The Longform Guide to Gay Talese
What he thinks of his favorite stories, 50 years later.
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Did you know that Longform has a podcast? Longform has a podcast! We produce it along with The Atavist, and every week we sit down with a magazine writer or editor to talk about how they tell stories. We started the show a year ago and have had a slew of great guests, including David Grann, Susan Orlean, Jon Ronson, Ta-Nehisi Coates and many others whose work have appeared in these guides.
This week our guest was Gay Talese, the legendary writer whose work for Esquire in the 1960s defined a new era of journalism. You can listen to the episode below. But you may first want to (re)acquaint yourself with Talese’s classic stories, many of which he’s allowed us to put online for the first time.
Esquire • April 1966
Perhaps the most famous magazine article ever published, Talese captured Sinatra in a way no one else ever had without a single interview.
A part of Sinatra, no matter where he is, is never there. There is always a part of him, though sometimes a small part that remains Il Padrone. Even now, resting his shot glass on the blackjack table, facing the dealer, Sinatra stood a bit back from the table, not leaning against it. He reached under his tuxedo jacket into his trouser pocket and came up with a thick but clean wad of bills. Gently he peeled off a one-hundred-dollar bill and placed it on the green-felt table. The dealer dealt him two cards. Sinatra called for a third card, overbid, lost the hundred.
Without a change of expression, Sinatra put down a second hundred-dollar bill. He lost that. Then he put down a third, and lost that. Then he placed two one-hundred-dollar bills on the table and lost those. Finally, putting his sixth hundred-dollar bill on the table, and losing it, Sinatra moved away from the table, nodding to the man, and announcing, “Good dealer.”
Note: Just this month on Nieman Storyboard, Talese annotated this piece line by line with Elon Green, a contributing editor at Longform. Recommended.
Mr. Bad News
Esquire • February 1966
While “Sinatra” is certainly Talese’s most famous story, he thinks this is his best one, a profile of New York Times obit writer Alden Whitman.
Death is on Whitman’s mind as he sits in the subway that now races downtown toward Times Square. In the morning paper he has read that Henry Wallace is not well, that Billy Graham has visited the Mayo Clinic. Whitman plans, when he arrives at the Times in ten minutes, to go directly to the newspaper’s morgue, the room where all news clippings and advance obituaries are filed, and examine the “conditions” of the of the advance obituaries on Reverend Graham and former vice president Wallace (Wallace died a few months later). There are 2,000 advance obituaries in the Times's morgue, Whitman knows, but many of them, such as the ones on J. Edgar Hoover and Charles Lindbergh and Walter Winchell, were written long ago and now require updating. Recently, when President Johnson was in the hospital for gallbladder surgery, his advance obituary was brought up-to-the-minute; so was Pope Paul’s before his trip to New York; so was Joseph P. Kennedy’s. For an obituary writer there is nothing worse than to have a world figure die before his obituary is up-to-date; it can be a harrowing experience, Whitman knows, requiring that the writer become an instant historian, assessing in a few hours the dead man’s life with lucidity, accuracy, and objectivity.
The Silent Season of a Hero
Esquire • July 1966
On Joe DiMaggio after baseball and after Marilyn Monroe.
The fishermen also remember how, after his retirement in 1951, DiMaggio brought his second wife, Marilyn, to live near the wharf, and sometimes they would be seen early in the morning fishing off DiMaggio's boat, the Yankee Clipper, now docked quietly in the marina, and in the evening they would be sitting and talking on the pier. They had arguments, too, the fishermen knew, and one night Marilyn was seen running hysterically, crying, as she ran, along the road away from the pier, with Joe following. But the fishermen pretended they did not see this; it was none of their affair. They knew that Joe wanted her to stay in San Francisco and avoid the sharks in Hollywood, but she was confused and torn then—"She was a child," they said—and even today DiMaggio loathes Los Angeles and many of the people in it. He no longer speaks to his onetime friend, Frank Sinatra, who had befriended Marilyn in her final years, and he also is cool to Dean Martin and Peter Lawford and Lawford's former wife, Pat, who once gave a party at which she introduced Marilyn Monroe to Robert Kennedy, and the two of them danced often that night, Joe heard, and he did not take it well. He was possessive of her that year, his close friends say, because Marilyn and he had planned to remarry; but before they could she was dead, and DiMaggio banned the Lawfords and Sinatra and many Hollywood people from her funeral. When Marilyn Monroe's attorney complained that DiMaggio was keeping her friends away, DiMaggio answered coldly, "If it weren't for those friends persuading her to stay in Hollywood, she would still be alive."
Joe DiMaggio now spends most of the year in San Francisco, and each day tourists, noticing the name on the restaurant, ask the men on the wharf if they ever see him. Oh, yes, the men say, they see him nearly every day; they have not seen him yet this morning, they add, but he should be arriving shortly. So the tourists continue to walk along the piers past the crab vendors, under the circling sea gulls, past the fish-'n'-chip stands, sometimes stopping to watch a large vessel, steaming toward the Golden Gate Bridge, which, to their dismay, is painted red. Then they visit the Wax Museum, where there is a life-size figure of DiMaggio in uniform, and walk across the street and spend a quarter to peer through the silver telescopes focused on the island of Alcatraz, which is no longer a federal prison. Then they return to ask the men if DiMaggio has been seen. Not yet, the men say, although they notice his blue Impala parked in the lot next to the restaurant. Sometimes tourists will walk into the restaurant and have lunch and will see him sitting calmly in a corner signing autographs and being extremely gracious with everyone. At other times, as on this particular morning when the man from New York chose to visit, DiMaggio was tense and suspicious.
Peter O'Toole on the Ould Sod
Esquire • Aug 1963
After two years of filming Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O'Toole returns to his childhood home in Ireland.
He could still be wild and self-destructive, and the psychiatrists had been no help. All he knew was that within him, simmering in the smithy of his soul, were confusion and conflict, and they were probably all linked somehow with Ireland and the Church, with his smashing up so many cars that his license had to be taken away, and with marching in Ban-the-Bomb parades, with becoming obsessed with Lawrence of Arabia, with detesting cops, barbed wire, and girls who shave under their arms; with being an aesthete, a horse player, a former altar boy, a drinker who now wanders streets at night buying the same book (“My life is littered with copies of Moby Dick”) and reading the same sermon on that book (“…and if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves…”); with being gentle generous, sensitive, yet suspicious (“You’re talking to an Irish bookie’s son, you can’t con me!”); with devotion to his wife, loyalty to old friends, great concern over the uncertain eyesight of his three-year-old daughter, now wearing very thick glasses (“Daddy, Daddy! I broke my eyes!” “Don’t cry, Kate, don’t cry—we’ll get you a new pair”); with theatrical genius that is equally moving whether performing pantomime or Hamlet; with anger that can be sudden (“Why should I tell you the truth? Who are you, Bertrand Russell?”) and with anger that quickly subsides (“Look, I’d tell you if I knew why, but I don’t know, just don’t know…”); and with the as yet unrealized contradictions in the Peter O’Toole who, at this very moment, was about to land in Ireland…where he was born thirty-one years ago…where he would have his next drink.
Esquire • March 1964
A profile of Floyd Patterson after a painful loss to Sonny Liston.
"It is not a bad feeling when you're knocked out," he said. "It's a good feeling, actually. It's not painful, just a sharp grogginess. You don't see angels or start; you're on a pleasant cloud. After Liston hit me in Nevada, I felt, for about four or five seconds, that everybody in the arena was actually in the ring with me, circled around me like a family, and you feel warmth toward all the people in the arena after you're knocked out. You feel lovable to all the people. And you want to reach out and kiss everybody—men and women—and after the Liston fight, somebody told me I actually blew a kiss to the crowd from the ring. I don't remember that. But I guess it's true because that's the way you feel during the four or five seconds after a knockout. . . ."
Looking for Hemingway
Esquire • January 1996
On George Plimpton and the founders of the Paris Review.
Early in the fifties another young generation of American expatriates in Paris became twenty-six years old, but they were not Sad Young Men, nor were they Lost; they were the witty, irreverent sons of a conquering nation and, though they came mostly from wealthy parents and had been graduated from Harvard or Yale, they seemed endlessly delighted in posing as paupers and dodging the bill collectors, possibly because it seemed challenging and distinguished them from American tourists, whom they despised, and also because it was another way of having fun with the French, who despised them. Nevertheless, they lived in happy squalor on the Left Bank for two or three years amid the whores, jazz musicians, and pederast poets, and became involved with people both tragic and mad, including a passionate Spanish painter who one day cut open a vein in his leg and finished his final portrait with his own blood.
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