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Monday 15 July 2013

George Plimpton and the Rhythm of the Underwood Typewriter

Vanity Fair says this photograph was taken in George Plimpton's private office above the Paris Review headquarters at 544 West 27th Street, Manhattan, in 1997. Look very closely at each of the photographs of Plimpton in this post, including those shot just weeks before he died, aged 76, in September 2003,  and you won't see him very far away from his Underwood Standard Rhythm Touch typewriter or his wall print of Ernest Hemingway in many of them.
The latest (June 2013) edition of Vanity Fair to reach Australia contains a "Spotlight" sidebar by A.M.Homes titled "Curious George". It describes Plimpton as "almost like a Wasp Zelig or an intellectual Forrest Gump". 
It's about the new movie Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself. Here is the official trailer, which includes a brief snippet of Plimpton typing:
The piece reads:
George Plimpton was the man who did it all, an aristocratic action hero whose adventures singularly defined participatory journalism. Whether swinging on the flying trapeze, boxing with Archie Moore, quarterbacking for the Detroit Lions, or playing percussion with Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic, Plimpton, a collector of experiences, lived life in a full embrace.
Plimpton!, Tom Bean and Luke Poling’s new documentary film, delivers an enchanting view into the life of the beloved, well-bred literary lion, who died in 2003. “He was an artist whose life was his greatest work of art,” says Bean. “A well-known storyteller, it seemed only fair that he tell his greatest story, that of his own life,” adds Poling. The film, narrated primarily by Plimpton himself, features archival footage and interviews with everyone from Hugh Hefner and Robert Kennedy Jr. to Gay Talese, Jay McInerney, and members of the Plimpton family.
Born of deep pedigree and great expectations, Plimpton countered by becoming an urbane observer and good old-fashioned impresario. As co-founder of The Paris Review, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, he helped launch the careers of many, among them the familiar names Franzen, Moody, Eugenides. George Plimpton was a man who loved being where things were happening. “George was full of surprises. He would sort of pop up around the edges of these important moments in history. For example, he was standing next to Robert Kennedy when he was assassinated in Los Angeles, and George literally helped disarm and subdue the attacker,” says Bean. “George was almost like a Wasp Zelig or an intellectual Forrest Gump - it was interesting to see him suddenly appear in the midst of history.”
I was a bit curious about the typewriter seen in Jonathan Becker's photo that accommodates the Vanity Fair article, since I had been under the impression that George Plimpton's typewriter of choice (at least in later life) was an IBM.  But no. In the vast majority of photographs taken of Plimpton close to a typewriter, the machine is an Underwood Standard Rhythm Touch, which emerged from the 1939 Master model and was re-designed by Willie Dobson in 1948:
This last photo, showing him with both an IBM and a small portable (a Royal?), was taken in Plimpton's writing studio at his summer home in Wainscott, New York, in January 1985:

Sadly, I don't have a comparable Underwood Standard model on which to type a typecast (I am still on the lookout, nonetheless, for a good condition Underwood 5). 
So I have dug out what Alan Seaver at the end of his editorial in the latest edition of ETCetera cuttingly calls a "bright, shiny lie". In fact this Underwood has no historical significance of which I am aware. I found it some years ago while digging for typewriter parts in a shed in the backyard of Richard Amery's home in Sydney. It was an utter mess. It had been "dumped" on Richard by someone who had already attempted a very rough paint job and was in bits. I repainted it, re-decaled it and reassembled it and got it working very nicely. Call it sacrilegious if you must, but I like it, as do my friends, and I'm not in the least bit ashamed of what I did to it. But it is, I readily confess, a "bright, shiny lie". 
Here are the "Norman" and George" to whom my so-called "editor" referred:

Getting back to George Plimpton, I should also have mentioned in my typecast "John Wayne's sidekick" and "motor racing driver". Here are some of his exploits, ones which I so admired:


Scott K said...

Oh, I don't know how far from the mark you've ended up. But lets face it, I like the guy. He's got great hair.

Richard P said...

More grist for my typists-and-typewriters page. Thanks!

TonysVision said...

"Stay thirsty, my friend"

Ted said...

I knew I recognized that face - he was one of the ensemble cast of actors that played in the "Nero Wolfe" mystery series some years ago. I had not known anything about him before now (:

Rob Bowker said...

Well, if that's a sacrilegious act to perform on a typewriter - I'm all for it. Great piece about Plimpton of whom I was only vaguely aware. I think I took a spread-bet approach and had several heroes. Eggs in more than one aspirational basket, you might say.

Ryan Adney said...

My respect and enjoyment of George Plimpton didn't come from The Paris Review or Paper Lion, but from my first real-world job.

Throughout college I worked at Phoenix's only Brooks Brothers' store. I was a sales associate. On my first day of work--dressed in the nicest suit I had--the manager sat me down in a fairly comfortable leather wingback chair, drew up a television on a cart, and handed me a stack of VHS tapes to watch. I pushed in the first one, pressed play, and to my surprise there was George Plimpton!

I remembered to ask one of the regional managers when he came around how the devil George Plimpton was willing to do the training videos. The answer; he wore Brooks all through his life. Also, they paid him a fair bit of money.

Bill M said...

I like Plimpton's adventurous life. It is to me like one to dream of having or the things I wish I could do.

I rather like the typewriter. It is a fine example of your excellent restoration abilities.

Tom Fasano said...

The small portable George Plimpton is using appears to be a Olivetti Lettera 82. I used to have one--very hard to find in the US. Getty images has a closer look.