BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 JAN 09
Featured in
Issue 120

On Being Debonair

A biography of George Plimpton and Frederick Seidel’s collected poems celebrate two suave writers

BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 JAN 09

George Plimpton, 1974

One of the more shocking moments in Philip Roth’s most recent novel, Exit Ghost (2007), is the appearance in the book’s final quarter of the debonair journalist and editor George Plimpton, who died in 2003. The ninth book in Roth’s monumental Nathan Zuckerman series (which many see as a thinly veiled autobiography), Exit Ghost is rife with Zuckerman’s struggles with impotence, incontinence, the frustrations of ageing and looming death. That the effervescent Plimpton should suddenly appear towards the end of such a heavily-freighted book is rather like a well-groomed David Niven appearing with a ‘what-ho!’ in the last scene of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).

For a fuller explanation of who George Plimpton was, a new biography entitled George, Being George (2008) has just been released, which recounts a man both loving and loved. A raconteur, thrower of parties and presiding genius of the literary journal The Paris Review, Plimpton edited best-selling oral biographies on Edie Sedgwick and Truman Capote. His books of participatory journalism, such as Out of My League (1961), Paper Lion (1966) and Shadow Box (1977), saw the lanky WASP nervously tiptoe into the arenas of professional baseball, American football and boxing, in order, in Roth’s words, ‘to report with authority what it is to survive everything that is superior to you and lined up to crush you’. That he did so with an elegance and humility that belied the humiliation and danger at hand caused his name to forever be preceded by the epithet, ‘debonair’.

Of late, such a disposition has become unfashionable, and when the word is used it is often contaminated with seediness. Search for ‘debonair’ online and you find an Indian porn blog and an online ‘lad mag’ offering sex tips for men. Where once James Bond was a synonym for the word, his latest adventure, Quantum of Solace (2008), shows his traditional debonair character replaced by a form of ‘buff angst’, as if escaping villains with a quip and an arched eyebrow was somehow too light for these dark and self-involved times. The truly debonair, it seems, has gone the way of Plimpton himself.

But was being debonair ever really that frivolous? In George, Being George many of the interviewees speak of Plimpton painstakingly inhabiting the persona of ‘George Plimpton’. Even Roth speaks somewhat ironically of the ‘crushing immediacy’ of Plimpton’s debonair persona and how hard it must have been for him to bear (unlike Roth, the truly debonair man has no truck with alter egos and can only inhabit himself). It is this flipside to the debonair, the self-mutilation caused by perfect manners, that Frederick Seidel explores through the debonair character Frederick Seidel in his forthcoming Collected Poems 1959–2009 (2009).

Frederick Seidel, 2007

Seidel is fascinated with Savile Row suits, exclusive hotels, expensive jewellery, fastidious doormen, Ducati motor cycles, Fred Astaire and Diane von Furstenberg. The volume even includes a poem entitled ‘On Being Debonair’, in which he languorously states, ‘I am a boulevard of elegance / In my well-known restaurants.’ Harvard-educated and independently wealthy, his cosmopolitan background in many respects mirrors that of Plimpton’s (Seidel was an editor at The Paris Review in the early 1960s), although the source of his wealth and aspects of his private life are much more mysterious. As such, it seems perfectly natural that Plimpton should appear briefly in one of Seidel’s poems, ‘East Hampton Airport’, and it is typical of both the self-effacing style of Plimpton, and the darker jestings of Seidel, that his death should be tossed off in a half-joke: ‘George Plimpton went to bed / And woke up dead.’

At times Seidel can sound like Philip Larkin with a very large chequebook: ‘I bought the racer / To replace her. / It became my slave and I its. / All it lacked was tits. / All it lacked / Between its wheels was hair. / I don’t care. / We do it anyway.’ A dark humour at the strange hopelessness of his privileged situation runs throughout his work. In ‘Homage to Pessoa’ the author strips off his white gloves, sets aside his gold-knobbed cane and imagines placing a shotgun in his mouth, only to notice that his ‘hunting dog is pointing’. Indeed one of the saddest things about reading Seidel, as with George, Being George, is that you feel you are witnessing the passing of the genuine debonair literary voice. Seidel labels a paean to Fred Astaire ‘Death’, for he himself, his style, his tastes, are outdated: ‘Singing with such sweet insincere / Dated charm and good cheer’.

What Seidel’s work ultimately suggests (and Plimpton’s writing hints at) is that to be truly debonair one must affect nonchalance in the face of death, even court it. Not being disturbed by anything life might throw one’s way, if practised long enough, leads one to become obsessed with the final calm of death. The debonair, for all his generosity of spirit, is intent on killing himself slowly. As Seidel sings in ‘Drinking in the Daytime’: ‘Anything is better than this / Bliss. / Nursing on a long-stemmed bubble made of crystal. / I’m sucking on the barrel of a crystal pistol / To get a bullet to my brain.’

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA.