Talese Writes His Way Into “College Material”

The Comeback of Gay Talese: ‘I used to be a big star at Esquire. Now I can’t get the time of day.’The Gay Talese Reader
Gay Talese

I tried to imagine Gay Talese physically positioned within each of his stories. Okay, he’s a journalist—so he is, in effect, interviewing subjects with the express intention of writing about them. I considered the physical closeness—he had to be in their space; their semi-private space in order to capture a candid moment. Then once again I imagined his physical presence; then my own—my own, either as a journalist or a subject. Then the obvious hit me. It could only be an unassuming white guy in a suit that could have done what he did, at that time: circa 1960. Not anyone else, of any other color and not a woman. Suddenly the mystique about this guy with a book of compiled stories about celebrities and people of interest was not so mystical after all…The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters.  Granted, Gay Talese wrote well, by crafting what formerly was an interview into a story, but this could only happen with the kind of privileged access he enjoyed.

The same types of stories we read describing “a day in the life” of a black celebrity were usually formulated through second hand telling of an event. That is to say, (during those times,) the more intimate encounters within the semi-private circles of blacks were seldom frequented by whites. Conversely, blacks would have absolutely no access within the private circles of whites (some of who were subjects of a Talese story). A few cited passages below from the Gay Talese Reader evidence this.

The Loser: “And this is how they would probably remember him years from now: a dark, solitary, glistening figure punching in the corner of a forlorn spot at the bottom of a mountain where people once came to have fun-until the clubhouse became unfashionable, the paint began to peel, and the Negroes were allowed in.”

Vogueland: “Vogue—a magazine that has long been the supreme symbol of sophistication for every American female…  The noses of Vogue heroines are usually long and thin, as are the noses of many Vogue editors…”

Notably, Beverly Johnson, the first black model on a Vogue cover didn’t even happen until 1974.

Looking for Hemingway: James Baldwin is quoted as saying, “It didn’t take long before I was really no longer a part of them.”
(Talese alludes to the veiled access of women too. Patsy Matthiessen: “The whole life seemed after a while to be utterly meaningless…And I was a Stepin Fetchit in that crowd…”

Joe Louis: The King as a Middle Aged Man: I’m immediately struck by what’s missing in this story. It’s not so much what’s said, as it is what’s not said. Joe Lewis was carefully handled throughout his career to bolster his marketability to whites. Lessons were taken from the much earlier PR problems of Jack Johnson. We see remnants of this in Talese’s telling of the story. Talese mentions the glamour of the previous wives, the now modest finances, and time spent on the golf course after retirement. However he fails to mention both the exploitative and glorious history preceding Louis’ middle age. Joe Lewis saw little of his fortune. This was more attributable to greedy managers like Roxborough, than to financial recklessness. Louis enjoyed the golf course, but in order to be there, had carved a path for blacks in the PGA. I can only guess that Talese was showing the love for Joe Louis’ and the inroads he carved will forever be loved, by ending the story: “Rose Morgan said nothing—just swallowed the rest of her drink.” Showing here that Roses’ love or reverence, remembrance or regrets didn’t need words.

Ali in Havana: Howard Bingham and Muhamad Ali are simpatico. “Like Ali, he admires what he has seen so far in Cuba—‘There’s no racism here’—and as a black man he has long identified with many of Ali’s frustrations and confrontations.”

Gay Talese, and his personal background as he described it in “Origins of a Nonfiction Writer”, reminds me that there was something more to this suited, white guy who modestly presented himself and yet was rewarded with unprecedented access. It was Talese, the individual that gathered these stories. Without his unassuming way and respectful approach, I don’t think he would have gotten the entrée into the homes of some of his most interesting subjects. He says it best…

“…the ‘Art of Hanging Out,’ I’ve sometimes called it—and it is an indispensable part of what motivates my work, together with that other element that I have maybe mentioned too much already, that gift from my mother: curiosity.”

Another noteworthy trait was that Talese’s curiosity gravitated to the untold story; the subject standing outside the limelight. This is probably attributable again to his own sense of being outside the limelight too. He mentions in “Origins of a Nonfiction Writer” that he was too reticent to ask girls out in school and was socially awkward and acne faced. The thought of placing himself in social scenarios with the purposefulness of a journalist somehow seemed to be a natural approach toward inclusiveness.

In my opinion he had to skirt that fine line between being included and not, in order to enjoy the success he experienced throughout his writing career. His talent was reading between the lines of his subjects; also reading between the lines of the bigger picture in order to find a truer story. But what I like most about his story is that Talese was the quintessential rebut to his principal’s early branding of him as “not college material…” Kinda makes you rethink “college material,” and makes Talese’s father a Rhodes Scholar.

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