A tailor's son who grew up on the then-remote island of Ocean City, New Jersey, Gay Talese was a benchwarmer in high school--"a shortstop," he writes, "with 'good hands' but an erratic throwing arm" whom coaches listed on the starting lineup "hesitantly and irregularly." He entered the field of journalism hoping to win more playing time from his busy coach by reporting their high school games to the local newspaper.
The plan backfired--Talese stayed on the bench--but that little bit of sports writing opened the door on a new career and, by the time Talese was 30, he had worked in several sections of the New York Times, been hired as a staff writer for Esquire magazine, and become the father of New Journalism. At 37, he would publish his first best-seller, The Kingdom and the Power (about the institution of the New York Times), which he followed up with the books Honor Thy Father (the story of New York's Bonanno crime family), Thy Neighbor's Wife (a roving journey into American sexual mores), and Unto the Sons (the story of his family's emigration from Italy). Looking back, one could say that he was lucky his throwing arm wasn't stronger.
Only the best of Talese's journalism is on view in Walker & Company's new anthology The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits & Encounters, which could have also been titled Gay Talese: The Greatest Hits. In addition to the personal essays "Origins of a Nonfiction Writer" and "When I Was Twenty-Five," the book includes such deservedly famous profiles as "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" and "Joe Louis: The King as a Middle-Aged Man." The former is a succinct and intimate portrait of the Italian-American crooner, one that captures Sinatra's talents as an artist and his loyalty to his friends as well as his petty flashes of temper and his autocratic demands. (The piece also drives home Talese's own resourcefulness: He took it on even after Sinatra had canceled their interview because of a sore throat.)
Tom Wolfe has said that the opening of the Joe Louis profile taught him how to write. "Hi, sweetheart!" it begins, as the former boxing champion greets his third wife. Three lines later the couple is squabbling over Louis's latest New York binge. It's this ability to find the regular man in the champion that gives Talese's work such staying power. "Frank Sinatra" was written in 1961 and "Joe Louis" in '62, but these pieces fit easily alongside the 1996 article "Ali in Havana."
In his personal essays, Talese explains that his interest has always been in "the common concerns of ordinary people" who usually don't appear in the news unless they are connected to murders and accidents. "Historians and biographers," he writes, "tend to concentrate on people who reveal themselves in some blatant or obvious way, or who stand out from the crowd as leaders or achievers, or are otherwise famous or infamous." His goal has been to remedy that inequity by writing nonfiction scenes that have the intensity and intimacy of good fiction. And his preference has always been for men and women who are down and out. His stars have colds. His boxers are soft around the middle.
In fact, the essay that might be the highlight of the collection, "New York Is a City of Things Unnoticed," contains no famous names at all. Rather, it is a fugue-like description of all the ordinary people and overlooked objects that populate a big city: stray cats, panhandlers, doormen, plastic mannequins, sleepy trumpet players, telephone operators, watchdogs, birds. In her introduction, Barbara Lounsberry states that Talese's empathy for "losers" is rooted "in his own sense of failure as a grade-school and high-school student." Perhaps. But what has made us care about Talese's subjects is nothing more than his prose: various in its tones and melodies, striking in its phrasings and structures, pitch-perfect in every line.