Talese, Gay 1932–
Talese, Gay 1932–
PERSONAL: Given name originally Gaetano; born February 7, 1932, in Ocean City, NJ; son of Joseph Francis and Catherine (DePaolo) Talese; married Nan Ahearn (a publishing executive), June 10, 1959; children: Pamela, Catherine. Education: University of Alabama, B.A., 1953.
ADDRESSES: Home—109 E. 61st St., New York, NY 10021-8101; and 154 E. Atlantic Blvd., Ocean City, NJ 08226-4511 (summer).
CAREER: New York Times, New York, NY, 1953–65, began as copy boy, became reporter; full-time writer, 1965–. Military service: U.S. Army, 1953–55; became first lieutenant.
MEMBER: PEN (vice president, 1984–87; member of board of directors, beginning 1980), Authors League of America, Sigma Delta Chi, Phi Sigma Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Best Sports Stories Award for Magazine Story, E.P. Dutton, 1967, for "The Silent Season of a Hero"; Christopher Book Award, 1970, for The Kingdom and the Power.
New York: A Serendipiter's Journey, Harper (New York, NY), 1961.
The Bridge, Harper (New York, NY), 1964; Walker (New York, NY), 2003.
The Overreachers, Harper (New York, NY), 1965.
The Kingdom and the Power, World Publishing (Cleveland, OH), 1969.
Fame and Obscurity, World Publishing (Cleveland, OH), 1970.
Honor Thy Father, World Publishing (Cleveland, OH), 1971.
Thy Neighbor's Wife, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1980.
(Editor, with Robert Atwan) The Best American Essays 1987, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1987.
Unto the Sons, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
(With Barbara Lounsberry) Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Literature of Reality, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.
The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters, Walker (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor of articles to magazines, including Reader's Digest, New York Times Magazine, and Saturday Evening Post. Contributing editor, Esquire, beginning 1966.
ADAPTATIONS: Honor Thy Father was filmed as a made-for-television movie by Columbia Broadcasting System, 1973.
SIDELIGHTS: As a pioneer of the new journalism, Gay Talese was one of the first writers to apply the techniques of fiction to nonfiction. In a Writer's Digest interview with Leonard Wallace Robinson, Talese described how and why he began writing in this style while reporting for the New York Times: "I found I was leaving the assignment each day, unable with the tech-niques available to me or permissible to the New York Times, to really tell, to report, all that I saw, to communicate through the techniques that were permitted by the archaic copy desk…. [So] I started … to use the techniques of the short story writer in some of the Esquire pieces I did in the early Sixties…. It may read like fiction, it may give the impression that it was made up, over-dramatizing incidents for the effect those incidents may cause in the writing, but without question … there is reporting. There is reporting that fortifies the whole structure. Fact reporting, leg work."
Now considered classics of the genre, Talese's Esquire articles probed the private lives of celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, and Floyd Patterson. The success of these stories prompted Talese to apply this new technique to larger subjects, and, in 1969, he produced his first best-seller, The Kingdom and the Power, a nonfiction work about the New York Times written in novelistic style. Since then Talese has explored such controversial topics as the Mafia in 1971's Honor Thy Father and sexuality in America in 1980's Thy Neighbor's Wife. Widely respected as a master of his craft, Talese thought of writing fiction, but, as he explained to the Los Angeles Times's Wayne Warga, nonfiction has challenged him more: "I suggest there is art in journalism. I don't want to resort to changing names, to fictionalizing. The reality is more fascinating. My mission is to get deep into the heart and soul of the people in this country."
Talese grew up in Ocean City, a resort town in New Jersey that he describes as "festive and bright in the summertime" and "depressing" the rest of the year. As the son of an Italian immigrant, young Talese was "actually a minority within a minority," according to Time magazine's R.Z. Sheppard. He was Catholic in a Protestant community and Italian in a predominately Irish parish. A repressed, unhappy child, Talese remembers himself as a loner who failed most of the classes at his conservative parochial school. Then, when he was thirteen, he made a discovery. "I became involved with the school newspaper," he told Francis Coppola in an Esquire Film Quarterly interview, and realized that "you can be shy, as I was, but you can still approach strangers and ask them questions." Throughout high school and college, Talese continued his writing, majoring in journalism at the University of Alabama, contributing sports columns to the campus newspaper, and hoping to work someday for the New York Herald Tribune, where his literary idol, Red Smith, had a column of his own. After graduation, Talese made the rounds of the major New York newspapers, applying for a job and finally being offered one by the paper where he thought his chances were least promising—the New York Times. Hired as a copy boy, he was promoted to reporter in just two years.
In 1961, Talese published his first book, New York: A Serendipiter's Journey. Composed largely of material from his New York Times articles, the book was a critical success and sold about 12,000 copies, mostly in New York. His next venture was The Bridge, a book in which, according to a Playboy magazine contributor, "he took the plunge into the book-length nonfiction novel style." To prepare for this story, Talese spent over a year observing the workers who built the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island. In the New York Times Book Review, Herbert Mitgang called the book "a vivid document," noting that Talese "imparts drama and romance to this bridge-building story by concentrating on the boomers, the iron workers who stitch steel and live high in more ways than one." While the publication was not a best-seller, it was critically well received, and set the scene for the three larger works that would follow in the next sixteen years.
The first of these, The Kingdom and the Power, is an intimate portrait of the New York Times where Talese worked as a reporter for ten years. Published four years after he left the paper, the book is "rich in intimate detail, personal insights and characterizations," according to Ben H. Bagdikian in the New York Times Book Review. "In this book," Bagdikian continued, "the men of The Times emerge not as godlike models of intrepid journalism, but as unique individuals who, in addition to other human traits, have trouble with ambitions, alcohol, wives and analysts." In his author's note, Talese describes the book as "a human history of an institution in transition." Specifically, he relates the infighting between James "Scotty" Reston, a respected columnist and head of the New York Times Washington bureau, and E. Clifton Daniel, managing editor of the paper, for control of the Washington bureau, which had maintained independent status for years. In the end, Reston wins and is appointed executive editor. "That outcome, of great moment inside the Times, is of less than secondary interest to the rest of the world," explained a Time critic, who added that "to curry reader excitement, Talese has had to transform the newsroom on the third floor of the Times building into a fortress of Machiavellian maneuver. (One wonders, sometimes, how the paper ever got put out at all.)"
Talese's decision to dramatize the story and to relate the process of change at an American institution from the human perspective has been more praised than criti-cized. Detractors of The Kingdom and the Power argue that the New York Times owners and employees are ultimately unworthy of such elaborate attention, that their petty squabbling diminishes the institution they represent. Supporters argue that Talese's approach is the best way to reveal the inside story and is an example of new journalism at its best. Among critics, John Leo wrote in Commonweal: "The new journalist in Talese is forever trying to capture the real Times by a telling scene of explaining what everyone felt at a critical moment. But the effort doesn't amount to much…. It is often spectacularly effective in delineating a person, a small group of people or a social event. But for an institution, and a ponderous non-dramatic one at that, well, maybe only the boring old journalism will do." Because his focus is on personality rather than issues, some critics found the book's perspective skewed. As Harold E. Fey noted in the Christian Century, Talese "seems unable to understand or to formulate adequately the Times's high purpose, its worthy conceptions of public responsibility, its firm identification of personal with journalistic integrity. These also have something to do with power. And they have much to do with the New York Times. They help to explain, as Talese does not, why the Times, in his own words, 'influences the world.'"
Fred Powledge, reviewing The Kingdom and the Power in the Nation, found merit in Talese's approach, noting that the journalist "does not attempt to resolve questions [about journalistic procedure and social responsibility,] and some may consider this a fault. I do not think so. If he had entered this vast and relatively unexplored territory the book would have lost some of its timeless, surgically clean quality." And, writing in Life, Murray Kempton noted that "by talking about their lives [Talese] has done something for his subjects which they could not do for themselves with their product, and done it superlatively well." "There are surely criticisms to be made [of the great power the New York Times wields over public opinion]," David Bernstein noted in the New Leader, "but they are meaningless without an understanding of the private worlds of individual reporters, editors, and publishers and of how these worlds interact. Gay Talese is quite right to place his emphasis upon all this when he describes the kingdom that is the Times. What might appear at first glance to be a frivolous book is in fact a serious and important account of one of the few genuinely powerful institutions in our society." Powledge remarked, "The inner conflicts and passions of these men are beautifully documented in The Kingdom and the Power. It is no less than a landmark in the field of writing about journalism."
In 1971, Talese produced what many consider to be another landmark—Honor Thy Father, an inside look at the life of mafioso Bill Bonanno and a book so popular that it sold more than 300,000 copies within four months of its publication. Like all of Talese's efforts, the story was extensively researched and written in the intimate style of the new journalism. Almost six years elapsed between the day in 1965 when Talese first met Bonanno outside a New York courtroom and the publication of the book. During that time Talese actually lived with the Bonanno family and persuaded them to talk about their business and personal lives, becoming, to use his words, "a source of communication within a family that had long been repressed by a tradition of silence."
While the tone of the book is nonjudgmental, Talese's compassionate portrayal of underworld figures—including Bill and his father, New York boss Joseph Bonanno—incited charges that Talese was giving gangsters moral sanction. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Colin McInnes argued that "Talese has become so seduced by his subject and its 'hero,' that he conveys the impression that being a mobster is much the same as being a sportsman, film star or any other kind of public personality." But others, such as a Times Literary Supplement critic, defended Talese's treatment, noting that the author's "insight will do more to help us understand the criminal than any amount of moral recrimination." Writing in the New York Review of Books, Wilfrid Sheed expressed a similar view: "Talese has been criticized for writing what amounts to promotional material for the Bonanno family, but his book is an invaluable document and I don't know how such books can be obtained without some compromise. It is a lot to ask of an author that he betray the confidence of a Mafia family. As with a tapped phone call, one must interpret the message…. Talese signals occasionally to his educated audience—dull, aren't they? Almost pathetic. But that's all he can do."
Furthermore, Sheed argued, the technique of new journalism, "an unfortunate strategy for most subjects, is weirdly right" here: "The prose matches the stiff watchful fa?ade of the Mafia. One is reminded of a touched-up country wedding photo, with the cheeks identically rouged and the eyes glazed, of the kind the Bonanno family might have ordered for themselves back in Sicily."
After the success of Honor Thy Father, Doubleday offered Talese a $1.2 million contract for two books. "I was interested in sexual changes and how … morality was being defined," Talese told a Media People interviewer. To gather material for a chronicle of the American sexual revolution, he submerged himself in the subculture of massage parlors, pornographic publishing, blue movies, and, ultimately, Sandstone, a California sexual retreat. He also studied First Amendment decisions in the Supreme Court and law libraries, tracing the effect of Puritanism on Americans' rights. As his research stretched from months into years, however, Talese realized that what began as a professional exploration had become a personal odyssey. And because he was asking others to reveal their most intimate sexual proclivities, he felt it would be hypocritical not to reveal his own. Thus, before he had written a word of his book, Talese became the subject of two revealing profiles in Esquire and New York magazines, the latter titled "An Evening in the Nude with Gay Talese." The public was titillated, and the resulting publicity virtually guaranteed the book's financial success. In October of 1979, months before the publication reached bookstores, United Artists bid a record-breaking $2.5 million for film rights to the book Talese titled Thy Neighbor's Wife. Published in 1980, the book was number one on the New York Times best-seller list for three consecutive months.
Despite its popularity, Thy Neighbor's Wife received negative reviews from many literary critics. Virginia Johnson-Masters, a respected sex researcher, foresaw the ensuing controversy when she wrote an early Vogue review saying that Talese "shows us many things about ourselves and the social environment in which we live. Some of them we may not appreciate or want any part of. However, Talese, the author, is fair. Read carefully and perceive that he really does not proselytize, he informs." Johnson-Masters added: Thy Neighbor's Wife "is a scholarly, readable and thoroughly entertaining book…. It is a meticulously researched context of people, events, and circumstances through which a reader can identify the process of breakdown in repressive sexual myths dominating our society until quite recently."
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, psychiatrist Robert Coles noted that Talese "has a serious interest in watching his fellow human beings, in listening to them, and in presenting honestly what he has seen and heard. He writes clear unpretentious prose. He has a gift, through a phrase here, a sentence there, of making important narrative and historical connections. We are given, really, a number of well-told stories, their social message cumulative: A drastically transformed American sexuality has emerged during this past couple of decades." Despite such praise from sociologists and psychologists, many reviewers criticized the book. Objections ranged from Ernest van den Haag's charge in the National Review that Thy Neighbor's Wife is "remarkably shallow" to Robert Sherrill's allegation in the Washington Post that it is "constructed mostly of the sort of intellectual plywood you find in most neighborhood bars: part voyeurism, part amateur psychoanalysis, part sixpack philosophy." The most common objections included Talese's apparent lack of analysis, his omission of homosexuality, and his supposed anti-female attitude.
In his Playboy review of the book, critic John Leonard articulated each of these objections: "Since Talese parajournalizes so promiscuously—reaching into [his subjects'] minds, reading their thoughts, scratching their itches—one would expect at the very least to emerge from his book, as if from a novel, with some improved comprehension of what they stand for and a different angle on the culture that produced them. One emerges instead, as if from a soft-porn movie in the middle of the afternoon, reproached by sunlight and feeling peripheral to the main business of the universe. If Talese expects us to take his revolutionaries as seriously as he himself takes them, he has to put them in a social context and make them sound interesting. He doesn't." Furthermore, Leonard continued, "Talese almost totally ignores feminism. Gay liberation doesn't interest him. Children, conveniently, do not exist; if they did exist, they would make group sex—Tinkertoys! Erector Sets!—an unseemly hassle…. Missing from Thy Neighbor's Wife are history and stamina and celebration and mystery, along with birth, blood, death and beauty, not to mention earth, fire, water, politics, and everything else that isn't our urgent plumbing, that refuses to swim in our libidinal pool."
Returning to large-scale nonfiction after over a decade, in his 1992 work Unto the Sons Talese "recreates the transformation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their descendants from Italians into Americans by tracing his own family" history, explained Joseph A. Califano in the Washington Post Book World. The product of more than a decade of research in the small southern Italian town of Maida, the book, as Talese told Jerry Adler in Newsweek, was a conscious change from writing about other famous figures. "After a lot of writing about people I didn't know," the author added, "I wanted to write about my private province." Califano compared Unto the Sons to Alex Haley's Roots, and declared that the author "has constructed from fact, scraps of memories and perceptive fancy a yeasty blend of public and family history that will ring true to anyone whose parents or grandparents migrated from Italy around the turn of the century." In some ways, the story Talese presents is a metaphor for the American immi-grant experience. "In accepting and coming to terms with his own father," stated reviewer William Broyles, Jr. in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "Talese discovers how much of his father lives in him, and lets us see how much the Old World still lives in us."
In 2003 Talese published The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters, which draws from his journalistic works published between 1961 and 1997. Terren Ilana Wein, in a review for Library Journal, considered the book a "beautifully written collection of essays" that "truly represents the best of this still highly prolific author's work." David Pitt, reviewing the collection in Booklist, called The Gay Talese Reader "a sterling introduction to the multitalented Talese."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors in the News, Volume 1, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Contemporary Issues Criticism, Volume 1, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 37, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Booklist, October 15, 2003, David Pitt, review of The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters, p. 360.
Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1980, review of Thy Neighbor's Wife; October 2, 1987.
Christian Century, October 8, 1969.
Commonweal, October 17, 1969, review of The Kingdom and the Power.
Entertainment Weekly, February 21, 1992, p. 46; April 3, 1992, p. 26; March 26, 1993, p. 74; December 19, 2003, review of The Gay Talese Reader, p. 80.
Esquire Film Quarterly, July, 1981.
Library Journal, November 15, 2003, p. 68.
Life, June 27, 1969.
Los Angeles Times, May 23, 1980.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 27, 1980; February 23, 1992, William Broyles, Jr., review of Unto the Sons, pp. 2, 9.
Media People, May, 1980.
MELUS, fall, 2003, review of The Gay Talese Reader, p. 149.
Nation, September 15, 1969.
National Review, August 12, 1969; March 6, 1981.
New Leader, May 26, 1969.
Newsweek, July 21, 1969, review of The Kingdom and the Power; April 28, 1980, review of Thy Neighbor's Wife; February 10, 1992, review of Unto the Sons, p. 62.
New York Review of Books, July 20, 1972.
New York Times, May 21, 1969, review of The Kingdom and the Power; October 5, 1971, review of Honor Thy Father; April 30, 1980.
New York Times Book Review, January 17, 1965; June 8, 1969; August 2, 1970; October 31, 1971; May 4, 1980; February 9, 1992, p. 3; March 21, 1993, p. 32.
New York Times Magazine, April 20, 1980.
Nieman Reports, fall, 1999, p. 44.
People, April 14, 1980, review of Thy Neighbor's Wife; March 2, 1992, p. 25; March 9, 1992, review of Unto the Sons, p. 96.
Playboy, May, 1980.
PR Week (U.S.), September 15, 2003, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly, January 7, 1983; July 25, 1991, p. 16; January 1, 1992, p. 42; October 20, 2003, pp. 46-47.
San Francisco Review of Books, May-June, 1993, pp. 27-28.
Sports Illustrated, October 13, 1997, p. 20.
Time, July 4, 1969, review of The Kingdom and the Power; October 4, 1971, review of Honor Thy Father; February 10, 1992, p. 72.
Times Literary Supplement, May 14, 1971; April 4, 1972; July 4, 1980.
Vogue, June, 1980, Virginia Masters-Johnson, review of Thy Neighbor's Wife; February, 1992, review of Unto the Sons, p. 120.
Washington Post, October 18, 1979; April 27, 1980, review of Thy Neighbor's Wife; May 7, 1980; May 15, 1980.
Washington Post Book World, November 15, 1987; February 16, 1992, Joseph A. Califano, review of Unto the Sons, pp. 1-2.
Writer's Digest, January, 1970.
Gay Talese Home Page, http://www.gaytalese.com/ (August 23, 2004).