When George Plimpton Met the Best Bartender in Brooklyn
Two New York Legends Collide
The only other person that I had known who possessed a similar charisma to Sunny Balzano’s was my first employer in New York: George Plimpton. Like Sunny, he both stood a head taller than most people and had such a distinctive bearing and manner that in a crowd, one’s eyes would fall on him first and naturally. The description of him I always found to be the most accurate was his own: “I am built rather like a bird of the stilt-like, wader variety—the avocets, the limpkins, and herons,” he wrote in Shadow Box, his greatest book. This implied both a stick-figure physique, which he had, and also a willowy grace and unflinching steadiness. Glimpsing George Plimpton at a museum opening or in the stands at a game or in a crowd waiting for the light to change at York Avenue was like seeing a regal snowy egret standing amidst a gathering of pigeons.
Plimpton was most at ease with people younger than himself, which probably accounted for the enduring friendship we had maintained over the years since we met. I had invited him to Sunny’s Bar on several occasions, even though the idea of George Plimpton, as confirmed an Upper East Sider as one might be, hanging out in Red Hook, let alone Brooklyn, was as far-fetched as spotting Tom Wolfe working out at Gleason’s Gym. It just wasn’t his habitat. But I was convinced that Plimpton would be drawn to Sunny in much the way he was drawn to Muhammad Ali and Marianne Moore—that he would recognize a person who is so effortlessly articulate and frequently lyrical that one regrets one cannot memorize every conversation one has with him. After all, Plimpton was one of these people himself. One afternoon I was playing pool with him in his living room and after I had smacked the cue ball into the rack with particular violence, he exclaimed admiringly, “That sounded like a covey of partridges exploding!”
A few years into my sojourn at Sunny’s, Plimpton invited me to his midtown men’s club for a game of court tennis—an obscure sport that he had mastered and that I had never played—and as we stood in our neighboring changing cubicles afterward, he mentioned that he would be coming to Brooklyn, to emcee a Moth storytellers event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and he thought that I might like to come.
Since I knew of no better storyteller than Sunny and simply because his company made just about any excursion far more unpredictable than it would have been without him, I invited Sunny to join me.
I wasn’t sure whether the name George Plimpton would mean anything to Sunny. When it came to popular culture, I was often surprised at what he did and did not know. Certainly, he had heard of the Beatles, but he would be hard-pressed to name any of their songs. He considered Jimmy Durante to be a major historical figure, nearly as prominent as Popeye, but he might have trouble naming the president who came between Nixon and Carter. However, when I told him in the car over that Plimpton was to be the host of the evening, he let out a small cry.
“George Plimpton!” he exclaimed. “Wow. Timmy, I feel that I’ve been following George Plimpton as far back as the beginning of television. He was there in the early days of Jackie Gleason and Jack Benny. I believe he had a talk show even before Steve Allen, who is considered the original talk show host. He has a way about him that is so unique. Although his manner of speech is sophisticated, he has always seemed like a humble man who has very common tastes. Such as boxing. That is probably why I have always liked him so much.”
I happened to know that Plimpton’s first appearance on any type of screen wasn’t until 1962, when he played a Bedouin in Lawrence of Arabia (as fanciful a casting choice as there ever has been), but Sunny’s mythologizing of Plimpton was, as usual, more entertaining than the petty facts and I didn’t correct him. Instead, I went on to tell him how I had come to work for Plimpton when I first moved to New York and that of all of his storied exploits, I considered his stint as the triangle player with the New York Philharmonic and his three-round fight with light-heavyweight Archie Moore to be my favorites. When I told him that in Plimpton’s bathroom hung a ring robe with the faded letters “Muhammad Ali” spelled out on the back, Sunny’s eyes widened.
“My goodness,” he said. “Muhammad Ali. If I were to put on Jesus’s cloak, it certainly would do something for me. But Ali’s robe . . . I tell you what, if I could put on Muhammad Ali’s robe while wearing my Marlon Brando ring, the alchemy would be such—fuhgeddaboudit!”
When we arrived at BAM, Plimpton was standing off to himself as people filed in, studying a notebook and appearing oddly forlorn. I called out to him and he looked up with genuine relief.
“George, meet Sunny.”
Sunny took hold of Plimpton’s hand with great vigor and said, “George. May I say I have followed you for many years and for all that it is that it is that you do, you have my greatest admiration and respect. Welcome home, George!”
Plimpton appeared simultaneously bewildered and delighted by this reception. He couldn’t have known that Sunny routinely greeted people as though they were prodigal sons of Brooklyn.
I might have introduced Sunny as a saloon owner, painter, actor, or in any number of ways but instead I said, “You two have something in common, George. You both spent time in the ring. I was telling Sunny on our way over here how Archie Moore once broke your nose and how Muhammad Ali’s robe hangs in your bathroom.”
“Ali, yes,” Plimpton said, in his typical oratorical fashion. “For some reason I never fully understood, he always called me Kennedy. Like the president. He must have de- tected a similarity in our manner or our speech.”
“Sunny was at one time a fighter as well as the proprietor of his own boxing club in Red Hook.”
“Oh?” George said, looking at Sunny inquiringly and a little doubtfully. At that moment, Sunny resembled less an erstwhile boxer than an emaciated shepherd.
“Well, Timmy exaggerates my accomplishments as he tends to do, but, yes, for a time in my life, I took boxing quite seriously,” Sunny said. “And at one pernt, my brothers Frank, who we called Brother, and Ralph, who we called Peanuts, and I, we did form our own club and built a ring inside of a diner.”
“A diner?” Plimpton said. “It must have been rather large to accommodate a boxing ring!”
“Well, what happened, George, is that they had taken out the booths. It was a beautiful diner of the old-fashioned kind with the quilted stainless steel that had been abandoned after the war. It stood on an empty lot next to our house. So, we’d charge neighborhood kids to come watch fights that had pre- viously taken place on the streets, aye? For ring ropes we had used rope ladders like those that hung from the side of barges. The thing is, they had been dipped in pine tar which made them highly flammable, and one day Brother left a burning cigarette next to the ring and by the time the fire department arrived there was nothing left of our boxing club but charred stools and blackened chrome.
“I really was never very good at it,” Sunny continued with little pause, “but boxing was an important part of the growing part of being a kid. I don’t know the circumstances of your own childhood, George, but for us in Red Hook, boxing allowed us to travel to different neighborhoods, to meet people who weren’t like us. When I consider that experience now, what boxing really served to do is to give me my first taste of theater.”
“Theater?” George asked. I was beginning to feel like a spectator at Flushing Meadows.
“Yes. In fact, the first role that I ever got was right here at BAM. I had just returned from the hospital where I had been recovering from gangrene after shooting myself in the leg and my father drove me to an audition for a company called the Tophatters. It was my first audition and I got the part. It was a Saroyan play, I forget the name of it, but I remember the director being a pretentious son of a bitch. He’d smoke a cigarette and if the cigarette was four inches long, the ash was three and a half. You really have to work on it to smoke a cigarette without disturbing the ashes! But I can say that the foundation of my desire to act was born of my experiences as a young fighter. You got in the ring, the ref called out your name, all the people were looking up at you, the adrenaline was rushing. The experience of the boxing ring is quite magnificent. If you do your work, you’re never scared and you’re never a loser in boxing. Or in theater. I turned out to be a hell of a lot better actor than I was a fighter, though. And theater was safer—you didn’t get the shit knocked out of you!”
“My word!” said Plimpton, who was now regarding Sunny in a somewhat spellbound way. I had seen that look before—in a photograph of Plimpton sitting near ringside on the night Ali stopped Foreman in the eighth round in Kinshasa. “I want to hear all about that. There is a long history of boxers who went on to become actors. Victor McLaglen, the great Jake LaMotta, of course. Even my nemesis Archie Moore, who I am sorry to say just passed away, did a bit of acting. There have been quite a few, though none of them were very good at it. They turned out to have been a hell of a lot better fighters than actors.”
Both men laughed and were so obviously enjoying each other’s company that if I had slipped away at that moment, they would have carried on without pause. But I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a word.
“Listen, I don’t know what I’m doing here,” George said. “You ought to be the one going onstage instead of me. I’m in charge and whatever I say goes. If you would like to get up there and talk about boxing, about Brooklyn, about Red Hook, about pretentious directors, about whatever you like, you say the word.”
Sunny smiled and said thank you, but that he had come only to listen that night and it wouldn’t be fair to take away the time from the people who had prepared their stories.
Plimpton bid us goodbye with a slight bow and the promise to Sunny that he would one day visit him at his bar. We stayed for two of the speakers before leaving during a break. Sunny easily became fidgety when he was required to remain still without a cigarette. Sitting through an entire movie was torment and although he liked to go to plays above all, he often tired of the experience by the intermission and was grateful at the suggestion that we leave.
On the car ride home, Sunny was still quite high. He began talking about all the prominent people he had met in his life—mostly artists but also actors and musicians—and how he had nearly always come away from these experiences deeply disappointed. Bruce Dern, whom he befriended after he returned from California, had been as low-minded and coarse in real life as he usually was on the screen. But he was merely a garden-variety lout compared to Larry Rivers. Allen Ginsberg came across as a huckster. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix had left him indifferent, though he admitted that he had been only vaguely familiar with their music. He might have been genuinely charmed by Frankie Lymon, who was sitting on the lap of Nina Simone at a party he once attended, but he’d never had a chance to speak to either one. The greatest disillusionment of all had come at the hands of spiritual charlatans during his years in India.
“And as a consequence of these experiences, I tend not to be starstruck anymore,” Sunny said as we pulled up to the bar. “So I’m glad for tonight because George Plimpton—he didn’t disappoint me, aye? I was really taken by him, Timmy. He was sort of an exaggeration of himself. With his big hair, his suit, his accent. But what I will remember about this day is that he was so kindly. And he loved you. He stopped doing what he was doing to pay homage and respect to you and I liked that because I love you, too. Me, I would always pay homage and respect to you. But who am I? I’m just Sunny. The fact that he did it—this is George Plimpton. I know he’s not better than I, not worse than I, but he wasn’t full of himself, aye? I don’t think I’ll ever forget how he invited me to get up on that stage. He didn’t have to extend himself in the way that he did. He was humble, he had a big heart, and he had a sweet and gentle manner about himself. That’s how I will always remember him.”
“Knowing George, I can say that he would be very pleased with that description of him. But, Sunny . . . you shot yourself?”
“That’s another story, Timmy. Remind me to tell it to you someday. Good night, my friend. And thank you. That experience we shared tonight was one of the great pleasures of my life.”
George Plimpton never did get around to visiting the bar. I would see him a few more times in the years before his death and each time, he asked about “that most extraordinary man” in the solicitous manner that was so distinctive of him. He died in his sleep on a Friday morning and a photograph of him stood next to a candle that night at Sunny’s.
From SUNNY’S NIGHTS. Used with permission of Random House. Copyright © 2016 by Tim Sultan.