Gay Talese was creating a scene. He said so, the professional watcher, watching himself.
Mr. Talese, 73, was out on a sidewalk in the East 80’s on a Thursday night. His wife, the publisher Nan A. Talese, was at a cocktail party nearby; Mr. Talese had planned to meet up with her at a neighborhood restaurant. He wore a full, long scarf, a tan topcoat and a real hat, one with a brim. His shoes were beautiful and two-toned, the lower part a rich, deep red in the available light.
Clothing is a motif for Mr. Talese, the writer son of a Calabrian-born tailor and a Mulberry Street–born boutique proprietress, and he has often appealed to that heritage in his work, both directly and implicitly. In person, he is known for a wardrobe so dapper that the word “dapper” might imply effort or strain, inaptly. But as when he writes about others, Mr. Talese presents his own clothing for what it is, as something factual.
Mr. Talese wrote about his father’s tailoring in the book Unto the Sons in 1992, and after that he wrote about his mother’s dress shop in an essay that appeared in a 1996 book about nonfiction and was reprinted in The Gay Talese Reader in 2003. But if you skip those two partial contributions, as Mr. Talese does when counting, his last real book was Unto the Sons, 13 years ago.
Now he has written another one, A Writer’s Life, and it is in the hands of his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, for release in April.
Meanwhile, the deep red shoes were tracing an erratic itinerary around the Upper East Side. It was too early for the reservation and no table was ready at the chosen restaurant, so Mr. Talese was changing plans. He left word with the host for Ms. Talese—neither one carries a cell phone—and set off for another one. Dissatisfied, he tried another. At Nicola’s, a restaurant he mentions in the new book, his youthful picture and a old book cover hung on the wall, but he hadn’t been there in years, and the manager did not free up a table. Mr. Talese left word for Ms. Talese, again, and moved on.
The string of failed attempts had begun to tend unmistakably uptown and eastward, which is to say that the hand of fate appeared to be steering Mr. Talese toward the restaurant he had originally suggested for the evening, Elaine’s. When Ms. Talese, wrapped against the cold in a reversible rabbit coat, caught up with him, he was at a table where the bar widens into the dining room, having a gin martini.
The proceedings had re-enacted, on a smaller scale, a moment from 1999 that had served as a spur and a pivot for Mr. Talese’s new book. A Writer’s Life is a sort of fugue on the subject of not writing, or of not being published: It chronicles a reporter who follows his curiosity to a series of topics—unsuccessful restaurants; the history of Selma, Ala.; the maiming of John Wayne Bobbitt—without being able to make a book out of any one of them.
In the seventh year of his authorial stalemate, Mr. and Ms. Talese celebrated their 40th year of marriage with a Mediterranean cruise. Afterward, they flew to Frankfurt, where Ms. Talese went on to the Frankfurt Book Fair. Mr. Talese was due to continue to J.F.K., but during the layover he changed his mind, called Ms. Talese’s hotel, and left a message telling her he was changing his destination to China.
“I did not want to go back to New York,” Mr. Talese said. He was sitting in his living room, on East 61st Street, on a Saturday afternoon. He wore a chestnut-colored jacket and waistcoat; his necktie was orange, somewhere between rust and coral, and his cufflinks were the same color.
The Taleses live in a spacious townhouse, formerly subdivided into rent-controlled apartments, in one of which they were tenants as newlyweds. They bought the place after Mr. Talese’s early success but kept it configured as apartments for a while; William Styron rented one and wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner there. A basement apartment remains separate from the rest of the house, and Mr. Talese works in it, without a telephone. To get there, he goes out the door and down the steps.
Mr. Talese did not return from China for five months, and Ms. Talese came over and spent Christmas of 1999 there with him. He was trying to track down a new subject: Liu Ying, the women’s soccer player who had blown a penalty kick in a shoot-out in the World Cup final that summer past, giving victory to Mia Hamm and the celebrated American team.
“I wanted to escape the book,” Mr. Talese said, “and I wanted someone to give me an assignment. I think this is it. In the summer of ’99, July ’99, watching television, on a sunny and mournful Saturday, in my head I’m very depressed, and I wanted an assignment to get me away.”
He asked Time magazine to send him to find Ms. Liu straightaway, but the magazine declined. So, when the moment presented itself, he went on his own.
“I had done things like that before,” Mr. Talese said. “I’ve been very despondent. I remember how depressed I was in 1982, and—oh, boy, this sounds tragic, ‘how depressed … ’—and I remember I just took off for Italy like that, and that’s when I started Unto the Sons.”
Nearly every writer has at least one abnormal fidget or gesture, something the body lets itself do while the mind, over-engaged, pursues its own business. Mr. Talese is unusually poised for someone of his profession, but he has a way of allowing an authorly chin stroke to linger and deepen until his right hand is clutching the side of his face.
What Ms. Liu had in common with Mr. Talese’s other interests over the past decade was failure. Mr. Talese spent years researching and dining out in a building at 206 East 63rd Street, where 10 or 11 consecutive restaurateurs—including Marla Maples, newly separated from Donald Trump—had gone out of business. “The Willy Loman of buildings,” Mr. Talese called it. His editor did not see “very large sales potential.” Mr. Talese went to cover the Bobbitt case for The New Yorker, caught up in the tale of the dead-end, thwarted, publicly emasculated ex-Marine existence of Mr. Bobbitt. Tina Brown wanted Lorena, and Lorena had an agent and an agreement with Vanity Fair.
“I wish I could have done that piece …. I was blocked, and I couldn’t within the deadline do anything,” Mr. Talese said. “But maybe that was a deadline—it was not my deadline, but it was a magazine’s deadline, and I—hello, there!” he called.
Ms. Talese had appeared on the stairs, descending, with a pair of Australian terriers at her feet. She gave a greeting. The dogs flowed through the living room, looking around with long, handsome faces, and accompanied Ms. Talese toward the rear of the house.
“You just have to do it,” Mr. Talese said. The terriers had come through again, scuffling and barking, and the phone had rung, and then quiet had settled again. “And if it’s not publishable, it’s not publishable …. I wasn’t able to publish it. Someone else could have done it, but I couldn’t have done it.”
Mr. Talese has long been a patron saint of magazine writers for his reporting and craftsmanship. But he is also or especially the patron saint of freelance writers—someone who has spent years at the mercy of the mutual caprice of editors and his own inspiration. It was an innovation the way his form was an innovation, a decision he made in 1965 as a New York Times reporter—a perch that had seemed, in the era then ending, to be the final roost a writer would want.
“I am 32,” Mr. Talese said, “and I can’t write at length on this paper, and I never will. They’re not going to give me the paper; it’s their paper, and I’m just gonna be doing my 1,200 words, if they didn’t knock it down to 900 words. So I had no future …. I saw these guys that’d been war correspondents and wind up at the United Nations, and covering Jersey politics, and some awful assignment like that. And I wasn’t going to be a 48-year-old reporter like that. Or a FIFTY-eight-year-old reporter.”
So he went to Esquire on a one-year contract, and after that he gave up the contract altogether. Two separate times, while talking, Mr. Talese noted that he had technically not fulfilled the Esquire deal—he was supposed to write six pieces and only did four, four and a half if he counts ghostwriting a piece for Floyd Patterson. True, one of those pieces was on DiMaggio, “The Silent Season of a Hero,” and another was “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” and the entire way that magazine stories were written would never be the same, but still: four and a half. Not six.
Gay Talese writes what he can, for whatever patron will take the result. “All I care about,” he said, “is that what I do, I think, is the best that I’m capable of doing. And that’s all that matters. And it isn’t pleading for anything, it isn’t saying, ‘Oh, woe is me.’ No! I like what I do, and I take my time, and I don’t do anything else.”
He has gone a decade between books before: “Sometimes my dear wife Nan, who’s been in the publishing business for all the years we’ve been married … she said, ‘You know, you have to stay out there. A whole generation never heard of you.’ It’s true. A whole generation comes of reading age, you know, and they never heard of you, because you publish every 12 years, or 10 years …. I would hope that I could produce work faster than I do, but I cannot.”
He did, in this last fallow decade, come up with one major magazine story, “Ali in Havana,” on assignment for The Nation. “I wrote, I think, a piece on the level of anything I did when I was 30 years younger,” Mr. Talese said. It checked in at 14,000 words, and The Nation wanted nothing to do with it.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to sell this to anybody I want,’” Mr. Talese said. “’Cause I’d had people say, ‘Would you like to write for us, for GQ?’ ‘You want to write for, you know, Rolling Stone?’ … And I was rejected; that piece was turned down by 10 magazines.”
Eventually Esquire, which had turned it down once, agreed to give it another try. “And they held it for three or four months, and they finally published it … luckily for me, the only reason that magazine piece is around; it was selected one of the Best [American] Essays of 1997. I naturally have that book.”
A writer can be immortal, anthologized, but that’s no protection. A sermon was developing, a good one, Mr. Talese’s specifics opening out to his universal: “And what am I saying? I am saying that everybody knows rejection …. I think to be an actor, to be an actor is one of the most courageous things that one could want to be, and also one of the saddest pursuits of expression, the stage. To go up there and audition and audition. I don’t care who you are, you could have been one of the fine actors of your time. You still get turned down for roles.”
So Mr. Talese writes about failure. “I think that’s a very pervasive and ongoing condition of mankind and womankind,” he said. “You have to know that. That that is going to be a visitor in your particular house at all times of day and at all seasons of your life.
“Not that I like it,” Mr. Talese added.
But Mr. Talese had written about it—Mr. Bobbitt’s failure and Ms. Bobbitt’s failure too, because in the end, years after the piece was spiked, Ms. Bobbitt called him up, wanting a sympathetic ear. And Marla Maples’ failure with Peaches, her restaurant, and the failure of the civil-rights movement to raise up the races together in Selma, Ala., and the failure of one humiliated and overlooked Chinese soccer player, and the failure of a writer, in his seventh decade, to wrestle success out of these stories.
“It’s a story about a quest,” Mr. Talese said. “It’s a story about our pursuit of the story. Not the story. It’s the people you meet along the way and the self-promoted obstacles.”
And—it was done, as Mr. Talese had explained early on in the conversation, maybe 20 minutes after settling in.
“This book is not going to be published till late April,” Mr. Talese said, “but I am in this time already working on something …. So, I’m 73 years old, and in February, Feb. 7, I’ll be 74, and I think I have some good sentences left, good paragraphs left.
“And maybe I’ll never write them,” Mr. Talese continued, “maybe I won’t live long enough, but when I was doing this book, I thought, ‘Jesus, one thing that’s going to be terrible—what if you don’t finish this book?’ But it didn’t mean that I worked with any sense of urgency. I just took my time.”
Mr. Talese considered the story so far, as he’d framed it up, so far. “Is this what you came uptown for?” he asked. “Do you want—is this what you want to talk about?”
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