Saturday, July 15, 2006

Some Thoughts on a Fun Guy to Be Around

I was in the process of revising my resume this afternoon and got to the point where I was adding the information about having been an interviewer for, and contributor to, George Plimpton's oral biography of Truman Capote. Published in 1997 with the meaty title of Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, it is a remarkable book, and the honor of being able to participate in even a small way is undoubtedly one of the highlights of my life.

Even now, 11 years after George's first call to me, I'm still amazed that he asked me to be a part of this project. I still remember vividly the day that I came home and found a surprising -- and very brief -- message on my voice mail: "Hello, it's George Plimpton calling. Please give me a call at your earliest convenience." I was absolutely floored and, as I said in introducing him at a dinner several years later, I immediately called my parents, grandparents, fiancee, friends, and high school English teacher to tell them the exciting news -- everyone, that is, except George to find out what he wanted in the first place!

One of the things that always impressed me most about George was that he was a true gentleman without even having to work at it, and he always took a genuine interest in whatever person he was talking to at any particular moment. I had invited him to attend my wedding in 1996, but he had to cancel at the last minute due to an unexpected conflict. To make it up to us, he invited me and my wife up to visit with him and his lovely wife Sarah in New York in July of the following year, and we had a great four-day visit to the Big Apple. Several years later, he flew down to Mobile, Alabama, to speak at the annual fundraising dinner for the Friends of the Mobile Library, and we were able to entertain him -- and be entertained!! -- with some good drinks and good conversation.

The last time I saw him was about a year-and-a-half before he passed away, when he was once again in Alabama to speak at the Alabama Writers' Symposium, in May, 2002. In addition to being his "Man Friday" during his visit, I was honored to be asked to introduce him at the formal dinner held on the first night of the conference. It was the first time I had heard him speak live, and he held the audience's attention from the first word to the last -- one of the most entertaining and hysterical talks I've heard, before or since.

The second night of the conference, the attention seemed to be wearing him out, and so my in-laws kindly invited him for dinner and drinks at their home. Over some delicious steaks and good whiskey, he regaled them -- and me and my wife -- with even more stories from his long career, and charmed my mother- and father-in-law to no end. Several of us also took time to watch the Boston Celtics playoff game that was on television that night, and I have to say that that period provided me with the one image of George that is guaranteed to stay with me for the rest of my life: holding his scotch perfectly steady in one hand while high-fiving us with the other following every great play by the Celtics.

I was deeply saddened when I got the news that he had passed away in September, 2003, feeling that I had lost someone who had become a true friend to my family and me. As such, it wasn't even a question as to whether I would attend his memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in November of that year. There was a large and incredibly diverse crowd in attendance -- colleagues like Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, former staff members from the Paris Review, family, friends, and folks who simply just enjoyed the life he led and the writing he shared.

In my introduction at the dinner in Alabama, I tried -- unsuccessfully, I fear -- to summarize George's character. However, I don't think there's every any way that someone like me, who was so tremendously honored to have been involved in his world for just a brief time, could ever truly say how much his invitation and his kindness meant to me and my family.

"That’s George – it doesn’t matter if you’re Norman Mailer or Norman the mailman; you are treated as someone with something important to contribute. I will certainly continue to be impressed and amazed with all of his professional accomplishments. However, it is not George Plimpton the author, but George Plimpton the friend that I will always remember."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was a memorable night for all of us. Thanks for reminding of us of the pleasure of his company.