I've already gotten all sentimental here once about old, impeccably-dressed nonfiction writers and their work habits, back when Robert Caro and his biographical outlines pinned neatly to the wall just about made me cry. Now let's turn to Gay Talese. I came to Talese a little second-hand: my dear friend Brad has been obsessed with him forever (almost as obsessed as he is by Robert Evans). And then I became intrigued too by the idea of Talese, partly as a once-towering figure who's become a bit forgotten, as his books haven't remained as well-read as those of his New Journalist peers like Wolfe, Capote, and Mailer; partly as I caught on to some of those oddball stories that have floated around about him for years, about his habit of dressing up in a suit to go down to his basement office to work every day (even as he didn't publish a new book for almost fifteen years), about his long-lived it-works-for-us marriage with Nan Talese, about his very participatory research for his sex book, Thy Neighbor's Wife; and partly thanks to his visit to the Amazon offices, which must have been around the time A Writer's Life came out in 2006, although I would have thought it was a little later. (If I took notes like Talese, I'd know.) We learned he had arrived when someone said, "There's a well-dressed older man out by the elevators," and I'm not sure what he thought of us, a group of slackishly dressed youngsters sitting with him on stools around the table in the break room, but he curiously went around the table asking us about ourselves and taking notes (for what?!) on his trademark shirt boards. (And, I'm vain enough to mention, he was impressed that I knew who Edward Bennett Williams was. I have no memory of how Edward Bennett Williams came up in the conversation.) Through all of these stories there's an element of eccentricity and even absent-mindedness in his character that might be what you'd expect from a physicist, say, but not a journalist, especially one who, by the evidence on the page, is as aggressive, worldly, ambitious, and brilliantly observant as they come.
So I'm still intrigued, and although in my usual magpie grazing style I've read as much about him as by him and haven't read more than a little of any of his big books, I was happy that I did get two Talese stories into A Reader's Book of Days, one on The Neighbor's Wife and one from his best-known magazine piece, perhaps the ur-text of the New Journalism, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold."
Which is all a preamble to my real purposes for posting today, which are to share the photo above and to point you to its source. The photo is of Talese in his famous basement, wearing only two pieces of his famous three-piece suit. It's not quite how I'd imagined that space (I think I'd pictured wood paneling), but I'm happy to have this image replace the one in my head, especially those stacks of archival boxes on the left! As Talese has said, he's kept every note he's ever taken, and this must be where they--or at least some of them--are. (Is my name on a shirt-board in there somewhere? I don't even care!). If this were a Google Maps street view, that's where I'd navigate, especially to examine all those collaged images that he appears to have taped to the outsides of the boxes. Oh, there's something so modest about that sort of hand-crafted obsessiveness! Is "modest" the right word? Not quite: it's a paradoxical combination of selfless curiosity and the kind of hoarder's agglomeration that makes a kind of fortress around the self. Of course, when you also make great books out of what you collect, it's not hoarding--or it's not just hoarding.
And speaking of archives, the photo comes from a wonderful new addition to them: an annotated online edition of "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," published as part of the Nieman Foundation's Annotation Tuesday series, which are like DVD commentary tracks for feature journalism. Elon Green asked Talese questions about the story he had written a half-century before, and Talese remembered nearly everything: who he had access to, how he got access, why he chose a certain element and told it in a certain way. It's worth it just to read the Sinatra piece, again or for the first time, but it's also worth it for the background Talese provides, and for his feisty, confident voice. Here's a passage, about a series of quotes he dropped, without connection or explanation, into the middle of the narrative:
“He is better than anybody else, or at least they think he is, and he has to live up to it.” –Nancy Sinatra, Jr.
“He is calm on the outside — inwardly a million things are happening to him.” –Dick Bakalyan
“He has an insatiable desire to live every moment to its fullest because, I guess, he feels that right around the corner is extinction.” –Brad Dexter
“All I ever got out of any of my marriages was the two years Artie Shaw financed on an analyst’s couch.” –Ava Gardner
“We weren’t mother and son — we were buddies.” –Dolly Sinatra
“I’m for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniel.” — Frank Sinatra <What is the narrative purpose of these quotes?/eg <Some of those quotes I thought were very interesting, and belonged in this piece somewhere. The most succinct, and I thought interesting, way to do it would be to produce these quotes — many of them contradictory — in the same place, without having to explain them, to say, “On the other hand, Ava Gardner says. … On the other hand, Frank Sinatra’s mother said…” This is part of my whole style. For example, I did this in “The Ethics of Frank Costello.”/gt<It’s interesting…/eg <It’s a different way of breaking away from formulaic journalism. I never liked “New Journalism” because I never thought it was new journalism. It was writing short stories with real names. But it’s not very interesting to put it that way./gt<Right./eg <When you choose not to attribute Zolotow, or these quotes, it is a literary device which predicates the most important thing is form. It’s not as important as fact, but form and fact break the barrier between nonfiction and fiction as a method of communication. If you are asked, “Where did you get this? Where did you get that?”, which is what you’re doing, you can say this is where I got this information. “Why didn’t you quote it?” Because I didn’t want to quote it. Because if I had quoted it I would be losing the point of having this form, the uninterrupted voice of the writer. The difference between writing and reporting is voice. Writers, whether Philip Roth in fiction or Tom Wolfe or Halberstam or Breslin or John McPhee or me or whoever in nonfiction, the voice is very important. And there are times when you cannot interrupt the voice if you have it. It carries an atmosphere./gt <By having the quotes stand alone, aren’t you ceding the voice?/eg <It’s Dos Passos! It’s out of Dos Passos./gt
I love that last line.