Poor Gay Talese. For one thing, you can't mention his name to young people without telling them soon afterward to grow up and stop laughing. For another, he essentially invented a new form of journalism, yet today is less well known than those who followed in his footsteps without employing his methods any more effectively. Thousands of college students each year buy a book by Hunter S. Thompson, when they might be far better off with a single volume, The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters.
Talese began his career in journalism as something of a prodigy. In pursuit of more playing time on the high school baseball team, he sought to ingratiate himself with the coach by calling in game results and player stats to the local newspaper. Quickly, however, he decided to add to his involvement in promoting the team by writing up the results himself and handing them to the paper. Weeks later, he was given his own job writing whole articles himself, as well as a regular column. He was only 15 years old.
He honed his talents in college, showing an aptitude for adapting novelistic tropes to the sports page and for finding character-study material in the struggles of people who weren't the "big stars." From there, Talese went to the New York Times, rising to the level of sports reporter. However, a promotion to cover the state capitol saw him quickly demoted to the obituary desk. His fastidious copy, his sense of detail and nuance, didn't fit with the bang-out pace of the political beat.
Frustrated by the confines of daily journalism, Talese experimented with longer-form work, eventually publishing "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" in 1966, in Esquire magazine. Many students of journalism consider this the founding article in the New Journalism movement.
"New Journalism" is hard to define, but most people probably know it when they see it. It often employs literary devices, first-person involvement from the writer, long asides in which the author interprets the data that he's just reported on, personal advocacy and muckraking opinion. But while many New Journalism pieces distort reality or are written deliberately at a remove from the facts of a story, Talese's craftsmanship was detailed, almost obsessive.
What makes "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" so special is that it is not only still considered one of the most insightful portraits of the man, but it was written without ever interviewing him. Sinatra rebuffed both Talese and Esquire, but since Esquire was so keen on the profile, Talese pushed ahead anyway. He spent three months doggedly following Sinatra and his entourage, interviewing his employees, friends, and flunkies, profiling his ex-wives and observing his movements.
Ironically, the resulting product probably contains more insight than the interview ever could have. One on one, the interviewee can deflect, ignore, spin empty PR statements designed to avoid content. But in looking so thoroughly from the outside in, Talese saw past the artifice of the Sinatra Machine by seeing what it needed outsiders to believe in. At the time, Sinatra was scandalized by a documentary about his ties to the mob, worried about the health of his pipes, and felt increasingly marginalized by popular youth culture that already began to turn away from him. By looking at the anxieties Sinatra and his people tried to obscure or compensate for, Talese could show readers the vulnerable Sinatra that the denial of interview requests was meant to hide away.
Talese used a similar tactic in his other masterpiece, "Silent Season of a Hero," which David Halberstam considered the greatest sports profile of the 20th century. Once again, Talese couldn't interview the subject of his article and constructed an understanding of the person from the outside in. In this case, the subject was Joe DiMaggio, retired, in his fifties, still a legend on whom others projected visions of American heroism, athletic greatness, sex appeal and "cool." Talese describes DiMaggio by letting others describe him. His is a frame on whom almost all men alive hang some conception of greatness, and thus the everyman hero comes out in the visions of the everymen who esteem him most.
All this might make Talese seem hifalutin, remote, inapproachably clinical, but his writing is human, funny, and often quite light. The Gay Talese Reader begins with "New York Is a City of Things Unnoticed," which today might have a more obvious title like, "A Midnight Walk Through News of the Weird." He quietly highlights the oddities of city life, the little necessary functions that drive the Big Apple and that otherwise elude citizens.
Despite topics like Sinatra, DiMaggio, and New York City, it becomes clear very quickly that it almost doesn't matter what Talese writes about. His touch is so deft and his powers of observation so keen that everyman details achieve a luminous quality. Take this opening paragraph, from the story, "Mr. Bad News":
"Winston Churchill gave you your heart attack," the wife of the obituary writer said, but the obituary writer, a short and rather shy man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and smoking a pipe, shook his head and replied, very softly, "No, it was not Winston Churchill."
"Then T.S. Eliot gave you your heart attack," she quickly added... (p. 172)
What follows are the details of a life spent obsessed with the sickness and danger of the lives of others. The obituary writer opens the paper each morning concerned not about who died but about who looks like they are about to die. He collects newsbits in his office and agonizes about losing them. He pulls out hundreds of pre-written obituaries per year and updates them with new content. He is a sweet person who is incredibly morbid.
Other famous people appear in the volume—Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Peter O'Toole—but Talese's prose is the star. When "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" and "Silent Season of a Hero" landed on the journalism world like a ton of bricks in 1966, they inspired legions of imitators, and students still try to echo the style in campus newspapers. But Talese requires neither modernization nor improvement. His style is just as captivating today, and sets a wonderful example for students and delights new readers. A half century ago, he set the standard. Others have only met it.