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5 Things You Didn't Know About George Plimpton

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George Plimpton had an interesting niche in American letters. Although he was best known for his warm, funny narratives of his own adventures as a participatory sportswriter, he also founded the influential literary journal The Paris Review, dabbled in acting, and enjoyed seeing things blow up. Here are five things you may not have known about him.

1. He Was Shot by John Wayne

Plimpton's most memorable writings involved him inserting himself into a daunting situation about which he knew nothing and then seeing what happened. His classic 1966 book Paper Lion, for example, followed Plimpton as he went through training camp with the 1963 Detroit Lions and eventually played in a preseason game. (It's a hilarious read, particularly if you're interested in the NFL of the 1960s.)

To this end, Plimpton tried all sorts of weird professions, particularly in sports. He boxed against light heavyweight champ Archie Moore, a misadventure that ended with a partially collapsed nose. He also golfed against Arnold Palmer, rode the trapeze in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, pitched to pro baseball players like Willie Mays in an exhibition game, and had John Wayne shoot him in a film scene.

2. His Toughest Assignment Was Surprising

You might think playing in the NFL beat Plimpton down worse than anything else in his career. You wouldn't be all that far from the truth; he lost yardage on every play he ran as the Lions' third-string QB. Plimpton later said, though, that the toughest thing he ever did for a story involved playing in a professional bridge tournament.

Plimpton later described the fiasco to Sports Illustrated. "My partner, Oswald Jacoby, got mad at me, and my sense of mental inadequacy was much more excruciating than pain or not being able to run as fast as someone else or fumbling a football. Being silent at a bridge table with a vacuum for a mind is a horror."

3. He Tried to Save RFK

Despite being booted from Phillips Exeter Academy, Plimpton eventually went to Harvard as an undergrad. While he was there he befriended Robert Kennedy, and the two young students quickly became very close. (Muhammad Ali would later jokingly call Plimpton "Kennedy" because the writer was so friendly with the family.)

Plimpton was actually on RFK's private plane when Kennedy made the decision to run for President. Later, he was standing at Kennedy's side at the Ambassador Hotel when Sirhan Sirhan assassinated the presidential hopeful. Plimpton, former NFL star Roosevelt Grier and decathlete Rafer Johnson were actually the men who wrestled the assassin to the ground and disarmed him before he could fire any additional shots.

4. He Knew When to Ask for Cash

paris-reviewPlimpton and his pals William Styron and Peter Matthiessen began kicking around the idea of starting a literary journal with some other friends in Paris in the early 1950s. They were good writers and showed promise as editors, but they weren't so hot on the business end of things. One of their short-lived ideas involved printing the journal on birch bark and calling it Druid's Home Companion.

Even after common sense prevailed and the name The Paris Review stuck, this dream team had a problem: they didn't have any cash. So they sought out investors. Plimpton eventually hit the gold mine during the running of the bulls in Pamplona. He was there watching the spectacle with Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, and he asked mid-race if the prince could slide his magazine some dough to become its first publisher. To Plimpton's surprise, they made the deal. Plimpton later recalled, "We had no money. It seemed to me an unusual moment to ask him. He had his mind on the bulls, and he said yes."

5. He Really, Really Liked Fireworks

Plimpton obviously loved sports and literature, but he was far from immune to the allure of a colorful explosion. He wrote a book on the topic, Fireworks, and hosted an A&E documentary in which he narrated tales of his own fireworks hobby, a passion that took him to exotic locales like Monte Carlo in search of the next boom.

pc-plimpton190Plimpton took his fireworks seriously. He ran with New York's famous Grucci family of fireworks masters, and Plimpton soon became the world's best-known connoisseur of bangs. Former New York Mayor John Lindsay gave Plimpton the unofficial post of "Fireworks Commissioner," and when Caroline Kennedy got married, Plimpton gave her a fireworks show as a wedding gift. In 1981, the Sakowitz catalog offered a rare treat: customers could purchase a fireworks show choreographed by the Gruccis and narrated by Plimpton. The asking price? A mere $1 million.

Here's a clip of Plimpton's fireworks documentary:

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. If there's someone you'd like to see covered, leave us a comment. You can read the previous installments here.


5 Things You Didn't Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs, but there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.


Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.


Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.


If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.


While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams' mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.


Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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5 Things You Should Know About Robert Todd Lincoln
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Robert Todd Lincoln was Abraham Lincoln's oldest son and the only Lincoln child to survive into adulthood. While he didn't make quite the mark on history that his father did, Robert Lincoln had a pretty interesting life himself. Let's take a look at five things you might not know about him:

1. He Was on Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Staff

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Part of Abraham Lincoln's mystique lies in his humble roots as a self-made man who found education where he could. His eldest son didn't have to go through quite as many trials and tribulations to do some learning, though. Robert left Springfield, Illinois, to attend boarding school at New Hampshire's elite Phillips Exeter Academy when he was a young man, and he later graduated from Harvard during his father's presidency.

After completing his undergrad degree, Robert stuck around Cambridge to go to Harvard Law School, but that arrangement didn't last very long. After studying law for just a few months, Lincoln received a commission as a captain in the army. Lincoln's assignment put him on Ulysses S. Grant's personal staff, so he didn't see much fighting. He did get a nice view of history, though; Lincoln was present as part of Grant's junior staff at Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

After the war ended, Lincoln moved to Chicago with his mother and brother and wrapped up his legal studies.

2. The Booth Family Did Him a Favor

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In 1863 or 1864, young Robert Lincoln was traveling by train from New York to Washington during a break from his studies at Harvard. He hopped off the train during a stop at Jersey City, only to find himself on an extremely crowded platform. To be polite, Lincoln stepped back to wait his turn to walk across the platform, his back pressed to one of the train's cars.

This situation probably seemed harmless enough until the train started moving, which whipped Lincoln around and dropped him into the space between the platform and train, an incredibly dangerous place to be.

Lincoln probably would have been dead meat if a stranger hadn't yanked him out of the hole by his collar. That stranger? None other than Edwin Booth, one of the most celebrated actors of the 19th century and brother of eventual Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Lincoln immediately recognized the famous thespian "“ this was sort of like if George Clooney pulled you from a burning car today "“ and thanked him effusively. The actor had no idea whose life he had saved until he received a letter commending him for his bravery in saving the President's son a few months later.

3. He Had a Strange Knack for Being Near Assassinations

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Lee's surrender wasn't the only history Lincoln ended up witnessing, although things got a bit grislier for him after Appomattox. As he arrived back in Washington in April 1865 Lincoln's parents invited him to go see Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater with them. The young officer was so exhausted after his journey that he begged off so he could get a good night's sleep. That night, of course, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln's father, and Robert Todd was with the celebrated president when he passed away the next morning.

By 1881, Lincoln's political lineage and prominence as a lawyer qualified him for a national office, and he became Secretary of War under the newly inaugurated James A. Garfield. That July, Lincoln was scheduled to travel to Elberon, New Jersey, by train with the President, but the trip never took off. Before Lincoln and Garfield's train could leave the station, Charles Guiteau shot the Garfield, who died of complications from the wound two months later.

Oddly, that wasn't all for Lincoln, though. Two decades passed without a presidential assassination, but Lincoln's strange luck reared its head again in 1901. Lincoln traveled to Buffalo at the invitation of President William McKinley to attend the Pan-American Exposition. Although he arrived a bit late to the even, Lincoln was on his way to meet McKinley when anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot the president twice at close range.

Following these three bits of bad luck Lincoln refused to attend any presidential functions. He dryly noted that there was "a certain fatality about the presidential function when I am present."

4. He Realized His Mom Was a Little Nutty

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Mary Todd Lincoln is fairly widely renowned today for being mentally ill, but it wasn't quite such an open secret when she was still alive. Robert, however, realized that his mother needed psychiatric help so she didn't become a danger to herself or an embarrassment to her family, so he had her involuntarily committed to a mental hospital in 1875 following a hearing that declared her insane.

Mary Todd was none too pleased about this plan. She not only snuck letters to her lawyer to help her escape from the institution, she also wrote newspaper editors in an effort to convince the public of her sanity. Mary Todd's ploy worked; at a second sanity hearing in 1876 she was declared sane and released from the Batavia, Illinois, sanatorium to which she'd been confined. However, by this point she'd been publicly humiliated and never really patched up her relationship with Robert before her death in 1882.

5. He Made Some Serious Dough on the Railroads


Once he got his legal practice up and running, Lincoln found a particularly lucrative clientele in the booming railroad industry. He spent most of his career working as a corporate lawyer for various railroads and train-related companies; the only breaks were his four-year stint as Secretary of War under Garfield and successor Chester A. Arthur and a four-year hitch as a minister to Britain under President Benjamin Harrison.

One of Lincoln's major clients was the Pullman Palace Car Company, for which he served as general counsel. When founder George Pullman died in 1897, Lincoln became president of the company, and in 1911 he became chairman of the Pullman Company's board. His lofty position in one of the country's most lucrative companies made him a millionaire and enabled Lincoln to build a sprawling estate, Hildene, in Manchester, Vermont.


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