The most gratifying thing about the new George Plimpton biography, George, Being George (Random House; 423 pages), is that it is nearly as much fun as George Plimpton. For the bulk of his 76 years, Plimpton--the Wasp bohemian who quarterbacked the Detroit Lions, danced at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball, set off more fireworks than a thousand juvenile delinquents and edited America's greatest literary journal for 50 years before his death in 2003--was educated society's unofficial mayor of good times. Who else could box a few rounds with Archie Moore, trade stanzas with Marianne Moore and make a living by pointing out his inadequacy at both?
Plimpton's fame and glaring idiosyncrasies (born and raised in New York City, he spoke as if he were always dashing off to a regatta) make him the perfect subject for a code-cracking biography, the kind that lays bare the man and his motivations. George, Being George does the trick, in part by borrowing the form of Plimpton's own biographies of Capote and Edie Sedgwick (Jean Stein's Edie: American Girl, which he edited). Recognizing that Plimpton's spirit would suffocate under the weight of analytic prose, editor Nelson Aldrich Jr. interviewed more than 200 verbally dexterous Plimpton associates--from Norman Mailer (adoring) and Gay Talese (brutally adoring) to the Plimptons' nanny--and constructed a narrative out of their most entertaining paragraphs. It's biography as cocktail party.
Early on, George, Being George doubles as a comic history of the élite. There's the Mayflower ancestry and the expulsion from Exeter--followed by a Harvard acceptance letter. ("It was a little easier to get into Harvard in those days," recalls Plimpton's brother Oakes.) The founding of The Paris Review offers proof that enthusiasm can trump disorganization, but Plimpton doesn't come into focus until his brief engagement to Bee Dabney, who dumps him for a friend at their engagement party. Dabney tells the tale here, but it was hardly a secret; Plimpton dined out on it for years. "That was quintessential George," says John Heminway. "He took such pleasure in telling a story about what great sadness he'd had."
Not long after, Plimpton created participatory journalism, foisting himself into ball games and orchestra pits (his absentminded triangle-playing infuriated Leonard Bernstein), where his earnest failures made for excellent pieces. What comes through in each episode is Plimpton's unquenchable curiosity, a love of human folly--especially his own--and a modern shrewdness; his fame as a professional amateur begot more fame, which gave him even greater access.
Almost everyone mentions his generosity, particularly bottomless when it came to The Paris Review, which he ran out of his home for decades. But what radiates is a person of massive charm, entirely at ease with his own unease. Muhammad Ali, sensing someone who got the joke about himself, called Plimpton "Kennedy," while the actual Kennedys welcomed him into their lives as a confidant. It was Plimpton, at Bobby's side, who wrestled the gun away from Sirhan Sirhan, a rare example of sadness that he did not mine for storytelling.