Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself

Some people remember the lawsuit after the accident, other people remember the stars who were there to see the fireworks. But everyone remembers the night as the final farewell to a bacchanalian decade that ended, appropriately, with a bang.

George Plimpton, who died in 2003, was famous in 1979 as the author of Paper Lion and Out of My League and—as an amateur sportsman who pitched in a National League exhibition game and trained as a backup quarterback with the Detroit Lions—the father of participatory journalism. He was also the New York City Commissioner of Fireworks in Perpetuity. Yes, that was an official title, created just for him.

Each July all his friends, unless abroad or in jail, came east to celebrate Bastille Day with him. A dedicated American, George had lived for years in France, where he and a few Ivy League expat friends had founded The Paris Review. He had been throwing fireworks parties for years, both at the house on Town Line Road, Wainscott, and, before that, at his place on Bendigo Road near Devon in Amagansett.

These parties were when everybody smoked and drank and ate steak and didn’t wear seat belts. When a kiss was just a kiss. And if the fireworks George and the Gruccis set off from the dunes in Wainscott weren’t as spectacular as the ones off the French Riviera, it didn’t matter.

George and his wife, Freddy, always invited everyone to arrive at Town Line Road before sunset and spread their blankets on the lawn. The Plimptons provided hot dogs and hamburgers. Gin was George’s favorite, but there were drinks for everybody. Kids powered around, fueled by gallons of lemonade.

Over the years, guests included a starry cast of the Plimptons’ literary neighbors and Hollywood connections. Irwin Shaw, best-selling author of The Young Lions, came and brought his son, Adam, who brought his friend Winston Groom, a Vietnam war hero who later wrote Forrest Gump. James Jones, neighbor of From Here to Eternity fame, came with his wife, the unforgettable Gloria, who had been a stand-in for Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. Peter Matthiessen, Tom Guinzburg of the Viking Press, Kurt Vonnegut, Sidney Lumet, Louis Malle, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Buck Henry, Dick Cavett, Dustin Hoffman, Craig Claiborne, Tom Paxton, Chevy Chase, Cy Coleman, John Knowles, who wrote A Separate Peace. . . . 

In 1979, men still ran the game. Even the most famous women present on this particular night, Lauren Bacall and Jacqueline Onassis, had been defined in the public’s eye by their husbands: Bogart and J.F.K.  

A legion of party crashers also slipped in. “Indeed,” Plimpton would write in a letter to The East Hampton Star the following year, “so many decided to come that their stealthy approach across the potato fields of Wainscott on the evening of the party reminded me of what Macbeth must have thought seeing the forests advance towards Dunsinane.”

The crowd was huge, variously estimated to number between 500 and 1,500. July 14, 1979, was a muggy evening, and everyone was a bit sweaty. Among the crush on the lawn were a few rock stars, too. Paul Simon was there, wearing a leather jacket and a Yankees cap, and one or two Rolling Stones, who happened to be renting a place next door that month. A little girl from East Hampton who came to the party with her parents swears today on a stack of Bibles that she had a crazy celebrity encounter on the line for the Porta-Potty: She was standing there in the semi-darkness when a skinny man with a pretty woman on his arm came up behind her; it was Mick Jagger. She gestured for him to move in front of her on the Porta-Potty queue. “I’m just waiting for a friend,” she explained—clueless that she was inadvertently quoting a Stones song. “Oh sure you are!” Mick replied, to her embarrassed befuddlement. It took her a decade, she says, to understand the joke. 

George Plimpton, August 1973. East Hampton Star archive.

(There is a bizarre side plot to this Jagger-at-Plimpton’s moment. In 1983, a Hell’s Angel named Butch testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee would claim that the Angels, angry over Altamont legal fees, had tried to murder Jagger that very summer, the summer of 1979, by loading explosives onto a raft to blow up a waterfront house in the Hamptons where Mick was attending a party. Butch couldn’t remember whose house it was, but it wasn’t Warhol’s or Peter Beard’s. The plot was foiled, Butch said, when the explosive-laden raft overturned and sank. George Plimpton later told Newsday that Jagger had indeed come to his house party, but that the Hell’s Angel’s tall tale was patently preposterous.)

The sun went down. The fireworks show began on time in a still air, but the wind was higher than anticipated—or, as the Bridgehampton fire chief later opined, some of the rounds might have been “set in the wrong direction”—and sulfurous sparks from the first two rounds of shells came showering down on guests instead of dissipating out over the ocean. Two people were driven by friends to Southampton Hospital for treatment of burns. One of them, a man whose shoulder and left arm had been injured when what was described as “a ball of still lit phosphorus” came down on his sweater, later sued George for $11 million. The fireworks started again after a delay, but all was confusion and chaos, and eventually a pair of fire department pumper trucks were called on to hose everything down.

 The accident wasn’t particularly funny at the time, although George, many years later, was able to laugh about it in The Star: “Any man with an arm that valuable,” he said, “should be pitching for the Chicago White Sox.” 

The next year, the summer of 1980, he declined to host another private party, and instead put his pyrotechnic expertise to better use as the fireworks-display narrator and impresario for the annual Boys Harbor charity show over Three Mile Harbor. He would call out friends’ names and dedicate a blast to them: “Here’s one for Tony Duke!” he would say, spinning out technical terms for comets, crosettes, and aerial chrysanthemums, his patrician voice unmistakable as it was carried over a loudspeaker and picked up by the marine radios monitored by boaters gathered in the dark harbor for the spectacle. “Here’s one for Budd Schulberg! Here’s one for Roger Rosenblatt!”

 

Top Image: A smattering of Rolling Stones attended a party at the house of George Plimpton in 1979 that ended with a fireworks accident and a notorious lawsuit.  Silkscreen, 1975, signed in pencil by Andy Warhol and in black felt-tip pen by Mick Jagger, printed by Alexander Henrici, New York; Seabirds Editions, London

Joanie McDonell