Books In Conversation
The Lonely Scrivener:
GAY TALESE with John Domini
Gay Talese tells me it feels strange not to begin a Monday morning in “the Bunker.” By this he means his Manhattan workspace. At eighty-five, the author has lost none of his formidable discipline. His 2016 book, The Voyeur’s Motel, has been picked up by Hollywood, and his current projects include a new look at Frank Sinatra, written with Pete Hamill.
“But today,” he goes on, “is something special. It’s an honor.”
Talese has abandoned his desk for New York’s Columbus Day Parade. The grand marshal this year is the head of Barnes & Noble, and to lead the celebration, he’s invited a hundred or so Italian-American writers. Talese may be the most celebrated, and undoubtedly he’s the best dressed. His gray bespoke suit would’ve earned a smile from his tailor father, and his fedora is even more remarkable, lime-green—the same color as the handle of his umbrella, an essential accessory on a drizzly day in October. For the interview, the street-smart Talese has found us a protected nook under a construction scaffold.
He grows animated, too, poking his umbrella towards the parade float. Only a few writers are allowed to ride the thing, among them Talese. Nonetheless, he’s got misgivings about the decorations.
“In my family,” he explains, “we wouldn’t have known what to make of this.”
The float resembles a bookshelf, and its painted volumes bear names like Dante and Machiavelli.
“My family was like the vast majority out of the Italian South. We weren’t people of the Word.”
The line is one he’s used before, in a notorious 1993 essay. Writing for the New York Times, he asked why his own ethnic group lacked authors as famous as the Jewish or African Americans, like Philip Roth or Toni Morrison. I know the piece, and I try suggesting that since ’93 Don DeLillo has broken into literature’s top rank—but Talese just shrugs.
“Back in the ’70s,” he responds, “we had Mario Puzo, and he could’ve been the most famous writer in the world. But none of the people who ran publishing were Italian, and none of the major book reviewers either, and they never took Puzo seriously. So far as I can see, not much has changed.”
Once more he gestures at the float, flicking the umbrella between passersby. “So little has changed, that thing’s too big for us.”
To write is to share, “to tell a stranger your secrets,” and in old immigrant New York, this was unthinkable. “We were the outsiders, the minority, raised to keep our mouths shut. Raised to blend in.”
His generation, Talese argues, had two outstanding models: Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra. “For both those men, the goal was the same: to enter mainstream America. DiMaggio was very careful, he had rules about how he could be photographed, and Sinatra sang the American hit parade. He first turned up in the movies in a Navy uniform, dancing with Gene Kelly.”
“Remember,” Talese continues, “when these men became stars, Italy was the enemy. My father’s own brothers fought for Mussolini.”
No one who lived like that, between cultures, can ever lose what Talese calls “the loneliness.” He believes he’ll feel the old unease even up on today’s float.
“Up there,” he says, “we’ll just be a few lonely scriveners.”
He grins, enjoying his quip. When I propose that, for contemporary Italians, a lot has changed, he shrugs more agreeably. “One of these educated 21st century kids, coming over now, they wouldn’t know what I was talking about. I’m one of the last who grew up without knowing just which side I was on.”
Still, Talese remains alert to all that hasn’t changed. “Even today, when you see an Italian in the news, it’s almost always a gangster. If the story’s not about the Mafia, it’s about one of the movies. The Godfather still gets no end of attention.”
This calls to mind his own Mafia book, Honor Thy Father, famous for its close depiction of New York’s Bonanno crime family. A number of Talese’s episodes, like the extravagant wedding scene, could’ve been models for Coppola.
“But I had nothing to do with that,” he insists. “I think The Godfather’s just great, and what difference does it make if they used some Bonanno material? I’ve written a lot of books, on a lot of subjects. By the time they were shooting the movie, I was working on something different.”
For this author, each project demands total commitment. When I ask about the “New Journalism” of the 1960s, when he and others like Tom Wolfe brought fresh excitement to the genre, he contends that the work actually depended on old-fashioned virtues of “hanging out and talking face to face.”
The thought has him energized, jabbing his umbrella into the pavement. “Good reporting means doing the legwork.”
Too many writers these days, he complains, “get lost in their laptops. They get their narrative off Google, which means that what they report was put together in a PR department somewhere.”
This sounds like what Donald Trump calls “fake news,” and when I say so, Talese grimaces. Still, he adds, “Not everything’s about Trump. Even Obama tried to sell a pre-packaged story or two. Anyway, the problem lies with the people who just accept the story as given. Instead of getting out and doing their job, they sit there collecting sound bites.
Talese bends towards me, intent. “The tape recorder, “ he declares, “has ruined a lot of good journalism. The tape recorder makes a writer careless. He doesn’t watch, he doesn’t listen. Back in 1965 I wrote ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,’ and recently Esquire voted it the best story they ever published—and I never used a tape recorder. A machine could never do what I had to do.”
He meets my eyes. “Just transcribing an interview, that’s not telling a story.”
This leaves me aware of my own notebook, page after page full of scribbles. My phone’s recorder is on, but after all this is Manhattan. There’s traffic, crowd noise, sirens and beeps. Jotting down one last phrase, I assure the man I’ll check any quotes I use with him. At that, he looks me up and down.
“That’s all right,” says Gay Talese. “I see I can trust you.”