On Talking, and Not Talking
By Karl Whitney
Gay Talese, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold: And Other Essays, Penguin, 2011.
In this collection’s closing essay, ‘Origins of a Nonfiction Writer’, Gay Talese writes that his ‘approach to research and storytelling evolved out of my family’s store’. Talese’s parents owned a women’s dress boutique in Ocean City, New Jersey, where customers would confide in his mother. ‘I learned to listen with patience and care, and never to interrupt even when people were having great difficulty in explaining themselves’, as such moments would tell you more about a person than what they actually said.
Talese’s journalistic portraits mostly reflect this non-interventionist philosophy, which, at its best, allows the mask of his subject to slip, tellingly. Talese’s recent New Yorker profile of the opera singer Marina Poplavskaya revealed her as a controlling presence, prone to childish whims and self-aggrandising public behaviour. (The essay is not contained in this collection, which by and large concentrates on Talese’s earlier work.) Talese seemed to win Poplavskaya’s confidence through adopting the persona of a batty, near-infatuated elderly journalist (he’s now aged 79), following her around the world on her peripatetic singing engagements. His persistence paid off. Clearly there’s more to what Talese calls ‘the fine art of hanging out’ than just being receptive to what happens around you; he recognises that the journalist, through observing events, often changes them.
This collection illustrates how keenly balanced Talese’s approach is: you hang out, you listen, but you also need to know when to strike with a question that prompts the subject to reveal themselves. (Often the question is hidden from the reader; you sometimes get the feeling that Talese has prompted a response from the subject simply by asking: ‘what were you thinking?’; he says as much elsewhere.) In ‘The Loser’ (1964), Talese portrayed the boxer Floyd Patterson in self-imposed exile, training in a building behind a deserted country clubhouse in upstate New York. Patterson was down on his luck – hence the title of the piece – having lost his World Championship title to Sonny Liston in 1962. The product of numerous interviews and years of spending time with the boxer, Talese’s article revealed the crushing psychological impact of such an unforgiving sport.
When Patterson gets word that his daughter is being bullied by boys in her school in Scarsdale, he flies to New York to confront them. The scene is distinctly odd, as if the boxer is convinced this is a way to prove he can still fight and win – to himself as much as to Talese. When he arrives outside the school, he calls to the boys he suspects of the crime – lifting up his daughter’s dress. They gather: a group of about five aged between twelve and fourteen. They deny all knowledge. One boy says he was just touching her dress. A crowd gathers. The boys are not intimidated. Patterson loses his nerve, and tells the boy not to do it again – that he won’t tell the boy’s mother because ‘that might get you in trouble’. Patterson is back in his training camp by the afternoon, nursing another psychological wound, asking ‘What could I do with those schoolboys? […] What can you do with kids of that age?’
Talese’s most famous portrait was of someone who refused to talk to him: the justly lauded ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’ (1966). Here, his art of hanging out turned gumshoe: talking to people who knew Frank Sinatra – confidantes and enemies – and witnessing incidents involving the singer, albeit from a distance. With his Sinatra profile, it’s as if Talese has decided to investigate a murder: he gathers accounts, attempts to weigh up the evidence. His forensic research methods allow him to elaborate a complex profile of a damaged man – it’s not enough for Sinatra to win, he must also see that others fail. Talese observes how Sinatra’s daughter Nancy has her life micromanaged by her father. He records a scene in a poolroom where Sinatra confronts author Harlan Ellison because he’s taken an instant dislike to Ellison’s look. ‘I don’t like the way you’re dressed’, the singer says to the writer, who’s wearing, according to Talese, ‘squared eyeglasses […] a pair of brown corduroy slacks, a green shaggy-dog Shetland sweater, a tan suede jacket, and Game Warden boots’. Sinatra goes on to deride a film Ellison wrote as ‘a piece of crap’. Talese speculates that Sinatra may have picked a fight ‘out of sheer boredom or inner despair’.
Talese’s method, so excellently utilised in these pieces and in the Joseph Mitchell-style profile of the obituary writer for the New York Times, Alden Whitman, comes unstuck when confronted with that wiliest of foes, Peter O’Toole. Accompanying the actor to Ireland, Talese is led a merry dance around the pubs of Dublin, Punchestown racecourse and Glendalough, in the Wicklow mountains. The irrepressible O’Toole keeps up a constant barrage of drunken chatter, which Talese renders with frequent ellipses. Inevitably, much of what he says is bollocks, but it’s nonetheless an enjoyable read. The piece ends with O’Toole walking up a hill, doing his best to musically enunciate complete nonsense: ‘Just look at those trees, those young trees – they’re running, for Chrissake, they’re not planted there – and they’re so luscious, like pubic hair, and that lake, no fish in that lake! And no birds sing; it’s so quiet, no birds singing in Glendalough on account of there being no fish …for them to sing to.’ Most people will recognise this as alcohol-fuelled blarney passed off as profundity, and Talese did too – naming his article ‘Peter O’Toole on the Ould Sod’. Nevertheless, it proves impossible to pin O’Toole down on an emotional level, aside from some anecdotes about the cruelty of nuns, so the piece remains an amusing trifle. It also shows that even a willing participant can be more evasive than a subject you’re forced to profile from a distance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karl Whitney is a writer and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 11th, 2011.