Gay Talese’s sense of wonder

Exactly what “journalism” is, and is not, is a question being asked a lot these days. Rita Braver visits with a writer whose fine articles and books have helped him make a name for himself by pushing the envelope: 

“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” may be the most celebrated American magazine story of the past 50 years:

“Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel, only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel: his voice.”

The words were written by Gay Talese, and the story caused a sensation when it was published in Esquire in 1966:  A deeply revealing profile, even though Sinatra would never grant Talese an interview. So he sought out those who knew the superstar best, the “little people,” interviewing by his tally 75 or 80 people.


Braver said, “You got details that no one had ever known, like that there was a woman whose specific job it was to carry a case with all his hair pieces? No one had ever heard that before.”

“No, no, I hadn’t, either,” Talese said. “All these little stories are really big stories if you think big about little people, and that’s what I like to do.”

The Sinatra piece has just been republished, in a new anthology of Talese’s works, called “High Notes” (Bloomsbury). 

He’s considered a leader of a movement known as “New Journalism” that took root in the 1960s and ‘70s — writers who tried to break the boundaries of traditional reporting.

Braver asked, “You tried to bring some of the techniques and excitement from telling a fiction story into non-fiction?” 

“True, absolutely” he replied. “But I also wanted the real name and the real facts.”

Talese, who owns a stylish Manhattan townhouse, could be a character in one of his own stories. For one thing, he’s a clothes horse with a wall of closets.

“The closet here has all dark suits. These are evening suits; I would not wear what I’m wearing now in the evening necessarily.”

No surprise: young Gaetano Talese, his full name, wore clothes handmade by his father, an immigrant Italian tailor. But Talese says it was in his mother’s Ocean City, N.J. dress shop that he learned to listen:

“I was an eavesdropper,” he said. “I was 10, 11 helping out in the store.”

He started covering sports for a local paper while still in high school, and after college got work first as a copy boy, then a sportswriter for The New York Times, drawing praise for his off-beat stories.

“I’d write a profile of the guy who goes to prizefights and rings the bell between rounds,” he said.

Within a few years he left to write fulltime for magazines. Soon, articles expanded into books. His 1969 bestseller, “The Kingdom and the Power,” turned a piercing eye on his old employer, The New York Times.

“You pulled back the curtain on what before then had been a very private, closely-held world,” Braver said.

“It’s true.”

“Did you lose any friends because of it?”

“Well, I certainly did have some enemies,” Talese replied. “But the point was, in those days, journalism was accustomed to writing about the world, but not having the world write about them.”

In “Honor Thy Father,” his book on the Bonnano organized crime family, he got so close to his subjects that people questioned whether he was making some of it up. But Talese keeps details of every one of his interviews in a basement office he calls “The Bunker” — the records of every story collected in boxes covered with collages he makes himself.


Gay Talese with correspondent Rita Braver, in his basement archives.

There are files covering every period of his life. One of them caught Braver’s eye: “1980 Best And Worst Year Of My Life,” it read.

Is that true? “So far!” Talese said. “It was the first year I knew what it’s like to be rich. And it’s the first year I knew what it’s like to be denounced as a writer that my presence was, in many cases, voided, and certainly avoided.”

That was because word got out about his unorthodox reporting methods for “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” his blockbuster study of the changing sexual mores in America. He managed a massage parlor. He took up residence at a nudist colony/swingers resort.  And he acknowledged his own sexual escapades in writing the book. “I wrote about it,” he said.

And he still remembers that his brand of “participatory journalism” provoked a lot of skeptical questions:

“’What right did you have being a married man with two young daughters? How do you justify living this decadent, disgusting, unforgivable life, all under the pretext of being a journalist? What about your poor laboring wife?’  That laboring wife knew what I was doing. Does it make it justified?  No, I don’t know. But, I’m a writer, and I’m a writer, and that’s it.”

That wife is Nan Talese, the calm to Talese’s storm. They’ve been married for almost 58 years.  She’s a literary star in her own right, a respected publisher with her own imprint for Knopf. Her take on her husband’s bad-boy behavior?

Braver said, “He says if you go to an orgy, you can’t just watch an orgy, you have to be part of it.”

“No, no, no.  I think he was always there. And I used to giggle ‘cause I used to think he was on the telephone, a wall phone, with no clothes on. I had promised that I would never do anything to interfere with his writing.  I mean, I always knew he loved me.  And I didn’t think anything made any difference.”

“Why do you think this marriage has endured all these many years?”

“I have never found anyone as interesting as he is,” Nan said. “I mean, he really is interesting.”


Gay Talese with his wife, publisher Nan Talese.

Interesting AND controversial.  His most recent book is “The Voyeur’s Motel,” about a motel owner who claimed to spy on his guests. The lead character’s veracity has been questioned, but Talese says he stands by the book.

And just last year he drew fire at a Boston University conference when he couldn’t name any women writers of his generation when asked who’d influenced him. Talese says he mis-spoke, and decries today’s “gotcha” journalism.

“I didn’t mean a thing that I said, and I can’t erase the quote,” he said. “I can’t flee the charge. And I’m so angry about it, and so defenseless and helpless.”

But don’t pity Gay Talese. At 85 he’s still getting magazine assignments, and working on a new book about his marriage.

And he still loves his style of reporting: “You know, for 60 years I still have not lost my sense of wonder, amazement at how extraordinary the ordinary person is if you know them well. And I try to know them well, and it keeps me alive, wanting to know more.” 

      
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