George Plimpton's antic impulse to "fun it up" may have cost him during his student days at Exeter, when following his interests and instincts led, as he himself puts it, to "detention, probation and study hall." But that same impulse has been the making of Plimpton as a writer and editor, leading him unerringly from one intriguing endeavor to the next-and just this year into membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, perhaps the highest honor accorded to American writers.
In 1953, while still a student at Cambridge University, Plimpton helped found The Paris Review, the groundbreaking literary magazine. The Review is famous for its interviews on the craft of writing ( including E.M. Forster, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway) and for discovering and introducing such writers as Philip Roth, Richard Ford and T. Coraghessan Boyle. During Plimpton's five decades as editor, it has become the gold standard in its field. In the 1960s and '70s, Plimpton's talent for dilettantism led to a whole new genre of reporting, that of participatory journalism, in which this one-time sports editor for the Exonian talked himself onto a succession of professional sports teams and then wrote about what he learned. Books like Out of My League and Paper Lion have become classics of sportswriting, according to The New York Times, because of "the endless curiosity, unshakable enthusiasm and nerve, and the deep respect" that Plimpton brings to his reporting, not to mention the wit and elegance of his writing. Along the way, there have been many other beguiling books-novels, biographies, collections of essays, the occasional children's story-and forays into many other fields, all pursued with Plimpton's characteristic Úlan.
So it is with great pleasure that we present one of the newest entries to the Plimpton canon, a speech he gave at the Exeter Association of Greater New York annual dinner on December 5, 2001. Editor
I think I should start off by saying that I didn't do very well at Exeter. In fact, I was a complete failure. I was asked to leave three months shy of graduation because of a multitude of sins, both academic and secular. My teachers couldn't take it anymore and I was sent away, down to my grandparents in Ormond Beach, FL. I spent those three months at the Daytona Beach High School, so I could get a diploma and move on to Harvard, where I had already been accepted.
The principal there was interesting. He could throw a baseball equally hard off either wing, truly ambidextrous, which was to be admired since I doubt your principal, Mr. Tingley, can do such a thing, even on a good day. The principal taught me Greek for three months and I sashayed into the Great Hall of the Lampoon Building at Harvard, where I should have been all along.
A few years ago, I was looking at television and suddenly discovered the national cheerleading competition was going on. There were pyramids of girls in pert skirts and in the finals, what's more, the Daytona Beach cheerleading team! I sat there mesmerized, calling out "Hey! Hey!" from time to time, and doggoned if they didn't win. I was thinking of sending them a telegram, but I'd been there for such a short time, and so long ago, almost 60 years, that it probably wouldn't have meant anything to them.
In any case, I bring you greetings from the Daytona Beach High School!
Thus I come to you as sort of an outsider, as if you were being addressed by Satan, once an archangel, but then tossed out of Heaven.
What went wrong with me at Exeter? It may have been because I was too young. I was 10 when I arrived that fall. Well, that's not quite true. I was about right-14 years old, but as innocent as if I were 10. I knew nothing about anything.
In the old days, prior to the big Andover game, the student bodies from both schools used to line up on either side of Front Street and raise three cheers for the opposing school's principal. Andover's fellow was a man named Fuess, and we would draw out the s, snakelike, to suggest what we thought of him: "Fuessssss! Fuessssss! Fuessssss!" They would then come back with three cheers for Lewis Perry, our guy, whose name they were coached to say, quite sharply and distinctly, "Fairy! Fairy! Fairy!"
I didn't know it was a derogatory remark. I thought it was rather sweet-the thought of Lewis Perry, a rather robust gent, being referred to as something quite sylvan and rather romantic, like a character in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It wasn't until I got to Cambridge University that I realized the Andover people, far more sophisticated than I was, were referring to something quite different.