Gay talese, among many other accomplishments, wrote the most famous line in magazines. “Frank Sinatra had a cold,” which appeared high in Talese’s 1966 Esquire profile, communicated instantly that the piece would pay no attention to the niceties and launch itself directly into Sinatra’s head. Simultaneously, the line began to reveal a big truth about America: the idea that celebrity was a torment, that Sinatra suffered for us. Talese infiltrated farther than anyone had before into the weird mansion of American fame, a Grey Gardens sort of place with a pervasive odor of grandma’s red sauce, where talent and glamour are subsumed in a jumble of petty conflict and degradation amid an entourage of hangers-on from the old nabe, with an ungrateful public always pressing in.
When he wrote it, Talese was 34. He’d quit the New York Times after ten years, chafing at the insolence of the rewrite men. He didn’t want to be restricted to the news that was fit to print, but to everything. In Talese’s new memoir, A Writer’s Life, for better and worse, we get everything. As any writer knows, the title is shorthand for its own world of torment. A writer’s life is about nothing so much as trying to write a book, flitting from project to project, imploring himself to stick to one idea and finish it. The memoir is a jumble of half-finished projects, an archaeological dig by an Elaine’s dinosaur excavating his own past.
Talese has always been an ironist, a thoroughgoing relativist whose method is to look for another point of view, and having found it, undercut that one as well. He wants to look where others aren’t looking, uncovering mysteries about the world that are hidden in plain sight. In his first book, New York—A Serendipiter’s Journey, this took its most traditional form, the same one practiced by Joe Mitchell at The New Yorker. With sections on pushcart-makers and a dealer of hay, it’s a book about New York as eternal city, with ancient ways of life that modernity can never overrun. Later on, he’d write The Kingdom and the Power, the classic 1969 book about the Times, and Thy Neighbor’s Wife, his study of the sexual revolution, in which he himself became a character named “Gay Talese.”
Talese, in his memoir as in life, is charming, modest, self-effacing, a pleasant companion. Like Tom Wolfe, who gave Talese credit (which Talese politely declined to accept) for inventing the New Journalism, he is always exceedingly well dressed. But while Wolfe’s starched collar is a plinth for exhibiting that brain he’s so proud of, Talese uses his wardrobe in the Italian way, to show respect, to make a good impression.
He grew up in Ocean City, New Jersey, over his family dress shop, which his mother ran as a kind of salon where Talese eavesdropped on the conversations—excellent training for a journalist. At night, Talese sometimes accompanied his father, an unassuming, perfectionist tailor, to restaurants, where his father became a different person, jovial and outgoing. Talese’s working pattern is much like his father’s, with a streak of perfectionism and a highly idiosyncratic method, his notes taken on cut-up shirt cardboard, his manuscript pages pinned to Styrofoam with dressmaker’s pins, fluttering like so much clean laundry. The working method, while refined, did not necessarily make his writing easier: “I am alone all day producing prose with the ease of a patient passing kidney stones.”
As respite from this torture chamber, Talese frequently treats himself to dinner with his fellow literatos at Elaine’s. It’s his own mansion of fame, with its own red sauce and pantheon of celebrities and hangers-on. One of the book’s many eureka moments is when Talese hits upon the idea to mix business with pleasure by making the restaurant the central thread of the book. Talese follows it for a while, tracking Elaine and the headwaiter, Nicola, as Nicola issues his non serviam and opens his own restaurant—at 206 East 63rd, which, as it happens, is across from a garage where Talese had once stored his Triumph sports car, and about which Talese had once aspired to write a book called The Building. Then Talese unspools that thread for a while, back to the building’s construction in 1907, through the failure of Nicola’s restaurant, (and also the failure of numerous other restaurants in the building) before he realizes that the building has defeated his attempts to make sense of it.
In the funniest interlude, Talese documents at great length his efforts in trying to interest Tina Brown in his theories about the penis (“It does indeed seem to have a will of its own”) as they relate to John Wayne Bobbitt. Brown can’t seem to make up her mind whether Talese is a legend or a crackpot. Talese knows the routine is funny—he must—but he plays it absolutely deadpan, and prints the entire piece, which Brown (she was right) ultimately chose not to run. There’s a sad-clown poignance to Talese’s tribulations. He’s Charlie Chaplin in a three-piece suit, thwarted and continually getting up, brushing the dirt off and trying again. He’s like one of the workmen in A Serendipiter’s Journey, the ones whom the modern world couldn’t quite put out of business.
A Writer’s Life
By Gay Talese. Knopf. 430 pages.