The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters

The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters

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by Gay Talese

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As a young reporter for The New York Times, in 1961 Gay Talese published his first book, New York-A Serendipiters Journey, a series of vignettes and essays that began, "New York is a city of things unnoticed. It is a city with cats sleeping under parked cars, two stone armadillos crawling up St. Patricks Cathedral, and thousands of ants creeping on top


As a young reporter for The New York Times, in 1961 Gay Talese published his first book, New York-A Serendipiters Journey, a series of vignettes and essays that began, "New York is a city of things unnoticed. It is a city with cats sleeping under parked cars, two stone armadillos crawling up St. Patricks Cathedral, and thousands of ants creeping on top of the Empire State Building."

Attention to detail and observation of the unnoticed is the hallmark of Gay Taleses writing, and The Gay Talese Reader brings together the best of his essays and classic profiles. This collection opens with "New York Is a City of Things Unnoticed," and includes "Silent Season of a Hero" (about Joe DiMaggio), "Ali in Havana," and "Looking for Hemingway" as well as several other favorite pieces. It also features a previously unpublished article on the infamous case of Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt, and concludes with the autobiographical pieces that are among Taleses finest writings. These works give insight into the progression of a writer at the pinnacle of his craft.

Whether he is detailing the unseen and sometimes quirky world of New York City or profiling Ol Blue Eyes in "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," Talese captures his subjects-be they famous, infamous, or merely unusual-in his own inimitable, elegant fashion. The essays and profiles collected in The Gay Talese Reader are works of art, each carefully crafted to create a portrait of an unforgettable individual, place or moment.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
If there is one fault in this wonderful and long overdue collection of nonfiction master Talese's magazine writings, it's that there is simply not enough. While this reader does not include selections from such bestselling books as The Kingdom and the Power (a look at the New York Times, where he was a reporter for 10 years), Honor Thy Father (his behind-the-scenes look at the Bonanno crime organization) or Thy Neighbor's Wife (his examination in the shift of sexual mores in the decades before AIDS), it does highlight writing from his 1993 bestselling book, Unto the Sons, which deals with his Italian-born father's journey to America. However, all of the essays collected here are priceless gems, including his classic profiles of 20th-century icons such as Joe DiMaggio ("The Silent Season of the Hero"); the recently departed George Plimpton and his Paris Review cohorts ("Looking for Hemingway"); and Frank Sinatra ("Frank Sinatra Has a Cold"), which was recently selected by Esquire as the greatest article in the magazine's 70-year history. While his previous anthology of essays, Fame & Obscurity, included his classic mid-1960s profile of legendary mobster Frank Costello, this one offers two beautiful essays on the writer's life: "When I Was Twenty-Five" and "Origins of a Nonfiction Writer." The stories here are shining examples of a time in publishing history when magazine writing was an art form and Talese its Michelangelo. This reader is a book to come back to again and again. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This beautifully written collection of essays by journalist and best-selling author Talese (The Bridge; The Kingdom and the Power), who is now in his early seventies, brings together short pieces originally published from the 1960s through the 1990s. Talese's nonfiction magazine writing was first published in the 1960s and immediately became a gold standard; his approach, which combines elegance of style with exhaustive research and features ordinary Americans, was dubbed the "New Journalism." This all-embracing collection features a variety of writing styles and reflects the author's varied interests: some pieces are purely autobiographical, others biographical (on such figures like Peter O'Toole, Joe Louis, Frank Sinatra, and Joe DiMaggio), and yet others tackle such diverse topics as tailoring, writing, and Vogue. The result is a nice addition to all public and academic libraries, especially those already owning Talese's work. Those that don't may want to start with this reader, as it truly represents the best of this still highly prolific author's work. With an introduction by Barbara Lounsberry (English language & literature, Univ. of Northern Iowa), coauthor with Talese of Writing Creative Non-Fiction: The Literature of Reality.-Terren Ilana Wein, Univ. of Chicago Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Read an Excerpt

the Gay Talese reader

portraits & encounters
By Gay Talese

Walker & Company

Copyright © 2003 Gay Talese All right reserved. ISBN: 0-8027-7675-2

Chapter One

New York Is a City of Things Unnoticed

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 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 dapper man who picks trash out of Sixth Avenue trash cans; or the medium in the West Seventies who claims, "l am clairvoyant, clairaudient, and clairsensuous."

New York is a city for eccentrics and a center for odd bits of information. New Yorkers blink twenty-eight times a minute, but forty when tense. Most popcorn chewers at Yankee Stadium stop chewing momentarily just before the pitch. Gum chewers on Macy's escalators stop chewing momentarily just before they get off-to concentrate on the last step. Coins, paper clips, ballpoint pens, and little girls' pocketbooks are found by workmen when they clean the sea lions' pool at the Bronx Zoo.

Each day New Yorkers guzzle 460,000 gallons of beer, swallow 3,500,000 pounds of meat, and pull 21 miles of dental floss through their teeth. Every day inNew York about 250 people die, 460 are born, and 150,000 walk through the city wearing eyes of glass or plastic.

A Park Avenue doorman has parts of three bullets in his head-there since World War I. Several young gypsy daughters, influenced by television and literacy, are running away from home because they do not want to grow up and become fortune-tellers. Each month 100 pounds of hair are delivered to Louis Feder at 545 Fifth Avenue, where blonde hairpieces are made from German women's hair; brunette hairpieces from French and Italian women's hair; but no hairpieces from American women's hair, which, says Mr. Feder, is weak from too-frequent rinses and permanents.

Some of New York's best-informed men are elevator operators, who rarely talk but always listen-like doormen. Sardi's doorman listens to the comments made by Broadway's first-nighters walking by after the last act. He listens closely. He listens carefully. Within ten minutes of the curtain's fall he can tell you which shows will flop and which will be hits.

On Broadway in the evening, a big, dark 1948 Rolls-Royce pulls in-and out hops a little lady armed with a Bible and a sign reading "The Damned Shall Perish." She proceeds to stand on the corner screaming at the multitudes of Broadway sinners sometimes until 3 A.M., when the chauffeur-driven Rolls picks her up and drives her back to Westchester.

by this time Fifth Avenue is deserted by all but a few strolling insomniacs, some cruising cabdrivers, and a group of sophisticated females who stand in store windows all night and day wearing cold, perfect smiles-smiles formed by lips of clay, eyes of glass, and cheeks that will glow until the paint wears off. Like sentries, they line Fifth Avenue-these window mannequins who gaze onto the quiet street with tilted heads and pointed toes and long, rubber fingers reaching for cigarettes that aren't there. At 4 A.M., some store windows become a strange fairyland of gangling goddesses, all of them frozen in the act of dashing to a party, diving into a swimming pool, or sashaying skyward in a billowy blue negligee.

While this wild illusion is partly due to the runaway imagination, it is also partly due to the incredible skill of mannequin makers, who have endowed mannequins with certain individual characteristics-the theory being that no two females, not even plastic or plaster females, are quite alike. As a result, the mannequins at Peck & Peck are made to look young and prim, while at Lord & Taylor they seem wiser and windblown. At Saks they are demure but mature, while at Bergdorfs they look agelessly elegant and quietly rich. The profiles of Fifth Avenue's mannequins have been fashioned after some of the world's most alluring women-women like Suzy Parker, who posed for the Best & Co. mannequins, and Brigitte Bardot, who inspired some mannequins at Saks. The preoccupation with making mannequins almost human, and equipping them with curves, is perhaps responsible for the rather strange fascination so many New Yorkers have for these synthetic virgins. This is why some window decorators frequently talk to mannequins and give them pet names, and why naked mannequins in windows inevitably attract men, disgust women, and are banned in New York City. This is why some mannequins are attacked by perverts, and why the svelte mannequin in a White Plains shop was discovered in the basement not long ago with her clothes tom off, her makeup smeared, and her body possessing evidence of attempted rape. The police laid a trap one night and caught the attacker-a shy little man: the porter.

When street traffic dwindles and most people are sleeping, some New York neighborhoods begin to crawl with cats. They move quickly through the shadows of buildings; night watchmen, policemen, garbage collectors, and other nocturnal wanderers see them-but never for very long. A majority of them hang around the fish markets, in Greenwich Village, and in the East and West Side neighborhoods where garbage cans abound. No part of the city is without its strays, however, and all-night garage attendants in such busy neighborhoods as Fifty-fourth Street have counted as many as twenty of them around the Ziegfeld Theatre early in the morning. Troops of cats patrol the waterfront piers at night searching for rats. Subway trackwalkers have discovered cats living in the darkness. They seem never to get hit by trains, though some are occasionally liquidated by the third rail. About twenty-five cats live seventy-five feet below the west end of Grand Central Terminal, are fed by the underground workers, and never wander up into the daylight.

The roving, independent, self-laundering cats of the streets live a life strangely different from New York's kept, apartment-house cats. Most are flea-bitten. Many die of food poisoning, exposure, and malnutrition; their average life span is two years, whereas the stay-at-home cats live ten to twelve years or more. Each year the ASPCA kills about 100,000 New York street cats for whom no homes can be found.

Social climbing among the stray cats of Gotham is not common. They rarely acquire a better mailing address out of choice. They usually die within the blocks of their birth, although one flea-bitten specimen picked up by the ASPCA was adopted by a wealthy woman; it now lives in a luxurious East Side apartment and spends the summer at the lady's estate on Long Island. The American Feline Society once moved two strays into the headquarters of the United Nations after having heard that some rodents had infested UN filing cabinets. "The cats took care of 'em," says Robert Lothar Kendell, society president. "And they seemed happy at the UN. One of the cats used to sleep on a Chinese dictionary."

In every New York neighborhood the strays are dominated by a "boss"-the largest, strongest tomcat. But, except for the boss, there is not much organization in the street cat's society. Within the society, however, there are three "types" of cats-wild cats, Bohemians, and part-time grocery store (or restaurant) cats.

The wild cats rely on an occasional loose garbage lid or on rats for food and will have little or nothing to do with people-even those who would feed them. These most unkempt of strays have a recognizable haunted look, a wide-eyed, wild expression, and they usually are found around the waterfront.

The Bohemian, however, is more tractable. It does not run from people. Often, it is fed in the streets daily by sensitive cat lovers (mostly women) who call the strays "little people," "angels," or "darlings" and are indignant when the objects of their charity are referred to as "alley cats." So punctual are most Bohemians at feeding time that one cat lover has advanced the theory that cats can tell time. He cited a gray tabby that appears five days a week, precisely at 5:30 P.M., in an office building at Broadway and Seventeenth Street, where the elevator men feed it. But the cat never shows up on Saturday or Sundays; it seems to know people don't work on those days.

The part-time grocery store (or restaurant) cat, often a reformed Bohemian, eats well and keeps rodents away, but it usually uses the store as a hotel and prefers to spend the nights prowling in the streets. Despite its liberal working schedule, it still assumes most of the privileges of a related breed-the full-time, or wholly nonstray, grocery store cat-including the right to sleep in the window. A reformed Bohemian at a Bleecker Street delicatessen hides behind the door and chases away all other Bohemians looking for handouts.

The number of full-time cats, incidentally, has diminished greatly since the decline of the small food store and the rise of supermarkets in New York. With better rat-proofing methods, improved packaging of foods, and more sanitary conditions, such chain stores as the A&P rarely keep a cat full-time.

On the waterfront, however, the great need for cats remains unchanged. Once a longshoreman who was allergic to cats poisoned them. Within a day rats were all over the place. Every time the men turned around, they would find rats on crates. And on Pier 95 the rats began stealing the longshoremen's lunch and even attacking the men. So the street cats were recruited from nearby neighbors, and now most of the rats are controlled.

"But cats don't get much sleep around here," said one longshoreman.
"They can't. Rats would overrun them. We've had cases here where the rat has torn up the cat. But it doesn't happen often. Most waterfront cats are mean bastards."

At 5 A.M. Manhattan is a town of tired trumpet players and homeward-bound bartenders. Pigeons control Park Avenue and strut unchallenged in the middle of the street. This is Manhattan's mellowest hour. Most night people are out of sight-but the day people have not yet appeared. Truck drivers and cabs are alert, yet they do not disturb the mood. They do not disturb the abandoned Rockefeller Center, or the motionless night watchmen in the Fulton Fish market, or the gas-station attendant sleeping next to Sloppy Louie's with the radio on.

At 5 A.M. the Broadway regulars have gone home or to all-night coffee shops where, under the glaring light, you see their whiskers and wear. And on Fifty-first Street a radio press car is parked at the curb with a photographer who has nothing to do. So he just sits there for a few nights, looks through the windshield, and soon becomes a keen observer of life after midnight.

"At 1 A.M.," he says, "Broadway is filled with wise guys and with kids coming out of the Astor Hotel in white dinner jackets-kids who drive to dances in their fathers' cars. You also see cleaning ladies going home, always wearing kerchiefs. By 2 A.M., some of the drinkers are getting out of hand, and this is the hour for bar fights. At 3 A.M. the last show is over in the night clubs, and most of the tourists and out-of-town buyers are back in hotels. At 4 A.M., after the bars close, you see the drunks come out-and also the pimps and prostitutes who take advantage of drunks. At 5 A.M., though, it is mostly quiet. New York is an entirely different city at 5 A.M."

At 6 A.M. the early workers begin to push up from the subways. The traffic begins to move down Broadway like a river. And Mrs. Mary Woody jumps out of bed, dashes to her office, and phones dozens of sleepy New Yorkers to say in a cheerful voice, rarely appreciated: "Good morning. Time to get up." For twenty years, as an operator of Western Union's Wake-Up Service, Mrs. Woody has gotten millions out of bed.

At 7 A.M. a floridly robust little man, looking very Parisian in a blue beret and turtleneck sweater, moves in a hurried step along Park Avenue visiting his wealthy lady friends-making certain that each is given a brisk, before-breakfast rubdown. The uniformed doormen greet him warmly and call him either "Biz" or "Mac" because he is Biz Mackey, a ladies' masseur extraordinaire.

Mr. Mackey is spry and straight-spined, and always carries a black leather grip containing liniments, creams, and the towels of his trade. Up the elevator he goes; then, half an hour later, he is down again, and off to another lady-an opera singer, a movie actress, a lady police lieutenant.

Biz Mackey, a former featherweight prizefighter, started rubbing women the right way in Paris, in the twenties. He had lost a fight during a European tour and decided he'd had enough. A friend suggested he go to a school for masseurs, and six-months later he had his first customer-Claire Luce, the actress then starring in the Folies-Bergére. She liked him, and sent him more clients-Pearl White, Mary Pickford, and a beefy Wagnerian soprano. It took World War II to get Biz out of Paris.

When he returned to Manhattan, his European clientele continued to patronize him when they visited here, and though he is now pushing seventy, he is still going strong. Biz handles about seven women a day. His muscular fingers and thick arms have a miraculously soothing touch. He is discreet, and that is why New York ladies prefer him. He visits each of them in her apartment and has special keys to the bedrooms; he is often the first man they see in the morning, and they lie in bed waiting for him. He never reveals the names of his customers, but most of them are middle-aged and rich.

"Women don't want other women to know their business," Biz explains. "You know women," he adds, offhandedly, leaving no doubt that he does.

The doormen that Biz passes each morning are generally an obliging, endlessly articulate group of sidewalk diplomats who list among their friends some of Manhattan's most powerful men, most beautiful women, and snootiest poodles. More often than not the doormen are big, slightly Gothic in design, and possessors of eyes sharp enough to spot big tippers a block away in the year's thickest fog.

Some East Side doormen are as proud as grandees, and their uniforms, heavily festooned, seem to have come from the same tailor who outfitted Marshal Tito. Most hotel doormen are superb at small talk, big talk and back talk, at remembering names and appraising luggage leather. (They size up a guest's wealth by the luggage he has, not by the clothes he wears.)

In Manhattan today there are 650 apartment-house doormen, 325 hotel doormen (14 at the Waldorf-Astoria), and an unknown, but formidable, number of restaurant and theater doormen, nightclub doormen, barking doormen, and doorless doormen.

Doorless doormen, who are nonunion vagabonds, usually without uniforms (but with rented hats), pussyfoot about town opening car doors when traffic is thick-on nights of the opera, concerts, championship fights, and conventions.


Excerpted from the Gay Talese reader by Gay Talese
Copyright © 2003 by Gay Talese
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Gay Talese is a journalist and international best-selling author whose works include The Bridge (Walker & Company 2003), The Kingdom and the Power, Honor Thy Father, Thy Neighbors Wife, and Unto the Sons. Currently at work on the follow-up to Unto the Sons, he lives in New York City and Ocean City, New Jersey.

Barbara Lounsberry is a professor of English language and literature at the University of Northern Iowa. She is the co-author with Gay Talese of Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Literature of Reality (1996).
Gay Talese is a journalist and international best-selling author whose works include The Bridge (Walker & Company 2003), The Kingdom and the Power, Honor Thy Father, Thy Neighbors Wife, and Unto the Sons. Currently at work on the follow-up to Unto the Sons, he lives in New York City and Ocean City, New Jersey.

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