling books who agrees to have one session with the troubled protagonist, Will Hunting. Hunting tries to out Plimpton's character as gay, and the obviously horrified psychologist refuses to meet with him again. Plimpton played Tom Hanks's antagonistic father in Volunteers. He was also notable for his appearance in television commercials during the early 1980s, including a memorable campaign for Mattel's Intellivision. In this campaign, Plimpton aggressively touted the superiority of Intellivision video games over those of competitors such as the Atari 2600. He was also the host of the Disney Channel's Mouseterpiece Theater (a Masterpiece Theatre spoof which featured classic Disney cartoon shorts). He appeared in an episode of The Simpsons, "I'm Spelling as Fast as I Can", as host of the "Spellympics". He attempts to talk Lisa Simpson into losing the spelling bee with the offer of a college scholarship at a Seven Sisters College and a hot plate, claiming "it's perfect for soup!" He also had a recurring role as the grandfather of Dr. Carter on the long-running NBC series ER.

Plimpton appeared in the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings about the "Rumble in the Jungle" Ali-Foreman Championship fight opposite Norman Mailer crediting Muhammad Ali as a poet who composed the world's shortest poem: "Me-We".

A longtime fireworks aficionado, Plimpton wrote the book Fireworks, and hosted an A&E Home Video with the same name featuring his many fireworks adventures with the Gruccis of New York in Monte Carlo and for the 1983 Brooklyn Bridge Centennial. He was appointed Fireworks Commissioner of New York by Mayor John Lindsay, an unofficial post he held until his death.

Shortly before his death, Plimpton wrote the libretto to a new family opera-musical Animal Tales, in collaboration with Grethe Barrett Holby. The piece had been commissioned by Grethe Barrett Holby's Family Opera Initiative with composition by Kitty Brazelton. George explained Animal Tales by saying "I suppose in a mild way there is a lesson to be learned for the young, or the young at heart - the gumption to get out and try one's wings." The creative team also included set designer Franco Colavecchia and costume designer Camille Assaf. The work premiered in its entirety in November 2008, with Keith Buterbaugh in the role of Dr. Alfred J. McGee, Jendi Tarde as Hamster, Barbi McCulloch as Goldfish, Ryan Naimy as Dog, Aus Jordan II as Turtle, Kyrian Friedenberg as Frog, Branch Fields as Parrot, and Garrett Taylor as Horse. Musicians included Jenny Lin on piano, David Vincola on Latin percussion and DJ Elan Vital.

A personal friend of the New England Sedgwick family, Plimpton edited Edie: An American Biography with Jean Stein in 1982. He also appeared in a brief interview footage about Edie Sedgwick in the DVD extra for the film Ciao! Manhattan. In addition, he appeared in the PBS American Masters documentary on Andy Warhol. Plimpton also appeared in the closing credits of the 2006 film "Factory Girl".

An oral biography titled George, Being George was edited by Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., and released on 21 October 2008. The book offers memories of Plimpton from among other writers, such as Norman Mailer, William Styron, Gay Talese and Gore Vidal, and was done with the cooperation of both his ex-wife and his widow.

Researcher and writer Samuel Arbesman filed with NASA to name an asteroid after George Plimpton; NASA issued the certificate in 2009.

In 2006, the musician Jonathan Coulton wrote the song entitled 'A Talk with George', a part of his 'Thing A Week' series, in tribute to Mr. Plimpton's many adventures and approach to life. Plimpton is also the protagonist of the semi-fictional George Plimpton's Video Falconry, a 1983 ColecoVision game postulated by humorist John Hodgman and recreated by video game auteur Tom Fulp.

A feature-length documentary about George, directed by Tom Bean and Luke Poling, is currently in postproduction. It will be completed and released sometime in 2011.

Personal life

Plimpton was married twice. His first wife, whom he married in 1968 and divorced in 1988, was Freddy Medora Espy, a photographer's assistant. She was the daughter of writers Willard R. Espy and Hilda S. Cole, who had earlier in her career been the publicity agent for Kate Smith and Fred Waring. They had two children: Medora Ames Plimpton and Taylor Ames Plimpton, who has published a memoir entitled “Notes from the Night: A Life After Dark.”

In 1992, he married Sarah Whitehead Dudley, a graduate of Columbia University and a freelance writer. She is the daughter of James Chittenden Dudley, a managing partner of Dudley and Company, a Manhattan-based investment management firm and a geologist and Elisabeth Claypool. James and Elisabeth established the 36-acre (150,000 m2) Highstead Arboretum in Redding, Connecticut. George and Sarah were the parents of twin daughters, Laura Dudley Plimpton and Olivia Hartley Plimpton.


Plimpton died on September 25, 2003 in his New York City apartment from an apparent heart attack. He was 76.

Selected works


Film, Television, Commercial, and other appearances

George A. Plimpton was born in New York on March 18, 1927, the eldest child of Pauline Ames Plimpton and Francis T.P. Plimpton. He was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and at Harvard (B.A. 1950), and went on to earn a second B.A. at King's College, Cambridge. He was married first to Freddy Espy, with whom he had two children, Medora and Taylor; the marriage ended in divorce and he later married Sarah Dudley, with whom he had twin daughters, Lauren and Olivia. Plimpton co-founded The Paris Review in 1953 with Harold L. Humes and Peter Matthiesson, whom he met while at Cambridge, and served as that magazine's editor until his death. Plimpton came into his own as a writer after publishing the widely acclaimed books Out of My League (1961) and Paper Lion (1966), based on his experiences as a temporary guest member of professional baseball and football teams, respectively. He successfully pursued this unique form of participatory journalism by entering a match against boxing champion, Archie Moore; playing percussion for Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic; swinging from a trapeze in a circus's big tent; and playing golf in a pro tournament, bridge with professionals, and tennis with Poncho Gonzales. He acted in several films and served, unofficially, as New York's first Fireworks Commissioner. Plimpton, a long-time friend of the Kennedy family, was with Bobby Kennedy when he was assassinated and, in the ensuing chaos, helped subdue Sirhan Sirhan. Genial and well-liked, he was famous for the parties he frequently gave in his home above The Paris Review offices in New York. George A. Plimpton died in New York on September 26, 2003.

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George Ames Plimpton's Timeline

New York, New York County, New York, United States
Age 76
New York, New York County, New York, United States