George Plimpton, Still Burning His Punk at Both Ends, Finds a Sport in Which He Can Sparkle

UPDATED 08/27/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/27/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

He bombed in Long Island, but conquered Monaco

In the Long Island Hamptons, that Perrier of watering holes, they're still doing a slow burn. At George Plimpton's Bastille Day fireworks blast in July an errant comet cracker came whizzing out of the fog, dive-bombed guests like Candice Bergen, Norman Mailer and William Paley and sent two celebrants to the hospital emergency room. But, unperturbed by rockets' and guests' angry red glare, Plimpton turned up earlier this month to compete in Monte Carlo's International Fireworks Festival. He is, after all, New York City's honorary fireworks commissioner—and still, at 52, determined to burn his Roman candle at both ends.

What's more, Plimpton—teaming with Felix Grucci, 74, patriarch of a 125-year-old Long Island fireworks family—became the first U.S. winner of that world series of pyrotechnics in its 16-year history. But barely. First, Air France became skittish when asked to ferry 1,700 shells and bombs across the Atlantic. Eventually Plimpton charmed the fireworks past the airline officials only to be hung up in customs. The next crisis was in readying his arsenal in an abandoned waterside slaughterhouse—the blasé French crew demanded a three-hour lunch break. Worse, George found the mortar-launching tubes were gauged to the metric system, not inches, and proved either too large or too small. Then queasy Monaco authorities asked for a $10,000 bond to guarantee performance. Someone joked that Plimpton had enough firepower to declare war, but George noted that he hadn't even troubled to bring along the notorious 800-pound "fat man" firework: "It is only a little principality. We'd never have forgiven ourselves if we'd broken it."

After frantically rerigging equipment (the electronic fuses had to be replaced with makeshift ones rolled out of hotel stationery), Plimpton and crew set up launch center outside Christina Onassis' shipping headquarters. Meanwhile Frank Sinatra, in town for an unrelated charity benefit, watched from his Hotel de Paris balcony, and 75,000 mortals gathered around the harbor. Soon the U.S. team realized something was missing: matches. Even when their 40-minute show went on, it sputtered along fitfully until Plimpton's finale, a giant sustained burst of fiery chrysanthemums. Out at sea, a yachtsman saw it and radioed to ask if the city was burning. Casino gamblers let chips fall and rushed to the windows. Exulted team member Jimmy Grucci: "Them guys' tongues were hanging out of their heads."

Plimpton is now preparing to whoosh off to London to play an editor in a Warren Beatty film and is working on a book on fireworks. It will be edited, with a ladyfinger's touch, no doubt, by Jacqueline Onassis. Then there's next Bastille Day in the Hamptons. White tie, preferably asbestos, suggested.

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