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The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair: And Other Excursions and Observations

The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair: And Other Excursions and Observations

by George Plimpton, Sarah Dudley Plimpton (Editor)

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George Plimpton needed no encouragement. If there was a sport to play, a party to throw, a celebrity to amaze, a fireworks display to ignite, Plimpton was front and center hurling the pitch, popping the corks, lighting the fuse. And then, of course, writing about it with incomparable zest and style. His books made him a legend. The Paris Review, the magazine he


George Plimpton needed no encouragement. If there was a sport to play, a party to throw, a celebrity to amaze, a fireworks display to ignite, Plimpton was front and center hurling the pitch, popping the corks, lighting the fuse. And then, of course, writing about it with incomparable zest and style. His books made him a legend. The Paris Review, the magazine he founded and edited, won him a throne in literary heaven. Somehow, in the midst of his self-generated cyclones, Plimpton managed to toss off dazzling essays, profiles, and New Yorker "Talk of the Town" pieces. This delightful volume collects the very best of Plimpton's inspired brief "excursions."

Whether he was escorting Hunter Thompson to the Fear and Loathing movie premiere in New York or tracking down the California man who launched himself into the upper atmosphere with nothing but a lawn chair and a bunch of weather balloons, Plimpton had a rare knack for finding stories where no one else thought to look. Who but Plimpton would turn up in Las Vegas, notebook in hand, for the annual porn movie awards gala?

Among the many gems collected here are accounts of helping Jackie Kennedy plan an unforgettable children's birthday party, the time he improvised his way through amateur night at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater, and how he managed to get himself kicked out of Exeter just weeks before graduation.

The grand master of what he called "participatory journalism," George Plimpton followed his bent and his genius down the most unbelievable rabbit holes-but he always came up smiling. This exemplary, utterly captivating volume is a fitting tribute to one of the great literary lives of our time.

Editorial Reviews

"One summer day, a Vietnam vet took to the skies with an air pistol, forty-two balloons, and a chair from Sears." From the first words of this book's title piece, George Plimpton's The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair radiates with the graceful urbanity that we have come to associate with its author. Plimpton, who died in 2003, strikes us as graceful even when he's recounting his disastrous forays into the world of sports. This posthumous essay collection, edited by his wife, Sarah, reconfirms his gift and our sense of loss.
Will Blythe
In true Plimptonian fashion, it's a cocktail party of a book, 18 pieces jostling against each other in a crowded smoky space. They are all relatively recent works, written on deadline for publications ranging from The New Yorker to The New York Post. Even on assignment, Plimpton seems to have had more fun than writers are normally allowed to have. And yet he must have worked very hard at writing, because prose so elegant and offhand and constructed with such seeming effortlessness could have only have arisen out of hard labor.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
These tame "excursions" (edited by the author's widow) are a far cry from past Plimpton adventures, where the inventor of "participatory journalism" famously cast himself as a boxer or a circus performer. The title essay is the only high-flying piece, as Plimpton merely listens to and reports the fascinating and tragic story of a man who strapped helium balloons to a lawn chair and took a ride high above the California coast. For the rest, the author, who died last year at age 76, relays the tepid tales of some of his more recent stunts, like performing on Amateur Night at the Apollo in Harlem and interviewing porn stars at a Las Vegas porn convention. While these more recent essays (published between 1991 and 2004) do not offer the nail-biting enjoyment of some of Plimpton's past work (like the bestselling book Paper Lion), they do contain all of the typical Plimpton literary trademarks: elegant yet straightforward narration; boundless, infectious curiosity; and a palpable compassion and respect for the differences in personality that make us unique literary specimens. Lackluster or not, this volume is a suitable introduction to Plimpton's spirit and style. Agent, Amanda Urban. (On sale Sept. 7) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Literary journalist and editor Plimpton, who died in 2003, was known as the "professional amateur." His books include Paper Lion, Open Net, and Out of My League, among others. This collection of his published articles and essays, edited by his wife, spans the many phases of his rich vocation, from his failed academic career at Exeter to his stint as a Playboy photographer. It also illustrates an unusual and engaging writing style that may appeal more to a male audience, particularly evident in the more humorous essays written for Playboy and Men's Journal. For example, "The Playpen of the Damned" relates his experience at the X's, the pornographic film industry awards. Equally engaging are the title essay and "The Man Who Was Eaten Alive," in which the author skillfully brings real-life characters to even bigger life. Overall, this is an entertaining and enjoyable collection from the former editor of the Paris Review and the Harvard Lampoon. Recommended for public libraries, especially for journalism or biography collections.-Loree Davis, Broward Cty. Lib., Fort Lauderdale, FL Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A posthumous collection of diverse pieces by the writer who pioneered participatory journalism and founded the Paris Review. Edited and arranged by his widow, they reveal all the strengths and weaknesses-i.e., the humanity-of Plimpton (Home Run, 2001, etc.) as a writer and a man. In addition to quarterbacking for the Detroit Lions and pitching to Willie Mays, he helped make self-deprecation an art form, and this aspect of his style is much in evidence, no more so than in an account written in 2002 for his prep-school alumni magazine of his dismissal from the school many years earlier. We also read two separate reports of his marginally successful appearance playing the piano at the Apollo Theater for its legendary Amateur Night. The final piece, a brief and wistful "wish list" from 2002, reveals experiences he yearns for: bowling a perfect game, being acknowledged from the stage by Britney Spears, having a memorable moniker like "Joltin' Joe." The title essay, one of the best here, ruminates ten years after the bizarre 1982 case of Larry Walters, who hooked 42 weather balloons to his Sears lawn chair and ascended to 16,500 feet-commercial pilots saw him-before drifting back safely to earth. Another strong entry reveals how a small lie Plimpton told about being bitten by a cobra (it was actually an attack of bursitis) escalated into a story that soon soared out of control. The author's ever-present Mr. Hyde (his unresolved adolescence) emerges occasionally too, with particular force in a piece about being interviewed for an editorial position at Playboy; his randy drooling around the Playboy Mansion is pathetic rather than amusing. And yet . . . the man could write. His piece about thedeath of Jacqueline Onassis and her little-known fascination with pirates is touching and only subtly self-referential. Hearing Plimpton's unique voice again reminds how grievous has been its loss.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.36(w) x 9.32(h) x 0.88(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair

The backyard was much smaller than I remembered--barely ten yards by thirty. The birdbath, stark white on its pedestal, was still there, under a pine tree, just as it had been during my last visit, more than ten years before. Beyond the roofs of the neighboring houses I could see the distant gaunt cranes of the Long Beach naval facility, now idle.

"Mrs. Van Deusen, wasn't there a strawberry patch over here?" I called out.

I winced. Margaret Van Deusen has been blind since last August--first in one eye, then in the other. Her daughter, Carol, was leading her down the steps of the back porch, guiding her step by step. Mrs. Van Deusen was worried about her cat, Precious, who had fled into the innards of a stand-up organ upon my arrival: "Where's Precious? She didn't get out, did she?"

Carol calmed her fears, and my question about the strawberry patch hung in the air. Both women wore T-shirts with cat motifs on the front; Mrs. Van Deusen's had a cat head on hers, with ruby eyes and a leather tongue.

We had lunch in a fast food restaurant in San Pedro, a couple of miles down the hill. Mrs. Van Deusen ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and french fries. "I can't believe Larry's flight happened out of such a small space," I said.

Mrs. Van Deusen stirred. "Two weeks before, Larry came to me and said he was going to take off from my backyard. I said no way. Illegal. I didn't want to be stuck with a big fine. So the idea was he was going to take off from the desert. He couldn't get all his equipment out there, so he pulls a sneaker on me. He turns up at the house and says, ‘Tomorrow I'm going to take off from yourbackyard.' "

"I was terrified, but I wanted to be with him," said Carol, who was Larry's girlfriend at the time.

"And sit on his lap?" I asked incredulously.

Two chairs, side by side," Carol said. "But it meant more equipment than we had. I know one thing--that if I'd gone up with him we would have come down sooner."

"What happened to the chair?" I asked.

Carol talked in a rush of words. "He gave it away to some kid on the street where he landed, about ten miles from here. That chair should be in the Smithsonian. Larry always felt just terrible about that."

"And the balloons?"

"You remember, Mom? The firemen tied some of the balloons to the end of their truck, and they went off with these things waving in the air as if they were coming from a birthday party."

"Where are my fries?"

"They're in front of you, Mom," Carol said. She guided her mother's hand to the sticks of french fries in a cardboard container.

Mrs. Van Deusen said, "Larry knocked some prominent person off the front page of the L.A. Times, didn't he, Carol? Who was the prominent person he knocked off?"

Carol shook her head. "I don't know. But that Times cartoonist Paul Conrad did one of Ronald Reagan in a lawn chair, with some sort of caption like ‘Another nut from California.' Larry's mother was upset by this and wrote a letter to the Times. You know how mothers are."

I asked Mrs. Van Deusen, "What do you remember best about the flight?"

She paused, and then said she remembered hearing afterward about her five-year-old granddaughter, Julie Pine, standing in her front yard in Long Beach and waving gaily as Larry took off. "Yes. She kept waving until Larry and his chair were barely a dot in the sky."

It was in all the papers at the time--how on Friday, July 2, 1982, a young man named Larry Walters, who had served as an Army cook in Vietnam, had settled himself into a Sears, Roebuck lawn chair to which were attached four clusters of helium-filled weather balloons, forty-two of them in all. His intent was to drift northeast in the prevailing winds over the San Gabriel Mountains to the Mojave Desert. With him he carried an air pistol, with which to pop the balloons and thus regulate his altitude. It was an ingenious solution, but in a gust of wind, three miles up, the chair tipped, horrifyingly, and the gun fell out of his lap to the ground, far below. Larry, in his chair, coasted to a height of sixteen thousand five hundred feet. He was spotted by Delta and TWA pilots taking off from Los Angeles Airport. One of them was reported to have radioed to the traffic controllers, "This is TWA 231, level at sixteen thousand feet. We have a man in a chair attached to balloons in our ten o'clock position, range five miles." Subsequently, I read that Walters had been fined fifteen hundred dollars by the Federal Aviation Administration for flying an "un-airworthy airworthy machine."

Some time later, my curiosity got the better of me, and I arranged to meet Larry Walters, in the hope of writing a story about him. "I was always fascinated by balloons," Larry began. "When I was about eight or nine, I was taken to Disneyland. The first thing when we walked in, there was a lady holding what seemed like a zillion Mickey Mouse balloons, and I went, ‘Wow!' I know that's when the idea developed. I mean, you get enough of those and they're going to lift you up! Then, when I was about thirteen, I saw a weather balloon in an Army-Navy surplus store, and I realized that was the way to go--that I had to get some of those big suckers. All this time, I was experimenting with hydrogen gas, making my own hydrogen generators and inflating little balloons."

"What did you do with the balloons?" I asked.

"I sent them up with notes I'd written attached. None of them ever came back. At Hollywood High School, I did a science project on ‘Hydrogen and Balloons.' I got a D on it."

"How did your family react to all this?"

"My mother worried a lot. Especially when I was making rocket fuel, and it was always blowing up on me or catching fire. It's a good thing I never really got into rocketry, or I'd have probably shot myself off somewhere."

"Did you ever think of just going up in a small airplane--a glider, maybe--or doing a parachute jump to--"

"AboluteIy not. I mean no, no, no. It had to be something I put together myself. I thought about it all through Vietnam."

"What about the chair?"

"It was an ordinary lawn chair--waffle-iron webbing in the seat, tubular aluminum armrests. Darn sturdy little chair! Cost me a hundred and nine dollars. In fact, afterward my mother went out and bought two of them. They were on sale."

I asked what Carol had thought of his flight plans.

"I was honest with her. When I met her, in 1972, I told her, ‘Carol, I have this dream about flight,' and this and that, and she said, ‘No, no, no, you don't need to do that.' So I put it on the back burner. Then, ten years later, I got a revelation: ‘It's now or never, got to do it.' It was at the Holiday Inn in Victorville, which is on the way from San Bernardino to Las Vegas. We were having Cokes and hamburgers. I'm a McDonald's man: hamburgers, french fries, and Coca-Cola, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner--that's it! Anyway, I pulled out a quarter and began to draw the balloons on the place mats."

"What about Carol?"

"She knew then that I was committed. She said, ‘Well, it's best you do it and get it out of your system.' "

A few months before the flight, Larry drove up to the Elsinore Flight School, in Perris, California. He had agreed, at Carol's insistence, to wear a parachute, and after a single jump he bought one for nine hundred dollars.

"Didn't that parachute jump satisfy your urge to fly on your own?" I asked.

"Oh, no, no, no, no, no!" he said.

Other essentials were purchased: a two-way radio; an altimeter; a hand compass; a flashlight; extra batteries; a medical kit; a pocketknife; eight plastic bottles of water to be placed on the sides of the chair, for ballast; a package of beef jerky; a road map of California; a camera; two liters of Coca-Cola; and a BB gun, for popping the balloons.

"The air pistol was an inspired idea," I said. "Did you ever think that if you popped one, the balloon next to it would pop, too?"

"We did all these tests. I wasn't even sure a BB shot would work, because the weather balloon's rubber is fairly thick. But you can pop it with a pin."

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
March 18, 1927
Date of Death:
September 25, 2003
Place of Birth:
New York, NY
Place of Death:
New York, NY
B.A. in English Literature, Harvard University, 1950; Master's degree, Cambridge University, 1952

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