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

The lead in his recent New Yorker story was classic Talese: full of movement, action; less written than illustrated.

A Russian opera singer, we’re told, “lay motionless for nearly three hours on the floor of her mother’s apartment in Moscow, having collapsed from inhaling noxious smoke from the forest fires that were burning out of control in the countryside; she was feverish and had no clothes on…”

Now consider the first paragraph of Talese’s first book, a collection of his New York Times metro reporting called “New York: A Serendipeter’s Journey,” published 50 years ago, in 1961, when Talese was 29:

New York is a city of things unnoticed. It is a city with cats sleeping under parked cars, two stone armadillos crawling up St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and thousands of ants creeping on top of the Empire State Building. The ants probably were carried up there by wind or birds, but nobody is quite sure; nobody in New York knows any more about the ants than they do about the panhandler who takes taxis to the Bowery…or the medium in the West Seventies who claims, “I am clairvoyant, clairaudient, and clairsensuous.”

One week after his comeback story in the New Yorker – a profile of Marina Poplavskaya, the 33 year-old opera singer and inveterate globetrotter – Talese, now 78, spoke to LongForum about the good old days at Esquire,  the journalistic blasphemy of the tape recorder, his dream assignment, and the death of Elaine Kaufman.

For last week’s New Yorker story you zig-zagged the earth with Marina Poplavskaya: Moscow, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, New York. What about Marina had you so enrapt?

We met by chance in 2007. She wasn’t famous. But I thought she was sexy, interesting, independent, and a little eccentric. I loved the fact that she’s got these older socialite husbands who she doesn’t even stay with. She’s a person out of her own opera. She’s living an opera. The drama! The testiness! The frivolity! It’s just fascinating! I thought I could make the story readable. So I took her to Elaine’s for dinner. I didn’t pitch the idea right away. I wanted to know her a little better.

Getting Mr. Remnick to publish it was my good fortune. This story was done in the old tradition of great magazine writing that used to be common in the 50’s and 60’s but is not anymore. It went out of style as non-fiction writers began relying on the tape recorder.

What about the tape recorder is so pernicious?

The popularity of the tape recorder greatly changed the magazine profession, to the point where it’s not really even a profession, and it’s certainly not an art. With the tape recorder, no one relies on their ear. No one sees. In the old days we did real research – myself, Tom Wolfe, Hamill, Breslin, the late David Halberstam.

I don’t want to do a story in 2 or 3 days. I don’t want to interview them. I want to hang out with these people and travel. I want to follow them. That’s where the action is – in the movement! Just like an opera singer: she’s in London, she’s in Moscow, she’s in Buenos Aires. Maybe next week she’s in Beijing. I want to bounce around with them, see what they’re like on the road.

So money is the problem.

The way I work requires a lot of time and money. You get on airplanes, stay in hotels, take people out to dinner. But we can’t get expense accounts anymore. We can’t get enough money to do stories properly, to follow our subjects, spend time with them, observe. It’s no longer economically possible. Because publishers and lawyers at magazines want to save money by having reporters use tape recorders.

It wasn’t always like this. I remember when Willie Morris, the old editor at Harper’s, paid big money to Mailer, Styron, Halberstam. Harper’s excerpted my book on the New York Times in two parts. They gave me $5,000 for each excerpt. That was in 1969! At Esquire I got $12,500 a piece. You don’t even get that today. 40 years later!

But of course interviewing famous people with a tape recorder is very economical. These days, a journalist spends two hours with Sean Penn, transcribes the tape, and sticks it on the cover.

One prominent magazine writer who does a lot of celebrity profiles recently told LongForum that most subjects aren’t apt to spend more than a few hours with a journalist.

No, of course not. They just want to get their face on the cover and tie it into some forthcoming movie. The last thing they want is a serious writer hanging around for too long, particularly one who might tell a little truth.

How do you report your stories?

I want to take a month with Frank Sinatra, a month with Joe Dimaggio, a month with Peter O’Toole. When I wrote about Sinatra I followed him from New York to Las Vegas to Los Angeles. I watched him gamble. I watched him in the recording studio. I watched him in a saloon on 46th street over on the west side. I watched him bark orders and yell at people. When I wrote about O’Toole I went with him to Ireland to see where he was born. We went to London, to the bar and the racetrack. That’s the movement! That’s the action! I want to run and move! I want to be outdoors! I don’t want to carry this little goddamn gadget in my pocket. I don’t even want a cell phone! I want to do leg work. That’s what we used to call it in the city room – leg work.

And what about the writing process. What’s that like for you?

I sit down and organize my material. It’s very careful work. You have to carry the reader from paragraph to paragraph. It’s the same kind of aspiration that a fiction writer brings to a short story or a playwright to a play. I don’t’ use a lot of direct quotes. The New Yorker likes direct quotes more than I do. But the problem is that when they speak they’re not speaking in correct sentences anyway. So you have to rewrite them.

If you wrote “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” today, do you think you could get it published?

Absolutely not. That piece is supposedly a classic of non-fiction writing. It’s been published around the world. But today you couldn’t get that piece in anywhere. No one would take it.

“Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, a Ferrari without fuel…”  I love that piece.

Thank you. I appreciate that. But what I say is true with a lot of my writing. Take my first assignment at Esquire. I wrote about an obituary writer. Today you could never do that. Never! Because the editor would say: ‘No one cares!’

Have readers’ tastes changed so much?

I think so. Look at what happened just last week when Deborah Solomon interviewed Steve Martin at the 92nd Street Y. They were having an interesting conversation about art, the subject of Steve’s new novel. But all anyone in the audience wanted to hear about was Hollywood and celebrities. All they could do was complain because there wasn’t enough talk about Hollywood. I couldn’t believe it! You’re telling me that this is the center of Jewish intellectual curiosity? A place for Jewish learning? And this is what they want!

How hard is it, these days, to place a magazine article about an opera singer?

There’s hardly anyone interested because she’s not a movie star. Even Pavarotti wouldn’t be a cover story. Even Placido Domingo wouldn’t be a cover story. I couldn’t get Vanity Fair to do Pavarotti even if he were alive. Or maybe I could. Maybe they’d do a little backstory on page 145. But not even the New York Times would have done it, at least not at that length; they’d chop it in half.

Everyone would have passed on Marina Poplavskaya, except for the New Yorker. The New Yorker is the only serious magazine that doesn’t have movie stars on the cover each week. If Mr. Remnick hadn’t wanted to do the piece then I’d be out of business.

It’s sad to say. I wish there were more magazines that offered opportunities to young writers. But these days, if you’re not writing for the New Yorker, where do you go? Unless you’re a celebrity writer, but then you’re just a human tape recorder. I don’t use a tape recorder, so that makes me an archaic character. But I’ll work for Mr. Remnick anytime.

Suppose you could choose any assignment. What would you write about?

I take subjects that aren’t famous, or who used to be famous, or aren’t famous yet. I take people who are over the hill. I never write about celebrities when they’re on top. Like, say…give me an example of a movie star.

Tom Cruise? Brad Pitt?

No, no. That’s not a movie star. The person has to be 24.

Ryan Gosling’s about 30.

I would never touch Ryan Gosling. Let Vanity Fair do it. I would want to do an old movie star. I’d like to do Gregory Peck.

I think he died in 2003.

I don’t want to do him then. Maybe someone like Lauren Bacall. No. I tell you who’d I want to do. Two years ago I wrote the editor at Esquire about doing Peter O’Toole, because I wrote about O’Toole for Esquire in 1962. I thought it’d be a great opportunity to write about a guy I wrote about 40 years ago. We could catch up on his life, on making movies, on where his wives are. Peter O’Toole: once a big star, no longer a great star. You see it’s a good story because he has a history. And you’d think – you’d think! – that with whatever reputation I have today, and with whatever reputation O’Toole has from being a big movie star, and then add to that the fact that Esquire used to be my magazine, you’d think the editor at Esquire would give me a chance. Or maybe at least he’d say something like, ‘Well Gay, I don’t know if it’s a cover but maybe we’ll put it in back.’ Or maybe he’d say, ‘Well Gay, I don’t how much I can pay you.’ And then I’d say ‘Okay, fine. I don’t make a living off this stuff anymore anyway.’ But no! He didn’t even give me a chance. That’s amazing. I used to be a big star at Esquire. Now I can’t get the time of day.

Earlier you mentioned Elaine’s, where I’m sure you can still get the time of day. I always liked her chicken paillard. The chicken paillard, a dozen oysters, a bottle of Gruner Veltliner. That’s happiness.

Yes. I don’t know how I’ll go on without her.

What did last week’s passing of Elaine Kaufman mean for the restaurant’s future?

I know the waiters and the managers. I hope they have a future. Right now there’s something like a wake going on there, so the place is still drawing a crowd. But after the initial recognition of her passing is over… Well, let’s just wait 6 months from now and see how many people are still going to Elaine’s. There has to be drawing power. If a new owner has personality, maybe it could still work.

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