It is November 1965. Gay Talese, a reporter 33 years of age, has left The New York Times to write for Esquire Magazine on a year-long contract. He is assigned to six profiles, three of his choosing and three chosen by his editor, and has arrived in Los Angeles for his second story. He does not want to write about the profile’s subject, Frank Sinatra. But still, he is there, shacked up at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, a topless rent-a-car outside, waiting for a call from Sinatra’s agent, Jim Mahoney.
Fast-forward to 2009 — just yesterday — and Mr. Talese, now an award-winning journalist of 77 years and the John Christophe Schlesinger Visiting Writer at Yale, is telling the story to a silent audience at a Branford College Master’s Tea. Every inch of space in the Branford Master’s House — on the ground, in the doorways, on couches — is taken up by bodies; those bodies are still, and their ears hang to every word out of his mouth.
The story he is telling is that of the genesis of his famous Esquire piece “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” voted the best story ever published in that magazine. He talks about his adolescence, when he worked at his mother’s dress shop and listened to customers’ conversations. He speaks of his college years at the University of Alabama, of how he profiled for the campus newspaper, among others, an African-American locker room attendant nicknamed “Hooch.”
His outfit is pristine: Double-breasted dark gray pinstripe suit made to measure by Cristiani of Paris, pink shirt with white collar, gold tie with blue squares, gleaming leather shoes, gold watch, red and brown patterned handkerchief. The bottom button of his suit is undone; his jacket has two vents. The attention to detail is unmissable.
Talese explains that presentation and politeness are necessary for journalists. His father, he says, introduced him to fine tailoring at a young age.
“I come from a long line of tailors … so I always grew up with good tailoring. My father wore good things,” he says. “I believe, in a way, I write like a tailor — I’m very careful tracing preciseness, a sense of wanting things to hold up, whether it’s reporting or writing.”
In an interview after the Tea, he remarks on the manners of the students who came, adding praise for their intelligence and their “sense of a larger America in flux.”
“When they leave this university and go out and join their larger element, they’re going to bring an idealistic perspective to the coarse and often self-centered society they’ll be part of,” he says.
His wife, the publishing executive Nan Talese, is present throughout. She says she thinks her husband managed to explain to a younger generation of students and writers — accustomed to using the Internet — that “there are no short-cuts” in journalism.
He holds forth again, later in the day, in the boardroom of the News’ Briton Hadden Memorial Building at 202 York St. There, before about two dozen students, he criticizes The New York Times because he believes the newspaper has strayed from the truth and “sold out.” He proposes they cut their Washington bureau staff from 70 to 10, and place the other reporters in state capitals around the country. At one point, he appears misty-eyed.
He later reads excerpts from his piece on Sinatra and from two of his non-fiction books, “Honor Thy Father” and “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” to an audience of around 80 people at the undergraduate society St. Anthony Hall.
Francis Writer in Residence Anne Fadiman, who helped organize Talese’s visit and introduced him at St. Anthony Hall, quotes the late David Halberstam in describing Talese as “the most important non-fiction writer of his generation.” She says his stories let all the reporters in the crowd get a taste of another era of journalism.
“It made all of them wish that it was 1955, instead of 2009; that the Internet had never been invented; and that, by persistence and wearing out their shoe leather and looking addresses up in the Yellow Pages, they could doggedly track down their stories like Mr. Talese,” she says.