Gay Talese, a reporter’s life

May 11, 2013 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: reporters, reporting.


For more than 40 years, there has been intense interest in the writing style exemplified by Gay Talese – and in Gay Talese (web site) himself.

But that emphasis, particularly in Talese himself, may have been misplaced. Talese is certainly a writer of utmost grace. He works at his profession with an intensity that is rare.

But what distinguishes him is not his writing but his reporting.

Talese has produced a number of important and interesting magazine articles and books, most famously “Frank Sinatra has a cold” (Esquire, April 1966), The Kingdom and the Power, Honor Thy Father, and Thy Neighbor’s Wife, among many others. In some of these, he has been a minor or major character.

Now he is about to publish a memoir, A Writer’s Life, which talks about his methods of reporting and writing. The book and Talese were profiled in the New York Times last week (“Gay Talese’s New Memoir Emerges After 14 Tortured Years”) by Charles McGrath.

. . . In the late 60’s, when he was working on “Honor Thy Father,” his book about the Bonanno crime family, he moved in for a while with Bill Bonanno and his bodyguards, and in the early 80’s, while working on “Unto the Sons,” he suddenly decamped for Calabria. Most famously, in the early 70’s, while working on “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” a book about sexual liberation in America, he went native for an extended period — far longer, his critics claimed, than his research strictly required — managing massage parlors in New York and living for a while at Sandstone, a nudist swingers’ colony in California.

Talese is a graduate of the University of Alabama, where I taught for 25 years. Several years ago, he returned to campus to receive a writing award that my college gave him, and two of my faculty colleagues and I had dinner with him one evening.

I told him the story of when I was an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee in 1970 and had just finished The Kingdom and the Power. The book had been written like a novel, and I wondered how he could have gotten inside the minds of all of the people he described in the book. He had to have speculated or made good guesses, I thought. No, he said, there was nothing in the book that he had made up or speculated on; everything was the result of interviews (sometimes many interviews) and observation.

Talese went on in that conversation to describe his work methods, which include intensive concentration on his subjects and hours of taking and transcribing notes. He is meticulous in the construction of his sentences and paragraphs, revising and constantly questioning his prose. His standards are high, exacting and tortuous.

But Talese doesn’t make it up. He is not a novelist, although as a pioneer of the New Journalism writing style, he uses some of the techniques of fiction. He is a journalist, and as he said recently, “Nonfiction takes no liberty with the facts.”

Above all, Talese is a reporter.

Jim Stovall (Posted April 23, 2006)

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