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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, December 30th, 2003


 

The Gay Talese Reader

by Gay Talese

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

In this book you'll find some of the best American prose of the second half of the twentieth century. Many of my fellow forty-and-under readers don't know Talese's work at all (or have only the vaguest, and smuttiest, notion of him as the author of Thy Neighbor's Wife, his intricate, disturbing, and best-selling 1980 exploration of the effects of the sexual revolution -- in which, admittedly, he extended the role of participant-observer a bit too far). But The Kingdom and the Power, his at once fat and precise "human history" of The New York Times (where he was a reporter for twelve years), remains the most astute assessment of that most august institution and its place in American life; and Honor Thy Father, his intimate portrait of the Bonanno family, was the first sympathetic, insider examination of family life within the Mafia. Still, Talese's premier contribution to American letters is his astonishing magazine articles, largely profiles written for Esquire in the mid-1960s, which are gathered in this recently published but unheralded volume. Talese and Tom Wolfe are the great pioneers of New Journalism, but although the style, approach, and structure of Talese's pieces was radical, his superlatively smooth writing had none of Wolfe's attention-grabbing swagger, and it perfectly suited his role as invisible observer. The subjects of his articles here range from boxers -- Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Floyd Patterson (Talese, who wrote thirty-eight articles on Patterson, said he became the fighter's "second skin") -- to the editors of Vogue ("a group of suave and wrinkle-proof women, who ... can speak in italics and curse in French"), to the tortured, winsome, and usually inebriated Peter O'Toole, to Manhattan's stray cats (of which he wrote tenderly yet not sentimentally, as he did of boxers). But indisputably the towering works in the book are his portraits of Frank Sinatra ("Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," 1966) and Joe DiMaggio ("The Silent Season of a Hero," 1966), which are certainly among the very best articles ever published in an American magazine. The genesis of the Sinatra profile is legendary: Esquire flew Talese to Los Angeles to interview the singer, who -- having a cold and being otherwise moody and indisposed -- canceled the interview. Rather than scrapping the story, Talese practiced what he calls the "fine art of hanging out" -- talking with the members of Sinatra's entourage and standing at the periphery of the action as Sinatra awed, cowed, and beguiled his circle and those outside it. Talese never spoke to Sinatra, but this endures as the definitive portrait: We see Sinatra as brutal and generous, charming and bullying, lonely and removed. Talese revealed how these discrete and contradictory qualities shaded into one another, and so let readers discern Sinatra as a man, even as he made plain that Sinatra's charisma remained impenetrable. In both this profile and the one of DiMaggio (whom he characterized, spot on, as "a kind of male Garbo"), Talese portrayed his era's masculine ideal as a kind of detached engagement; these pieces are essential to understanding not merely two American icons but the gender relations, family life, popular culture, and political style of the American Century. The best of Talese's journalistic work -- including many pieces not reprinted here -- was collected in Fame and Obscurity (1970), now out of print. If you can't find it at a used-book store or on BookFinder.com, buy this intelligently edited assemblage. Oh -- and thanks and congratulations to Esquire, which celebrated its seventieth anniversary this past fall.


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