SECTION TWO

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COLUMN ONE HUNDRED, DECEMBER 1, 2003
(Copyright 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)

GEORGE PLIMPTON, 76
DEATH CLAIMS ANOTHER OF MY GIANTS


GEORGE PLIMPTON

[Father Death has claimed another of the giants I have known.

Yes, I knew George Plimpton, too, a charming and delightful man who talked with a Patrician accent and tried to do almost everything!

We'd met when my pot connection buddy Mike Nichols brought me up to a party at George's famous 72nd Street literary salon, overlooking the East River. Sure, I wanted to meet George. He ran the world-famous Paris Review and we had similar literary tastes.

To tell the truth, I felt awed at the party by the well-connected kind of guys I found there. The event sticks in my memory as something that resembled a fraternity-like stag party. As for my pot connection buddy Mike Nichols, he not only was George's pot connection, too, but Mike also did a little pimping on the side. Mike not only brought me to the party, but George had asked him to bring a couple of hookers. Not for sex. Just for company. George was a gracious host.

I interviewed George a couple of times afterwards---once for the New York Times and another piece that was printed I forget where else. The following, written in 1968, was the only one of the two that I could find in my voluminous files. George's book, Paper Lion, about his performance as a Detroit Lions quarterback, had recently been released and he was enjoying a new wave of media attention.]

A tug was pulling the topless hulk of a dismantled tramp steamer down the East River past the third-floor window of George Plimpton's apartment and I wondered if George had ever thought of doing that.  If you let him, George can do anything.  He's 40 years old and he still looks like a kid who eats Wheaties.  On the wall near the window hung a framed cartoon of President Johnson glancing up from his White House desk at a presidential aide handing him a letter.

"It's from George Plimpton," the presidential aide was saying.  "Wants to know if he could try being President for a while."

There was the time that George tried out for a part in Lawrence of Arabia.  He showed up in Wadi-Rhum, near Aqaba, dressed in a Bedouin outfit that had been made for him in Rome and found himself in the middle of e largest Bedouin encampment to be put together since the First World War.  The trouble was that George's tailor had made the Bedouin outfit too short.  When director David Lean came around to do the casting, there was George with a pair of brown loafers sticking out beneath his robes.

"All David saw was the loafers," George remembered.  "He said, 'Oh, God!' and that was the last conversation I ever had with him."

George can do anything, but he can't necessarily do anything right.  He offered me a scotch and water and then stood swishing his glass in front of one of the Paris Review posters that covered his apartment walls. What George does best is to write about all the things he did wrong.  In the five times he handled the ball as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions, he lost a total of 35 yards but gained a book.  The book, Paper Lion, has already old more than 100,000 hard cover copies and United Artists has paid George $50,000 for the movie rights.  On top of George's piano was a large gold football on a pedestal with a plaque inscribed:

To the Best Rookie Football Player in Detroit Lions History.  George Plimpton. 1963."

Next to the gold football was a recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's Fourth Symphony in G Major.  George's most recent exploit has been to tour Canada as a member of the percussion section of the Now York Philharmonic, and he started telling me about the night he hit the gong so hard at the end of Tchaikovsky's Little Russian Symphony that even Leonard Bernstein applauded.

"In this series of mine," George said soberly---despite the scotch and water in his hand, "there have been all these disasters, losing the ball for the Detroit Lions. . . being practically carried half dead off the mound at Yankee Stadium. . . getting my nose bent by Archie Moore. . . And so, hitting the gong has become a fond moment for me.  Then, the next day, in London, Ontario, I was fired by Lennie for playing the bells out of tempo . . ."

George takes his work seriously, whatever it happens to be at the time.  During the month that he was with the Philharmonic, his mistakes were documented by the cameras of David Wolper Productions for a television special to be shown on The Bell Telephone Hour in January. In the meantime, George's colleagues in the percussion section are having fun trying to figure out who will play their roles in the movie version of the book that George is planning to write about his month in the orchestra.

"This is somewhat strange," George told me, "a writer interviewing a writer.  I mean I can't tell you everything because I'm just not going to be giving away the bones of the book."

I asked George if that meant he was going to expose some skeletons he had found hidden in the percussion section of the New York Philharmonic, and he laughed that boyish laugh of his, a laugh that pleads innocent no matter what he's done.  As Leonard Bernstein later told me, "George is such a charming person that when he makes a mistake, you can't hold it against him.  He did very well for an amateur, but then he's one of the most gifted amateurs in the world.  That's his profession, isn't it?"

When George first asked Bernstein if he could play with the Philharmonic several years ago, Bernstein assigned George to conduct a John Cage composition in which all George had to do was stand on the podium and revolve his arm in a circle so t it marked off exactly one minute.  George went through a period of intensive rehearsal in his living room but the orchestra ended up using a large clock instead.  Then, last summer, Bernstein suggested that George try out for the triangle, bass drum and sleigh bells on the Canadian tour.  George immediately bought a battery-operated record player, a copy of Mahler's Fourth, rented a studio at Carroll's, the famous rehearsal hall, and took one lesson from Saul Goodman, the 60-year-old solo timpanist whom George describes as "the great czar in the percussion section."

"I started out in Ann Arbor with a couple of strokes on the triangle," George said, "and then we started escalating.  In Chicago I added the gong and in Vancouver we threw in the bass drum. I played the gong, triangle and bells in Mahler's Fourth Symphony and in the Ives Second I played the bass drum. Lennie knew my approach to football and the other things was serious and that what I wanted to do was a type of self-education in which my commitment was being serious rather than doing it as a poonster.

"You see, I had been doing all these sports these sports things, and it was a natural progression to doing something in which there was not so much damage to the limbs. Presumably, music was easier. But I found this to be compensated for because of the tension. The mental anguish became more disturbing than the physical anguish. I found myself not being able to fall asleep nights. In the orchestra, the mental anguish is multiplied by the fear of coming in on the wrong note, that you might damage the entire performance. The music is rushing along and you have to come in at a certain moment and if you lose your place---it becomes even more acute than physical pain."

He offered me a Russian filtertip cigarette from a pack of Rosglavtabaks that someone had left on the coffee table beneath a Bernard Buffet painting of a lighthouse. On the wall, there was also a collage by Robert Rauschenberg, a drawing by Larry Rivers and the original manuscript of a poem by Cassius Clay. Along with all the other things he does, George is an editor of the Paris Review, a literary quarterly published by the Aga Khan's uncle, Sadrudin, and his apartment is overstuffed with the comforts and legends of its use as a literary salon.  I looked for an ash tray and found a silver one embossed with the emblem of the Racquet and Tennis Club that was inscribed:

"Pool Handicap. 1967. Runner Up. G. A. Plimpton."

George's father is Francis T. P. Plimpton, former Deputy United States Representative to the United Nations, and George has always had to put up with stories like the one I heard about the maid that comes into his apartment every morning to sweep up all the names dropped there the night before.

"The only background in music I have," George said, "is that I play cocktail lounge piano, which once won me second prize in the amateur night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.  As I recall, I shared the second prize with a 12-year-old girl who sang Dancing Shoes."

In his various hotel rooms on his tour with the Philharmonic, George wore out his recording of Mahler's Fourth Symphony rehearsing to it every night past 1 a.m. He also wore out the musicians who had to rehearse the symphony every afternoon, play it every night and then listen to George practice it while they were trying to fall asleep in the rooms next to his.

"They treated me like a musician," George said, "as if I was one of the orchestra. As for the gong, it doesn't take that long to learn how to hit the damn thing, although it takes years so that you can make a great art of it. When I played the gong badly, I would be called to account for it, as they say.  Lennie would say, 'Let's see what type of tone you have in the gong.' And I would say, "What do you mean?' And he would say, 'Well, you have three different types of sound in your gong. Which are you going to select?' And I would say, 'I don't know.' And he would say, 'Well, pick one sound and practice, practice, practice.""

The telephone rang, as it constantly does in George's apart?ment, and I wondered when he finds time to get any writing done. He is currently collaborating on a book with Marianne Moore, the 80-year?old poet, and he is also the editor of Paris Review Editions, a publishing adjunct that has just brought out two books, A-12, a collection of autobiographical poetry by Louis Zukovsky, a literary associate of William Carlos Williams, and A Sport and a Pastime, a prose love poem by novelist James Salter. 

"Tell me about the yawl again," George was saying on the telephone.  "Is it fiberglass?"

George is a bachelor and his refrigerator was stocked mainly with a six-pack of beer.

"One of my major problems " George said, hanging up the phone, "was that I found myself staring at the music instead of at Lennie. The music was acting as a life preserver for me and there was no communication between me and the maestro. Of course, sometimes you turn a page of music and you find a picture of a nude looking at you.  Other times, you find a little note someone has written in like, 'Play soft till it hurts.""

There are some 50 instruments in the percussion section, which George calls the "shady corner" of the orchestra, and each instrument speaks with a different voice. The sound of the wood block, for example, reaches the conductor's ears much more quickly than the sound of the bass drum.

As Bernstein later told me, "George's trouble was not mistakes so much as not having the experience to watch me and look at the music at the same time. Sometimes he would get a little


The
J. Arthur Rank
thing


behind. If he'd look at me, I can correct him, but he's so intent on reading the music I can't catch his eye."

Another of George's problems was the Now York Philharmonic Orchestra's tradition of playing on upbeat of the conductor's baton rather than on the downbeat.

"I don't know why they do it, except to increase the tension," George said.

This delayed beat is known among the New York Philharmonic musicians as "the old German style," and they have various ways of coping with it.

"For instance, with Serge Koussevitzky," said Walter Rosenberger, the 48-year-old principal of the percussion section and a specialist in mallet instruments, "you would start to play when his baton passed the third button on his vest."

It was Rosenberger who took George to Bernstein for permission to play the gong, known officially as the tamtam but characterized by Bernstein as "a J. Arthur Rank thing," obviously because every J. Arthur Rank film is preceded on the screen by the striking of a gong just as each MGM film is introduced by the roar of a lion.

"I think George added to the percussion section with his dignity and his looks," Rosen?berger said.

George's now famous clout on the gong at the climax of Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony came in Winnipeg, and it was completely spontaneous and unrehearsed.

"It was coming down to the moment and we were all counting like mad," remembered Morris Lang, the 36-year-old assistant timpanist. "Finally, Rosenberger hollers, 'Hit it!?"

Bernstein later said he thought the house was coming down. 

"When I hit this clout," George told me, "it made all the musicians in front of me jump up like beans on a griddle.  Lennie had to keep the orchestra from coming in for two measures simply to give the sound a chance to get disseminated. He said it must have been my football muscles coming into play."

When the symphony ended, the entire orchestra stood up, turned toward George and began applauding.  Bernstein was shouting, "Bravo! Bravo!"

Back in his shady corner at the roar of the orchestra, George turned toward Rosenberger and said:

"Walter, don't you think the audience is puzzled as to what's going on?"

When George walked into the Winnipeg hotel lobby after the concert, the musicians were waiting there to applaud him again.

"It had a lot to do with the acoustics," George said, swishing his scotch and water again. He was awaiting the arrival of an architect to cut a hole in his floor so he could put a circular staircase through to the empty apartment below.

"The hall in Winnipeg was particularly constituted for hitting this clout. Actually, it was quite extraordinary.  It is now referred to in the annals of the symphony orchestra as the "Winnipeg Gong."  Afterwards, they wanted me to play the gong solo in the remaining performances, but I just thought I'd leave that sound there, I just thought I'd retire it, so it's still up in Winnipeg."

The telephone rang again. George, wearing dark trousers with a shirt and tie, answered it, listened to the caller and responded:

"I haven't done my homework, but I'll try, Paul. . ."

Sheets of music scores were on the piano, on the coffee table, on the desk. When the New York Philharmonic played Chicago, George took his colleagues in the percussion section to Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion for a dip in the pool. The White Sox were playing the Twins that night, and George picked up a dozen Playboy press tickets and drove some of the musicians out to the ballpark in Hefner's limousine, equipped with a bar, a chauffeur and two visiting young ladies from European nobility. George is famous for his connections.

When George played his big bass drum solo at the end of Ives' Second Symphony, Rosenberger would run over from the snare drums and start counting out loud for George. Now that George has left the orchestra, Rosenberger still finds himself counting out loud.

"Lennie demanded excellent playing, and if he didn't get it he wouldn't let George play," Rosenberger told me. 

Whenever George would play the triangle or the bass drum, one of the other members of the percussion section would stand ready to cover George if he made a mistake.

"But it was impossible to cover him on the sleigh bells at the opening of Mahler's Fourth," Rosenberger said.

Anyway, George's colleagues blame the stage acoustics for what eventually happened. George, of course, blames himself.

"I just couldn't get used to playing on the upbeat," he explained after hanging up the phone. "The symphony opens with the bells and in the first few seconds, the whole color and temper of the performance is committed. And when you make a bad commitment, you destroy the whole. This is what I mean about mental anguish. It was in London, Ontario, and after it was over, I was called in by the maestro and he a very gentle and nice. He knew I was very upset about this and very upset about hurting the performance."

The telephone rang again, and George picked it up. Robert Redford, the star of Barefoot in the Park, has been chosen to pa play the role of George in the movie version of Paper Lion but the percussionists in the orchestra want George to play himself. Mean?while, Norman Mailer has cast George as a mayor on an inspection tour of a police station in a new underground movie that Mailer is filming.

"I'm a literary man," George was saying on the telephone, ". . .if you were a young German poet or author, that would be one thing, but you're an artist---I wouldn't know how to advise you. . ."

George has been telling his colleagues in the percussion section that his next adventure will have to do with either hockey or baseball, but Buster Bailey, the 45-year-old second percussionist of the orchestra, has been trying to talk George into taking an interest in the circus. It's been a long time since George was coming in last in camel races with the Arab children in the Bedouin encampment at Wadi-Rhum. Now George wants to write an article about Frank Sinatra and he's gotten a part as a newspaper reporter in Sinatra's next movie, The Detective.

I looked out the window at Welfare Island. The New York Philharmonic is going to be recording Tchaikovsky's Little Russian soon, and Leonard Bernstein has asked George to play the gong solo again.

Every time someone made a mistake in the orchestra, they used to say it was the bad acoustics," said George, getting off the phone. "Now they say, 'It must be George....""  ##  

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