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One of America's most acclaimed writers and journalists, Gay Talese has been fascinated by athletes throughout his life. At age fifteen he became a sports reporter for the weekly Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger; four years later, as sports editor of the University of Alabama's Crimson-White, he began to employ techniques, such as establishing a "scene" with minute details, that would later make him famous.
As a sports reporter for the New York Times, Talese was drawn to individuals ...
One of America's most acclaimed writers and journalists, Gay Talese has been fascinated by athletes throughout his life. At age fifteen he became a sports reporter for the weekly Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger; four years later, as sports editor of the University of Alabama's Crimson-White, he began to employ techniques, such as establishing a "scene" with minute details, that would later make him famous.
As a sports reporter for the New York Times, Talese was drawn to individuals at poignant and vulnerable moments rather than to the spectacle of sports. Boxing held special appeal, and his Esquire pieces on Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson in decline won praise, as would his 1996 essay "Ali in Havana," chronicling Muhammad Ali's visit with Fidel Castro. His profile of Joe DiMaggio, "The Silent Season of a Hero," perfectly captured the great ballplayer in his remote retirement and displayed Talese's journalistic brilliance. More recently, Talese traveled to China to track down and chronicle the female soccer player who missed a penalty kick that would have won China the 1999 World Cup.
Gathering Talese's writing over more than six decades, from high school and college columns to his signature adult journalism-and including several never-before-published pieces, a new introduction by the author, and notes on the background of his writing-The Silent Season of a Hero is a unique and indispensable collection for sports fans and those who enjoy the heights of journalism.
The jockey came to the doorway of the dining room, then after a moment stepped to one side and stood motionless, with his back to the wall. The room was crowded, as this was the third day of the season and all the hotels in the town were full ... He examined the room until at last his eyes reached a table in a corner diagonally across from him, at which three men were sitting ... a trainer, a bookie, and a rich man. The trainer was Sylvester—a large, loosely built fellow with a flushed nose and slow blue eyes. It was Sylvester who first saw the jockey ... Sylvester turned to the rich man. "If he eats a lamb chop, you can see the shape of it in his stomach a hour afterward. He can't sweat things out of him any more ..." —Extracted from "The Jockey," a short story first published in the New Yorker on August 23, 1941 and written by Carson McCullers when she was twenty-four years old.
When I was twenty-four years old in 1956, and was working as a feature writer in the sports department of the New York Times, I read "The Jockey" for the first time in a paperback anthology, and as I read and reread that memorable sentence—"If he eats a lamb chop, you can see the shape of it in his stomach afterward"—I kept wondering how Carson McCullers had come to write it. Had she once met an aging and food-craving jockey whose taut and tiny stomach was imprinted with the shape of a lamb chop? Did she just dream up the image? Did some horse trainer or jockey describe it to her? From reading articles about her in the press—she was quite famous as a young woman, having published at twenty-three a best-selling first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter—I knew that when she was twenty-four she was living near a race track in upstate New York while enrolled as a writer-in-residence at the Yaddo artists' retreat; and I assumed that during this time she had mingled with the racing crowd and had gathered the material out of which would come "The Jockey"—although nothing that I had read about her confirmed this. All I knew was that Carson McCullers suffered a stroke before her story appeared in the New Yorker, and that within a few years she experienced two more strokes that partly paralyzed her and caused her to write thereafter, until a final stroke finished her at fifty, with one finger on a typewriter—leaving behind a body of work that included five novels, two plays, twenty stories, and that single line about the lamb chop that to me represented a peculiarly interesting and original way of creating in a few words a lasting impression.
As a young writer I never aspired to follow Ms. McCullers into fiction, even though she and most of the other writers that appealed to me used their imaginations to tell their stories. They fabricated reality. They made up names and provided their characters with words, scenes, and situations. They fantasized, mythologized, and created mysteries and sometimes magic with their prose. When I was in college studying journalism I spent my leisure time reading novels and short stories while wondering how I might best borrow the tools of a fiction writer—scene-setting, dialogue, drama, conflict—and apply these to the nonfiction pieces I hoped to contribute someday to a major newspaper or magazine. There were so many fine fiction writers, it seemed to me, and not enough nonfiction writers who had mastered the art of storytelling, and so it was my goal to become one of these.
But I wanted to write short stories using real names, to describe situations that had truly occurred and were factually verifiable. I wanted to be there in person, to observe situations with my own eyes, and to describe what I saw in a literary manner worthy of those writers I admired and whose special sentences and word choices I often underlined on the page, sometimes adding in the margin a complimentary comment or perhaps a question of my own about the usage.
After first reading "The Jockey," I underlined Carson McCullers's description of the horse trainer Sylvester—"a large, loosely built fellow with a flushed nose and slow blue eyes." Slow blue eyes? I wondered: What does she mean by slow? Maybe a typo for "sloe-eyed," I thought. But no, I decided after consulting a dictionary, she must be referring to the fifth definition listed there: "slow—sluggish, inactive ..." Yes. Later she described how the jockey entered the race track's restaurant and "scrutinized the room with pinched, crepe eyes ..." To the dictionary again: "crepe—a light, soft thin fabric of silk, or another fiber, with a crinkled surface." Ah, pinched, crêpe eyes—yes. And that lamb chop: At first I doubted the possibility of anyone being able to see its shape on the jockey's stomach, and so one day in 1958 when I was given an assignment by the sports editor to interview an ex-jockey named Harry Roble—who had once been the top jockey in the United States—I decided to question him about the lamb chop. I began by describing Ms. McCullers's story to him (he had never heard of it); but after I read him the line I loved, he nodded and said, "Yes, that's possible," adding, "I never liked lamb chops, but I'd sometimes sneak in a steak afterwards I could feel the damn steak pressed against my skin. In those days, when I was weighing 98 pounds and struggling to keep it at that, I'd even put on two pounds with each bowl of soup."
In my profile on the ex-jockey, which appeared in the Times's sports page on July 20th of 1958, I wrote this lead (privately dedicating it to Carson McCullers):
Harry Roble was one of those jockeys who gained two pounds after every bowl of soup and, if he ate a steak, you could sometimes see its lumpy outline lodged in his stomach.
Among other fiction writers who influenced me during those days were Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara, and Irwin Shaw, the latter two being regular contributors to the New Yorker, which I began reading shortly after I was hired as a copyboy on the Times in the summer of 1953 following my graduation in June from the University of Alabama. At Alabama I'd been the sports editor of the campus newspaper, the Crimson-White, and I also wrote a column called "Sports Gayzing" that at times tried to emulate such well-known columnists as Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, and Dan Parker. At the same time I was drawn more to the authors of fictional stories in magazines, especially when their stories were set within the atmosphere of sporting events: Hemingway on bull fighting and fishing, O'Hara on the esoteric game of court tennis, Irwin Shaw on football, and F. Scott Fitzgerald on a status-conscious caddy who carried bags at a club in Minnesota, where Fitzgerald grew up.
Fitzgerald's story "Winter Dreams" was my all-time favorite. In the opening section it described the caddy skiing over the snow-covered hills of the country club feeling offended that "the links should lie in enforced fallowness," but then in April the members reappeared to play golf with red and black balls that were easier to see than white ones when hit into patches of snow along the fairways and the rough—and among the sharp-eyed caddies who most quickly spotted the balls was Fitzgerald's young hero Dexter Green.
As a schoolboy I also worked at times as a caddy, doing so at a club across the bay from my hometown in Ocean City, N.J.; and like Dexter Green, I always closely followed the direction of the ball after the golfer had hit it, and rarely did I fail to find it no matter where it had landed. Indeed, my capacity to retrieve golf balls would help me decades later while researching a piece for Esquire on Joe DiMaggio, which would be published in July of 1956, fifteen years after he had retired from baseball.
I had first been introduced to DiMaggio in 1965 at an "Old Timers" game at Yankee Stadium by a New York Times photographer we both knew; and during our friendly chat in the locker room DiMaggio indicated that he would be willing to see me whenever I happened to be in his hometown of San Francisco. Months later I notified him in a letter that I was coming, but on entering the restaurant he owned on Fisherman's Wharf I was rebuffed in a way that astonished me but that also provided me with my article's opening scene, one in which I was ejected from the premises by Joe DiMaggio himself. The fact that I was able to become reacquainted with DiMaggio a few days later was the result of a request that I had made through one of DiMaggio's friends and golfing partners that I be allowed to follow their foursome through one eighteen-hole round at a club in the outskirts of San Francisco. During the golfing session, DiMaggio, who hated to lose golf balls, lost three of them. I found them. After that DiMaggio's attitude toward me improved noticeably. I was invited to other matches and to join him in the evening at social events as well as to interview him in his home, and finally to accompany him on a flight to the Yankees' spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he served as a batting instructor.
Having been forewarned by one of DiMaggio's friends, I never questioned him directly about his private life with the late Marilyn Monroe, whose break-up of their marriage was said to have caused him much grief and frustration. But my approach to the piece was never intended to deal with the reality of the DiMaggio-Monroe relationship but rather with DiMaggio's sense of loneliness and longing for a woman he had idealized and had lost, and who, following her death, had left him with little else but to mourn her. As I mentioned in the piece, he ordered that fresh flowers be placed on her grave "forever."
What I wrote about DiMaggio was laden with nostalgia, which is true as well of Fitzgerald's story about Dexter Green—who, after his caddying days were over and he had fulfilled his ambition to become very rich, was playing golf one day with other affluent men when he saw, pitching a ball into a sand pit on the other side of the green, a young woman whom he had first seen a decade or so earlier when she had been taking lessons as an eleven-year-old and he was a caddy of fourteen. Her name was Judy Jones, and now in the story Dexter Green pauses to appreciate the reappearance of her in his life:
She wore a blue gingham dress, rimmed at the throat and shoulders with a white edging that accentuated her tan. The quality of exaggeration, of thinness, which had made her passionate eyes and down-turned mouth absurd at eleven, was gone now. She was arrestingly beautiful.
Of course Dexter Green fell in love with her, and while this would in time proceed to an exciting affair it was one that she impulsively terminated as her attentions were drawn to another man, and then another. Dexter Green soon moved from the Midwest to Wall Street and added to his fortune, but he was finally forced to conclude, as Fitzgerald had phrased it, that Judy Jones:
... was not a girl who could be "won" in the kinetic sense ... She was entertained only by the gratification of her desires and by the direct exercise of her own charm. Perhaps from so much youthful love, so many youthful lovers, she had come, in self-defense, to nourish herself wholly from within.
I thought that this could have been written about Marilyn Monroe; and, in fact, as Fitzgerald's biographers have pointed out, the fictional Judy Jones was based on a real woman whom Fitzgerald himself had once ardently courted—a lovely and elusive Midwestern socialite named Ginevra King. It is also true, I believe, that there was a bit of Dexter Green's spirit in Joe DiMaggio and me and in many of the men I have encountered and befriended since I first came to New York in 1953 as a copyboy. I then learned a month later, much to my despair and in spite of my best efforts to get her to change her mind, that the first love of my life—my Judy Jones in Alabama—had left me for someone else. Although a half-century has since passed and I have never seen her again, I have—like Dexter Green in "Winter Dreams"—regularly kept up with her through the comments and observations of mutual friends who occasionally visit me in New York. Whenever she is mentioned, I cease thinking about other things and listen. And after I had been promoted from copyboy to reporter and had published a piece about caddies in the June 12, 1960 issue of the New York Times Magazine, my lead began with Fitzgerald's description of what a wealthy Dexter Green was thinking as he and his golfing partners advances along the fairway:
... he found himself glancing at the four caddies who trailed them, trying to catch a glance or gesture that could remind him of himself, that would lessen the gap which lay between his present and his past ...
Another fiction writer who influenced my early journalism was Irwin Shaw, who, before he began publishing such best selling novels as The Young Lions, Rich Man, Poor Man, and The Troubled Air, and also more than eighty stories in various magazines, had been a football player at Brooklyn College. He brought his knowledge of the game to much of what he had created with his prose. He once told a class he was teaching: "Writing is an intellectual contact sport, similar in some respects to football. The effort required can be exhausting, the goal unreached, and you are hurt on almost every play; but that doesn't deprive a man or a boy from getting peculiar pleasures form the game."
From reading his fiction I saw greater possibilities from myself as a writer of nonfiction, as a scene-setter, a dialogue writer, a reporter who could recount true-to-life tales more fully and interestingly by deviating from the then prevailing formulaic code of 5-W journalism (who-what-when-where-why) and employing the story-telling techniques of people like Irwin Shaw. While my efforts were often rejected or rewritten by my editors (after I had reviewed packages of my old clippings in the Times's morgue in 1959 and had underlined certain words and sentences and had scribbled next to them my complaint: "I didn't write this!," the morgue's director inserted a note of his own: "GT: Modesty will get you no where. Mutillating morgue clippings is worse than a Federal offense!") I did manage, through some polite persuading on my part and the good will of my superiors, to get into the paper word-for-word much of what I wrote.
For example in 1958 when I was sent to cover the spring training activities of the San Francisco Giants baseball team I devoted an entire piece to the wearability of the players' uniforms, pointing out that after one season the uniforms become "too weary for major league play and are sent down to the minors." In the same year I wrote a nineteen-paragraph profile about a young prize fighter named Jose Torres without mentioning his name until the last paragraph. Similarly in 1958 I covered a college baseball game between New York University and Wagner College that was held in freezing early-spring weather in front of only eighteen spectators. I described the game through the perspective of the spectators, focusing my attentions, for example, on a nineteen-year-old hazel-eyed brunette sophomore named Gloria Maurikis who had shivered through the game out of affection from the N.Y.U. third baseman, Dick Reilly, whom she had met five months before in Sociology I, a required course. The N.Y.U. team was leading 3–0 going into the seventh inning, and as I wrote in the last paragraph: "The score remained unchanged until Reilly's double in the seventh scored two more and sent Gloria home."
Writing about a young woman sitting in the bleachers watching a sporting event was perhaps an idea I'd appropriated, without consciously realizing it, through my familiarity with many of Irwin Shaw's romantic scenes involving athletes. There are many such scenes in his story "The Eighty-Yard Run." The two main characters are named Christian Darling, a handsome substitute halfback on a college team in the Midwest, and his wealthy girlfriend Louise, who is described in the story as the lovely daughter of an ink manufacturer. On the sunny afternoon after Christian Darling had run for eighty yards in a practice session, Louise is waiting for him outside the stadium in her car with the top down; and, as he approaches, she opens the door and asks:
"Were you good today?" "Pretty good," he said. He climbed in, sank luxuriously into the soft leather, stretched his legs far out. He smiled, thinking of the eighty yards. "Pretty damn good."
Excerpted from THE SILENT SEASON OF A HERO Copyright © 2010 by Gay Talese. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Introduction Gay Talese 1
Sports Gay-zing 17
Short Shots in Sundry Sections 21
Talking Basketball with Angelo Musi 25
The Locker Room 29
An Afternoon on the Football Field 33
The .200 Hitter 37
The Loneliest Guy in Boxing 41
N.Y.U. Wins Despite 2-Way Freeze 49
Judy Is Many Things, Mostly Frank 51
It's a Wonderful Whirl to Gerry 55
Portrait of a Young Prize Fighter 57
Garden Horseshoer Works Fast 60
Last of Bare-Knuckle Fighters Still Spry at 93 62
Troupe of Midget Wrestlers Won't Work for Small Change 65
Barbell King: Muscle Over Mind 68
Dentist Puts the Bite in the Fight 70
Timekeeper as Quiet as a Clock 73
Diamonds Are a Boy's Best Friend 75
On the Road, Going Nowhere, With the Yankees 83
Notes from the Trip 88
The Story Behind the Signal To Brush Back Cliff Johnson 95
Race, Reporters and Responsibility 104
The Fighter's Son 108
The Loser 111
Portrait of the Ascetic Champ 113
Patterson, Indifferent at first, Finally Turns on Barking Dog 123
Liston Aides Extol His Gaiety, Benevolence and Ruggedness 127
Patterson Has 4 Friends, Too, But He'll Have to Fight Alone 129
Champion Talks About Sleep and Rain and Watches His Entourage Close Camp 132
Floyd Caught by 'a Good Punch' 135
Masked Ex-Champion 137
The Loser 141
Stories With Real Names 167
The Caddie-A Non-Alger Story 169
Suspicious Man In the Champ's Corner 175
Dr. Birdwhistell and the Athletes 186
Joe Louis: The King as a Middle-Aged Man 201
Silent Season of a Hero 218
Architect of the Fairways 246
Eric and Beth Heiden: A Bond of Blood on Skates 255
The Kick She Missed 261
The Greatest 273
Ali in Havana 275
Swan Song for Gay Talese 305
Gay Talese talks with James Mustich, Editor-in-Chief of The Barnes & Noble Review
The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese has just been issued by Walker & Company. The collection takes its title from one of the pieces it contains, Talese's 1966 Esquire profile of Joe DiMaggio in retirement. "The Silent Season of a Hero," like "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," published the same year in the same magazine, elevated Talese into a class of his own as a nonfiction writer, where he remained throughout a career that soon turned to book-length work in The Kingdom and the Power (1969) and Honor Thy Father (1971), and continued with Thy Neighbor's Wife (1981), Unto the Sons (1992), and A Writer's Life (2006).
While the unforgettable portrait of DiMaggio has pride of place in the new collection, it is surrounded by writing that ranges over six decades -- from a few of Talese's dispatches as a high school reporter for the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger to columns from his college days at the University of Alabama, from early baseball stories he filed for the New York Times to searching, longer-form intelligence gathered on prizefighters, including "The Loser," one of several pieces in the book on two-time heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson; "Joe Louis: The King as a Middle-Aged Man"; and the remarkable "Ali in Havana," detailing Muhammad Ali's 1996 trip to Cuba and his audience, with entourage, with Fidel Castro -- a piece rejected by ten magazines before appearing in Esquire and ultimately being included in The Best American Essays 1997.
In early August, I visited Talese, now 78, at his home on Manhattan's Upper East Side for a wide-ranging conversation on his sports writing and the rest of his career. Despite the fact the temperature was pushing 100 degrees, he was as dapper as he'd always appeared in any photograph I'd seen, comfortably elegant in a perfectly knotted yellow silk tie and an impeccably tailored -- four working buttons on each sleeve -- cream-colored jacket. His alertness was palpable, dispensed with a combination of formality and geniality that made this interviewer feel both important and welcome. One understood in a flash that his secret for getting close to his subjects lies in maintaining a measured distance -- a kind of cognitive, well, "tailoring" suggests itself, and not just because of those buttonholes. Talese's attention is clearly deft at judging how things fit.
Before I knew it, he had embarked upon a lengthy interview of me, eliciting as concise an autobiographical tour of the landmarks of my life as any editor could fashion. We were seated in the corner of a high-ceilinged room; the opposite wall was covered with a covetable bookshelf that ran wall-to-wall and -- except for some cabinets at the bottom -- from floor to ceiling. Our conversation was interrupted now and again with phone calls concerning a trip he was planning to make, in the next day or so, to Moscow, to see firsthand the native haunts of an opera singer to whom he is currently devoting considerable reportorial energy: Vienna, Buenos Aires, and other destinations were on the itinerary he sketched out for me, but the tenor of the telephone calls seemed to indicate that his plans might be coming undone.
We spent nearly three hours talking, and Talese's habits of mind were apparent from the start, not only in his querying of me but also in the ease in which he ordered anecdotes and recollections into a coherent narrative of his earliest career, as the long monologue at the start of the interview below attests. His memory, I would learn after we talked (when he took me outside the house and, through a separate entrance, into the well-appointed "bunker" in which he works), is abetted by meticulously maintained files that reach back to his boyhood -- which no doubt explains the astonishing chronological extent of the archive that The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese so winningly presents.
What follows, in three sections, is an edited transcript of our conversation.
-- James Mustich
I. A JOURNALIST'S JOURNEY
James Mustich: Sports has been entwined with your life as a writer from the beginning -- when you were in high school. Which came first, your interest in writing, or your interest in sports?
Gay Talese: Let me go back one step further. What led me to newspapers was that I had a father who read them. He read the New York Times. When I was ten years old -- in 1942 -- I was aware of the war, and I was particularly aware of it because my father, who was from Italy, had brothers who were in the Italian army. The invasion of Italy was underway when I was 11 and 12, and my father was very concerned about his village and his people -- not only his brothers, who were fighting the Americans, but his widowed mother. His native village, Maida, was in the path of the American army as it moved from Sicily up to Calabria. I wrote about this in Unto the Sons.
So my father read the newspaper, and it wasn't the Philadelphia newspaper, even though Ocean City, New Jersey, where I was born, is close to Philadelphia; it was the New York Times. I didn't read the paper with any interest, obviously, then, but I did read the sports page for this reason: at the time the war was on, the Yankees moved to Atlantic City (that was in 1943 and 1944) for spring training, since because of the rationing teams didn't go to Florida during World War II. And Atlantic City is only 11 miles from where I was born and grew up. This was the 1943 championship Yankee team. The manager was Joe McCarthy, who was the famous manager of the time of DiMaggio. Granted, DiMaggio wasn't playing -- a lot of the top names in baseball were in the army. Not all. But there weren't many name ballplayers on the Yankee team that I saw in 1943 and '44.
I would get on the trolley and I would go over there, and then I'd read the New York Times about spring training. That's when I started reading the newspaper. My father was reading it for the international news, and I would look at the sports section. I'd see articles about what I'd seen myself. I'd see the exhibition games, and I'd get autographs. Because in spring training at that time, they didn't play in stadiums. Today spring training fields are like any other major league ballpark -- places like Tampa, for example, where the Yankees train. But in those days it was an old airport that had old bleachers -- that's where the Yankees played baseball. It was a gravel field, with some grass; it was springtime; the grass wasn't growing yet.
Reading sports in the Times, I got to know some of the names of the sportswriters who covered the Yankees. John Drebinger was an old baseball writer. He was a guy that was hard of hearing, but he certainly could hear well enough to write beautifully about baseball. In those days, even for spring training, the sports section would give sometimes two columns -- it's amazing, the amount of space they gave! Or to tennis. There was a man whose name was Allison Danzig who wrote about tennis, and in New York, at Forest Hills, Dick Savitt would be playing in the quarter-finals against somebody, and the New York Times's Danzig, the tennis specialist, would have two columns. That's like three thousand five hundred words for a tennis match. Amazing.
So I would read this stuff when I was 12, 13, 14 -- about to go into high school. My father was a tailor, as you know from what you read, and he had a customer who got a suit made now and then, a man named Loren Anguvine. He was the editor of the weekly local newspaper. It was called the Ocean City Sentinel. My father told him, "Gay really likes sports," and Loren Anguvine must have said, "Well, let me talk to him." Anyway, I went to him.
The paper was only two blocks away from the store -- my mother's dress shop and my father's tailor shop were in the same building, and we lived upstairs. It was the main street of the town, and two streets below was the newspaper office, and I went over there. He said I could write sports and write high school news, both. He paid 10 cents an inch for what they printed. My father had tape measures for measuring suits; I'd use them to measure the damn space. If I had a 12-inch piece, it was $1.20, and maybe I had 4 or 5 stories in each edition. I'd get a check every week, and the check would be five dollars or seven dollars or nine dollars -- that was big. We're talking about 1946 to '48. I graduated from high school in 1949.
I was writing high school news, high school highlights, and sports. I'd cover the high school teams, all of them, intramural teams included -- football, basketball, baseball, track. There were games that my father had to drive me to; I didn't have a driver's license. There were towns about 15 miles away. One town was called Pleasantville. That's where the Red Sox trained -- Pleasantville, New Jersey. It's about 15 miles away from Ocean City. There's a place called Vineland. There's a place -- what's the difference? There are these teams in Cape May County, and they'd play one another in football and basketball, too -- away games. My father would drive me, and sometimes we'd get back late.
The paper came out on Friday, so I'd have a Thursday deadline. Sometimes I'd stay up all night long writing about the games on my little Remington typewriter, then I'd walk it in before I went to school. I'd leave it at Mr. Anguvine's office, and after school he'd call me and said, "It was good," or tell me that he'd changed this or changed that. Then I'd see the paper on Friday and I'd measure how much money I was going to make.
That went on until I graduated from high school. I couldn't get into college because my grades were so low. I mean, I was pretty good with Anguvine, but with the faculty at the Ocean City High School I wasn't very good at all. I had very bad grades, including in English. But there's no association with writing and journalism and English. You can be very good in English, and not be very good maybe in writing about a basketball game, or interviewing a football coach. I don't know. But I didn't get good grades.
The problem also was that after the war, GIs were still crowding the colleges, even though this was 1949. You didn't get into colleges just because you had a father that could put you into college. You had to get grades, and the principal and the guidance counselor of high school had to recommend you -- and I couldn't get recommended.
As a result, I wasn't going to go to college. It got to be August, the end of the summer, and most of the kids in my school, at least half of them were going to college, and all the athletes I had written about were going because they had scholarships. A lot of people were going, and I would like to have been one of them. Fortunately, my father had another customer, a doctor named Aldrich Crowe, who was from Alabama. He had come to Ocean City during the Depression and built the leading practice in the town -- he also had suits made.
My life is very much affected by the customers of my father. My father didn't have a thriving business, but there were certain distinguished people he knew, because they had things either made by him or altered by him. Dr. Crowe was one of them. When I couldn't get in anywhere, my father was lamenting this fact, and Dr. Crowe said, "I could probably get him into the University of Alabama -- I still know people on the faculty; I graduated from University of Alabama medical school as well." So he makes a call, and I do get into Alabama, surely just on the power of Dr. Crowe's personality. That's 1949. I was the first in my family, of course, to go to college.
So I go to Alabama on the train in September of 1949. And what am I going to take? Well, obviously, journalism, because that's the only thing I can seem to do. They didn't have a school of journalism; it was just a little department. And there was a school weekly -- it wasn't a daily paper. I joined the staff as a freshman, and by sophomore year I was writing a lot of stories; by the third year I got to be the sports editor. I also wrote a column as well as covering games. The column was called "Sports Gay-zing," and some of the writing I did for that column is in this new book.
I was also working as the college correspondent, the University of Alabama correspondent, for the Birmingham newspaper. The college is in Tuscaloosa, and Birmingham is 40 miles away. It had two major daily newspapers. One of them was the Scripps-Howard paper called theBirmingham Post-Herald. I was the Post-Herald correspondent -- not only sports, but general news. I'd write feature stories. Maybe there was a some story about some crime on the campus, or some student being elected to something, or some event -- maybe it was about music, or maybe it was about academic life, or whatever the hell it was. So I was now working for a daily newspaper, while I was still a student.
In 1953, when I had graduated, it seemed to me that I should continue in sports, because that's what I'd been doing more than I'd been doing anything else, because I had had more opportunities to be published -- because papers devoted space to sports every day, and they didn't devote space to anything else every day. The rest was just news, and you had to have the big news, or else you didn't get in. But there was always news in sports.
I came to New York and didn't know anybody. But I did have a third personal connection. Everything I got, I got from personal connections -- not really on my own merit. I just knew somebody. This one came from a person I knew as a student at Alabama; he was named Jim Pinkston. He was from Mississippi. I met him in class and I -- well, I get along with people. That's one thing you don't get graded for. But I always got along with people. As a boy in the store -- when you're a boy in a store, when your parents run a store, you meet older people, because the customers are older people. But you also meet working people. In my father's store, there was another old tailor, and there were a couple of black guys on the pressing machine -- my father did a side business in dry cleaning. I met these men; I knew them. My mother had a dress department -- the dress department was the business; tailoring was a nothing business in terms of making money. But my mother had young girls, high school students, who helped her sell dresses or worked in the store. So I knew them, too.
When I got a driver's license at 17 or whatever, I used to help. I would drive the truck to deliver some of the dry cleaning, and I met people who were the maids of the summer people, or the people who had houses on the beach. I met all different classes of people. I was store-tutored, store-trained. And that's close to journalism -- knowing how to get along with people. In the store, you learn manners. Treat the customer properly, otherwise, you're not going to make any sales.
So I met Jim Pinkston from Mississippi, and I got along with him. He said, "If you ever go to New York, you have to look up my cousin; he works at the New York Times." "Oh yeah?" I said. "Yeah. He's the managing editor, in fact. Go up there and say you're a friend of mine -- he's my cousin." Turns out he was talking about Turner Catledge, who was the managing editor in the early '50s. I come right to New York and walk right into the Times Building, without an appointment. Just show up. Come out of the bus station, over to 43rd Street, go up to the third floor, and asked to see Mr. Catledge. Now, as a tailor's son, I'm dressed well. Very well. I mean -- even as a high school kid I was dressed well. I had to be; my father was a tailor. He didn't make any money, but I wore his clothes, and they were well-made.
So I walk in. The receptionist says, "Do you have an appointment, young man?"
"Well, why are you here?"
"I want to see Mr. Catledge."
"Why do you want to see him?"
"I know his cousin. His cousin told me if I'm in New York I could stop in and say hello." "Mr. Catledge is a very busy man."
"I know, sir."
"How long are you in town?"
"I just arrived." It's like 11 o'clock in the morning.
"How long will you be here?"
"I'll wait here until I see Mr. Catledge."
So he makes a phone call while I'm standing in the reception room. Out comes another man who was the executive secretary of Turner Catledge. He says, "Mr. Catledge is a very busy man."
"Yes, I know."
"You know his cousin?"
He says, "Look, Mr. Catledge has a meeting at 4 o'clock every day. If you'll come at maybe 10 minutes to 4, I can maybe get you in to see him, and then you'll have to leave before the meeting starts."
I say, "That's fine."
So I spend five or six hours wandering around Times Square. I'd never been to Times Square. I hadn't been anywhere. I was in New Jersey, and then I went to Alabama, but I hadn't been to New York. No reason to be in New York.
I come back at 10 of 4, and the same receptionist greets me, and calls the same guy out -- Mr. Andre, his name was, Herb Andre, the executive secretary to Turner Catledge. He takes me into the City Room, and I see the City Room for the first time. It's this magnificent scene of noise, people smoking, the sound of typing, all sorts of noise, bells on typewriters -- 400 people were in that one room. A big room -- a whole open area from 43rd Street to 44th Street. I follow Mr. Andre through the corridors, passing the journalists and the copywriters and the copyboys, and all the makeup people, all the characters. Go into a big office, and there's a guy in the back of the room with a pinstripe suit and ruddy complexion. He's leaning back in his chair, and he has one foot on his desk -- a big black shined shoe on his desk.
He gets up when he sees me.
"Good afternoon, young man. What brings you to New York?"
I say, "Well, Mr. Catledge, your cousin said I should stop in."
"Oh, thank you. Sit down."
Then Mr. Andre leaves, and I'm now with Turner Catledge for my three minutes.
He says, "You went to Alabama. It's a good school."
"And you know my cousin? Well, who is this cousin you met?"
I say, "Jim Pinkston from Mississippi."
"Yes, Jimmy Pinkston."
Catledge looked at me, and he was blank. He didn't know what I was talking about. I didn't catch it yet. Later on, I thought this guy really wasn't a cousin, or that Turner Catledge probably has 5,000 cousins. When you're famous, you have all these cousins.
Catledge says, "What would you like to do?"
"I'd like to be a journalist some day, Mr. Catledge."
"Oh, you have to have a lot of experience to be here. You have to work for other newspapers, and you work your way up."
"Yes, sir, I know that's true. Well, maybe some other job. Maybe I could get a job as a copyboy or something."
"Well, I don't even know if we have any openings."
But before he says goodbye to me, he calls up the secretary. Herb Andre comes back in. He says, "Herb, do we have any jobs for copyboys?"
"Well, why don't you take this young man's name and phone number. If we have something, we'll call you."
"Thank you, Mr. Catledge."
I go outside, Andre gets my phone number -- my mother's dress shop is the phone. I get on the bus to go back to Ocean City.
About two weeks later, I get a call from Andre's office. They tell me, "There's an opening here in late July; are you interested?"
"Well, when can you come to New York?"
"I can come to New York now." This was like June the 5th.
"No, no, you come in July. There will be an opening then."
So that's what I did. I got started as a copyboy in July of 1953.
I knew that I couldn't be sure how long I could stay, because I went to ROTC in Alabama, and knew they'd be calling me up in the army, but you never knew when. The Korean War was over, or pretty much over. But I did some pieces, even as a copyboy, that got in the paper.
GT: Yes. The first piece I got in the paper was on the editorial page, about the Times Tower. There was an old building in the middle of 42nd Street, a three-sided building, rather like the Flatiron Building; they used to call it the Times Tower. Later, Allied Chemical took it over. It's still there. They used to have an electric sign with bulbs. You remember that? I wrote about the man who changed the bulbs. I discovered this guy as a copyboy wandering around. You have to be there. You ask questions. You see the guy with the weird job of putting lights on -- that was a serendipitous discovery. That's the kind of story I like to do.
When I went into the army, I kept in touch with Catledge. I was writing pieces for the Times even in the army, just like anybody could do. The Travel section. Anybody could do that. I did a magazine piece when I was a copyboy, about a silent screen movie actress. That's in The Gay Talese Reader, which George Gibson [publisher of Walker & Company] published. If you look in that book, there's a piece called "Origins of a Non-Fiction Writer," in which I talk about that article about the actress.
When I got out of the army, I got a job at the Times in sports, and I wrote feature stories. I loved doing feature stories. One of the reasons I liked sports is you could see what you were writing about. If you were a war correspondent, you never saw the war. If you were a political correspondent, you had sources, but you didn't yourself see anything. You were told stuff, but you didn't see it. Yes, as a film critic, you see the movies, and as an opera critic, you see the operas. But in sports, you not only see it, but then you can talk to the people right after. You see the prizefighter being knocked out, then you go the locker room and you talk to him. This is access. And you get close to the people. I mean, you're physically close. Not in the press box, but right there in the locker room. That's what I like.
II: THE MIRRORS OF INHERITANCE
JM: You've written in several places about wanting to write pieces like Irwin Shaw's stories, but with real names.
GT: That's in the introduction to this new sports writing collection.
JM: Yes. Did you feel that ambition was more easily met writing about sports? I mean, the game or the fight provides its own setting. You're there. You have physical proximity to the players. It has a dramatic arc that's built into the contest. The architecture of a story is always present.
JM: But what's interesting, even in the early pieces, is that you naturally seem to find an oblique angle to that dramatic arc, so that you're interested not in the game and the drama of the winning and losing of the game, but in the private experience of the players, or, in the longer pieces on Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis, on titans after their careers have run their course, on the hero's "silent season," as the title of the DiMaggio piece names it.
That focus also gives you access to an emotional store as rich as the one Shaw mined in those wonderful early stories of his. If you're writing about DiMaggio in his post-baseball obscurity, shall we say -- or Louis once he's left the ring -- there's a deep well of feeling you're able to tap in readers, because sports breeds a kind of nostalgia that comes readily to people who might live at some distance from their own feelings otherwise. My Dad is a great sports fan. I suspect he might never engage his own past with the kind of deep nostalgia he'd feel thinking about DiMaggio in his silent season. Sports makes emotions available to people who normally don't articulate them for themselves. [LAUGHS] This isn't really a question. Just an observation of what I think you make happen in those stories.
GT: Well, thank you. I think that's right.
JM: In A Writer's Life, you write about the apartment in Ocean City where you grew up, an apartment that was filled with mirrors. Let me read that description:
Mirrors are what I most remember about living in that spacious apartment, large -- ten-by-twelve-foot -- mirrors that covered the portable partitions that concealed the bedrooms in the rear area, which had once been occupied by linotype machines, and smaller mirrors that had been mismeasured or otherwise found inappropriate for the store below and were affixed to the walls upstairs in various places, reflecting every feature and piece of furniture existing in that wide and high-ceilinged hundred-foot-long room we called home but could have been better utilized as a dance studio.
I can't help but wonder if growing up among all those mirrors helped form the kind of oblique perspective you take on many of the stories that you cover, and that gives your most famous pieces their distinctive brilliance: DiMaggio in retirement, Frank Sinatra not singing because he has a cold, Muhammad Ali in Havana. Because the focus is always perfectly clear, but there's an angle built into it that, almost because it's oblique, heightens our attention.
GT: [Pauses] You're absolutely right. No one has said that, and I never articulated that, but boy, that's really a good take on what I do. You did your homework.
JM: It was easy homework to do. [LAUGHS]
Somewhere, I'm not sure exactly where, you've written, "Sports is about people who lose and lose and lose. They lose games; then they lose their jobs. It can be very intriguing."
GT: It's true. I'm interested in how they take it. No one has ever written about being traded, what that means if you're married and you have children, what it does to your family. We haven't yet had a Joyce Carol Oates or a Mary Morris or a Mary Gordon write about the father being traded. What a fictional baby should do, about being a girl whose father is always traded and she's always changing schools, following baseball. It would be a great story for some woman writer -- Selena Roberts, whoever writes sports.
But we're off the subject.
JM: You've written 37 or 38 pieces about Floyd Patterson; several are in this book.
GT: Yes, that's right. It's amazing -- I never realized I did that. But Barbara Lounsberry, who's a friend of mine -- I co-authored a textbook with her about writing -- she added them up: 37 pieces. But that's how you get to know people.
See, the worst thing about journalism is, you get to know people for about six hours, but you don't know them. Then you go back to your office and you write about them, and you never see them again in your life -- most of the time you don't. I save my notes, and I always want to see the people again. Patterson I saw over a 40-year period. I didn't write about him during all that time, I wrote about him only at a certain period, but I kept up with him.
I had two old books revived recently by Daniel Halpern at HarperCollins. He did Thy Neighbor's Wife and he did Honor Thy Father. Honor Thy Father is about a Mafia family. I published that book back in 1972-73. I kept in touch with that family for the next forty-some years, and then, in 2008 I guess it was, there's this new edition. I did an update. But I had kept in touch with that gangster family, and the little children that I wrote about in 1972 in Honor Thy Father were 45 years old when I went back to see them again. But I'd kept in touch. It's a wonderful thing; it's journalism, but it has memory, it has history.
You have to keep up with people. So talking 37 times to Patterson was not odd for me; I just happened to write those stories. Most often, I talk and I don't write anything, but I keep notes.
JM: There's a short piece in here called The Fighter's Son.
JM: About his father being a boxer. You say something at the end of that that's very interesting to me, being Italian-American myself.
GT: You are?
JM: Yeah. Three of my grandparents were immigrants, the fourth was born on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; my mother's side is from Naples, and my father's side from Puglia.
GT: Mustich. That's your name. Was it something else?
JM: No. My paternal grandfather's family was from Puglia, and there must have been an Istrian or Austrian soldier who settled there. [LAUGHS]
GT: Oh, boy. And there were a lot of them around.
JM: So that's where the "i-c-h" comes from. Anyway, back to The Fighter's Son. You write about Sinatra, "he was destined to live a life that would be as turbulent as it was triumphant, a headline-making existence that, over the course of half a century, the rest of us (particularly we Americans of Italian heritage) would find inspirational because it gave us the courage, finally, to fully acknowledge and respect who we are." I remember seeing you on television when Sinatra died, which was probably around the time this was written, and you said something very similar. You were the only person who said anything like that.
GT: Is that right?
JM: It resonated with me because I know he meant something like that to my parents, and the need for somebody to mean something like that to that generation has always moved me.
JM: In A Writer's Life, you talk about Ocean City. "The island was my parents' point of departure from all traces of Ellis Island, a midway point before melding in…." Do you feel that you've melded in with America? Or do you still feel that the Italian-American experience is …
GT: Isolating a little bit?
GT: Absolutely. I'm 78. You'd think I'd have gotten over it. Maybe because I'm so old that I remember very clearly World War II, which was very defining of my character, because of being an Italian raised among Americans. What I'm trying to say is, there's always a feeling, even in the literary community -- I feel that as an Italian, I'm not part of this world. I don't feel unloved in the literary world, but still, I don't ever feel removed from being Italian-American, in literature or journalism.
The Italians always think, well, we're practical people, we're not people of the word, we're not literary people. So I've always felt like an outsider; I don't feel that I'm ever comfortable. Maybe that goes back to not being comfortable with who I was as a boy, in a flag-waving American town, and being Italian at a time when we were often called "wops" and "guineas." That's not true any more. But that doesn't mean things have to be verbally expressed.
III: A WRITER'S LIFE
JM: I'm fascinated with a lot of your work, but I have a particular affection for this one, A Writer's Life.
GT: Boy, I'm so glad to hear you say that, because that didn't go anywhere. Thank you.
JM: It strikes me that in this book, more than in the other books conceived as volumes, you employ something like the same method you use in your famous shorter pieces -- "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," the Patterson piece, the DiMaggio piece -- but apply it to yourself to create a portrait of a working reporter doggedly pursuing stories -- the history of single restaurant space that's always changing hands, the story of an unfortunate Chinese soccer player, the saga of John and Lorena Bobbit -- that never pan out. It's about losing, if you will, in the same way as some of the sports pieces (I'm thinking of the Patterson ones especially) are about losing, about the training and the investment of time and the hope poured into efforts that come up short. "… [I]t is pertinent to acknowledge," you write at one point, "that during my forty-year career as a researching writer, I have invested heavily in the wasting of time."
GT: That's right.
JM: But because you're a writer and can make a book of your failures, if you will, it's triumphant, in a way. It's almost like a picaresque. At the end, the hero comes whole, and says, "Here's the book, which you've gotten to the end of, and I'm just starting to write."
Many reviews of the book sort of said, "Well, he found a way to stitch together all these things he was working on and couldn't get a book out of," which seemed to me very shortsighted. They didn't attend to the book as a whole, which created a picture of a writer from the same kind of angle from which you had once studied DiMaggio or Joe Louis. As I said, because you're a writer you arrive at something of a happier conclusion by dint of the fact that you've made a book, while a middle-aged DiMaggio in the batting cage at the end of "The Silent Season of a Hero" ends up with stinging hands. But it's very much the same kind of approach you're taking. It's not about the triumphs of writing, it's about how a professional gets from day to day, doing what he's doing in a not always successful search for inspiration. I'm wondering if you were conscious of that while you were doing it, or is this something I'm projecting onto it from my reading of the rest of your work?
GT: I think you're right. I'm not saying that I was conscious of everything that you're saying, but I'm happy to hear it, because I don't know who read this book, even though I thought it was a very good book. I thought it was better than anything I'd done before. But that's over now.
[Editor's note: At this point, the phone rings, and Talese resumes a conversation he had begun earlier about possible cancellation of a trip to Moscow he is intending to take in a couple of days, because the Russian opera singer he is writing about now has suddenly changed her plans: "So she's leaving Moscow on the 11th?," he asks, listening intently. "Well, Christ, if she's there, I could go for two days. What the hell do I care? One day in Moscow, even; at least I'd see where she was born. Let me just think about this, OK? All right. You'll be there an hour from now? I'll call you then."]
GT: Well, there's my trip. The heat in Russia is so bad that she, the singer, wants to get out of there. But... [SIGHS] I don't know that I'd want to do this piece if I don't have Russia in there. I want to see where she comes from. But that's another story, isn't it? Have you got everything you need?
--August 4, 2010
[Editor's note, September 28, 2010: Before posting this interview, I called Gay Talese to find out if he had ever made it to Moscow. He had -- leaving New York on an Aeroflot flight 72 hours after our conversation. He spent a week with the opera singer in her homeland, then traveled with her for two weeks each in Buenos Aires and Barcelona, returning to Manhattan in mid-September.
"Was it worthwhile?" I asked him.
"We'll see. As you know, I don't work especially fast."
"Well, I'd love to read the piece."
"I'd love to read it, too," Talese said. "I have to write it first."]
Posted October 22, 2012
No text was provided for this review.