On the wall behind the piano in George Plimpton's apartment overlooking the East River in New York City is a framed manuscript page from an Ernest Hemingway short story. The page, written in pencil, was a gift from the author after being interviewed for The Paris Review, a literary magazine that Plimpton edits. Staring out from photographs around the apartment is Plimpton's face in attitudes that reflect his adventures: hooded as an Arab extra in Lawrence of Arabia, looking somewhat shocked as a result of being hit on the nose by Archie Moore during a boxing exhibition—the nose turned out to be broken—wearing a floppy hat at a sidewalk café table in Paris, peering from under a baseball cap on the day he pitched against Willie Mays, smiling as he danced with Jean Seberg. There are many paintings in the apartment and posters and books and bits of memorabilia from a vigorous life. But one of Plimpton's favorite mementos is a gold football that sits atop the piano. The engraving on the football says: "To the best rookie football player in Detroit Lions history." "The prose style may not be much," says Plimpton, "but I've memorized every word of it." The trophy is indicative not only of the honest affection between Plimpton and the Lions, of which Plimpton writes on page 104, but also—in view of its prominence in an apartment that is the scene of New York's most fashionable literary gatherings—of a mingling of the intellectual and the athletic.
Sport and good writers have never been very far apart. As all good writers do, Plimpton finds the human values in sport, which is, after all, a microcosm of life. Everything is, in a way, a sort of game with sets of rules, and Plimpton has a way of discovering the conflict and humor, the rules and the game, even in such an ordinarily dull affair as an NFL draft meeting. Curious about Plimpton's fondness for sport, Hemingway once said during dinner at Finca Vigia, "Let's see what you know about boxing, kid." He got up and fetched Plimpton a punch on the jaw that, Plimpton recalls vividly, made his head clang. "He was a very strong man and a very good boxer and my situation was awkward, to say the least," Plimpton says. "As I backed up, I got an idea. I asked him to show me how he had thrown the punch. He became absorbed in explaining it, and then sat down calmly to dinner again with the incident forgotten."
Plimpton, a graduate of Harvard and King's College, Cambridge, went to Paris in 1952. He fought calves in Spain, became an enthusiastic fisherman, helped start The Paris Review and played a good game of tennis. "I think the toughest thing I ever did, though, was play in a bridge tournament," he says. "My partner, Oswald Jacoby, got mad at me, and my sense of mental inadequacy was much more excruciating than pain or not being able to run as fast as someone else or fumbling a football. Being silent at a bridge table with a vacuum for a mind is a horror." Plimpton is also somewhat proficient at the piano—once on an amateur night at Harlem's Apollo Theater he tied for third with an 11-year-old girl who sang Twisting Shoes. These days musicians, artists, actors, writers, quarterbacks, middleweights and third basemen have a way of all showing up at a Plimpton party. But not many get to play the piano, lest the gold football get knocked over and dented.