by Joe Shea
American Reporter Editor-in-Chief
September 27, 2003
WHAT IS A GENTLEMAN?
BRADENTON, Fla. -- I was neither to the manner nor the manor born, but knew someone who was: George Plimpton, a friend and gentleman, who died yesterday at the age of 76.
He was famous for a decade or more before I met him as editor of the Paris Review, the guy who interviewed Ernest Hemingway, boxed light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore (and wept when Moore bloodied his nose), threw a few passes as a walk-on quarterback in a Detroit Lions scrimmage (and wrote the great best-seller "Paper Lion" based on the experience) and did turns as a circus acrobat, major league opitcher, a stand-up comedian, an actor (he was a shrink in "Good Will Hunting"), and a color commentator. I only knew him as a pool player.
Back in 1974, after a brief stint at Esquire, I got a job as a newspaper editor and soon found myself in Tempe, Ariz., the home of Arizona State University and in 1974, not much else. One day I heard he was coming to Tempe to speak, and I found out when he was coming in and went to meet him. It was a Monday or Tuesday night and not much was happening.
He asked me if I felt like playing pool, and I did, so we found a pool hall I knew and started to play. To my surprise, I was almost as good as he was, and we plaued quite a while, splitting two games. I think he won the third one and we went back to the Holiday Inn, where I dropped him off and went home to bed. The next day I wrote a story about the experience and we ran it on the front page - the publishers really liked it. So did he. At some point, he gave me his address and phone number and told me to look him up if I ever got to New York.
I did, and left a message, and he called back a few days later tp invite me to play pool at his place. He lived in fabulous digs on Sutton Place or thereabout, a two-story apartment overlooking the East River. I got to the party first, and people started trickling in. At some point, it occurred to me that every single one of them was famous. The warmest was the late Peter Maas, the author of Serpico, who took an interest in me and kept me occupied until the pool-playing began.
The guy shooting pool was Willie Mosconi, the most famous and most winning pool player in the history of the world. Another, lesser player was there, too: the U.S. Open pool champion, the best player in the United States. I must have had one too many gin-and-tonics, because I challenged them play me one-handed.
One-handed pool was something I learned playing snooker, which is a similar but different game played with slight smaller red balls. At Ernie's Sports Shop down near the gates of Oklahoma University, where that wonderful actor James Garner and his brother hung out as kids, we used to practice one-handed to sharpen our games. I guess I was pretty good at it.
But I was never better than I was that night. I got the break both times. The first guy I played was the U.S. Open champion. We playe eight ball straight up, and I ran the table for the six balls, missed one, gave him the opportunity to run seven and miss the eight ball, missed the eight ball myself and he sunk it to win.
Then I played Willie Mosconi one-handed. I scratched and grabbed the ball before it struck the rack and simply took the shot over amid many protests. Soon there was just one protestor and that was Hioward Cosell. He used his voice like a jackhammer and every word he spoke was enoguh to make you shake from top to bottom. I still ran a lot of balls, six, I think, but Willie Mosconi's turn was the end of the game. He ran them all, reminiscing as he did about how he had played one-handed sometimes as a kid, too. I think he enjoyed it, and everybody else did.
When the game ended, someone grabbed me and took me over to Cosell and a red-headed guy who was the most powerful man in the entire history of television, Roone Arledge, producer of ABC's Wide World of Sports and later president of the network. "I want to meet the guy who has the balls to play Willie Mosconi one-handed," he said, sticking out his hand and grinning at me. I don't remember what I said, but I should have tried to talk myself into a job instead of stabnding there tongue-tied. I didn't.
It was a swell party. I had an awful good time. And when it came time to end, I was the last to leave.
I was young them, and not very wise. But I could see that Geore was tired to the bone; he didn't say so, but when I asked him if he's like to play another game in parting he agreed, and we shot another game that lasted about 15 or 20 minutes. All that time I kept noticing how tired he was and how well he tried to hide it.
He was making a powerful impression on me, of someone with infinite patience no matter how difficult it was to maintain that patience. It must have been something he learned at the feet of his father, Francis Plimpton, who was American Ambassador to the United Nations and one of those lawyers that other lawyers whusper in awe about when they happen to be in proximity.
And I was a kid, greedy for attention, willing to let him suffer so i could have my few minutes of game. That's the part I didn't write about later in a piece for the Village Voice called "The Art of One-Handed Pool." But on a personal level, the experience dug deeper and deeper into me.
A few weeks later, I wrote him a note. I apologized for keeping him up so late and for not having the grace and forbearance he did. What it came down to, I managed to say, was that he was a gentleman and I was not. And I promised never to seek out his company again. It made me hurt to say that.
There were a lot of times I wanted to break that promise. I knew his address and his phone number; he would probably be a sport about it. But I wanted to try to keep one bloody promise in my life, to do one thing right. And I went the rest of my life without calling or writing again. This past year, Mosconi, Arledge and now Plimpton have died; last night I dreamed of the blue, choppy ocean, and a fog bank beyond.
It may just be, I thought tonight as I learned of his death, that in this life or the next, because of him, I might become a gentleman, too, because he had shown me one; only then could I be such a friend.
Good night, George.