Writer Gay Talese calls himself an old guy who is still a newcomer to the American experience. In this week’s One on 1 with Budd Mishkin, Talese recounts some of his experiences in 50 years of writing.
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He calls himself an old guy who is still a newcomer to the American experience. For 74-year-old Gay Talese, 50 years a New Yorker, much of his view of the world traces back to a decision his father made in 1922 in the old country.
"You have to be half crazy to be an American, because you come from people who were so crazed and frustrated by their conditions in whatever country they come from that they took a shot at being nobody and everybody is nobody when they come to America,” says Talese.
In the literary world, Gay Talese has never been a nobody. He is considered one of the preeminent non fiction writers of his generation, and many of his books are featured prominently on the walls of one of his favorite nighttime haunts, Elaine’s.
Talese has one of the most envied commutes in New York. It takes about 20 seconds for him to walk from his Upper East Side townhouse downstairs to his basement office, where his writing process hasn't changed much through the years.
"I work on yellow pads when I begin,” says Talese. “I just scribble something and I’ll do it again and I’ll sort of get a sentence together and then another sentence and it’s a paragraph and then I’ll do another page. My father didn't want to use a sewing machine, he used to want to do it with his hands. And I feel that you need to get your finger into the material with a pencil and you feel the pencil and the word, feel the formation of the word.”
There are notes from 50 years of research and writing. His book subjects have ranged from mobsters to bridge builders, nudists to Chinese soccer players.
In the mid-60s, after almost a decade as a New York Times reporter, Talese was associated with what was called the "New Journalism." But for Talese, the notion of telling the story through the eyes of everyday people wasn't new at all.
It first came to him as a kid, hearing women talk in his mother's dress shop in Ocean City, New Jersey.
“I thought, these stories are really interesting,” says Talese. “Why are they interesting? They told me something I didn't know and I was curious as kid. And when I grew up, if I ever did, it was to tell those kinds of minor stories in a way the great fiction writers do or the great playwrights do.”
He calls it, “the art of hanging around.” That's exactly what he did for stories about two iconic Italian American figures of his youth, Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio. When they chose not to speak with Talese, he simply went forward by talking to the people around them, a style exemplified by what is considered a seminal piece in Esquire in 1966, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold."
"Sinatra had his cadre of characters, hangers on, Îhey get me another tomato sandwich, park this car, where is my hair piece,’ you know, Sinatra. And Dimag was same. They were almost feudal barons,” says Talese.
Talese's books have been translated around the world.
His latest book, "A Writer's Life," is not a traditional memoir, but rather a collection of stories that have intrigued Talese through the years, from civil rights in Selma in the 60s to the Bobbitt saga of the 90s.
It's received its share of criticism, including a withering review from his old employer the New York Times. Talese has known that feeling before. In 1981, his book about sexuality in America, “Thy Neighbor's Wife,” was in his words, "ripped apart....called the worst book ever written."
"It's not that I'm looking for some social worker to come over and say, Îyou'll amount to something, don't take it too personally.’ But there are times when you do take things personally, and it’s times when the person closest to you will say, Îyou know, the sky is not falling, it’s something you will endure,’" says Talese.
That person is his wife of 47 years, longtime book publisher Nan Talese. This year she had to endure the James Frey controversy, in which parts of a book she published about Frey's recovery from drugs turned out to be fraudulent.
“She got knocked around a bit on ÎThe Oprah Winfrey Show,’ and I watched the show and it was a little disturbing to see this and that’s what I went through and she went through and so many of us go through,” says Talese.
Long before his words were read around the world and he was a fixture of the New York literary scene, Gay Talese was one of the few Italian kids in what he calls an Irish Catholic parish in a protestant town, Ocean City, New Jersey.
“We were on the lowest level of pecking order, the social pecking order in this Democratic society, so called. Like to see things from that vantage point, even though I'm an elder person and it's part of my past but it's not a forgotten part of my past,” says Talese.
He tried to get into college in the northeast but couldn't. So a family friend arranged for him to go to the University of Alabama in 1949, seemingly, a world away from the Jersey Shore. But Talese says he felt "strangely at home."
"My people, Sinatra's people, and Cuomo’s people, Francis Ford Coppola’s people are all southerners from the Mississippi, Alabama of Italy, the little toe of the boot,” says Talese. “And there’s this similarity among southerners, they're agrarian, they come from farms, they’re not industrial, they’re not from the more entrepreneurial part of the nation."
Talese had a chance to visit the old country while in the army, stationed in Germany in the mid-50s. He took a furlough and headed to Calabria, Italy to meet many of his relatives for the first time since his father had left in 1922.
"If my father hadn't gotten out, if he hadn’t jumped on the train in Calabria and gone to Naples and took a flight and went to New York and got into Ellis Island. If he hadn't done that, if he had been sentimental, if he had been a guy who couldn't leave his family because he didn’t know how to say goodbye I would have been working on that farm. I would be cleaning pigsties all day long like the rest of them,” says Talese
That's not exactly how it turned out.
After working at the New York Times, Talese's book about his old employer, “The Kingdom and the Power,” became a best seller. Talese went from having a small apartment in a townhouse to buying the townhouse. He was known for getting right in the action when researching his subjects. Talese spent a lot of time with mobster Bill Bonanno when writing “Honor Thy Father,” almost getting shot in an ambush in Brooklyn.
"He ran and I ran and we got in a car and came back to Manhattan,” says Talese. “I called Arthur Gelb who was the City Editor of the Times in those days, Metro editor, I think, and I said there’s been a shooting in Brooklyn and he said, Îhow do you know?’ And I said, ÎI heard it on good sources,’ the guy who was being shot at."
In researching his book about sexuality in America, ÎThy Neighbor's Wife,’ Talese took a job running a massage parlor, and met a priest who was leaving the priesthood and wanted to have his first experiences of being with a woman.
"Finally he was ready for civilian life. It was like a halfway house between the holiness of his background and decadence that was the outside world he was desiring to become part of and I was like the agent."
Talese has never been a fast writer, even back when he was a reporter for the Times and some of his books have taken a decade to research and write.
His father left Calabria in 1922 searching for a better life, curious about the New World. The son's curiosity has kept him searching for 50 years, for a good story.
"It’s a storytelling life, a storytelling life of me being sincerely interested in people and sincerely interested in writing about them in ways that other people who I’ll never meet, readers for example, can appreciate. And that's a life's calling,” says Talese.
— Budd Mishkin
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