George Plimpton (1927-2003) led two professional lives. Within cultural circles, he was famous, and cherished, as editor of the literary quarterly The Paris Review. He was famous in the world at large for his forays as what he called “a participatory journalist.” What that meant, Plimpton explained, was that he would “enter other people’s professions in order to write articles on what happens.” The professions included NFL quarterback, NHL goalie, New York Philharmonic percussionist, and circus aerialist.
Plimpton failed at all those professions, of course. That was the point. When fantasy challenges reality, reality always wins — or at least it does insofar as performance is concerned. That failure was at the heart of Plimpton’s appeal. “He brought the joy of victory even in his defeats,” says Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonell.