George Plimpton, in memoriam

By Andrei Codrescu

About 1970 when I was a young literary lion, well, more like a lion-cub – and some might have said puppy—I wrote a story of breathless chutzpah and unmitigated gall called “Monsieur Teste in America,” a story that announced, among other things, that a lion-in-the-making was growling (eruditely) at the gates of literature, and the natives better ready the meat. The gates I had in mind were those of “The Paris Review.” I mailed in this novella-length growl, about 80 pages long to George Plimpton, and waited confidently in my $60-a-month pad on Avenue C & Sixth St. for the phone to ring, hopefully before they shut it for nonpayment. Amazingly, it did ring.

It was Fayette Hickox, George Plimpton’s assistant at the Paris Review, telling me that George “loved” the story – well, of course — but that it needed to be cut short by at least half. In its current dimensions it was longer than “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the longest story the Paris Review had ever published.

“Well, George is just going to have to tell me that himself,” I bravely lioned from my blue chair, just found on the street that Wendesday when people put out furniture for the trashman.

To my surprise, Fayette said, “Hold on a minute,” and I held on for what has to be one of my longest minutes, one in which visions of glory were succeeded lightning-fast by feelings of utter worthlessness, and then Fayette came back and said, “George would like that. Where do you want to meet?”

Where did I want to meet? Certainly not in one of Plimpton’s haunts that I’d read about in the gossips: I didn’t want to go to Elaine’s, or to the Russian Tea Room, or to the Four Seasons. Plus, I wasn’t sure I had the cab fare. Then I had a nice idea: “The Lion’s Head,” I said.

Now, for those born too late to know the disposition of littérateurs hangouts in New York in the Sixties, the Lion’s Head in Greenwich Village was where certain macho Downtown writers hung out, among them my friend Joel Oppenheimer, Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, Michael Stephens, men like that. Even the cook was a macho writer, Tom Weatherly, a tall Black poet who wrote “The Mau-Mau Cantos,” but always gave poor writers like myself extra shrimps in the shrimp cocktail, which was the only thing I could afford besides one beer. I thought of the Lion’s Head as a happy compromise: it was macho, the writers who frequented it were growly-lion types, and the name itself would resonate with Plimpton who had once played football for the Detroit Lions – once, for a book.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Fayette said doubtfully, “hold on a minute.”

Well, there went the second of my longest minutes. But the magic was unstoppable. “OK, I’ll come down in an hour, and George will join us a half-hour later.”

I got to the Lion’s Head instantly. My first attempt at teleportation, and it worked. I went in and told Tom Weatherly nonchalantly, “I’m going to meet George Plimpton here in a few minutes, can you make some extra shrimpy cocktails and make sure that nobody sits near this table by the fireplace? Oh, and can I have a whiskey on credit, I swear I’ll pay you back.”

I shouldn’t have worried. There was no one in the bar at 3 in the afternoon, and Tom was in a good mood. I sat by myself at the best table and shortly after that, the dapper, elegant Mr. Hickox showed up. After he sat himself down and ordered a beer, he leaned over confidentially, and said: “George must like your story a lot. I think this is the first time in ten years that he’s come this far Downtown.”

Indeed. Not only did George Plimpton, former Detroit Lion, full-grown literary lion, and lionized publisher, come this far Downtown to the Lion’s Head, he loved it. He ordered whiskey. And then we had more whiskeys, and with each whiskey I became more and more confident of my own lionhood and the tremendous roar of my story. We must have stayed there at least two hours, during which the place filled with all kinds of writerly riff-raff who clearly knew the man I was such great pals with. By the time Fayette arranged for a car to pick them up, literary history had been made. The Paris Review published my novella, “Monsieur Teste” in its ENTIRETY. It was longer than “Portnoy’s Complaint.” The longest story the review ever published. And George Plimpton, who died last week and with whom I maintained cordial and professional relations with for a long time, could do no wrong.