George the Gentlemanly Ghost

by Toby Barlow

This is a ghost story, I think.

So, one morning, I woke up hungover in my Brooklyn apartment. This was years ago now. It was late on a clear summer day, the windows were open and blowing in the sea air from the New York harbor. I was in no great hurry to move. For some reason, I found myself mulling over a recent Hunter S. Thompson quote I had read regarding the death of George Plimpton. “I think the friends of George Plimpton should and must create a permanent monument to him,” Dr. Thompson had said. I didn’t really think much of it when I read it, but as I lay there this idea began to gain some momentum inside my head. Eventually, I crawled out of bed over to the computer and began doing some research on Plimpton. Yes, he was a gentleman, an editor, a supporter of the arts, oh and a boxer and an acrobat and a birdwatcher and a Boston Bruins goalie and, and, and, well, as the list grew I felt a great energy begin to overtake me, an urgency really. “Why yes,” I thought to myself, “yes, we must! We absolutely must build this statue for George.”

Now, when I wasn’t lying hungover in my New York apartment, I worked in advertising. So once I was up and excited about this sudden cause of mine, I did the most natural thing I know how to do: I sat down and wrote an ad. It was an old-fashioned long copy ad, in the style of the great Howard Gossage, presumptuous and wordy and filled with exclamation points. “Where Will We Put the Statue?” the headline screamed. I sent it to the best art director I knew, Marc Klein, and within hours he had sent it back in its glorious form. Up until that point in my life, I was not an especially motivated person, but I was in motion now and nothing was going to stop me.

 

Twenty-four hours later I had sent the ad over to the offices of The Paris Review seeking their permission to run it. Soon I found myself on the phone with George’s widow, Sarah Plimpton, and two days after that I found myself sitting in the infamous 72nd St. apartment with a small group that included Sarah, Billy Collins, and Lewis Lapham, busily discussing how we could get this thing done. It was all ridiculously fast and terrifically surreal.

The group all gathered around and looked down at the layout, carefully reading the copy and nodding along in solemn agreement, taking the whole notion far more seriously than I had imagined anyone could or would. Somehow the ad’s very existence made it feel as though the idea were legitimate, that this proposal actually had some sort of structural integrity behind it. I felt a little like some 19th-century French peasant whose noble cause had swept into the realm of royalty. But also, sitting there with my glass of red wine, I felt as though I was now a part of the New York literary scene.

 

I wasn’t, of course. I was the epitome of a pretender. But having arrived there in their midst, I did what I imagined George would have done: I made the most of it. I used the introduction to Billy Collins to initiate a film project, animating his poems in a series of short films. I went home and started typing away at my own novel, a strange epic poem about werewolves in Los Angeles that, against all odds—perhaps blessed by Plimpton’s spirit of making the impossible possible—somehow managed to find its way to a literary agent. And I stayed true to the cause as well, working with a team of great designers at Honest Design to create the Plimpton Project website, a beautiful and playful creation that is its own kind of digital monument.

The whole time I had the sense that Plimpton himself was there, looming about, laughing, grinning, and merrily following along, perhaps surrounded by the ghosts of his friends—Mailer and Styron and a host of other unsettled spirits who kept themselves eternally busy roaming around New York, looking for open windows or unlocked doors, seeking a way to keep the party going.

Eventually reality shuffled its way back in. Adrian Benepe, the head of the New York Parks Department, wrote me a nice letter informing me that it was far too soon to consider a statue for George. He suggested I support The Paris Review, which, as he put it, was the most fitting memorial for George as it had been his life’s work. In a way, he was right, of course. I began thinking that instead of a statue I could settle for a plaque, or one of those odd little street names they hand out in Manhattan.

 

Then I got the call to move to Detroit. It was an interesting job offer, one I knew I shouldn’t turn down, but I was uncertain. There was so much going on in New York right then. Sharp Teeth, my odd werewolf novel in verse, was about to be published. But the pressure to take the new assignment was great. Finally, it was Plimpton who convinced me; he himself had gone to Detroit to write Paper Lion, which to me was still the most delirious and inspiring—and, arguably, influential—work of his life. So, good things could come from Detroit. When I finally did move, I didn’t pack the football, but I did find a nice place to live close to Ford Field, the Lions’ stadium, named after my main account.

Detroit has its own great powers of distraction and I quickly found myself captivated by this great wreck of a beehive city. I started writing about it. George, I must confess, faded from my mind. Every so often people would ask, “When are you going to build that statue?” and I would smile and say, “When I move back to New York!” But I didn’t move back. I fell in love with Detroit.

Then a couple of filmmakers showed up on my doorstep. They wanted to talk about George. I don’t know why they came all the way to see me, but I welcomed them as graciously as I could, loading them up with heaps of the Plimpton paraphernalia I had somehow collected along the way. In the end I became an executive producer on their film about George. Being a film producer only vaguely relates to the kind of adventures George accomplished. Instead of flying on a trapeze, going on safari, or playing in the philharmonic, I merely kept track of the movie’s progress through various emails, connecting them as best I could with others who might help their cause.

But they did put George back into my mind, and as I started thinking about my next novel, he wandered in and about. I found myself imagining what sort of adventures he must have had back when he was young and in Paris busily giving birth to his new, ambitious Review. I saw him there drinking in jazz clubs and cafes amidst all the intelligentsia, mingling with the various cultures that made life in the City of Lights sparkle back then. I’d read somewhere that the CIA had their fingers in The Paris Review’s genesis. What if Cold War spies wanted him dead? What if he found himself in the company of an ad man like me? What if they crossed paths with a witch? It seemed ridiculous. I began typing.

So, this past week Plimpton!, the movie, premiered in Lincoln Center just as advance copies of my new Paris novel, Babayaga, have begun percolating out into the publishing world. It is all too strange, too amusing, not to feel like George is once again playing a devilish role in making it happen. In life, he enjoyed his pranks – Sidd Finch being the most notable – and so the act of lifting an anonymous character from his hungover bed and sending him off on a series of madcap adventures does not seem completely out of the realm of possibility. Odd, but somehow not much odder than Plimpton pitching against Willie Mays.

I honestly don’t know if I actually believe in ghosts, but calling him my inspiration or even my muse seems far too passive to explain all that has occurred. It almost seems disrespectful to the tremendous luck and coincidence that has propelled this wild ride. I still imagine he’s laughing along. I am sure that at some point he will tire of my company and head off, taking his drink with him as he wanders back into the din of the crowd, searching for another soul to haunt or maybe seeking out a couch in a quiet study where he can sit and watch the game, or perhaps finally vanishing back into the ether, like the dimming embers of those spectacular fireworks that cascade down on warm summer nights, glittering briefly before fading into that absolute darkness.

Oh, but I am so very grateful for all the illumination.

 

Toby Barlow is the author of Babayaga (publishing this August; named one of Flavorwire’s “Highbrow Books to Read on the Beach This Summer”) and Sharp Teeth. He lives in Detroit.

For more on George Plimpton, visit www.PlimptonProject.org and www.PlimptonMovie.com.