Happy Birthday, and Goodbye

Dancers were ready to can-can. Indoor fireworks were set to explode. Yet when writer George Plimpton died 18 days before his grand fete -- golden-anniversary fundraiser for his magazine, The Paris Review -- planner Michele Clarke's first thought was, "We can't go on."

Then the phones started ringing. Plimpton, who'd edited writers from Jack Kerouac to Philip Roth, would have appreciated the irony: The timing of his death may have been the best thing to happen to the tiny (4,000 subscribers) but influential quarterly he'd founded 50 years ago. Creative types -- authors, sculptors, artists, filmmakers -- volunteered their labor. Garrison Keillor agreed to emcee. And the guest list doubled to 800. Says Clarke, "We had people stop in during setup" -- at Cipriani 42nd Street -- "asking if there were tickets left. George would have been so happy."

At the same time, her task turned daunting. "George had been working on this party day and night," says Clarke, who spent six solid months collaborating with Plimpton. "He'd come back from the Hamptons and say, 'I ran into Paul McCartney. Maybe I'll ask him to play.' He wanted it to be riveting."

And it was, even Beatle-less. Guests included Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Walter Cronkite, Martha Stewart, and Alec Baldwin, to name a few. In between the can-can girls and pyrotechnics, prize-winning poets and actors read, a jazz band performed, and a tribute movie showed Plimpton in the various activities he'd undertaken as a participatory journalist, from trapeze flying to lion taming to quarterbacking to acting in Hollywood.

"Between the wine and the film clips, I had to go in the back room and weep," admits Clarke. "George was so generous. Whenever I accomplished something -- like selling seats at the $25,000 table -- he'd say, 'Hooray for you, sweets!' I lived for those moments."