Hang­ing out with tai­lor of de­tailed tales

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Bee­jay Sil­cox

In the win­ter of 1965, Esquire mag­a­zine com­mis­sioned Gay Talese to write a pro­file of Frank Si­na­tra, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the singer’s 50th birth­day. But Ol’ Blue Eyes was stolidly un­co­op­er­a­tive. He was un­well, short-fused and soul­weary. Un­de­terred, Talese in­ter­viewed his vast en­tourage in­stead, dozens of peo­ple from body­dou­bles to hair­piece-wran­glers, to ren­der the crooner en­tirely in sil­hou­ette.

The re­sult, “Frank Si­na­tra Has a Cold”, is con­sid­ered one of the great­est pieces of mag­a­zine writ­ing. It is show­cased in High Notes, a sleek sur­vey of the Amer­i­can writer’s ground­break­ing ca­reer.

The book fea­tures 13 pieces pub­lished be­tween 1966 and 2011, many of which orig­i­nally ap­peared in Esquire and The New Yorker, where Talese gained renown af­ter leav­ing The New York Times. He was frus­trated with the con­fines of daily re­port­ing, how the need to be “plugged into the in­stant” ig­nored the nar­ra­tive be­hind the news. “I wanted to write, not re­port,” he re­calls. “Other re­porters didn’t even see the story, they just saw their job.”

Along­side con­tem­po­raries such as Tru­man Capote, Joan Did­ion, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thomp­son and Nor­man Mailer, Talese used the free­dom of long-form reportage to ex­per­i­ment with the tools and tech­niques of fic­tion.

In th­ese pieces, peo­ple (of­ten in­clud­ing the au­thor) be­came char­ac­ters, in­ter­ac­tions be­came scenes and places be­came worlds. The corset­ted lan­guage of the news was un­loosed. What emerged was New Jour­nal­ism (now known as cre­ative non­fic­tion), an evoca­tive com­bi­na­tion of ex­haus­tive re­search and lit­er­ary crafts­man­ship.

High Notes cel­e­brates Talese’s par­tic­u­lar brand of in­ti­mate, vivid por­trai­ture: im­mer­sive stud­ies of the fa­mous, in­fa­mous and un­seen, ten­dered with­out moral judg­ment. The same in­quis­i­tive em­pa­thy is ex­tended to mob­sters and pornog­ra­phers, so­cialites and the indi­gent, di­vas and news­pa­per­men.

Th­ese are not con­ven­tional in­ter­views but rev­e­la­tory, cin­e­matic vi­gnettes. Lady Gaga and Tony Ben­nett record a duet and the air fizzes with mu­si­cal chem­istry; the door­man of a swanky New York apart­ment build­ing con­ve­niently fails to wit­ness the vi­o­lent street kid­nap­ping of a mafia chief; an abra­sive Rus­sian so­prano drags her lug­gage across Buenos Aires on a stolen ho­tel trol­ley.

Fronting the col­lec­tion is Talese’s most per­sonal and mov­ing of­fer­ing, a boy­hood rec­ol­lec­tion of his Ital­ian im­mi­grant fa­ther: “an ex­act­ing tai­lor who pre­sumed to pos­sess the pre­cise mea­sure of my body and soul”.

Talese is very much a tai­lor’s son. At 85, he still wears the im­pec­ca­ble three-piece suits and fe­do­ras his fa­ther favoured, and takes his notes on squares of shirt card­board. And he has a tai­lor’s eye for de­tail, for the quiet im­por­tance of small per­fec­tions.

Talese’s metic­u­lous­ness both delights and de­tracts. In small doses it adds wit and in­ti­macy. He con­jures a whole world in the chang­ing (and un­chang­ing) wall­pa­per of a beloved neigh­bour­hood restau­rant; Los An­ge­les is im­me­di­ately brought to life when de­scribed as “a star land of lit­tle men and lit­tle women slid­ing in and out of con­vert­ibles in tense tight pants”.

But for Talese, ev­ery­thing is im­por­tant, and as the de­tails ac­crete, they weigh the work down. An in­tri­cate ac­count of ed­i­to­rial power strug­gles at the “great gray god­dess” of The New York Times ex­hausts with its cat­a­logue of long­for­got­ten names, while an ac­count of a young man’s erotic awak­en­ings is so la­bo­ri­ous it feels un­com­fort­ably voyeuris­tic (em­blem­atic, like much of Talese work, of a dif­fer­ent era of sex­ual and gen­der pol­i­tics).

Read­ers who are fa­mil­iar with Talese may won­der at the pur­pose of High Notes as the an­thol­ogy lacks new com­men­tary or re­flec­tion. An in­tro­duc­tion by Lee Gutkind adds praise but not in­sight. The sub­stan­tial book ex­cerpts are wob­bly with­out the scaf­fold­ing of con­text, and fol­low­ing the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the re­lease of Talese’s last book, The Voyeur’s Mo­tel (in which a key source was ex­posed as un­re­li­able), it would have been re­veal­ing to hear from him. But High Notes is a wor­thy in­tro­duc­tion for new read­ers, a master­class in peo­ple watch­ing.

Talese has never been in­ter­ested in trap­ping his sub­jects in a room in “the pas­sive pos­ture of a mo­nolo­gist”. Rather he prac­tises what he calls the ‘‘art of hang­ing out’’.

“Wher­ever it is I try phys­i­cally to be there in my role as a cu­ri­ous con­fi­dant, a trust­wor­thy fel­low trav­eler search­ing in their in­te­rior, seek­ing to dis­cover, clar­ify, and fi­nally to de­scribe in words (my words) what they per­son­ify and how they think.”

Much of the in­sight is de­liv­ered in­di­rectly, by look­ing around rather than at a sub­ject. Talese is a poet of the pe­riph­ery; he spe­cialises in mi­nor char­ac­ters and hid­den quirks.

As he re­flects on the Si­na­tra in­ter­view: “What could he or would he have said (be­ing among the most guarded of pub­lic fig­ures) that would have re­vealed him bet­ter than an ob­serv­ing writer watch­ing him in ac­tion, see­ing him in stress­ful sit­u­a­tions, lis­ten­ing and lin­ger­ing along the side­lines of his life?”

This kind of net­worked im­mer­sion takes pa­tience, time and in­vest­ment, and sto­ries about Talese’s pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment are the stuff of myth (he once man­aged an erotic mas­sage par­lour for two years as re­search for a book about chang­ing sex­ual mores).

For the Si­na­tra es­say, he no­to­ri­ously spent three months shad­ow­ing the singer in Los An­ge­les and Las Ve­gas, and ran up more than $US5000 in ex­penses (in 1960s dol­lars).

The re­sults are un­de­ni­able, there is a rea­son Talese has been re­quired read­ing for a gen­er­a­tion of jour­nal­ism stu­dents, but it is hard to con­ceive of such ex­trav­a­gances in th­ese hard­scrab­ble me­dia times.


is a US-based Aus­tralian writer.

Gay Talese wears the im­pec­ca­ble three-piece suits and fe­do­ras so favoured by his fa­ther

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