So What Do You Do, Gay Talese?
A legendary and innovative journalist talks about his craft, his career, and why we’re not calling him the father of the New Journalism.
By David S. Hirschman / MediaBistro.com – April 27, 2004
Gay Talese has a cold. Well, the flu, actually, and he’s just getting over it. It is the middle of January, and I’m sitting with him in his Upper East Side townhouse, surrounded by books—many his own—as he talks about writing and prepares for a television appearance on New York 1, the local all-news channel.
We talk for a few minutes about the process of interviewing, and I realize that, unlike most Q&As with writers, in this case I’m talking to the master about his own game. Talese, long a prominent journalist and writer, has made an art of the interview; in his pieces, incisive observations about a subject’s personality, character, and setting often take on more weight than the questions and answers themselves. It is a daunting challenge for a young writer to take on Talese.
I should admit that the famously sharp-dressed writer is a hero of mine, as he is to many writers in the generations following his own. Talese, in the magazine profiles he authored, challenged the way in which information was gathered and presented, creating much more intimate portraits of famous figures than had ever been attempted before. His most famous piece, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a profile of the singer that is perhaps the apotheosis of the New Journalism form, was labeled “The Greatest Story Ever Told” in Esquire’s recent 70th anniversary issue—that is, the very best article in the magazine’s long history of very good articles.
Talese is originally from Ocean City, New Jersey, and he started his journalism career in 1953, right after graduating from the University of Alabama. He was first a copy boy and later a sports reporter for The New York Times, and he went on to write for many magazines and published several books, including one, The Kingdom and the Power, about the culture of The New York Times.
He’s now in his eminence-grise phase—The Gay Talese Reader, a thick collection of his best profiles, was published late last year—but, at 71, he still cuts a sharp figure, donning a vest, well-tailored jacket, and hat to emerge onto 61st Street and settle into a chauffered car for the trip across town. In the car, in the NY1 studios, and also in his basement home office, Talese spoke to mb about his place in the journalism pantheon, the writers who have followed him, and why we’re choosing not to call him the father of the New Journalism.
Reading “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” in that recent Esquire, it was striking to realize how much the style you developed has become the standard form for profiles—and how original it was back in 1966. How did you develop this style, using the devices of fiction to tell a nonfiction story?
I’d always read short stories, and the short story writers—and the playwrights and the novelists—were just writing about people, about the interiors of people. And that’s what I always found challenging about nonfiction. My favorite short story writers were John Cheever and Irwin Shaw, and I figured I could do what they were doing without changing the names.
I wrote my impressions of people. But I did so with a real sense that I knew what I was talking about, because I spent a long time studying them. And I think I was never so incorrect in this assumption that people got angry with me. I never had a person that I interviewed or spent time with that I couldn’t see again. I never had a libel suit or a defamation of character lawsuit because I took very seriously getting my facts and my characters right.
It’s how you write it. I was always very careful with my writing. My turn of phrase was always an understatement; I got my point across without being unnecessarily harsh. I’ll give you an example of how to under-write a sentence. I was writing about the publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who was a notorious womanizer and who was ill at the time. And while I was talking to him an attractive young nurse came in. As she turned to walk away, I saw him looking at her and it immediately struck me that he was probably having an affair with her or whatever. But in my writing, I simply put that “Mr. Sulzberger had an eye for an ankle.” It was a small turn of phrase and you got it all.
This style you pioneered has been called the “New Journalism,” a term you dislike. Why do you dislike it?
I’m often given credit for “starting” the New Journalism. Tom Wolfe mentioned me prominently in a book he wrote in the ’60s called The New Journalism, and, while I was kind of flattered that people were, for the first time, starting to take notice of what I was doing, I have always kind of thought of myself as rather traditional in my approach and not so “new.” I never wanted to do something “new;” I wanted to do something that would hold up over time, something that could get old and still have the same resonance.
Some of the recent big journalism scandals—Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair—arose to some degree from reporters wanting to be celebrities themselves. Isn’t that a legacy of the New Journalism?
Again, the reason that I never liked the term “New Journalism” was that I think it marked the beginning of journalists wanting to be celebrities, and often of journalists thinking of themselves as celebrities. You can be a celebrity and be a very fine journalist; I’m not opposed to that. I’m just absolutely opposed to all forms of shortcutting, whether it is in the work that I do or the work that someone whom I respect does. What I disliked most about the idea of the New Journalism was that it seemed to be founded on the idea that you could get results quickly and easily by doing things in a certain way, which was attention-getting, whether that be by style of writing or in its destructive intent.
In some ways, I think the high point in this whole celebrity journalism thing was Woodward and Bernstein, which casts no doubt on the veracity of their work or their talent as reporters. It’s just that because of their work and the fact that they toppled the government, they became really big stars, all of a sudden portrayed by the likes of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men. You don’t get much bigger than that. And journalism students in the ’70s all wanted to be that kind of reporter, who, in their investigative fervor, could be capable of such power as to take on the White House itself.
But magazine writers like me, and like Tom Wolfe and David Halberstam, and even book writers like Norman Mailer, what we did was done with the intention of achieving remarkable things through reporting. What some of these younger writers started doing was inserting more of an editorial voice into their own writing, filled with attitude which wasn’t supported by the required amount of legwork. They would spend the minimum amount of time on research and devote more effort to the style or shine or sheen which would get them noticed.
“New Journalism,” to me, came to represent this easy kind of writing. I mean, Tom Wolfe himself is such a unique talent, but he is also a dogged reporter of facts and a researcher. A lot of these so-called “New Journalists,” however, were really sloppy people in terms of facts, and I didn’t want to be typecast as this. I mean I have boxes and boxes of files and careful recordings and impressions and notes that I jot on shirt-boards about every single thing that I publish. I keep outlines and letters of everything I’ve done, every little note and event and impression. As I go along, all the little details are part of the writer’s work and I try and keep as much of it as I can. But here these people were coming up with stuff off the cuff, without the proper research.
So then how do you feel about the journalism of the ’90s, when buzz ruled all?
I can’t fault anybody. I mean, Tina Brown is often given as an example of this kind of thing, but she is a very nice woman. I almost worked with her on a piece about John Bobbitt for The New Yorker, back when she was editor there. The buzz thing was true about her, but I still liked her very much. She was always very polite, very sensitive, and very respectful with me. Eventually when the piece didn’t work out, I was rejected in the most nice, well-mannered way.
In the process of writing a long piece, how do you approach it? Outlines? Diagrams?
Oh, yes. I do that extensively. I keep changing it; it’s like a storyboard for films. I once saw Francis Coppola, whom I am friends with, in the Napa Valley, near San Francisco, when he was doing a film called Tucker. I saw how he arranged the scenes with different note cards and outlines, and it seemed to me that his way of doing a movie was the same as the way I do even a magazine piece, certainly a book. It’s because I write things scenically.
What is the most difficult part of the whole process? Is it finding a subject and doing the research?
No, the most difficult part is when you’re done with the research and the interviews and you have all of this material and you have to organize it and make sense of everything. And even after all that is done, I work over every sentence and every page over and over again.
What are you working on now?
I have a new book that should be coming out soon which deals a lot with my efforts to get to people and to write about people and what happens when it doesn’t work out so well. It’s the story about the mind of the writer. It’s my story, which is the story of trying to get access to other people. I’ve had some trouble in the writing of it because I had to answer the question at the beginning “What is my story?” If my story is about writing about other people that I can relate to, then where is the me and where is the them? It’s a bit of an identity crisis.
Do you look for yourself in your writing about other people?
What draws me to people, in general, is that there is a vantage point that we share. There is something that I can hook into that is legitimately a part of these people’s lives that I write about. It may not be full, but it is enough that I can go further with it.
A lot of the people that you picked to profile were people who were past their prime, like Floyd Patterson and Joe DiMaggio. Why?
It’s because they had that experience of being up and down in life, and sometimes staying down. These are people who really have lived, and who have seen both sides of life. There’s a lot to learn from people who are down and who have been down, about friendship and relationships and who sticks with you when the buzz is gone.
If your new book is about not being able to get the access you need, it’s a book about failure more than success, then.
The thing is, in some ways it often works out better than if you’d gotten what you wanted. For instance, in the Frank Sinatra piece, the best thing about it is that I was able to write the thing without ever having talked to him. If I had gotten that interview, then I was stuck with his version of the events. This is not to say that his version would not have been valid, but it would have given the piece a sort of filter.