The forbidden. The hidden. The unspoken and unspeakable. Life behind the façade, beneath the fancy dress, calls out to Gay Talese, the grandson of an immigrant Italian stonemason, the son of an immigrant Italian tailor. Hidden life lured him to break the Mafias code of silence in the 1960s, open the bedroom door in the 1980s and, across 60 years of such invasive, unsettling work, enlarge the boundaries of creative nonfiction—and our understanding of the world, as well—only to find himself too often persona non grata for his pains.
Talese, who celebrated his 75th birthday Feb. 7, remains unbowed and undeterred.
In 1953, the 21-year-old University of Alabama journalism grad began prowling New York City as a newly hired, non-writing copy boy for The New York Times. Even then, he was drawn to stories present yet ignored by reporters chasing after “the big story” His curiosity led him up the stairs to the attic of the Times Square building, where he found the man behind those 5-foot headlines that revolve glitteringly around Times Square. Only Talese thought to look behind the facade.
This first (un-bylined) Times story foreshadowed his first best seller. In 1967, after a successful Times career—first as a sports writer, then as a specialist in off-beat features—Talese wanted to write more about the men and women behind the Times headlines. However, publisher after publisher told him, “No one s interested in the lives of journalists.” When “The Kingdom and the Power” became a surprise hit in 1969, it spurred a torrent of imitations: Brendan Gill’s “Here at
The New Yorker” (1974), Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s “All the Presidents Men” about The Washington Post (1974), Ellen Frankfort’s aThe Voice: Life at The Village Voice” (1975), Robert Metzs ‘“The Today Show’: An Inside Look at 25 Tumultuous Years … and the Colorful and Controversial People Behind the Scenes” (1977) and more. The media’s inner workings now seemed of surpassing interest.
Talese was cautioned against his second best seller, as well. In the late 1960s, journalistic consensus was that the Mafias “code of silence” was like the Chinese wall, impenetrable and enduring. In seeking to penetrate this omerta, Talese was defying his editors’ wisdom as well as entering a world his own father wished to deny.
In 1965, during his last days as a Times reporter, Talese first saw Mafia son Bill Bonanno. He waited at the federal courthouse until all the other reporters departed in the face of Bonanno’s stony “No comment.” He then approached Bonanno s lawyer and said for Bill to hear, “Some day—not now, not tomorrow—but some day, I would like to know from this young man what it is like to be this young man. Some day” ‘
It took time, but Talese s persistent interest prevailed. Bonanno agreed to meet him for dinner at Johnny Johnson s Steak House on Second Avenue. The next week, he brought his wife, Rosalie Profaci (daughter of another Mafia chieftain), to a dinner with Talese and his wife, Nan. Today, everyone knows Tony Soprano and his fictional TV family, but in 1971, Talese told the story of real Mafia family life in “Honor Thy Father.”
Even more hush-hush and veiled was the subject of Talese’s next book, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” his 1981 study of sex (pre-AIDS) and censorship in America, from the Puritans to Playboy. His greatest financial success (film rights alone sold for a then record $2.5 million), the book drew the critical equivalent of a hickory-stick thrashing. Some reviewers were outraged at his opening the doors of sexual privacy; others, at his widely reported participatory research methods, which included briefly running a massage parlor, visiting nudist colonies and taking part in free-love forays at California’s Sandstone commune. When he entered the world of the Mafia and broke its silence, he garnered praise, but when he dared to report from the bedroom, that was too close to home.
Language itself became the barrier in Talese’s next best seller, “Unto the Sons,” a work often called the Italian “Roots.” Between 1982 to 1987, Talese made three extended visits to a remote mountain village in southern Italy. There, in Maida, his ancestors had settled, and there, many Taleses remain to this day.
He hired an Italian interpreter through which to interview his relatives and other villagers, for he sought to tell the story of Italian immigration to America through the saga of his own family’s trials. He traced his family name back to the 14th century and the village itself to the ancient Greeks.
Each of Taleses works chronicles the American Dream. Whether profiling bridge builders, Times men and women, Mafiosi, sexual adventurers or immigrants of all kinds, Talese expands the individual quest to the larger question of how to honor the national spirit, the American Dream of our forefathers, in a changing (and challenging) age. The individual dramas of Talese’s subjects become the national psychodramas of us all.
And so in “A Writer’s Life,”his most recent work, Talese’s own failed writing projects across the past 14 years become a metaphor for America’s—and particularly white male America’s—decline. “A Writer’s Life” is a multicultural primer. It shows white male America’s encounter with African-Americans, women, Hispanics, Asians—indeed, with emerging voices of every pitch—across the past 50 years. Talese links his memoir with George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London.” His point: Not only is he himself down and out, but so, too, is America particularly white male America).
The section on Selma, Ala., in 1964 and today could stand alone as a separate volume. Here Talese revives the many voices of the Civil Rights Movement; in fact, this section showcases the rich texture of any cultural debate. Turning as usual from famous faces such as that of Martin Luther King,Jr., Talese follows Selma’s African-American lawyer J. L. Chestnut as he makes his formal, legal moves; John Lewis, the energetic, young street leader; Dr. Norward Roussell, Selma’s struggling African-American superintendent of schools; Rose Sanders, the outspoken black female lawyer; and the cunning and resilient white Selma mayor,Joe Smitherman. Talese brings the sober news that racial gains have been fewer than we wish; however, he ends with a recent SeIma interracial marriage as a hopeful sign of the union desired.
The saga of John and Lorena Bobbitt becomes Talese’s emblematic tale of white male encounter with women at the end of the 20th century. Surely it is suggestive that handsome, muscled John Wayne Bobbitt, he of the snipped penis, in his own lawyer’s words, “lacks the verbal or mental skills to become either an articulate champion or a martyr.” Talese sees this tale as an Ecuadorian immigrants (Lorena Bobbitt’s) search for the American Dream.*
In “A Writers Life,” Talese offers the astute observation that restaurants are todays intersection point of races and classes where American dreamers of every sort meet—and sometimes even touch. The immigrants jockey for position in the kitchen and service hierarchies while the rich expand in the glow of candles and polished silver, receiving at night the favored services they command at their offices by day.
“A Writer’s Life” starts with Talese and Yankees baseball, and ends in China with a woman and a soccer ball. Could the point be clearer? The torch of white American male dominance is passed in “A Writer’s Life” by one forever ahead of the curve.
But reviewers, though respectful, did not want to hear this particular story of American decline, that of white male America. Easier to miss the point or to shoot the messenger.
But the luminous writing endures.
* This section of “A Writers Life” appeared in volume 28 of Creative Nonfiction.