Commentary

George Plimpton's grand finale

Plimpton was so fascinated by fireworks he literally became one after his death

Updated: July 3, 2012, 10:32 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

George PlimptonESPN.com IllustrationGeorge Plimpton wanted his ashes to be shot up in a golden cascade of light.

The crowd of several hundred folks that gathered on Gardiner's Bay beach in the Hamptons for the annual Fourth of July fireworks show in 2006 didn't know it was watching George Plimpton's last participatory stunt -- this one a post-mortem caper, believe it or not.

But the details were revealed by his son, writer Taylor Plimpton, in a beautifully rendered now-it-can-be told tale that rivaled all the whimsical antics his father George was famous for, like following through on his wishes to pitch to Willie Mays, play goal against Wayne Gretzky, and quarterback for the Detroit Lions. The old man would've been proud that this his son, now 35, let the world know what really happened that night. With one of the great first paragraphs of all time:

"We shot Dad up into the sky, finally, some two and a half years after he died. These were his wishes: for his ashes to be packed into his favorite firework, the Kamuro -- also known as the Boy's Haircut, or Japanese Willow -- a golden cascade of light that hangs there for a moment, shimmering, before winking off into the darkness. I was charged with packing my father's remains into the fireworks myself."

It's an amazing, quirky story, and in Taylor's hands it's so lovingly and often achingly told, in the July 2011 issue of "Plum Hamptons" magazine, you really should do yourself a favor and read it by clicking on the link in the box accompanying this column. Because it's the sort of evocative story that will make you laugh and shake your head and think about not just Plimpton himself, but your own families and holidays and midsummer nights, and the childhood wonder that a simple pleasure like a fireworks show can evoke.

George Plimpton never lost that wonder, as Taylor affectingly points out. He was a literary lion, co-founded one of the most influential journals of his time (The Paris Review), grew up in a Stiff Upper Lip WASP family and studied at Harvard, Cambridge -- the whole nine yards. And yet he still famously enjoyed hanging out with athletes, or displaying the sly sense of humor that once moved him to write self-spoofing articles about himself like: "How Failing at Exeter Made a Success Out of George Plimpton."

(A sampling: "Genetically speaking, I was supposed to soar. Wasn't the family tree full of outrageous successes? There were generals, senators, tycoons, empire builders, college presidents, lawyers, poets -- including the first American poet, Edward Taylor (unreadable, I might add). And now, at the end of the line, like a caboose with two wheels missing, dragging along the ground, shooting up sparks and igniting forest fires, this.''

Him.

Plimpton was a true original. One of the many things he seemed to like about athletes was, in many ways, they're adventurers and thrill seekers and enthusiastic voyagers drawn toward exploring the unknown, much as he was.

One of his obit writers said Plimpton's greatest personal achievement might have been "reporting on a single subject: what it's like to do things that one plainly has no business doing."

And as another of them somewhat jealously observed, Plimpton seemed "to have more fun than writers are normally allowed to have." Tom Wolfe anointed him one of the first kings of New Journalism.

Plimpton's sports books, such as "Paper Lion" (1966), came along before later concoctions such as reality TV. He gave readers an unprecedented dose of up-close-and-personal immediacy decades before books like John Feinstein's "A Season on the Brink" (1986) came along. And, credulity-straining as it seems now, Plimpton's fanciful 1985 classic for Sports Illustrated about the Mets' discovery of a geeky pitcher named Sidd Finch, who learned yoga in Tibet and could supposedly throw 168 mph -- the article came complete with photos of Sidd pitching to a young Lenny Dykstra -- was actually believed in some quarters the day the magazine hit the stands. But it was quickly revealed to be an elaborate April Fools' Day joke.

Similarly, the Plimptons' Fourth of July story is a story to end all Fourth of July stories.

Plimpton was well known in both New York City and in the little chain of east-end Long Island towns that make up the Hamptons as an avid fireworks enthusiast. Plimpton was very proud of the title "Fireworks Commissioner" of New York that then-mayor John Lindsay conferred upon him years before, though it conferred no actual power beyond bragging rights. Taylor thinks the fascination started when his father was a tank driver and demolition man in the Army. He remembers his father happily grabbing at any excuse to put on a show. ("Birthday? Fireworks. Wedding? Fireworks.")

There are many stories about this, many of them funny and mischief-filled. Some of them involved arrests or visits from the East Hampton police, who didn't share George's somewhat libertarian view that the annual Bastille Day celebration he threw at his Wainscott beach house -- complete with fireworks, of course -- always had the required permits. His neighbors' views were often that they should not happen at all, even if Teddy Kennedy happened to be visiting. (Teddy has arrived? Fireworks!)

One of the last straws? A man claimed that a falling "ember" from one of Plimpton's fireworks shows landed on his arm, singeing him, so he tried suing Plimpton for $11 million. Taylor writes that his dad was both horrified and amused, telling a reporter, "Anyone who has an arm valued at $11 million should be pitching for the Chicago White Sox."

And so, that's how Plimpton's shows became an annual benefit that George usually emceed at Boy's Beach in Amagansett, a spot not far from the little Devon Yacht Club on Gardiner's Bay, an unassuming beach and tennis spot that George began taking Taylor to in the summers when he was a kid.

George's wish to have his ashes shot into the sky was something he began openly talking about at least 10 years before his death. In 2003, a heart attack claimed him as he laid in bed in his Manhattan home. Plimpton was only 76, and he had begun working on what was guaranteed to be a rollicking memoir.

Taylor says his dad's good friend, Hunter S. Thompson, had died just weeks earlier and, stealing a page from George's plan, actually "beat my dad to it by getting shot into the air in some fireworks first." Johnny Depp, who became friends with Thompson after playing the gonzo journalist in the movie "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," did the deed. "But I doubt Johnny Depp packed those fireworks himself," Taylor says with a laugh.

Phil Grucci, a third-generation member of the Grucci Fireworks company -- the Gruccis are to pyrotechnics what the Wallendas are to tightrope walking -- was a great friend of the Plimptons, as was his father, Jimmy. And it was Phil who helped Taylor put George's ashes into the firework shells that were eventually launched when Plimpton's family -- Taylor and his mother, sister and two half-sisters from his dad's marriage to his second wife -- were ready to say goodbye.

Grucci lost his father in a 1983 explosion that leveled their Long Island plant. Taylor says that feeling of abrupt loss "was something we share. And the night we got together to do [the fireworks], Phil was just so sweet helping me through it."

[+] EnlargeGeorge Plimpton and Phil Grucci
Courtesy of Phil GrucciGeorge Plimpton, Phil Grucci on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Taylor meticulously describes the process in his story: the moment when he lifted the lid off the vessel holding his father's ashes and "there they were. Double-bagged in clear, heavy-duty plastic. My father's remains. If you have never seen human ashes, they are not what you might expect: mixed in with the fine ash are little chips of tooth and bone. … It sucked the wind out of me."

He steadied himself and, with Grucci's help, used a scoop to pour his father's ashes and gunpowder into six-inch white plastic shells separated into two pieces like a "halved melon." Occasionally, he had to shove away tears. And still, on he went. "I guess I just thought it was my personal duty, to do this one last thing that my father had asked," Taylor says.

Grucci says it wasn't the first time he'd followed through on such a last wish.

"Old mariners have their ashes scattered at sea when they die, and people in the pyrotechnics business sometimes ask to have their ashes shot up into the sky in fireworks when they pass away," Grucci explained Monday, speaking on the phone from Atlanta.

But this request was emotional for him too. He and George shared many adventures together, from Plimpton's active participation in firing off many of the shows the Grucci family did to stunts like their knee-knocking climb up a cable leading to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge to check on fireworks charges the Gruccis had installed there for a big show.

Grucci, laughing now, says their bridge ascent was so harrowing Plimpton kvetched the whole way up. "I'm not sure I can make it." Then, once at the top: "I'm not sure I can get down."

"He was shaking in his pants," Grucci laughs. "But I think that part of what George loved about fireworks was the danger and the thrill of it, not just the majesty of the fireworks themselves. He often liked to be right there as we were firing them off. And his excitement was always so boyish.

"I'll never forget how he'd be sitting in a chair next to me as we used to fire the shows at Boy's Beach -- he used to call me 'Philly,' not just Phil -- and he'd get so excited he'd be looking up in the sky and grabbing my knee and saying in that distinctive voice of his, 'Go go go go go, Philly! C'MON! Go go GOGO GO GO!' As if I somehow could speed up the electrical charges for the finale even faster than it was already going, you know?"

Grucci laughs again. Sighing fondly now, he says: "Ohhh, how George is still missed."

The Grucci company has done fireworks shows for everything from presidential inaugurations to Olympic Games. Yet Phil admits the night he took the fireworks containing Plimpton out to fire over Gardiner's Bay he felt a different sort of pressure. Like the Plimpton family that had gathered at a friend's house on the beach to watch, Grucci desperately wanted everything to go right.

As it turned out, everything went perfectly.

It was a fine July night. And Taylor's bracing description of that moment -- this is a spoiler alert, because you really should read his entire account for yourself -- is the other most arresting part of his "Man in Firework" story is, of course, not just about fireworks at all. It's about fathers and sons, the life and loss of a special spirit like your father, and the longing for all those laughs and adventures you can't have together anymore. But as George himself might counter back with a twinkle in his eye: If you've got to go, this was an undeniably fine way to go, was it not?

"My father's fireworks -- the Boy's Haircuts -- were to be shot up last, just after the finale," Taylor wrote. "The Grucci finale is world famous. It's not just about the sight of it, either, though the sky does blossom. It's the sound, the bright shocks of light followed by a barrage of thunder that strikes at your chest, your heart.

"With a flourish, the fireworks ended. There was a pause, a breath, a reverent moment of silence -- as if in honor, as if in salute -- and then they shot them up: You could see the shells tracing golden up into the sky [and an instant later, hear the sound of their launch, six quick cannon shots over the sea. They reached their apex and exploded -- three full-size Kamuros blooming below in tribute, and above, my father's shells.

"My dad's were not the biggest fireworks ever -- after all, his ashes had taken the place of some of the usual stars and gunpowder -- but they were lovely, and they burst into brilliant wisps of light, fine and flowing, like horses' tails. Soon, the six fireworks merged into one. A golden cascade of sunshine rained down across the bay. And then, as if reluctant to part, my father hung there in the sky for a moment, still all a-shimmer, before he was caught by the wind and drifted off to the east, his gentle glow slowly fading into the sweet Long Island night."