Gay Talese is generally considered one of the pioneers of today’s narrative nonfiction movement.
In the 1960s, Talese, then a reporter for The New York Times, and later as a contributor to Esquire magazine, began producing a series of singular stories — among them a seminal portrait of Frank Sinatra that redefined the profile — credited with helping to launch a literary journalism movement that continues to this day.
I recently read “A Writer’s Life,” Talese’s 2006 memoir that takes readers behind the scenes of his most famous stories. It’s also an autobiography that traces his development as a writer. For fans of the New Journalism and Gay Talese, it’s a bounty of revealing information and inspiration.
His recollections of the stories he’s covered, from the famous profile of an aging Frank Sinatra (“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”) to the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, display his trademark devotion to detail and dialogue and a richly woven style of the finest fiction writers.
Little wonder. As an ambitious young sportswriter at The New York Times, Talese “nevertheless continued to read and be influenced primarily by writers of fiction,” he writes. Reading literary supplements and The New Yorker, the son of an Italian immigrant who made bespoke suits would go on to make his name as a writer of celebrated nonfiction.
He describes a seminal moment in his development: a short story by John O’Hara about court tennis that presaged the standards of his own work as a daily journalist, magazine contributor and author.
“…it did not seem to matter in this case whether or not O’Hara was writing fiction; insofar as he had woven into a story the facts and details about the club and the game, he had met the demanding standards of accuracy as upheld daily by the desk editors in the Times sports department.”
What impressed Talese most was the good fiction writer’s ability to place the reader there , which is what he would go on to do in his own work. Immersing himself in the lives of his subjects became his method for putting readers into the lives of his subjects. Today, it’s common practice for narrative journalists. Back then, it was revolutionary.
Above all, Talese was a reporter who trafficked in facts, but would not be limited by them. In that way, “A Writer’s Life” is a master class in drawing the distinction between the two.
“Without faking the facts, my reportorial approach would be fictional,” he writes, “with lots of intimate detail, scene-setting, dialogue, and a close identity with my chosen characters and their conflicts.”
The memoir is replete with descriptions of a writing habit that revolves around painstaking handwritten drafts and endless revisions that set an example for any writer who dares imitate him.
And for those fascinated, as am I, by the rituals of successful writers, Talese doesn’t disappoint.
“When I am writing, each morning at around 8 I’m at my desk with a tray of muffins and a thermos filled with hot coffee at my side, and I sit working for about 4 hours and then leave for a quick lunch at a coffee shop, follows perhaps by a set or two of tennis. By 4 p.m. I’m back at my desk revising, discarding, or adding to what I had written earlier.”
At 8 p.m. he’s enjoying a numbing dry martini before dinner.
For decades, his writing instrument of choice was a manual typewriter which he lavished with obsessive care.
“Although my portable Olivetti manual typewriters purchased during the 1950’s are dented and wobbly after my having hammered out more than a million words through miles of moving ribbons (I have also secured several loose letters to their arms with threads of dental floss) I nonetheless continue to use these machines at times because of the aesthetic appeal of their typefaces, their classical configuration imposed upon each and every word.”
Eventually, he succumbs to the computer age (Macintosh), but for most of his writing, he now reverts to the instruments that predate the digital recorders of thought or even the banging of his beloved Olivettis.
“I was now reconciled,” he says, “to accepting what I had experienced throughout my working life; Whatever serious writing I was capable of doing would be done most likely in my own handwriting, on a yellow lined- pad, with a pencil.”
Talese is definitely a quirky guy. He keeps twins of everything he needs to write in his Manhattan and summer home: computers, printers, typewriters, photocopiers, wastebaskets, pencil sharpeners, fountain pens, even clothes.
Emulating Marcel Proust’s cork-lined bedroom, he covers his home office walls with Styrofoam panels, “each Panel 10 ft long, 2 feet wide, an inch thick;” not, apparently, to deafen distracting sounds, but to attach his notes and manuscript pages with the tool of his father’s trade: dressmaking pins, “or, on those rare occasions when my work is flowing, the many manuscript pages filled with finished prose that dangle overhead like a line of drying white laundry, fluttering slightly from the effects of a distant fan.” A single phrase that makes visible the joy of reading his style.
Talese devotes most of the book to the stories behind his stories—his coverage of the Lorena Bobbit case, a closely chaperoned visit to China, his many stories of the boxer Floyd Patterson, and the actor Peter O’Toole.
I would have liked to have heard about how he wrote “Mr. Bad News,” a fascinating portrait of Alden Whitman, an obituary writer for The York Times,” which I first encountered in 1972 in his early collection of nonfiction, “Fame and Obscurity: A Book About New York, a Bridge and Celebrities on the Edge,” when I was a young reporter for a small daily newspaper with dreams of writing fiction. I treasure my dog-eared, autographed copy.
Talese turned my attention, like many writers of my generation, to narrative nonfiction. To better understand the birth and demands of the form, “The New Journalism,” an anthology edited by Tom Wolfe, himself an early master of the form, and E.W. Johnson, should be read as a companion piece to Talese’s memoir.
Wolfe’s introduction is a semester’s worth of training while the stories demonstrate what is possible using Talese’s methods. The book was instrumental in my development as a narrative writer and many others I have known.
“Mr. Bad News,’” which Esquire thankfully keeps in print as one of its classic nonfiction articles, showed me that the tools of the fiction writer — scenes, dialogue, detail, conflict, complication, climax and, above all, voice — could be employed in writing nonfiction narrative. His decades-old stories remain great reads. The best of these encounters are contained in “The Gay Talese Reader.”
In the memoir, he trains his attention on the 1950s proving ground of dubious journalistic methods unheard of today. Listen to his description of the ethical standards when he was rising in the Times newsroom:
“We were courtiers, wooers, ingratiating negotiators who traded on what we might provide those who dealt with us. We offered voice to the muted, clarification to the misunderstood, exoneration to the maligned. Potentially we were hornblowers for publicity Hounds, trial balloonists for political opportunists, lamplighters for theatrical stars and other luminaries. We were invited to Broadway openings, banquets, and other Galas. We became accustomed to having our telephone calls returned from important people, and being upgraded as airline passengers through our connections with their public relations offices, and having our parking tickets fixed through the influence of reporter friends who covered the police department. Whatever we lacked in personal ethics and moral character we might rationalize by telling ourselves that we were the underpaid protectors of the public interest. We exposed greedy landlords, corrupt judges, swindlers on Wall Street. But nothing published was more perishable than what we wrote.”
You can’t but hope some of Gay Talese, his precise vocabulary, the contrast between short sentences and winding ones that transfix, rubs off on your own work. “A Writer’s Life” can certainly help.