Monday, May 24, 2010


GEORGE PLIMPTON MADE A NAME FOR HIMSELF by being like no one else. He founded The Paris Review, he played with the Detroit Lions, he boxed with Sugar Ray Robinson, he played on the PGA Tour--all as an amateur--he was with Robert Kennedy when Kennedy was shot, and he hawked Intellivision on television. But in 1952, at the age of twenty-five, Plimpton faced a very common situation: he was graduating from university and had no idea what to do with himself. Or more accurately (but just as common), he knew he wanted to be a writer, but he didn't know what to do as a day job.

Luckily for him, a friend he had known since grade school got in touch to ask if he would be interested in moving to Paris to act as editor-in-chief for a new small literary magazine. His friend was Peter Matthiessen (later to win two National Book Awards, among other things), and the small literary magazine was soon to be called (with Plimpton's input) The Paris Review. But there was no money in running a small English language literary magazine from France. (In fact, just the opposite. It was a constant question of where would the money come from?) But another founding member of the Review and its first art director, William Pène du Bois, had already made a nice career for himself as a children's book author and illustrator. He had won the Newbery Medal in 1948 for The Twenty-one Balloons. Whether it was by example or by suggestion, George Plimpton followed Pène du Bois's lead, and wrote what was to be his first published book, a children's novel, The Rabbit's Umbrella (1955) with illustrations by William Pène du Bois.

"YOUNG BOY SITTING IN A LARGE ARMCHAIR: Well, now that you've finally decided to tell me a story, what sort of people are you going to tell me about?"  This framing conceit, that the book is told to a specific boy who interjects as the plot does or does not suit his interest, sets up the tone of the book exactly: cozy and casual, irreverent and slightly nonsensical. The narrator replies:
"The characters in the story you're about to hear include Mr. and Mrs. Henry Montague; their son Peter; a pet-shop owner called Mr. Perkins; Mr Otway, the streetcar motorman; Mr. Delaney, who is a police officer; and finally, a doctor, Doctor Trimble...But may I hasten to add that other characters in my story that might interest you more include an enormous dog named Lump, three robbers--Pease, Punch, and Mr. Bouncely--a number of shouting parrots, and a rabbit with an umbrella."
This unlikely cast of characters live in the small American everytown Adams, a map of which is provided on the endpapers and often referred to, despite it being almost wholly obscured by the slumbering rabbit of the title. It is a bucolic and welcoming place.

There, one of the town's longest standing institutions is threatened by the imminent vote of the mayor's council to discontinue trolley service, and to allow for the sole operational trolley to be converted into a diner. Its operator Mr. Otway, Officer Delaney, and Doctor Trimble, trolley enthusiasts of childlike proportions, are much distressed by this impending doom.

At the same time, nine-year-old Peter Montague, proud owner of  a single passenger pedal car and son of the thimble manufacturer Henry Montague, decides he wants a dog. Mr. Montague, knowing his wife abhors dogs, gives his permission as long as Peter obtains his mother's permission. Due to the fine showing a poodle had recently made at a tea Mrs. Montague had attended, she unexpectedly gives her approval. And so, eight years before the appearance of Clifford the big red dog, Lump enters the stage.

And on the outskirts of town, in an old haunted house, the cowardly and incompetent burglars, Pease, Punch, and Mr. Bouncely have set up house.

The three robbers have never succeeded in stealing anything of note, and are, as a result, so famished, that all of their burglaries take the shape of a meal Punch prepares with whatever food stuffs are at hand.

And so, when Mrs. Montague sees how enormous Lump is--"'Mr. Perkins says it's probably a very large type of poodle'"--she demands that he be returned, even though Peter has already fallen in love with the dog. The mayor's council finally votes to end trolley service in Adams. And Mr. Bouncely, appalled that Pease and Punch's complete take home haul from their burglary at the Montague residence is a chess pawn and a pincushion with one pin in it, demands that they return to the Montague's and burgle something big.

And so the stage is set. Pease, Punch, and Mr. Bouncely enter the Montague's, but are startled and grab the first big thing at hand: Lump. Still panicked, they make their escape in Peter's peddle car.

Lump lets out "a wild, drawn-out cry of fright and misery and dejection and anger; and this cry rolled across the meadows and the forests like a thunderclap." It brings Mr. Otway, Officer Delaney, and Dr. Trimble in pursuit on the trolley car. When they arrive, Lump has subdued the criminals, and Officer Delaney makes the arrest.

Lump is now a hero, and therefore socially acceptable to Mrs. Montague (which means Peter can keep him). Punch, with his experience cooking under severe circumstances, suggests that the trolley be converted into a moving restaurant with himself as cook, and after Dr. Trimble defends him in court (by simply talking about how insulted the real dregs of society would be if Pease, Punch, and Mr. Bouncely were given the badge of burglars), the town puts that plan into effect, saving the trolley and rehabilitating the criminals. Happy ending.

THERE IS NO QUESTION that The Rabbit's Umbrella is on the other end of the literary spectrum from what Plimpton was himself editing in the first issues of The Paris Review. As he assured his parents in a letter dated March 20, 1954:
Here is another Paris Review, the fifth. I'm not sure as usual that you're not going to be shocked by most of the content...The contents, you'll be glad to hear, are hardly reflections of my own character, which remains merry enough and full of hope and enthusiasm. You'll have to wait for The Rabbit's Umbrella for proof, which in its way may make you laugh twice, or even three times, and I doubt will be considered the product of a tormented mind....
When The Rabbit's Umbrella first appeared, Plimpton's bio read, "George Plimpton, an American in Paris..." When the book was reissued many years later, the bio had been altered to, "George Plimpton wrote The Rabbit's Umbrella soon after he went to Paris to edit The Paris Review..." So the dichotomy between the serious but untested work at The Review and the humor of the children's book was very strong at the outset. In both bios, Plimpton goes on to tell the story:
When I first came to Paris I happened to frequent a restaurant where the proprietor's pet was a dog the size of a young bear...One day in the restaurant I happened to read of a burglar who'd climbed in the window of a house he thought deserted and found himself in the middle of a small party...I suppose the big dog and the burglar stuck in my mind...."
Despite the seemingly two different worlds that Plimpton's early work seemed to straddle, it was William Pène du Bois who no doubt acted as midwife to both. Russell Hemenway, director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress and a friend and witness to Plimpton, Matthiessen, Pène du Bois at the creation of The Review, said:
Billy Pène du Bois is the reason there is something called The Paris Review, I'm convinced. Because even though the first issue didn't have much content, it looked great, and it looked great because Billy Pène du Bois worked over the stone with the printer for days...This was no amateur. He spoke French, and he had six or eight children's books in circulation and was one of the great illustrators. He had great style. The Paris Reveiw looked great. That's what everyone talked about.
It was William Pène du Bois who designed The Paris Review's logo, an eagle holding a pen and wearing a Phrygian hat, in some ways, as humorous as a rabbit with an umbrella that had holes for its ears to stick through.
     YOUNG BOY: But there are more things I want to know. I want to know about the rabbit with the umbrella.
     Well, in that case we'll have to have an epilogue.
     YOUNG BOY: What is an epilogue?
     It's used to explain what hasn't been explained, to tie up loose strings, and generally to tidy up the book. Turn the page and you'll see.
The rabbit with the umbrella never explicitly appears in the novel. They are referred to by Dr. Trimble, whose claims, the reader knows, are suspect. But in the epilogue, Plimpton makes the rabbit the manipulator behind the scenes, the person pulling the strings, in short, the rabbit with the umbrella is Plimpton himself.

All background research and quotes that weren't from The Rabbit's Umbrella come from the delightful George, Being George: George Plimpton's life as told, admired, deplored, and evnied by 200 friends, relatives, lovers, acquaintances, rivals--and a few unappreciative observers edited by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.

William Pène du Bois is indeed a master, and he has not made his last appearance on We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie by a long shot. To see, for now at least, all of his illustrations from The Rabbit's Umbrella, visit my Flickr set here. For a cover gallery of Pène du Bois's work, see Page Books.

And as an epilogue of sorts (really a post script), I share the cover illustration by Pène du Bois of My Brother Bird by George Plimpton's Aunt Evelyn Ames (one of Plimpton's two Aunt Evelyn Ames's), whose maiden name, Perkins, Plimpton lent to the pet shop owner who sold Lump to the Montagues.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

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