This issue examines Gay Talese’s approach to composition. The dapper Talese, who turned 78 this year, is the author of “Honor Thy Father,” “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” and other classic works of creative nonfiction. Best-known for his dogged reporting—he wrote the 1966 story, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which appeared in Esquire and has been described as “one of the most celebrated magazine stories ever published,” without ever interviewing the title character—he is also a master of the small details that transform characters and scenes into stories that are larger than their subjects.
Michael Rosenwald, a staff writer for The Washington Post whose work has also appeared in The New Yorker and Esquire, is the editor of a new anthology, THE SILENT SEASON OF A HERO: THE SPORTS WRITING OF GAY TALESE, which will be published this month by Walker & Co. He had access to Talese’s extensive files—which contain every note Talese has ever taken related to a published story—and the pages excerpted below also appear in the anthology. Here, Rosenwald illuminates the process whereby the reporter’s hastily scribbled notes accumulate shape and form on the way to becoming an actual story.—CNF
GAY TALESE CALLS HIS reporting style “the art of hanging out.” Talese himself typically hangs out in a handmade Italian suit, collecting precise details that make up the extraordinarily textured scenes that have made him the preeminent literary journalist of our time. He does not collect these details in a reporter’s notebook; he takes notes in a rather unconventional way, on small pieces of shirt board recycled from his dry-cleaned shirts. At night, he goes back to his hotel room, lays out the shirt boards on the desk and types up the notes on a typewriter. He does not sleep until every note has been filtered through the typewriter keys.The scribblings on the shirt boards morph into mini-scenes in these nightly note-typing sessions, and it is with those typed notes, those developing narratives, that Talese works out the direction of his stories.
Talese has always been attracted to losers, and sports writing has given him plenty of opportunities to explore the psyches of those who come out on the bottom. “The Silent Season of a Hero,” which I edited with great pleasure, includes stories from Talese’s early days as a reporter, first at the weekly Ocean City, N.J., paper, where he began covering sports in high school; his pieces from the University of Alabama student newspaper, including his “Sports Gay-zing” columns; his greatest sports pieces from The New York Times in the 1950s and ’60s; and, of course, the memorable Esquire profiles of Floyd Patterson, Joe DiMaggio and Muhammad Ali.
In 1979, Talese returned briefly to The NewYorkTimes so he could chronicle, in two stories, the final weekend of a disastrous losing season enacted by his beloved Yankees. Talese was with the team day and night, on the plane, in the bars, and he delivered to Times readers the kind of scenes that are rare in sports writing today. His first story began like this:
“Going nowhere in the American League, but going first class, the Yankees last week boarded a chartered jet at La Guardia Airport and flew into the chilly Midwest to play with diminished passion a summer game as autumn approached.”
Talese has saved every shirt board and every typed note from every story he has ever published—he has a large manila folder for each story, which contains even expense receipts and telegrams from his wife—and he generously agreed to publish a section of his typed notes about that 1979 trip with theYankees in the new anthology. An excerpt from the notes follows below. There is beauty in them.—MR