Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Gay Talese Has A Cold

News & Commentary

Gay Talese Has A Cold

The Cool Justice Report
Aug. 2, 2006

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report,

How did an old-fashioned-reporter become known as the father of The New Journalism, a title he disdains?

Access, details and good writing vaulted Gay Talese to the top of the literary heap.

Talese got the access by being a great salesman -- of and for himself. I imagine Talese approaching subjects. Open the door and you might think you have a new butler. A well-dressed man of a certain style will let you know how lucky you are -- perhaps in an unspoken and subtle manner, perhaps not -- to have a great writer interested in the importance of your life. Didn't know your life was important? Doesn't matter. He does.

I saw Talese explain his craft recently to students at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. I was struck by his forthright rendition of how, as a young man, he got a job at The New York Times: A good friend was a cousin of the managing editor.

Hustle is not one of Talese's favorite words. Yet, I see him as a great hustler, someone who is relentless and gets the job done. Trying hard is not enough. He hustled his way from being a copy boy to writing stories on his own time and gaining a job as a reporter.

At WestConn, he shared the magic of getting his first Times story published, without a byline. The 74-year-old author of best-selling books including "The Kingdom and the Power: Behind The Scenes at The New York Times," and "Honor Thy Father," the inside story of the Bonanno organized crime family, still gets excited about nuts and bolts reporting. Following the recent publication of his memoir, "A Writer's Life," Talese said he has at least one more great book in him -- something he has been saying for about 50 years.

Talese spent six years getting to know the Bonannos. It's the kind of reporting with details more commonly seen in novels, except these details and scenes are not invented. Talese's classic 1966 Esquire Magazine piece, "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold," is studied by serious journalists for its approach and depth of reporting. Many readers come away thinking Talese interviewed Sinatra for the piece, but he did not. To get details such as the interior of Sinatra's parents' house, Talese gained access to just about everyone else on the singer's 75-person payroll, as well as many of his friends.

If there's anything that makes Talese ill about journalism, it's the recycling of pablum by reporters who act as stenographers for those in power.

"If I were powerful, I would like to break up the Washington press corps," Talese told The Dallas Business Journal. "I think the Washington press corps is too central to the central government's power."

Today's so-called journalists, he said, want to belong to the club.

Talese's pitch reminded me of why the basics are important: Hang out with people, write simple declarative sentences, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

He prefers to tell history from the point of view of the commoner. His book, "The Bridge," about the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, focuses on unknown workers and their extraordinary daring and accomplishments.

Talese The Teacher has many lessons that serve today's reporters well. Take heed.

Andy Thibault, author of Law & Justice In Everyday Life and a private investigator, is a mentor in the MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University, consulting editor for the literary journal Connecticut Review and adjunct professor at the University of Hartford's Hillyer College. Website,, and Blog,


RSamul said...

"Hang out with people, write simple declarative sentences, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." - thanks for the insight over the last semester - still learning, always ready for adventure... RS

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