A Conversation With Gay Talese

Natan Dvir
Gay Talese

Gay Talese doesn’t have a cold.

Gay Talese has pneumonia.

Well, the celebrated author of the timeless April, 1966 Esquire profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” is actually recovering from the pulmonary disease that has not slowed him down one sniffle — even at age 87.

Unlike Sinatra — who would not speak with the author for that now J-School required reading essay — Talese was happy to chat about how he got started in the old journalism, before pioneering the New Journalism. And what he thinks of the current journalism, of the 24-hour news cycle in the internet age.

“I grew up in Ocean City, New Jersey, and I was lucky that my father was a tailor,” said Talese, who said he learned life lessons in his dad’s shop. “To start with, nice clothes and good manners, because if you work in a store, you have to look good, be polite and patient, and learn how to speak to the public.”

That would come to be a solid foundation for this sartorial man of letters. “But the other big break I had was that, in 1944, the World Champion Yankees did not fly south to St. Petersburg for spring training,” he said. “There was gas rationing and so the depleted Yankees team — many of the best players were in the armed services — decided to hold spring training in Bader Field and indoors in the Atlantic City Armory. I guess I was 11 and I’d go and watch the Yankees train,” he recalled.

“But better than that, I got to watch up front and in person the great sport writers from the Daily News, Daily Mirror, New York Times, Herald Tribune, the Sun, and more, all taking notes, doing interviews, typing up their stories in the Senator Hotel. In the morning, I’d buy the papers and read those stories, and I decided that spring that I was going to be a sports writer when I grew up,” Talese said.

His Father Was a Tailor

Talese would later play second base for Ocean City High. “I wasn’t a very good player,” he said. “But I volunteered to send basic stories about the team’s games to the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger.” His stories were so well-received that he was soon given his own sports column at the Sentinel-Ledger and by the time he graduated high school, he’d stacked up over 300 bylines.

“But after applying to all the Ivy League schools, I was turned down because my grades were poor,” he said. “But if your father is an excellent tailor in a small town, prominent men will be fitted for his suits. One of them was the newspaper publisher and another was a top surgeon who’s graduated from the University of Alabama. When my father told him that I’d been turned down at all the top schools, the doctor said he could get me into the University of Alabama.”

It wasn’t long before Talese was the editor of the UA’s Crimson Tide school newspaper where he wrote a column called “Sports Gay-zing.”

“I laugh now reading stories about people facing prison time for paying bribes to get their kids into top schools,” says Talese. “I got into a top school because my father made a suit for a doctor.”

After graduating in 1953, he donned his best suit, tailor-made by his immigrant dad, polished shoes, a starched shirt, and new tie, and travelled by bus to midtown Manhattan from home. “I marched unannounced to the New York Times, then located at 229 W. 43 Street, and rode up to the third floor. I told a receptionist wearing a bowtie that I was here to see Turner Catledge about a job.”

The Audacity

“The receptionist asked if I had an appointment; I said no, but I was recommended by Mr. Catledge’s cousin from their native Mississippi,” he said. A college friend, Jimmy Pigston, had told Talese that he was related to Catledge and to mention his name. “The receptionist said Mr. Catledge wouldn’t be free until about five minutes to four that afternoon. I said I’d be back.”

Talese left the Times, wandering the great city he’d never explored before for several hours, mesmerized by the noise, big crowds, gigantic stores, tireless energy.

“When I got back to the Times at 3:45, I waited a few minutes before I was led by Catledge’s assistant, Herb Andre, through the enormous city room that was a city block long, with over 500 reporters and editors, all smoking, a great roar coming from ringing phones, manual typewriters, and teletype machines. Finally, I was led into Turner Catledge’s office. I told him I wanted to bring good writing to the Times. He looked me over, kind of astonished, and asked who’d sent me here. I said his first cousin, Jimmy Pigston.”

Catledge, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, squinted at Talese and said, “Who the hell is Jimmy Pigston? I don’t have any first cousin named Jimmy Pigston.”

Talese was crushed.

“I apologized,” says Talese. “Catledge could see I wasn’t a bum or a nut, that I had a fine appearance, and good manners, and the audacity to show up in person to get what I was after. He might have secretly admired that I dared to ask for a job writing for the New York Times at age 21. But, in the end, he said reporters write big award-winning stories for years for other daily newspapers before they are even considered by the Times. He told his assistant to take my name and phone number and if an office job ever opened up, maybe they’d give me a call.”

Embarrassed and disheartened, Gay Talese left the Grey Lady and travelled home to Ocean City to work in the family store.

Two weeks later, the phone rang. It was Herb Andre, saying, “Mr. Talese, we have an office job for you. When can you start? And thus began one of the most remarkable careers in American journalism.

Knack For Details

Talese soon had his first Times byline, and then piled up a series of small stories written with facts and detail and an irrepressible flair that soon led to a sports writing beat, and then an Albany state government beat, and then banishment to obituaries. “My favorite was obits,” said Talese. “They sent me there as punishment for always arguing about my mangled copy out of Albany. But they didn’t know that for writers, obituaries are life stories, amazing tales about famous people and the even more-interesting common man.”

Talese would soon branch out to the Sunday Times Magazine, where he was able to write much longer pieces with his peculiar knack for telling details.

“If someone told me they only had time to speak to me at three o’clock because they had to go to the barber at noon, the auto mechanic at one, and the dentist at two, I’d ask if I could just tag along and observe them in those scenes from real life, in dramatic situations that you’d find in the short stories of Irwin Shaw, John O’Hara, or John Cheever, where the mundane events of life are often the most dramatic. Places where I could set the scene, listen to conversation with my subject and others, observing how others regarded them and spoke to them,” he said.

This was the birth of what my brother Pete Hamill would call “The New Journalism,” coining a phrase for shoe-leather reporting intersecting with the literary writing skills of the best fiction writers.

Talese kept pushing the envelope at the Times until he had to leave to follow his muse into magazine pieces and books like “The Bridge: The Building the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge,” “The Kingdom and the Power,” about the New York Times, “Honor Thy Father,” about the Bonanno crime family, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” a first person journey into the sexuality in America, and most recently, “Voyeur,” about a motel infested with secret spying cameras. His latest was made into a Netflix series.

Back in the late-1960s, other writers followed Talese into the liberation of the New Journalism, and soon Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, Gloria Steinem, Tom Wolfe, Nora Ephron, David Habersham, Norman Mailer, Talese’s first cousin Nick Pileggi, and other young journalists were writing compelling essays and literary journalistic narratives that riled a generation from the pages of Esquire, The Sunday Times Magazine, New York Magazine, and the New Yorker.

24-Hour News Cycle

What bothers him most about today’s journalism is the sheer stress it places on young writers rushing to post one half-formed story after another onto the web and updating stories all day in the insatiable 24-hour news cycle “where being first is more important than being best.”

“It makes for lazy, shallow reporting and leaves no time for good writing, for probing profiles, to follow people deep into their fascinating lives where human drama happens,” said Talese. “I also think the students from the elite journalism schools lack a crucial knack for connecting with ordinary people. Most will never do what Breslin or Hamill or Kempton did in a daily newspaper because they grew up with privilege.”

“That said, there is some great reporting to be read,” he added. “If you want to dig into an amazing profile of a celebrity, read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Times piece on Bradley Cooper. Wonderful. She did another outstanding piece on Gwyneth Paltrow. Not surprisingly, Brodesser-Akner has a new novel out, which I will read.” [Editor’s note: Brodesser-Anker will be appearing as part of the IndyLit series at the Southampton Inn on Saturday, July 27, at 5:30 PM.]

Looking back, would he have done anything differently?

“All I know is that if my father wasn’t a tailor for an Ocean City surgeon, I’d never have gone to University of Alabama, where I met Jimmy Pigston, who sent me dressed in a fine suit to his make-believe cousin Turner Catledge at the New York Times, who actually gave me a job and a chance to become a writer.”

And so this is how Gay Talese, who became famous writing about Frank Sinatra having a cold, recovers from pneumonia.

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