Gay Talese: All dressed up with somewhere to go

The Times

March 5, 2011

If the art of being a journalist means first having a byline that no one will forget, we should all be as lucky as Gay Talese. For years, knowing nothing about him apart from his lyrical profiles of Frank Sinatra, Peter O’Toole (with whom he lies down on a mountain) and the boxers Floyd Patterson and Joe Louis, I wondered who this exotic-sounding bird was. His profiles for Esquire and The New Yorker belong to a grander age; of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, of the “new journalism” of the 1960s that distinguished the writerliness of the writer as much as their subjects.

Sinatra is captured as the centre of a nervy orbit of flunkies and hangers-on, almost picking a fight with a guy in a pool hall because he doesn’t like the guy’s shoes; how a whispered rumour — that Sinatra wants to change the colour of his car — becomes a frenzied operation; in passing, Talese notes the woman who follows Sinatra around with an array of hairpieces.

Talese records O’Toole getting out of a limousine, slightly drunk, in the middle of the Irish countryside: “ ‘Oh, Christ, what colour!’ he shouted, his voice echoing through the valley. ‘Just look at those trees, those young trees — they’re running, for Chrissake, they’re not planted there — and they’re so luscious, like pubic hair…’”

Patterson is at a career crossroads after losing against Sonny Liston, but Talese watches him confront some boys who are tormenting his young daughter at her mainly white private school. Patterson also evokes what it’s like to be knocked out: a blissed-out feeling, then “a confused hurt . . . combined with anger; it’s a what- will-people-think hurt; it’s an ashamed-of-my-own-ability hurt . . . and all you want then is a hatch door in the middle of the ring — a hatch door that will open and let you fall through and land in your dressing room instead of having to get out of the ring and face those people.”

These were no snatched 45-minute interviews, patrolled by hawkish publicists, as is clear in Frank Sinatra Has a Cold: and Other Essays, a new collection of his work. Talese follows his subjects for months, then com- poses 10,000-word (and often more) articles, accruing material from their family and entourages, sometimes never speaking to them. “I’m a secondary person,” Talese, 79, tells me. “I’ve always been happiest around secondary people.”

David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, says that as a young man he bought Esquire for Talese’s profiles, of “people in tight spots” such as Joe Louis. “The pieces don’t fade in time,” Remnick says. “He didn’t ape the hysterics of other writers of that moment. He combines the short-story form with the legs of a newspaperman.”

Talese also came to know humiliation and notoriety himself. One of his books, Thy Neighbor’s Wife, about the backwash of the sexual revolution, saw him managing a massage parlour and having sex with prostitutes and swingers while married to his wife (now of 51 years) Nan, a well-known publisher of writers such as Antonia Fraser and Ian McEwan. The hype before and after publication in 1981 lasted almost a decade and bought such opprobrium that he fled to Italy, “broken”, where he had an affair with Kristin Jarratt, a young interpreter 25 years his junior.

His marriage, whose endurance baffles many outsiders, is the subject of his next book, which he aims to finish next year: he shows me his downstairs office, where boxes and filing cabinets are filled with jotted notes and typed-up summaries of articles past. His journalism, he says, isn’t tomorrow’s chip paper, as the saying goes: it should be able to read years after it was written “like poetry, fiction or a movie”.

Gay and Nan live in a warrenous Upper East Side townhouse (where he first lived in an apartment, that has since become their bedroom, more than 50 years ago). He is famous for his dapper suits, answering the door in a handsome, slim-cut green wool three-piece. He is rake-thin with white hair and shows me wardrobes packed with tailored suits from Paris and racks of bespoke two-tone leather shoes designed by Vincent & Edgar in New York at $2200 a pair. One cupboard contains 25 hats, all bespoke and labelled: one black fedora is described “Black, wide brim, 3-inch, almost too much, you want 2 1⁄2 inch. Gangsterish.” He has never owned a pair of jeans. Remnick recalls visiting him one Saturday. “His only concession to the weekend was that his tie was a little looser.”

The duds are no affectation, but an unable-to-shake hangover from a suffocating childhood growing up in conservative Ocean City, New Jersey. His father was a tailor and one of Talese’s book covers “tells you the whole story”, he says: there he is, aged 9, in a heavy grey overcoat and hom- burg with his parents and younger sister Marian, who he has never been close to. “I look like a sad little boy,” says Talese of the picture. So why didn’t he cast the clothes off as an adult? “It’s one part of the prison I never escaped from.” In the summer he was driving his father’s dry-cleaning truck, fantasising about his heroes Tyrone Power, “whose looks I thought I would grow into”, and the swimmer Esther Williams, “who was my sexual fantasy: glistening with water”.

“My father was suspicious of having fun,” Talese recalls. “I couldn’t go out at night, have a car. But I got from him that a job well done would earn its own reward even if — he didn’t sell many suits — it wasn’t financial.” Talese’s mother, who called him “Gay” because she liked the adjective that then meant “happy”, was “the successful one”, talking mellifluously as the Gish sisters had taught her to at the movies. Both his parents were in ruthless retreat from their working-class Italian pasts: Talese is pronounced Tal-eese, not Tal-a-zay. “I wasn’t scared of them, but I was scared of disappointing them,” Talese says.

The foundation for his journalism came from his mother’s dress shop, where he eavesdropped on the gossip and secrets of female customers. “I also became something of a voyeur and see these women half in, half out of dressing rooms, their breasts exposed, my mother saying ‘Gertrude, try this’, and Gertrude not being able to fit into it because she’d put on 15lb.”

He became a student journalist. “I was never on the dancefloor, I was reporting who was on the dancef loor.” He has always been the detached observer, “even in my own life”. Talese wrote first for his college and local papers. In his early twenties he hustled his way into The New York Times in 1953 as a copy boy. The first story that he had published was about Times Square sign designers: “I fought early on to have my articles run as I had written them.” For that era Talese was writing stylistically daring prose, which borrowed more from his fiction heroes Thornton Wilder and William Faulkner, writers who specialised in dramatising modest lives within small communities than “hard” news journalism. “I grew up during World War Two where the hugeness of the story dominated the journalists writing about it. I wanted to write about things that wouldn’t make the front page. When an earthquake or presidential campaign is over, you’re over with it.” He went from “500-word pieces to 3,000-word pieces for The New York Times magazine, then 14,000 words for Esquire”.

Talese’s varied sex life, which became his badge of notoriety, began at college in Alabama. He lost his virginity, aged 20, with a girl called Mary Harvey. “She was like Zelda (F Scott Fitzgerald’s wife; Fitzgerald was another hero of Talese’s) from Alabama, my own Southern belle.” How was the sex? “Furtive and fast and in a car; mine, a maroon Ford Coupé. I was in love with her. We would go to hotels and check in under the name of John Lindell, a baseball player.” In November 1953 she told him she was seeing someone else, leaving him “heartbroken”.

Talese met Nan through a friend in 1957. He didn’t fall for her, it wasn’t sexual at the beginning he says. “I didn’t feel passionate about anybody. Nan was a serious young woman and I wanted my freedom to travel and build a career.” But Nan, he says, “is no pushover”. She faked their engagement to her parents, then bought a one-way ticket to Rome, where he had been sent on assign- ment and forced him to marry her. “I didn’t want to lose her as I had lost Mary. And this person loved me.” Did he love Nan? “I don’t know. Mary was my Zelda but had rejected me. Nan loved me even though I didn’t love myself.” Throughout their marriage he has had flings (and one long affair) with other women. He says strenuously that “it’s not about the sex”, that he’s proud to have maintained “enduring” relationships with them. But he imperiled his marriage with Thy Neighbor’s Wife.

“It was only later on I realised what I had done,” he says. “You’d think I would have been wiser. I’d written a book on the Mafia, I’d travelled.” Did Nan mind you having sex with all these women, whether in the name of research or not? “I didn’t ask her, but she knew my reportorial drive was separate from where my heart belonged.” So he kept his adultery secret? “Of course. As soon as you signal something is so important you have to unburden yourself by saying it, you threaten the primary relationship.”

Has Nan had affairs? “Not that she ever told me about.” Would he mind if she did? “Oh I would not want her to have an affair because I’m afraid in her case she would be very serious.” Their relationship, he says, “is based on love and understanding what I’m doing”. For his book on marriage, in an effort to gauge her feelings objectively, he has employed two researchers to interview her rather than himself. Do he and Nan have a good relationship? “Very much so. Look, I never wanted to wreck this marriage because of an infatuation. Sex is never the main event. Passion is perishable.” What keeps Nan and him together? “Breakfast,” he shoots back. “Do you want to see this person tomorrow, the day after that, the year after that, the decade after that — that’s the deal.” Talese’s relationship with Jarrett has continued. Nan, he says, “couldn’t save” him when he was feeling “so bruised, vulnerable, angry and villainous” after the critical and personal mauling afforded to Thy Neighbor’s Wife.

And Nan stayed uncomplainingly through this? “I’m very romantic with my wife,” Talese says. “I have a well-established history of not being locked into monogamy, and that continues today. Nan is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. If she wasn’t happy she wouldn’t be here. She told me as recently as this morning at breakfast that she loved me, so there must be something loveable about me.”

In fact, he blew up at her when she bought a house and swimming pool without telling him. “There are letters she wrote to me from five years ago when it sounds as if our marriage is over. I have said ‘Let’s get a divorce, this isn’t working’ about 100,000 times in 51 years. It will certainly be mysterious to some people that this marriage has gone on for as long as it has, but here we are. We have dialogues, conflicts and misunderstandings, but also the capacity to reunite and persevere.” For 20 years Talese had therapy, “the same Freudian who saw Al Pacino, but when I saw Pacino coming out of his office it made me furious: what the hell does Al Pacino have to complain about, the guy’s the most successful actor of his generation”. Talese thinks about death “every day”: a good friend who has cancer has just been given two weeks to live, while three years ago the journalist David Halberstam, his best friend, died in a car crash.

After the marriage book is complete, Talese would like to profile Mick Jagger, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lady Gaga, as he once deconstructed Sinatra. “So much is written about them but nothing is known. Or do something on deposed dictators: Mubarak and Gaddafi, what happens when they lose power?” The New Yorker is one of the few magazines that would underwrite months of Talese’s travel and research and publish his many thousands of words. Remnick “adores” his writing and says Talese “can write for us any time he wants. I can’t imagine any editor not giving their eye-teeth to work with him”.

“I have a second sense of myself,” says Talese. “I’m writing about myself in the marriage book as if I was someone else. Fitzgerald said he had this sense of being there and watching himself be there. I see myself, then I see myself as somebody else.” Talese has raised this detachment to an art form, and also made it his survival mechanism.