No Regrets

This post first appeared on plimptonmovie.com, a website devoted to a film in post-production about the life of George Plimpton (from their website):

Plimpton! tells the story of writer, editor, amateur sportsman and friend to many, George Plimpton. Using Plimpton’s own narration – along with thoughts and stories from friends, family and contemporaries – the film is a joyful celebration of a life lived fully, richly, strangely, and, at times, a life that is hard to believe was actually lived by just one man.

NO REGRETS

Right after I was married, my wife gave me a pillow as a gift. It was one of those small sofa pillows, a white center with blue trim around it. Stitched in the center, two words: No Regrets. The words were a message, an unwavering sentiment of support from her. Give it your best shot. Pursue that career, that dream of being a writer and no matter what, don’t look back. Don’t regret it.

We had recently moved back to New York City from Santa Fe. In those days, I struggled to find homes for the short stories I wrote and I worked a day job at Tiffany & Co. David Dinkins was out as mayor and Rudy Giuliani was in, promising new and exciting changes for the city. The Rangers had recently won the Stanley Cup and there was talk in the air that professional baseball was about to go on strike. It was the summer of 1994, a very hot summer as I remember. We lived at 425 East 72nd and George Plimpton lived down the street.

There was no way you could miss him. Suddenly he’d appear, turning a corner right in front of you, maybe walking east toward his home or somewhere along First or York avenues. That near-blinding shock of white hair towered over all other sidewalk pedestrians. That amicable, big soft smile, ready to speak as soon as he made eye contact, before you even had a chance to think of something to say. Maybe he had just stepped out of a cab. Maybe he had been at Elaine’s or strolling through the park or standing behind a table at a street fair promoting this literary event or that book fair. His casual, easy-going style said it all – the Upper East Side was his turf, his neighborhood, and it was obvious he enjoyed interacting with the people. George Plimpton was nothing if not accessible.

On one of those steamy, summer evenings, a couple of friends and I decided to go out. It had been a long week and, for whatever reason, we needed a harmless night of roaming downtown and having a few drinks.

We walked out onto 72nd street and here came George. His lanky, effortless stroll; his consuming, giddy presence. He stopped when he saw me. We had short conversations on the street before, nothing serious, just superficial neighbor conversations, nothing more, nothing less. One of the many great qualities about George was that it didn’t matter who you were, he always made you feel important.

“Hello, Mr. Plimpton!” I said.

“Hello,” he said. “How are you?”

“We’re great.”

“Where are you three off to? Some sort of mischief, I assume.”

“We’re not sure. Out somewhere. Drinks, dinner, maybe somewhere downtown.”

“We’ll, if you’re up for it, come by later. I’m having a party.”

There they were. Two sentences that would surface in my mind for years afterward. Sentences that would always haunt me. An invitation from George Plimpton that would live to be the single, biggest regret of my life as a writer: “We’ll, if you’re up for it, come by later. I’m having a party.”

We turned and started down the sidewalk, leaving the invitation behind to disappear into the thick summer air. We headed into our adventurous night downtown.

Even though I’ve yet to make the fiction bestseller list, I have been known to have a healthy, often over-the-top imagination. And as I play back that night in my head, I imagine it went something like this:

Plimpton’s apartment door sits slightly ajar, pre-party style, beckoning all his guests. They wander in, as they have done so many times before, past byThe Paris Review office and up a flight of stairs. I had been told the wall was decorated with designed and signed magazine covers: Larry Rivers, de Kooning, and Helen Frankenthaler, to name a few. They arrive in twos and threes, piling out of cabs or limos – the heart and soul of New York’s hard-drinking literary and art set rubbing elbows with philanthropists, sharp and ambitious newcomers to writing and publishing, and a vast assortment of others, maybe even a few unknown to George.

As the evening revs up at George’s apartment, my friends and I clown around on the No. 6 train heading downtown, the contents of two, maybe even three at that point, cheap Scotch-and-waters beginning to work their magic on us. We’re not sure where we’re headed but an hour has passed and we’ve worked ourselves comfortably into the scene at Temple Bar.

Back at George’s I imagine it’s a different world. A minimal assortment of hors d’oeuvres are spread out on Plimpton’s pool table. The place is near capacity, though according to legend, that never slowed down the influx of guests to a Plimpton party. Take your pick: Norman Mailer, William Styron, Rick Bass, Mona Simpson, Jay McInerney, Jean Stein, Gore Vidal, Gay Talese.

While the well-heeled, the famous, the reputable and disreputable get comfortable at George’s, my friends and I have polished off another round of drinks. Our conversation turns to writing and I tell them in explicit and captivating detail of my idea for my first novel. They’re supportive, encouraging, interested. It will be a masterpiece, they say, the next Great American Novel. My mind wanders, dreaming of the fame, imagining the social and literary connections I’ll have.

Back at George’s ice cubes clink, glasses clatter, most of them filled with Dewar’s, maybe a white wine here or there. The noise has risen another decibel level, a heavy mixture of voices, the sound of singing. On that side of the room is Peter Matthiessen, Robert Silvers, Maggie Paley. Over there is Calvin Trillin, Ralph Ellison, Mario Puzo. There’s Arthur Penn. And Paul Auster talking to Sydney Lumet and Joan Didion. Over the din of party chatter, tinkling piano keys form a song. Raucous laughter erupts as Plimpton regales guests with another hilarious self-effacing story. Pats on the back! Drinks all around!

Meanwhile, my friends and I have moved on to more drinks at Max Fish and as we toast my promising future as New York’s next famous novelist, I start to believe that maybe I’m going into too much detail about the novel. I think I see one of my friends eyes glaze over. New plan: I’ll start smaller. I’ve got a brilliant idea for a short story collection and I start in on character descriptions. All the esteemed literary journals will fight to get their non-paying hands on my coveted fiction. My powerful, debut story collection will rocket me to the star-studded levels of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Salinger and Updike. We head over to the Village Idiot for shots, talk about stopping in at Odeon after that. Maybe we’ll catch a writer or celebrity out on the town.

But all the writers and celebrities are at Plimpton’s house in the throes of a party that has now reached mythic proportions. It’s one for the books, a social event that would rival Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball, had Plimpton had a bigger apartment. Drinks are finished, spilled and shared. There’s banging on a door – someone’s locked in the bathroom. Again. Dancing breaks out. George is goaded into playing his waltz, his Opus 1 on the piano. The crowd screams for more. Plimpton willingly obliges. Ashbery and Ginsberg start a poetry slam in the kitchen. Wild applause ensues. Everyone is soused, drunk on love and life and thanking their lucky stars they’re at a George Plimpton party.

Back downtown, the atmosphere is different. I make a rash but much-needed decision: To heck with the short stories. Under my breath, I curse myself for not seeing the light sooner … I’ll master poetry! I’ll make a fortune on a critically acclaimed, poignant, coming-of-age chapbook. Something so heartfelt and compelling it will land on the cover of the New York Review of Books. Seems I could use a few more Manhattan writerly-types for friends, some famous ones, some really well known ones.

In another couple of hours, George’s party shows signs of winding down. The food is finished, the covering comes off the pool table and games begin. The older set, literary lions and noteworthy celebs that grace Page Six begin to duck out amid hugs, goodbyes and promises to meet next week for tennis or lunch in the Hamptons. The younger crowd, the interns, the wannabes, the struggling writers take over. Pool games continue, another round of drinks are poured and George is right there with them, hanging tough, studying the angle of his next shot, complimenting an opponent on billiard strategy, going on about the early days of The Paris Review, his time on the field with the Detroit Lions, getting Willie Mays to pop out or giving up a double to Ernie Banks; his moments as a goalie for the Boston Bruins, climbing into the ring and going toe to toe with Archie Moore, his love of fireworks, what it was like to hang out with the Kennedys, the first time he met James Salter, his friendships with Hemingway, Faulkner, Vonnegut …

Where was I? Sound asleep a block away in our apartment.

No regrets, right? Sure, no regrets.

Still, whenever I see that pillow my wife gave me I have to think yes, I have one regret.

Thanks for reading.

George

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10 Responses to “No Regrets”

  1. J. Pat Says:

    Uhm, what were you thinking?

  2. Holly Says:

    Shocking, George! Another good read.

  3. Matt Says:

    Funny, George, I lived on York Ave. & 75th St. from ’85 to ’88. I did manage to get invited not to George’s house parties but to a couple Paris Review parties around that time. I pretty much stood by the wall and ogled the famous writers and once when introducing myself to Mark Leyner, spilled a drink on myself.

    Great description, and dude, you had a good time that night with your friends, sounds like. Reminds me of this poem by Rumi I discovered recently:

    Sit with your comrades, do not go to sleep; do not go to the bottom of the sea like a fish.
    Be surging all night like the sea; no, do not go scattered like a torrent.
    Is not the water of life in darkness? Seek in darkness, and do not hurry away.
    The nightfarers in heaven are full of light; you too, go not away from the company of your companions.
    Is not the wakeful candle in a golden dish? Go not into earth like quicksilver.
    The moon shows its face to the night-travelers; be watchful, on the night of moonshine do not go.

    • 4george6 Says:

      Thanks, Matt — And that’s hilarious that you spilled a drink on yourself! I really like the poem. Hope all is well with you.

  4. Pierrette Says:

    Loved it, George.

    Funny thing about regrets is that you always assume that what you didn’t do would have turned out better than what you did do. Who knows? You may have gotten drunk, offended his best friend, and thrown up all over George Plimpton’s sofa. See, then you would have a different regret. It’s all perspective. 🙂

    My only regret is that we don’t see much of you guys anymore!

    • 4george6 Says:

      Excellent perspective, Pierrette! Still … I think it would have been nice to have been given the opportunity to throw up on Plimpton’s sofa. Let’s get together soon!

  5. Lisa Murphy Says:

    George! I just came across your blog and I love it. You must be in Japan picking up Hallie! John and Jake and I just arrived in Paris today for a week. We got here at dawn and I’m trying to stay awake til 7pm before I go to sleep. John and Jake are already snoozing. Now I’ve found your blog so I’m gonna read it until my bedtime. I love this one! Getting ready to read the rest. Hi to all your girls!!

    • 4george6 Says:

      Hi Lisa! Thanks for reading and I hope you liked the other posts (there’s one in there about Paris) We’re in Austin – Hallie flies back on her own and gets in on June 18th. We’re looking forward to seeing her. Have a great time in Paris (one of my favorite cities) and get some sleep!

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