Icons / September 2017

Gay Talese: Pioneer of New Journalism

The Rake celebrates the free-living, lavish-loving, sterling-wordsmithing, bespoke-tailored life Gay Talese.

Author Gay Talese looks over a manuscript at his home in Ocean City, 1992. Photo by Marianne Barcellona/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images.

In writing this profile, I’d planned to imitate the intimate, detail-driven, painterly style of Gay Talese’s legendary Esquire magazine article, ‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’. I struggled. Deadlines came and went. Eventually, inevitably, I relented and quit attempting to ape the inimitable. I’m no match for Talese. Not worthy. Not as a writer, not as a dandy, and certainly not as a rake. Mere mortals such as us, dear reader — we simply don’t measure up against a man of this magnitude.

Let’s tackle the wordsmithing aspect first. Some make their living by writing; Gay Talese, meanwhile, seemingly lives to write. Born and bred on the Jersey Shore, he’d already knocked out more than 300 pieces for the local Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger by the time he finished high school. Prodigious. Prolific. Precocious. Talese studied journalism at the University of Alabama, and in the early 1950s, began his career at the august newspaper of note, The New York Times — talk about starting at the top. In the ’60s, alongside fellow travellers such as Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson, Talese became one of the pioneers of New Journalism, a literary scene-setting style of reporting that often placed the writer at the centre of the story. His most celebrated work during that period was for Esquire, where Talese contributed groundbreaking profiles on Sinatra, boxers Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson, baseballer Joe DiMaggio, actor Peter O’Toole, and George Plimpton and the founders of the Paris Review, to name but a few. While today, most interviewers are generally given a few minutes, maybe an hour, perhaps a couple of sessions if they’re lucky (and it’s a major magazine’s cover story, during a period in time when the subject has something important to promote), Talese would spend days and weeks with his subjects — conversing, subtly prodding and probing, or simply sitting in the background, waiting for something to happen that would provide that all-important hook to hang the story on.

It was time well spent, resulting in work that will be read and read again forever, journalism for the ages — whereas a lot of what us hurried, harried contemporary scribes churn out today is ephemeral fluff, hardly fit to serve as fish’n’chip wrapping. Recognising its permanence, many of Talese’s immersive interviews have been collected in book form. He’s also written a clutch of rigorously and vigorously (and on occasion, lasciviously) researched journalistic books and a family history. Which brings us to Talese’s dandyism. Nearly as famous for his impeccable style as he is for his skills with a quill, Talese is the scion of a long line of Southern Italian tailors. “My father made most of my suits during my school years through college. There had been tailors in his background for five generations,” he wrote for Vanity Fair in 2007.

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Christian Barker

Christian Barker is The Rake's Asia editor-at-large, a frequent contributor to this site, and an enthusiastic consumer of fine whiskies, sashimi and classic disco music - ideally in unison.