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George Plimpton was many things: a journalist, author, academic, literary editor, photographer, amateur sportsman and musician to name just a few. He was best known for his work in what he called “participatory journalism” and would often compete in sporting events and then write about the experience—from baseball with the Yankees to boxing with Sugar Ray Robinson, from football with the Detroit Lions to playing golf on the PGA circuit. He even explored high-wire walking and professional bridge.
Words/images: Marshall Kappel
I was fortunate to spend a day with George slowly walking through Central Park and visiting the Central Park Zoo sometime in late 2000. He was in his early-70s. It was fall… or winter was coming. I can’t remember who had made the connection; perhaps it came through a friend who’d recently started a business importing obscure European magazines to the U.S. George had written a book, with illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren, titled “Pet Peeves: Or Whatever Happened to Doctor Rawff?” that was about to be released and he wanted new publicity images. We needed animals, so the zoo seemed to be the place.
George was unassuming, wearing corduroys and a loose sweater. Luckily, I don’t think he prepared for the event. He discussed the concept and inspiration for his new book and his love of animals. Had I not known of George’s rich life and career, he could have been just another old man sitting on a park bench feeding the birds.
After delivering the prints for his approval to the Paris Review, I learned that he thought they were the best photos ever taken of him. In particular, he liked the ones with the pigeons that he seemed to attract. And pigeons quite literally did flock to him. The zoo’s llamas wanted to cuddle him; and the penguins, from behind thick glass, were drawn to his calm curiosity. George didn’t want to pose despite the intention of the meeting, so I mostly followed him from exhibit to exhibit and along the paths through the park.
Unfortunately, I casually shot only three rolls on my M6. George continued to use the photos through to his death from an apparent heart attack in 2003—testament, to me, that his thoughts on my photos were true. Even today, I’m proud to see George’s legacy remembered in Terry McDonnell’s new book, “The Accidental Life,” a memoir about Mr. McDonnell’s days as editor of Rolling Stone, Esquire and Outside; and, of course, about his work with George.
I’ll always remember and cherish moments like these where photography has brought me into the lives of wonderful and creative people. George Plimpton being the Renaissance man and bon vivant that he was, I probably felt an even closer connection.