Monday, February 23, 2009

A Lesson from the Master - George Plimpton

I've been away, on a research trip to Beirut, Lebanon, about which I'll be posting soon. Now back in London, I've been reading off-piste to unwind, mostly Nelson Aldrich's "George, Being George," an oral biography of my old boss at The Paris Review literary magazine in New York. I include here now a story I told Nelson for his book, about Plimpton's attempt to teach me a great lesson in life.

It was a time when 541 East 72nd Street was not such a happy place, and all manner of diverse gossip swirled. Even, so I gathered, about me... patently false rumors I should add. At the time I found such loose talk upsetting. For his part, George tried to teach me to make a practice of ignoring gossip... some of which of course he'd no doubt had a hand in unleashing. I was chatting with him in his office where he adopted a sage-like pose in his Eames chair and offered this bit of wisdom: "James, halitosis is better than no breath at all."

Huh? I said.

"You know," he said, smiling conspiratorially, "just as long as they're talking about you..." All I could do was shake my head and pout. Then one night, a drink with a young woman from Random House that turned into a sort of date. Midway through dinner, she stopped eating, stared at me intently and asked “Is it true you procure black transvestites for George Plimpton?" I burst out laughing. It was just so absurd. But at the same time, oddly, I suddenly had a light feeling, of some weird freedom. I realized there was little you could do to control that kind of thing, and better just to learn to let it slide off your back. The next morning I bounded up the stairs to George’s office to tell him that he had, after all, been right. Well, I did begin to tell him and he absolutely hit the roof—“She said WHAT?!” Who is this woman?”

I had to back out of his office saying, "Halitosis! George, remember halitosis!"

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