date: Tue, Mar 25, 2008 at 4:54 PM
subject: Photos of George Plimpton
Dear Mr. Palcewski,
I’m writing from Random House in New York, on behalf of George Plimpton’s widow, Sarah Dudley Plimpton. We’re going to be publishing an oral biography of George this fall, and will be including photos from George’s life throughout the text. In his photo collection, we’ve come across a contact sheet of photos that I believe you took of George at his computer in his office, and we’d be interested in using one of those in the book, if possible. Could you let me know if you’d agree to its use, and if so, how much your fee would be for usage? Mrs. Plimpton is paying for all photo rights. If you agree to grant us permission for the photo, I can send along all the publication info, etc., as well as our permission release form.
Thank you for your time.
A young woman named Gia escorted me up narrow, carpeted steps to the second floor. George Plimpton was barefoot, in a loose fitting t-shirt and pale bluejeans, dictating to a young man who tapped on a laptop.
Gia told Plimpton: "You should put on a shirt." It was more a command than a suggestion.
Plimpton ran his hand through his shock of silver hair. "I suppose you're right," he said, and headed for the bedroom.
I unpacked the gear, put the flash heads and their umbrellas on stands, did a quick light meter check. When Plimpton returned, buttoning a crisp white shirt, I suggested that he sit at his computer and get into some typing. The flashes made a series of soft pops.
“Would you mind sitting at your desk?” I asked.
The office was a massive clutter of books, framed photos and artificats. An eclectic collection of African masks, certificates, awards. On the wall above the desk was Ernest Hemingway, white-haired and gloomy, kicking a can high into the air.
"How many rolls of film do you intend to take?" Plimpton asked.
"Three or four," I said.
"May I use your bathroom?"
"Of course, over there."
The small bathroom was just like the office. Dozens of photos of football and baseball stars, world heavyweight boxing champs, famous runners, writers, politicians, big game hunters. Also certificates, diplomas, front pages of college newspapers. Near a small window was a yellowed letter in a thin black frame, with a “Dear George” salutation, from Carl Sandburg. Also a large pen and ink drawing of a restaurant interior, full of people. Hemingway, John Kennedy, Plimpton himself. On the sink a dozen medication bottles, most of them uncapped. Lasix, Lotensin, Xanax, Theophyline, Percodan.
"Maybe you'd like to move to the other room," I suggested.
"Whatever you wish," Plimpton said.
We passed a pool table, and a credenza, on which was a modest collection of liquor bottles. He sat on a couch near a window and I took several frames. Then I asked him to move to the other side of the room.
"Shall I play the piano?" Plimpton asked.
"Yes, that would be interesting."
He struck a triumphant major C.
"Can you play the Diabelli Variations?" I asked.
"Yes," Plimpton said, looking down at the keyboard of the ebony baby grand. "I can play all of them."
Plimpton began a piece I did not recognize. It was modern, perhaps his own improvisation, in a melancholic minor key. Behind him grinned a massive lithographed cat.
Ten minutes later he inspected my photograph of Kurt Vonnegut that I’d brought at his request.
"It's too dark," he said.
Dark? I was about to say: Yes, it's dark and intentionally so. It's a metaphor of Vonnegut's account of the Dresden firestorm.
But instead I told him, "I can get you a more conventional, well-lighted portrait.”
“That's awfully kind of you.”
“I'll put it in the mail when I get back to the office.”
Plimpton grunted, and left the room. I packed up the equipment, and showed myself out.