The Schmoozefest Tour
It was prime nyaah-nyaah weather in Southern California, the kind that inspires those tra-la-la phone calls to New York. No wonder George Plimpton was crowing. He was perched in an excellent viewing spot within spitting distance of the Pacific, musing about vacationing but misguided Californians clogging sidewalks a continent away.
“New York is so full of tourists you literally can’t do anything,” he was saying, peering at the violet ocean from his table at Shutters on the Beach. “I mean, you can’t cross the street. It’s packed. New Yorkers just zip across, but you have these huge blocks of immobility, of people who don’t know that you can run against the light in New York. You don’t get sent to jail. Which is what happens here, isn’t it?”
Hey, give us a break. Angelenos don’t get that much practice walking, much less jaywalking.
“Years ago, I was standing on Fifth Avenue with Andy Warhol. He was going to a big lunch at 21 and suddenly on the other side of the street, a car ran up onto the sidewalk and began bowling people over.
“I left Andy and ran to see if I could help in any way, and Andy being the typical New Yorker went on to the lunch and wrote in his book that I’d snubbed him.” Plimpton hoots. “So he was more of a New Yorker than I am.”
Plimpton’s New Yorkerness is doubtless in the eye of the beholder, but one fact is indisputable--Paris Review Editor George Plimpton gives world-class schmooze. We are schmoozing about various nutty Southern Californians, his heralded stint as a Boston Celtic with poison pen and his new book, “Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career” (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday).
This is Plimpton’s third oral biography--a patchwork quilt of reminiscences by the subject’s friends and countrymen--but the first without Jean Stein, the MCA heiress and Grand Street editor who collaborated with him on bios of Robert Kennedy and youthquaker Edie Sedgwick.
No, he didn’t lose her telephone number.
“We had sort of a falling out over this book, ‘Edie.’ She insisted on being the sole author of it, in fact wouldn’t allow it to be published unless I lowered my billing, although we had a contract that we were co-authors. I thought about it for a long time, and of course the publishers were in agony because she’s very powerful.”
In the end, Plimpton relented. Stein got the byline and Plimpton was bumped to “edited with.” “She did the interviews. I did the editing and that’s the way it should have appeared. She doesn’t know how to edit, although she’s the editor of Grand Street.”
In a telephone interview from New York, Stein returned the compliment. “Frankly, I had to take the book back and do more work on it later because it wasn’t good enough. I spent another year on it on my own.”
Even though the two went separate ways editorially, they crossed swords again on “Truman Capote.” “She did a mean thing on this book. I don’t understand the woman at all. In ‘Edie,’ there’s this rather wonderful description by Truman Capote of Andy Warhol and their relationship together, and how when Andy Warhol first came to New York he used to hang around Truman, wrote him little notes, hung around his apartment until finally Truman’s mother got upset.”
Plimpton thought the passage would fit his new book nicely, so he asked Stein for permission--although they split the proceeds from ‘Edie,’ she controls all the rights.
“At any rate, she said, ‘No. I don’t think Truman would like me to do it. . . .’ She wrote back to Doubleday and said, ‘It does not fit the context of the book.’ Lawyers came around to Doubleday to affirm this would not be done. I can only think it’s out of spite.”
Stein said she withheld permission out of respect for her close friend, Capote. “Context is very important,” she said. “I thought it would misrepresent the spirit in which Capote had originally made the statement to me.”
Despite everything, Plimpton says he has “always been very fond of her in a funny way, although she’s been absolutely bitchy. We’ve known each other since she was 17 and she was in Paris and she did the interview with William Faulkner for the Paris Review. She was a girlfriend of Faulkner’s. You’d see them walking hand in hand in the Luxembourg Gardens. He must have been in his 50s. He loved beautiful young women.”
Plimpton’s relationship with Stein wasn’t the only angst-filled alliance associated with “TC.” There was the “In Cold Blood” maestro himself, who fell on hard times and Palm Springs after the swans of high society had blown him off. Not long before Capote’s death in 1984, Plimpton profiled him for Harper’s Magazine in a piece titled “The Snows of Studio 54.”
“It was Truman in San Diego having just had his behind lifted and his face lifted, thinking back on his life the way the guy in the Hemingway story does. It’s one of the best things I think I’ve ever written, but I suddenly realized Truman wouldn’t have liked it very much because of the fat farm business, although he had had his face lifted.
“I wrote a long letter of apology. He said I’d come scratching at his door begging for forgiveness. So the last two years of his life I didn’t really see very much of him. To my regret. I probably shouldn’t have written the piece. But he was odd. He liked to dish it out, but it turned out he couldn’t take it.”
Let’s say you were making a film about a make-believe president who’s accused of sexual misconduct and you meet a real-live president who has actually been accused of sexual misconduct--not his favorite cocktail party subject.
And then The Man asks you what you’re doing in town.
It happened one night in Washington. The high rollers of the new New Line satire “Wag the Dog"--director Barry Levinson and cast members Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche and others--were chowing down at a hotel where President Clinton was attending a fund-raiser. One of Clinton’s minions came over and asked them if they wanted to meet the president.
“We said, ‘OK,”’ as well one might, Levinson said at the film’s premiere party at Chasen’s. Everybody shook hands, and then Clinton hit them with it.
“Bob looked over at me and I looked at Bob and I looked at Dustin, and there was a little moment of, what do we say? And then Dustin told a story. About a movie we had never heard of, just a completely made-up movie. He got so nervous he just went into a completely different movie because we didn’t know if we should tell him what this thing was really about.”
So, Dustin, if this Hollywood thing doesn’t work out, now you know you always have something to fall back on--politics.