Gay Talese’s Basement
Gay Talese is not an easy man to interview. The legendary writer didn’t elude me the way Frank Sinatra eluded him in 1966, which resulted in one of the most celebrated articles ever to appear in Esquire (“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”), but he was a challenge in other ways.
As it turned out, I think I ultimately learned more from the difficulties of writing about Talese than I would have learned had he been completely cooperative and forthcoming.
A few hours after I had faxed Talese requesting an interview, I received a phone call from the 74-year-old writer, who has been out of the limelight for 14 years. Within the first few minutes of our conversation, he listed all the reasons he would not be able to do an interview: He was working on the introduction for a New York Times photography book, his publishers at Knopf were scheduling events to promote his new book, “A Writer’s Life” and he was preparing to leave in April to teach a writing class at the University of Southern California. “I’m not just sitting around, you know,” he said.
After proving that he had no time for me, he asked how much of his time I needed. I replied that I was hoping to conduct two or three interviews and maybe shadow him for an afternoon. “Shadow me?” he snapped. “I don’t want you to shadow me. I have things to do.”
Talese’s legendary profiles of celebrities such as Joe DiMaggio, Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson were a result of what he called “the fine art of hanging out.” He even lived with Patterson, a boxing heavyweight champion, at his training camp for some time. It didn’t look as though he was going to allow me to use his technique on him.
Talese asked if I had done any research on him. I responded that I had read some of his work. That didn’t seem to satisfy him. He suggested I call Knopf immediately for a manuscript of his book and read it before I interviewed him. Actually, it was more of a command than a suggestion. This is when I made the nearly disastrous mistake of revealing my own time constraints. I told him that I would be leaving for India in two weeks on a reporting trip for a journalism class and would like to do the interviews before then.
“India? What are you going to India for?” he asked. “How did you expect to do this article? Did you expect me to come with you to India?” All I managed was, “No, Mr. Talese,” before he cut me off. The problem was not his schedule, he declared—it was mine. Talese insisted on calling my professor to arrange for another student to do the interview. Surely there was someone else who could dedicate the appropriate amount of time to the article, he said. Or was everyone going to India? No, not everyone was going to India, I replied. I gave him my professor’s phone number and hung up the phone, defeated.
Several days later, I sat in my professor’s office, contemplating what to do. I was tempted to give up on the assignment, but the opportunity to profile one of the greatest magazine profile writers of our time was too precious to let it slip away. When I called Talese that afternoon, the first thing he said was, “I thought I was done with you.”
As I walked down 61st Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan the following Friday afternoon, I was dreading meeting Gay Talese. I had called Knopf that morning to request a manuscript of his book. An assistant agreed to messenger it over and assured me that Talese was a fascinating and sweet man, and that I would have a wonderful time talking to him. Her words did not bring me any comfort as I ascended the curving staircase in front of the white, five-story townhouse.
An hour and a half later, I was walking back down those steps, relieved that the interview was over and pleased that I had managed to extract that much time from Talese after he had sharply declared that he could only spare half an hour.
Dressed in a three-piece suit and wearing red-rimmed glasses, Talese had led me to the fourth floor of the house, where we sat in a room that could have been used as either an office or a lounge. A red-and-white Chinese-print couch was in the middle of the room. In front of it was a coffee table covered with The New York Observer, Men’s Vogue, The New York Times and other periodicals. Photographs—Talese in a stylish fedora; his wife, Nan, wearing a dark cocktail dress and pearls—filled much of the wall space behind the desk where he sat. He did most of his work in the more secluded basement, he informed me, but did not offer to take me there.
I asked very few questions. My strategy was to let him speak freely and get comfortable with me before I asked more personal questions in the follow-up interviews (assuming I could wrangle them). His book, completed in August 2005 after 13 years of research and writing, was foremost on his mind. “It’s not a memoir,” he said leaning back in his chair and propping his feet up on the desk, “although I am writing autobiographically.” He explained that the book follows different storylines and has many characters, but that it is held together by an invisible structure. It was his “most developed work so far,” he said.
Talese moved on to other topics, and as I jotted down what he was saying, I had a sinking feeling that the interview would produce nothing of interest. Talese may have let me into his home—grudgingly—but he certainly was not allowing me into his very private world.
When I brought up the ongoing James Frey controversy that involved his wife, his response was barely quotable. Frey had written “A Million Little Pieces,” the memoir Oprah Winfrey promoted enthusiastically on her television show until a website revealed that it contained falsified information. Nan Talese’s imprint at Doubleday published the book and she was caught in the center of the melee. “I told her, don’t you dare go on that Oprah show. Don’t you go near it,” Talese said, referring to the now infamous episode during which Oprah berated Frey and Talese. “But she didn’t listen.”
A January New York Times article quoted the couple sharply disagreeing on the issue, but during our interview a month later, Talese chose to defend his wife of 46 years, saying Nan did not know she was publishing a lying writer any more than the New York Times knew they were publishing Jayson Blair’s lies.
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