A Gay Ol’ Time
A Writer's LifeGay Talese
(Knopf · hardcover · $26)
A writer’s life can be so solitary and formless that it would hardly be a surprise if every aspiring scribbler had Wallace Stevens’ poem "The American Sublime"—“What wine does one drink? / What bread does one eat?"—tacked above his desk. For those who write themselves into being one sentence at a time, a little guidance can be necessary.
In persona and in print, Gay Talese has been providing that example for four decades. As a sportswriter for the New York Times in the late ’50s, Talese imported novelistic devices into the locker room, interviewing the losers as much as the winners. When he graduated from the sports desk to freelancing for Esquire, he became one of the pioneering voices of this new style of writing.
But for all his New Journalism bona fides, in recent years Talese has become something of a character, with his elaborate suits and the town house where he lives with his longtime wife, Nan Talese. When Nan’s cell phone rang on-air during the recent James Frey showdown, even Oprah paused in her scold-fest to say, "That’s your husband, Gay, calling!"
Well, he’s calling again, with a long overdue book that could have been a tome about restaurants, a sequel to Unto the Sons, a short treatise on the John and Lorena Bobbitt story, a study of Alabama during the civil rights era and, most worrisomely, something about Chinese women’s soccer. A Writer’s Life is all of these rolled into one. Happily, the gumbo is flavorful, rather than lumpy.
The backbone holding all these elements together is, of course, Talese’s life, which readers may know something about thanks to his last big book, Unto the Sons (1992), a Roots for Italian-Americans. If that book was a classic immigration story, this is a story about assimilation. Talese’s parents both hailed from Italy, met in Brooklyn and soon moved to Ocean City, N.J., where they "were at liberty to associate with mainstream Americans without being surrounded by masses of immigrants."
Talese’s father was a tailor of suits. "He made each suit stitch by stitch," Talese writes, "avoiding the use of a sewing machine because he wanted to feel the needle in his fingers as he penetrated a piece of silk or wool." Through this breezeway of style, scents of New York’s high life wafted into the young writer’s life, sowing dreams of dinners and debonair conversation. Talese recalls dropping by his father’s workspace to eavesdrop whenever George Garrett, a former editorial page editor for the New York Times, came by for a fitting.
"George Garrett was a short, slender, and loquacious man with a strong voice, and although he was probably then nearing his seventies, he gave no indication of physical frailty. His stride was vigorous, and so was his handshake when he greeted my father, who always stopped whatever he was doing to welcome Garrett at the door. I saw many stylish men in my father’s shop, but none possessed the jauntiness of Mr. Garrett, who reminded me of one of those continental boulevardiers often photographed in Esquire."
Talese became a notable journalist for his ability to capture a person—draping his descriptions of their speech and thought like a suit so finely stitched it literally became the figure. Not surprisingly, the best writing in A Writer’s Life is not about Talese himself, but rather the people around him, the fellow writers, editors and night owls, an occasional gangster and a good many restaurateurs.
"As a young bachelor in New York, and during my 40-plus years as a married man, I have dined out, on average, four or five times a week," Talese writes. Periodically, A Writer’s Life becomes a paean to Talese’s nightly haunts: the "21" club, Tucci’s, Sardi’s and, of course, Elaine’s, where he began keeping a restaurant journal in the ’70s. This note-taking paid off, as Talese’s long profile of the restaurant’s former headwaiter, Nicola Sagnolo, is one of the book’s shining high points—a hallmark of the fine places a writer’s curiosity can take him.
Yet for every illuminating profile, there are a few missteps. Few readers need to know that Talese watched the 1999 Women’s World Cup comparing the breast sizes of American and Chinese players. Nor will the bulk of readers be riveted by the precise genealogy of Talese’s writing instruments, from his portable Olivetti, to his Macintosh IIc and back to the pencil.
But there is some good dish along the way. Talese reminds us that it was to the novelist John P. Marquand that a young Jacqueline Bouvier lost her virginity. He also remembers how when Arthur Hays Sulzberger was in his sixties he had an affair with an actress named Irene Manning, whose picture he arranged to get into the paper’s theater section.
About himself, Talese provides precious little in the gossip department. To describe his marriage, he quotes liberally from a Vanity Fair article that detailed their courtship, from their first meeting in 1957 to their ultimate engagement. Talese is clearly uncomfortable writing about the subject.
"If I were a practitioner of fiction, a creator of novels, plays, or short stories," Talese writes, "I would have the option of doing what these writers can do whenever they feel compelled to write intimately about themselves."
In other words, he could change some names, make things up. But as this book makes abundantly clear, he really didn’t need to do that. The kid from Ocean City had already imagined this life a long time ago.