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Lost & Found: Jonathan Dee on George Plimpton
It was a busy weekend for Jonathan Dee. On Saturday night, he took home the prestigious St. Francis College Literary Prize for his novel, The Privileges. Sunday saw him talking existentialism and alienation on an author panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Now he’s here on the blog. In this week’s Lost & Found from our vault, Dee discusses George Plimpton’s The Curious Case of Sidd Finch and his relationship with the literary great who gave him his first job. We’d say he’s come a long way since then, but it’s pretty clear Dee has been cool from the start.
On April Fool’s Day, 1981, the London Daily Mail ran a bogus story about a Japanese long-distance runner who had entered his first marathon under the mistaken impression that it lasted not twenty-six miles, but twenty-six days. Hard to believe that such a conceit could fool anybody, but it fooled many thousands, one of whom was George Plimpton; it says a great deal about the late writer, editor, and sui generis celebrity that he was delighted, rather than embarrassed, to have been so taken in. Four years later, he had his revenge as the author of one of the most successful literary hoaxes of the last generation.
“The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” first ran as a long article in the April 1, 1985, edition of Sports Illustrated, a magazine with which George had a long and perfectly straight-faced association. It told the story of a Harvard dropout named Hayden Finch who, while on the path to Buddhist enlightenment (the “Sidd” was short for “Siddhartha”), had accidentally mastered the union of mind and body in such a way that he could now throw a baseball 168 miles per hour. (For those with no frame of reference, there might be a couple of pitchers in a generation capable of even 100 mph.) He’d never played organized baseball before, and his only real aspiration was to become a monk; still, somehow the New York Mets had gotten hold of him, and were keeping him literally under wraps at their spring training site in Florida. The story ran with staged photos of real Mets players looking appropriately astonished, of Finch’s own locker in the clubhouse next to Darryl Strawberry’s, and even of “Finch” himself (actually a suitably nerdy-looking junior-high art teacher and friend of the photographer) playing, in a reflective moment, his French horn. The photos of Sidd in action revealed a final quirk, which was that—for reasons of balance that passed the understanding of the unenlightened—he pitched while wearing one brown work boot and one bare foot.
As in Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “The Vane Sisters,” the first letter of every word in the article’s subhead spelled out a message from the author (HAPPY APRIL FOOLS DAY AH FIB); and, as with “The Vane Sisters,” nobody got it. The hoax was national news for weeks; even after the legion of the duped had been disenthralled, people couldn’t stop talking about it—and not always in a nice way, which was itself a sort of testament to the beauty of the joke. Among those who weren’t as able to laugh at themselves as George had been four years earlier was that paragon of self-deprecation, George Steinbrenner.
The sensation was such that George was persuaded to turn Sidd’s story into a novel; the book adds a sweet love-story element to Sidd’s biography, and seems noteworthy in retrospect as George’s one and only book-length fiction for adults, but the original spirit of the whole endeavor—the elaborate, high-wire practical joke—couldn’t help but be lost.
The Sidd Finch hoax holds a special place for me in the history of literary pranks because I was present at the creation. In the spring of 1985 I was twenty-two years old and six months into my first job, as George Plimpton’s assistant, working at a small desk in the corner of the Manhattan studio apartment downstairs from his home, the same studio that has housed the Paris Review for the last forty-odd years. Those six months had been characterized by mutual nervousness: on my part because of my proximity to a famous writer (and of the novelty of responsibility of any sort), and on his because he had entrusted nearly every aspect of his daily life—his plane tickets, his contracts, his family’s birthdays, the keys to his apartment—to the care of a total stranger less than a year out of college who was every bit as callow as he looked.
When his friend Mark Mulvoy at Sports Illustrated convinced him to go through with the April Fool’s assignment, I got to see a different side of George—not an altogether pleasant one, but reassuring in its way. He was a wreck. He threw himself into the piece, traveling down to Florida in order to commit to memory the layout of the Mets’ spring training facility, and when he came back he spread all the pages on which he had typed his notes (sometimes just one line per page) across the pool table in his home and brooded. Nothing, he knew, falls quite so flat as a bad joke. Such was his anxiety that, for the one and only time in my five years in his employ, he asked me to come in to work on a Saturday. I typed up his final emendations and hand-delivered the manuscript to the Time-Life building. (Later that day, when the manuscript briefly went missing, George entertained the possibility that I had gone rogue and stolen it.) I still remember my naïve astonishment at the sight of a world-famous, successful writer actually agonizing over whether something he’d written was good enough, funny enough, believable enough, or whether the whole thing would wind up making him seem like a national jackass.
As it happened, on publication day George was scheduled to travel to South Carolina to deliver a speech, as he often did, to some group of businessmen or conventioneers; so he wouldn’t be in his office, or even available by phone at all, when the story hit the newsstands. He begged me, if anyone should happen to call (!), to keep lying on his behalf and string the joke out for as long as I could, a prospect that frankly filled me with dread.
It came a lot easier than I’d thought. The St. Petersburg Times called, wanting to know if I had any suggestions for their photographer, who was wandering around Mets camp asking for someone whom no one there would admit to having heard of. I offered my sympathy but suggested that, now that the notoriously shy Sidd’s cover had been blown, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if he’d gone into hiding. A New York sportscaster, trying out one of those tricks they don’t teach you in journalism school, called and told me he’d gotten Sidd to agree to an on-air interview on the condition that George accompany him; solemnly (and truthfully) I gave him my word that if Sidd would be there, George would be there. At least my call from the office of Senator Moynihan went to Sports Illustrated and not to me: I might have had a tough time maintaining my bravado through that one. The phone never stopped ringing. George called the office from airport pay phones, when he could, for updates. That evening I lay the office common book, containing all the day’s phone messages, on his desk chair in his home, so he’d be sure to see it when he returned from the airport well after midnight.
It was a long time ago now, and my sorrow over his death may color my memories of our early relationship; still, we got over a significant hump that day. He figured out that I could be trusted, not just in terms of showing up to work on time but in terms of sensibility; and I figured out that I had stumbled into one of the great first jobs of all time. He’s still the only boss I’ve ever had.
Jonathan Dee is the author of several novels, most recently The Privileges, which was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. He is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, a frequent contributor to Harper’s, and a former senior editor of the Paris Review. He teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and the New School.