A young woman named Gia escorted me up a narrow, carpeted stairway to the second floor of a brownstone on Manhattan’s upper east side. George Plimpton was barefoot, in a loose fitting t-shirt and pale bluejeans, dictating to a young man who tapped rapidly on a laptop.
Gia told Plimpton, "You should put on a shirt." It was more a command than a suggestion.
Plimpton absently nodded, ran his hand through his shock of silver hair. "I suppose you're right," he said, and headed for the bedroom.
I unpacked my gear, set up the flash heads on stands, did a quick light meter check. When Plimpton returned, buttoning up a crisp white shirt, I suggested that he sit at his computer and get into some typing. I tested the umbrella flash, then raised the Nikon and brought Plimpton into sharp focus.
“Would you mind sitting at your desk?” I asked.
I wanted a wide shot. The office was all books and framed photos and artificats. An eclectic collection of African masks, certificates, awards. On the wall above the desk were two portraits of Ernest Hemingway. One was a stylized drawing, the other a photo taken late in the writer's life, one that I’d seen before somewhere. Hemingway was white-haired, had his head down, and a most gloomy look on his face. His leg was extended, having just kicked a can, which hung, frozen, in 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,” Plimpton said.
The bathroom was much like the office. Its walls were covered with black-framed photos of football and baseball players, boxers, runners, writers, politicians, big game hunters, and certificates, front pages of college newspapers.
I looked closely at a yellowed letter, with a “Dear George” salutation, from Carl Sandburg. Also a large pen and ink drawing of a restaurant interior, full of people. I scanned the faces. Hemingway, John F. Kennedy, Plimpton himself.
On the toilet tank was a bronzed shoe, presumably that of a famous Harvard football punter. Near the bathtub was a scale with a round dial, and on the floor next to the toilet the latest issue of Paris Review. I counted the medication bottles, most of them uncapped. Lasix, Lotensin, Xanax, Theophyline, Percodan. A full dozen.
"Maybe you'd like to move to the other room," I said.
Plimpton sat down at the keyboard of an ebony baby grand. “Shall I play something?”
"Yes, that would be good."
Plimpton struck a forte diminshed seventh.
"Do you know the Diabelli Variations?" I asked.
"Yes," Plimpton said, "I can play all of them."
That was a joke. He began instead a piece I didn’t recognize. It was modern, perhaps his own improvisation, in a melancholic minor key. Behind him on the wall was a massive lithograph of a most serious and unsmiling cat.
Plimpton didn’t smile much, either.