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Author praised as 'central figure in American letters'

| Saturday, Sept. 27, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) -- George Plimpton, the self-deprecating author of "Paper Lion" and other sporting adventures and a patron to Philip Roth, Jack Kerouac and countless other writers, has died. He was 76.

Plimpton died Thursday night at his New York apartment, his longtime friend, restaurateur Elaine Kaufman, said Friday. She had no information on the cause.

"I saw him the other day. He was full of energy," said Kaufman, who said she had known Plimpton for 40 years. "He was talking about a trip he took with his family to the tip of South America."

Praised as a "central figure in American letters" when inducted in 2002 into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Plimpton also enjoyed a lifetime of making literature out of nonliterary pursuits.

He boxed with Archie Moore, pitched to Willie Mays and performed as a trapeze artist for the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus. He acted in numerous films, including "Reds" and "Good Will Hunting."

But writers appreciated Plimpton for The Paris Review, the quarterly he helped found in 1953 and ran for decades. The magazine's high reputation rested on two traditions: publishing the work of emerging authors, including Roth and Kerouac, and an unparalleled series of interviews in which Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and others discussed their craft.

The Paris Review remained more respected than read. The subscription base was rarely higher than a few thousand. At one point in 2001, Plimpton reported, funds dropped to $1.16. Donations from various wealthy friends kept it going.

Plimpton proved all too effective at praising others at the expense of himself. Until 2002, when he turned 75, his highest honor was being named New York City fireworks commissioner, a position that didn't officially exist. But within a month of the academy induction, the French made him a Chevalier, the Legion of Honor's highest rank. The Guild, an arts organization based on Long Island, gave him a lifetime achievement award.

In 2003, Plimpton decided to write his memoirs, signing a $750,000 deal with Little, Brown and Co.

A native of New York, Plimpton held the parallel identities of insider and outsider. He was born into society -- diplomat's son -- and spoke in an upper-class accent worthy of a Harvard man.

But the public knew him better as an amiable underdog, stumbling amid the feet of the giants of sports and other professions. Much of his career served as a send-up of Hemingway's famous credo: "Grace Under Pressure."

Starting in the 1950s, when he began his vocation as a "participatory" journalist, he practiced the singular art of narrating panic. In a culture where millions fantasized about being movie stars or sports heroes, the lanky, wavy-haired Plimpton dared to enter the arena himself, with results both comic and instructive.

In "Paper Lion," he documented his time training with the Detroit Lions in 1963. Allowed briefly to play quarterback, he remembered the crowd cheering as he left the field after a series of mishaps.

"I thought about the applause afterward. Some of it was, perhaps, in appreciation of the lunacy of my participation and for the fortitude it took to do it," he wrote, "but most of it, even if subconscious, I decided was in relief that I had done as badly as I had.

"It verified the assumption that the average fan would have about an amateur blundering into the brutal world of professional football. He would get slaughtered. ... The outsider did not belong, and there was comfort in that being proved."

The book was later made into a movie starring Alan Alda, who played Plimpton.

"George touched millions of people with his writing and brought both football fans and non-football fans closer to our sport," the Lions' president and CEO, Matt Millen, said in a statement. "We will always consider him a part of our Detroit Lions family."

His other books included "Bogey Man," "Out of My League" and "Shadow Box." Plimpton could also take credit for at least one memorable fictional character: Sidd Finch, a baseball pitcher of unprecedented gifts (168 mph fastball) and unlikely background (reared in the mountains of Tibet) portrayed so vividly by Plimpton in a 1985 Sports Illustrated article that many believed he existed.

He seemed to know everyone: athletes, actors, musicians, statesmen.

Plimpton served as a volunteer for Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential run and was walking in front of him as the candidate was assassinated in the kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel.

He sailed with John Kennedy, played tennis with former President Bush and rode on Air Force One with President Clinton. He witnessed a baffling encounter between Richard Nixon and Casey Stengel, when the president wanted to talk baseball and the former baseball manager wanted to discuss banking.

Plimpton was married twice: to Freddy Medora Espy, whom he divorced in 1988, and to Sara Whitehead Dudley. He had four children.

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