The Grace of Gay Talese

By Ray Schultz

Corry. John Corry. A name easily remembered, easily forgotten.

Forgive me if I’ve gotten a single word of that wrong, but I read it decades ago. It’s the opening of a profile of John Corry, a New York Times reporter who covered the Kennedy-William Manchester book affair in 1967, by America’s nonfiction master: Gay Talese.

At that time, I could quote many such leads by Gay Talese, and I suspect I wasn’t the only one who could. He developed a flowing narrative style that resembled fiction but wasn’t, and left a permanent imprint on journalism.

Take his 1964 book, The Bridge, about the building of the Verrazano-Narrows bridge in New York. It was reissued last year. Far from being an engineering treatise, The Bridge is a classic about the men who built the structure: Courageous, hard-drinking itinerants known as boomers.

Talese follows them everywhere. In one chapter, Danny Montour races up the New York State Thruway at 90 miles an hour on a Friday night, on his way to a Native American reservation near Montreal. He’s sipping gin, and has already had several drinks in a bar. Talese presents this in a style similar to cinema verite. If he has any fear in the car, he does not reveal it, for he is there as an observer, not as a character in the story.

In another chapter, Talese gives a heart-rending account of Gerald McKee’s fall into the Narrows. My family distantly knew the McKees, and was horrified as I read this passage aloud. As Talese writes of the boomers, “All have seen death.” Yet he also captures the poetry and romance of the boomer’s life:

The boomer’s child might live in forty states and attend a dozen high schools before he graduates, if he graduates, and though the father swears he wants no boomer for a son, he usually gets one. He gets one, possibly, because he really wanted one, and maybe that is why boomers brag so much at home on weekends, creating a wondrous world with whiskey words, a world no son can resist because this world seems to have everything: adventure, big cars, big money and gambling on rainy days when the bridge is slippery, and booming around the country with Indians who are sure-footed as spiders, with Newfoundlanders as shifty as the sea they come from, with roaming Rebel riveters escaping the poverty of their small Southern towns, all of them building something big and permanent, something that can be revisited years later and pointed to and said of: “See that bridge over, there, son—well one day, when I was younger, I drove twelve hundred rivets into that goddamned thing. “

Talese wrote that while still a reporter at The New York Times, but he soon left to write profiles for Esquire, like his famous 1966 piece: Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.

Talese never interviewed Sinatra, but he managed to reconstruct the period in the singer’s life when he was turning 50. He observed Sinatra filming, recording, taping a TV show with a cold, cavorting in Vegas with the Rat Pack and confronting the writer Harlan Ellison over his attire in a private club.

But Talese also witnessed the effect of Sinatra’s work on people, as in this scene in which Sinatra’s record, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, is playing on the stereo in the club:

It is a lovely ballad that he first recorded ten years ago, and it now inspired many young couples who had been sitting, tired of twisting, to get up and move slowly around the dance floor, holding one another very close. Sinatra’s intonation, precisely clipped, yet full and flowing, gave a deeper meaning to the simple lyrics – “In the wee small hours of the morning/while the whole wide world is fast asleep/you lie awake, and think about the girl….” — it was like so many of his classics, a song that evoked loneliness and sensuality, and when blended with the dim light and the alcohol and nicotine and late-night needs, it became a kind of airy aphrodisiac.

That is justly ranked as one of the best magazine articles ever written. But it wasn’t easy getting so much on a reluctant subject like Sinatra. To do it, Talese had to hang out, spend time with people and conduct saturation reporting, habits that are in short supply these days, he complained in an interview with Dan Rather:

“When you go into a newspaper now, everybody’s behind a screen,” he said.“ And too much of their reporting is obtained through the communications, they can Google their way through the day almost, these people. And they’re not getting outdoors enough. They’re relying too much on the vantage point of the world that is the parameters of the laptop screen.”

Rather observed that Talese was of the school that depended on the telephone and shoe leather.

“… The phone? In the early 1950s when I came out of college and got a job [at the Times], the phone was the new technology, and those old timers said, ‘Never use the phone. You have to go there, you have to be there, you have see these people, you have to look at their faces, study their expression, their gestures, it’ll tell you more than just what comes out of their mouth.’ I believe there’s truth in that to this day, and I have adhered to that.”

Yes, he has, especially for books like The Kingdom and the Power, Honor Thy Father, and Thy Neighbor’s Wife. But he broadened his approach with his 1992 masterpiece, Unto the Sons, adding scholarship and family memory to his literary skill set. To call this work a memoir is to trivialize it. It’s a history of Italy, from ancient times through the Risorgimento and the two world wars, and in it we encounter figures from Garibaldi to Mussolini, and a raft of Taleses who live in the Calabrian town of Maida.

Some of these family members escape their lives in Southern Italy. Talese’s father Joseph joins a cousin in Paris, works with him as a tailor, then relocates to America and takes over a tailor’s shop in Ocean City, New Jersey. where he starts a family.

Talese, whose humor has always been subtle at best, pokes fun at himself here to great comedic effect. In one scene, he describes his clumsiness as an altar boy, in another his botching of a test in school. And there are more laughs when his father tries to get him to wind spaghetti on a fork without using a spoon (and Gay gets validation in his own mind from an unexpected source).

But this is a serious book, written with a rare depth and grace. We end up caring very much about the Talese family, and understanding things that could not have been easy for Talese to express—for example, his father’s complex feelings toward Mussolini. While not a Fascist, Joseph takes Il Duce’s side in late-night arguments with a cousin in Brooklyn, when the children are drowsing and the younger wives are washing dishes.

What could Joseph possibly see in Mussolini, a Northern Italian who was reviled in the south of Italy?

 …Pride and defensiveness about his Italian origins made him resentful of those who debunked Italy—which, at long last, was now trying to rise above its reputation as an unmilitaristic nation of bad soldiers, retreaters, and imboscati shirkers. What a relief to have an Italian leader who invaded other nations for a change, as opposed to remaining at home and hiding in the hills waiting to surrender to yet another conqueror of Italian soil.

Young Gay Talese was more Americanized, and there is a shocking scene between father and son after the Allied bombing of Monte Cassino in Southern Italy. It’s the climax of this powerful book.

How is Gay Talese holding up in his 80s? Pretty well, judging by his articles in the New Yorker. He captures Tony Bennett recording with Lady Gaga, and describes how faith helped fuel the baseball career of New York Yankee manager Joe Girardi.

In his Sinatra profile, Talese observed, “Many Italo-American boys of his generation were then shooting for the same star — they were strong with song, weak with words, not a big novelist among them: no O’Hara, no Bellow, no Cheever, nor Shaw; yet they could communicate bel canto.”

That’s the only thing on which I’ve ever disagreed with Gay Talese. What about Mario Puzo, whose pre-Godfather novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, has been compared to Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep? What about John Fante?

For that matter, what about Gay Talese? True, he’s of a younger generation, and has specialized in nonfiction, but for me, he’s in the same rarefied class as Cheever and O’Hara. How fitting that he found his way to The New Yorker.


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