“High Notes: Selected Writings”
Author: Gay Talese, with an Introduction by Lee Gutkind
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Price: $20.00 (Trade paperback)
Lee Gutkind, the founder and editor of the magazine “Creative Nonfiction,” is arguably the guru of this subgenre.
In his Introduction he very ably discusses the work of Gay Talese and his strengths. Talese, the father of the New Journalism, along with Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Norman Mailer, John McPhee, Lillian Ross and Truman Capote, was one of the first to put himself, in the first person, into the story, which Gutkind believes gives a “you are here” element for the reader.
There are varieties of this New Journalism.
Unlike George Plimpton, for example, Talese is not participatory; he doesn’t take the field as quarterback for the Detroit Lions. Talese, rather, perfected the art of “hanging out.” He would accompany the subject, being mainly quiet, unobtrusive, for as long as it took to get what he needed.
With the Bill Bonanno family, it took months, and the result was the splendid “Honor Thy Father”; the excerpt in this volume is “The Kidnapping of Joe Bonanno.” What Talese learned about how Mafia families live could not have been gotten any other way. The magic is in the details: long periods of boredom between brief episodes of violence, rolls of quarters in the glove compartment to use in pay phones since home phones were surely tapped, cars serviced, batteries replaced with neurotic regularity, because they couldn’t afford a car that broke down at the wrong time.
Talese’s most famous piece, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” is here. Talese went to LA to interview Frank Sinatra, and Sinatra, with a sore throat, feeling hostile, NEVER spoke to him. Undaunted, Talese stuck with it anyway, “listening and lingering,” observing Sinatra in action, under stress, in California and in New Jersey, and interviewing finally 100 people AROUND Sinatra, many of them more than once. The result is a psychological profile that has become a classic, and will not likely be repeated, since “Esquire” put up $5,000 in expenses, in 1966 dollars, over a period of three weeks.
Now, stingy magazines send a reporter for one day with a tape recorder.
The pieces in this collection were apparently chosen by neither Talese nor Gutkind, but by the publisher. The two mentioned, on Sinatra and Bonanno, are 35 and 50 pages long.
There are two other long pieces, Talese’s trademark, the first of which is a 56-page chunk of his history of “The New York Times,” “The Kingdom and the Power” which, although a little insider baseball, is as good a look at how newspapers work as one will find anywhere, with all the personalities and their conflicts sharply, cleanly drawn. The second, a stand-alone essay, “A Matter of Fantasy,” delves into pre-pornography “art photography,” but Talese’s explorations into American sexuality in the 60’s are better represented by the book “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.”
I would have preferred more of his brilliant short pieces although several signature celebrity profiles are here:
In “Travels with a Diva” Talese recounts the adventure of spending time with opera singer Marina Poplavskaya. Talese travelled with the soprano in New York City, Moscow, Madrid and Buenos Aires. She is booked constantly and everywhere. Poplavskaya is indeed a diva: eccentric, egotistical, and utterly devoted to her voice, to music and the opera.
And “when she gets cold in bed at night, she places [her] dog over her throat for comfort.”
“Four Hundred Dresses” is an homage to Elaine Kaufman, restaurateur, owner and empress of Elaine’s in New York, where Talese and many other N.Y. writers have logged a million hours. Kaufman had recently died so Talese interviewed Linda Clare Meisner, her dressmaker.
Kaufman, a large woman, loved dresses and, even more, fine fabrics. She would shop at Mendel Goldberg fabrics, buying embroidered brocades and fine silks, imported and very expensive.
Elaine favored “triangle” dresses and “coat dress style.” Sometimes five yards of material went into one dress and at her death she left behind, in her extensive closets, four hundred dresses made by Meisner at a cost of $800,000.
Talese often profiled unknown subjects as well: “The Homeless Woman with Two Homes” is about just what the title implies. Restless, she cannot stand to live with her middle-class family.
Also included is a short, touching memoir of his boyhood in New Jersey, “Wartime Sunday,” and a piece which demonstrates his often oblique take on a subject, “Charlie Manson’s Home on the Range,” not directly about Manson, but on the ranch outside of LA where he and his “family” hung out.
This volume closes on “High Notes,” Talese’s “New Yorker” story on Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga recording their duet “The Lady Is a Tramp.” In just a few pages Talese captures Bennett’s gravitas, kindness and wisdom as he sees through Lady Gaga’s flamboyant persona to the hugely talented, rather innocent young woman she is. When Lady Gaga is asked why the song lent itself so well to their duet performance she replied: “Well, ’cause I’m a tramp.…[Tony] knows it.” Bennett responded “I know that you’re a lady… playing a tramp.”
After fifty years, Gay Talese’s work continues to set the standard for nonfiction in America.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.”