George Plimpton's The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair: And Other Excursions and Observations is not unlike its late author: erudite in manner, endearing in tone, an elegant anomaly in a world so often characterized by its lack of grace and charm. Edited by his widow, Sarah Dudley Plimpton, and published a year after his death, the book brings together the many articles and essays Plimpton wrote during his reign as the father of participatory journalism. As he writes in one of the later pieces, My Olympic Trials, Everyone must wonder wistfully if there isn't something other than what they actually practice in their lives (playing in a yacht-club tennis tournament) at which they would be incredibly adept if they could only find out what it was. . . . If an idiot savant could sit down at a piano and suddenly bat out a Chopin Å½tude, wasn't the same sort of potential locked up somewhere in all of us? What's intriguing about Plimpton is that he actually did seek out this unknown other, this something else. In true Walter Mitty fashion, he played Amateur Night at the Apollo, photographed Playboy playmates and stood on the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium. In doing so, he led us all to believe that we the Everymen, the Underdogs of the world could live out our whims and our quiet fantasies, too.
Perhaps it is this sense of endless possibility that ensured Plimpton would never grow old. During my first year out of college I had the good fortune of earning an internship at Plimpton's literary journal, The Paris Review. Parties were common occurrences and as I was young and living in New York City for the first time, I should have been the one to stay up well into the night dancing and socializing. Instead, it was more often the tall, gangly 70-year-old by the bar who had the energy, who, like some literary Pied Piper, led us all on to the next restaurant, the next club or late night game of pool. What I remember most about Plimpton, though, is the graciousness with which he treated everyone he met. Though possessed of a family lineage that included senators, tycoons and the first American poet, and though educated at such esteemed institutions as Harvard and Cambridge, Plimpton never resorted to arrogance or condescension. It is one reason why people were drawn to him, why he had more people claiming him as a best friend than he probably ever realized.
As a writer, Plimpton's strength lay in his subtlety. To be funny, you don't always have to be obvious and when you're writing about an adult film convention ( In the Playpen of the Damned ) or a wildlife documentary filmmaker and his succession of near-death experiences ( The Man Who Was Eaten Alive ), you don't need a heavy hand. He may have been a participatory journalist, but he knew how to pull back and let a story tell itself. In his world, celebrities and eccentrics were part of a larger tableau, an ongoing narrative that never lost its wonder. When, after one long night with Hunter S. Thompson, Plimpton thinks back to the circus-like atmosphere, he remembers a story Thompson told him and writes, And as I weaved home on my bicycle not long before dawn, I thought, Oh, Hunter, write that one, and a lot more. It was in the cramped and tiny Paris Review offices that Plimpton used to store his bicycle. Hung high from the ceiling, it hovered over the heads of the staff, looking perfectly at home next to such accoutrements as a lion tamer's chair, a stuffed bird, a framed letter from the prime minister of France. He rode it often and when out walking in the neighborhood it was entirely possible that one might catch sight of him his clothes a bit rumpled, his white hair flying about his face as he ever so slightly teetered off down the street. It was an anxiety-inducing visual as he often appeared on the verge of falling into the busy New York traffic. In true Plimpton fashion though, he had it all under control, and much like The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair, every part was perfectly balanced and of course, full of endless charm.
Lacey Galbraith is a writer in Nashville.