He’s a legend. The real deal. At 86, American Gay Talese, journalist and writer, master of the literary reportage, has never been so dapper. A tale of suits, but that’s far from it all…
By Raphaël Malkin, in New York.
Article originally published in L'Étiquette issue 2.
In its latest winter issue, the Columbia Journalism Review asked several figureheads of American journalism to give their advice for a successful reportage. Before each name came a short presentation, giving their publications, their most famous works… But for Gay Talese, CJR simply wrote ‘Gay Talese… Well, it’s Gay Talese.’ That’s it, nothing to add. Indeed, within American journalism, Gay Talese is a legend.
Former temp at the New York Times, this son of Italian immigrants forged his own myth by infusing his writings with a literary tone. His portraits or investigations are thus traversed by long descriptions, elevating the science of detail to its absolute peak. Considered, alongside Tom Wolfe or Truman Capote, as one of the pioneers of New Journalism, Gay Talese has, along his career, written more than a dozen books. In Honor Thy Father (1971) he rides along a powerful New York Italian mafioso. In The Voyeur’s Motel (2016) he describes the life of a motel owner who peeped on his patrons through ingenious and perverse stratagems.
Thus is the work of Gay Talese, bouncing from celebrity to the nameless masses. In his work one can find the worker in charge of the Times Square giant advertising boards, the old-as-time writer in charge of the New York Times necrology section, or Frank Sinatra. The article about the world-famous crooner, which Talese published in April 1966 in Esquire, titled ‘Frank Sinatra has a cold’ is still today considered a masterpiece to emulate, where observation was closely tied to investigation. ‘Sinatra was wearing an anthracite suit, tailored in a rather conservative manner, save for the fact the lapels were cut in fancy silk; his shoes, English-made, were impeccably shined, up to the sole,’ Talese wrote.
The journalist has always paid close attention to clothing and attire, those of his subjects of course, but also his own. In addition to being a celebrated writer, Gay Talese is a man of remarkable elegance. Far from the cliche image of the world-weary journalist, covered with the mud of his latest adventure, Talese rather embraced the image of some sort of dandy, his head adorned with a fedora and always in a three piece suit. That night, in his writer’s nest, located in the basement of the private residence he owns in Manhattan, Gay Talese wears a vest and a pants from a coffee-coloured suit, with a pink striped suit. Before we began talking, the man who this year will turn 86 passes his hand through his white-snow hair, then puts on the suit’s jacket. ‘You see, this suit has practical buttonholes, unlike the majority of today’s jackets. They’re not just decorative, I can unbutton it. Even though I never do it, it makes all the the difference.’
L’ETIQUETTE. You wrote one day: ‘when I dress up in one of my tailor-made suits, I’m in harmony with my greatest ideals.’ What are those ideals, and how do they relate to clothes?
GAY TALESE. I’ve always been interested by style, because I grew up into it. My father was a tailor. He was Italian as well. He was born in a small village of Calabria, in Southern Italy, were there was noting. At 17, he went to meet his cousin Antonio Cristiani, who lived in Paris and was a tailor, Rue de la Paix. Antonio Cristiani taught my father tailoring. For my father, outward appearance was something essential. He passed this on to me. In a certain way, I’m like my father. With my pen, my notebooks, my articles and my books, I pay attention to small details, like my father did with his suits. I work so that my chapters don’t crumble away like stacks of cards. The minutia of writing and tailoring are somewhat similar. I work like a tailor. I sew the words together.
E. Your father, Joseph Talese, owned his own business in Ocean City, the small city in New Jersey were you were born and grew up. What are the first memories of your father and his shop that come back to you?
G.T. I remember the dressing rooms, with their velvet curtains and three mirrors. The customers who came in wore coats and Homburg, fell hats with slightly raised edges. These man, mostly protestants, had comfortable incomes and had in town a rather positive reputation. My father almost bowed to them. In the shop, the customers took place on some sort of pedestal and my father took their measures. Then, when they were gone, he’d retire in his workshop where he would cut the suits. I can see him spreading large sheets of fabric on this long table, measuring, tracing lines, cutting…
E. You applied yourself to be elegant when you were very young…
G.T. In the summer, when we’d go to the beach as a family, my father was wearing a white suit. Even in those moments, he did not want to wear more practical sportswear. He had to shine. It’s related to what we call in Italy ‘La Bella Figura.’ Italians like to be well dressed to impress those around them. My father made me my first tailor made suits when I was barely a teenager, because he wanted me to be the most handsome and the most respectable of all. I liked it instantly. In high school I wore suits, vests and ties, I was dressed like a man from the 30s, while all my the other students wore boots, sports jackets and chino pants. I did not dress ‘young’ at all, and I think I never did. I never looked like a teenager. When I dress, I try to be as unique as possible. I want people asking who I am when they see me. With my suits, it felt as if I was on a studio stage. And not as an extra: I’m dressed like the leading man who carries the gun and kisses the girl, or the one who owns the magnificent villa. My relationship to clothing is very individualist. I have to be constantly well put. When I leave my house to grab a sandwich at the corner store, I dress well. Why? Because people will believe it. I cannot allow myself to be common. I’m an elegant man and I believe in elegance in all circumstances. Appearance is key to me. Especially because I’m a journalist. It’s a way to show the respect I have for the story I want to write. It’s also a way to seduce the person I’m talking to, wether he’s an elected official or a working joe. You’re always more likely to open your door to someone that presents well.
E. What was the time where your appearance was most important?
G.T. In 1953. In June of that year, I graduated in journalism from the University of Alabama. Some time before that, I had met this student in French class, who told me that his cousin was the editor-in-chief of the New York Times, and that if I really intended to become a journalist, all I had to do was pay him a visit on his behalf. During the summer, while I was at my parents’, in Ocean City, I went ahead and did it. One morning, I put on a three piece suit and a light brown Fedora. I got on a bus for New York and stopped on 41st street, two blocks away from the New York Times’ offices. On the third floor I came to a large reception hall. A man was stationed there. I told him I came to see Mr. Turner Catledge. The receptionist asked me: ‘Do you have an appointment?’ ‘Not in the least. I’m here because I know Mr. Catledge’s cousin,’ I replied. And then I ended up telling him the story of my friend from school. The man, who must have been 65 or 70 and was wearing a bow tie, looked me up and down, as if to scan me. In an instant he took in my suit, my tie, my hat. He must have told himself I was neither a crook nor crazy. He was intrigued, I think. I looked like someone who mattered. He picked up his phone and five minutes later a young man came to greet me. Herb Andre was Turner Catledge’s secretary. I told the cousin story again. He told me that Turner Catledge was a busy man, but that if I came back around 4pm, just before the afternoon staff meeting, I could talk to him for a few minutes. I came back at 3:45pm after walking around for hours. The receptionist with the bow tie took me to the New York Times newsroom, full of journalists glued to their typewriters, who drank, smoke, who yelled at each other. I felt like I was in a movie. We took a left and ended up in a panelled office. Across it was an imposing man with greying hair, wearing a dark striped suit, with perfectly shined black shoes. It was Tuner Catledge. The editor-in-chief saw me, Gay Talese, a perfect unknown, in this three piece suits. He got up to greet me. Once more, I told the story of the cousin met in Alabama, James Pinkston. Turner Catledge stared, puzzled. He had no cousin names James Pinkston. At the same time, journalists in rolled up sleeves started feeling the room for the staff meeting. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Mr. Catledge asked his assistant to take down my information, and to contact me if a copy boy position opened up. Then I was told to leave. In the bus on the way back to New Jersey I thought of this son-of-a-bitch Pinkston. There had never been any cousin. It was all bullshit. How could I have been this naive? Two weeks later, the phone rang at my parents’ house. It was Herb Andre, Catledge’s secretary. The New York Times needed a copy boy, and they wanted to know if I was available. I said ‘yes’ without a second’s hesitation. Today, I’m convinced I got that first job thanks to my suit. It’s this goddam three-piece-suit and nothing else which led me to become a journalist. My career started, and my life changed, not because I knew how to write but because I knew how to dress.
E. In The Kingdom and the Power, the book that you wrote about the behind the scenes of the New York Times in 1969, you pay great attention to the clothes worn by the journalists, especially Turner Catledge, editor-in-chief, and his right arm, Clifton Daniel. Why are those details important in your work as a journalist.
G.T. It’s about to talking about what’s real while using literary techniques of description and character creation, what has always been done by Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates or Guy de Maupassant. The idea is to give my reader a perfect photograph of the people who interest me. In that case, I have to describe them in the most painstakingly detailed way possible. And obviously clothes are involved. I’m an observer, a voyeur even. I look and I tell. Before I write, I must know what my characters look like, I collection their photographs, I do some collage. I must truly see these people, and in that sense I want to know everything about what they wear and what it says about them.
E. Amongst the people you interviewed throughout your career, whom are those whose style struck you most?
G.T. You have to admit that the mafiosi had an extraordinary look to them. These people weren’t dressed to kill. They dressed to show the world who they were, and before everything, respectable people, like bankers or entrepreneurs. I wrote a long article and then a book about Joseph Bonnano, the founder of the New York family of the same name. He was a proud man, who knew how to show he was someone special. He acted like a king. You could sense he had the right to rule, to dominate, to kill. He was an immigrant, he had arrived by boat from Sicily to New York, but he wasn’t like the peasants that came alongside him. He didn’t come to America to pick up trash. He came to parade as people lined up to kiss his hand. One day, I invited Joe Bonnano to eat at my place. I asked my father to come. He did not understand my interest in the mafia, and particularly to this ‘Joe Bananas’. He wanted me to write about Marconi, who invented the telegraph, and on my side I told him that gangsters seemed magnificent to me, in their way of life away from society’s, with their Sicilian villagers morale, as if they were plucked straight from the previous century. When Joe Bonnano arrived at my house, he was wearing a long velvet coat. Through the dinner, he kept his coat on his shoulders. He was very formal. My father was too. They were alike, the two of them. When they were in public they acted like they were on stage. They had this aching sensation to have all eyes on them, and therefore were forced to remain impeccable. At that dinner, my father and Joe Bonnano got along perfectly. They talked about music, quoted verses from their favourite poets. My father forgot that, every year, Joe Bonnano had dozen of people killed.
E. Were you ever misled about someone’s character because of the clothes they were wearing?
G.T. When I was younger I played tennis in a private club in Southern Manhattan. One day, as I was looking for a partner, I was introduced to this guy who looked lost. He was wearing an awful T-shirt covered with garbage, paints of every colours. He was a decent player, he knew how to send a ball back. When we finished the game, he told me I was a painter. I understood it as building painter. We played together again, and every time he wore the same dreadful t-shirt. I ended up asking him where he was working, and he told me he had his own studio. He was an artist. He took me to see his studio, at the corner of 34th and Park Avenue. The place was immense, filled with light. My tennis partner was Frank Stella, one of the most famous painter of our time. A New York icon who was key in the emergence of the minimalist current. I was never rich enough to buy his paintings… I could have bought that t-shirt though.
E. Can you be moved by ways of dressing up that are different from your own?
G.T. I’ve been friends for years with the singer Tony Bennet, and he introduced me to Lady Gaga. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time with her. Her style moves me, even though it isn’t mine. Everyday, her outfits are a new discourse. She’s like a storyteller, she creates vision. At the same time, she’s not a snob at all, or arrogant, as some might believe. She has nothing in common with Barbara Streisand, who, I can tell you that, is a pure nightmare. One day, the great baseball player for the New York Yankees Joe DiMaggio said that he played each game as some immense challenge because he knew there’d be in the public some people who’d see him for the first time and he wanted them to remember him more than anything. Lady Gaga, in her case, reinvents herself constantly for the people discovering her.
E. In another way, have you ever found elegance elsewhere than in clothing?
G.T. Years ago I wrote a book about the building of the Verrazano Bridge, which, in New York, connects Brooklyn and Staten Island. For this work, I’ve spent weeks with workers on that giant enterprise. Men whose precision on the job made them elegant. When they worked, the workers had more style than anyone else. The bridge they were building was majestic, its arches and cables reminded one of a giant spider’s web. These workers were like tailors or writers. They created beauty.
E. Is there a ‘casual’ version of Gay Talese? Do you sometime stray from your habits and dress up like a worker?
G.T. The ‘casual’ Gay Talese doesn’t exist. He has never existed. When I’m not in town I wear linen pants, a foulard, Italian mocassins, and a panama. And I drive a Triumph 1957, which I often bring to the shop so that I don’t have to get rid of it. I spend a fortune for that car to keep rolling. This Triumph has memories attached to it, and it’s important. I don’t want all that to disappear. I’ve never worn jeans in my life. Today, life is a succession of tasks that must be accomplished as quickly as possible, without thinking, to make good time. Wearing jeans is a reflection of that. But losing time is something that has an intrinsic value in itself. Me, I want to lose time to think about how I’m gonna dress, and for other things. It’s by losing time that you learn thing. When I was a reporter for the New York Times, I could spend hours in the archives. That’s how I sound some stories…
E. Today, you say you consider tailors as ‘an endangered species.’ Why?
G.T. Emmanuel Ungaro started alongside my uncle Cristiani, in Paris, and he became extremely famous and wealthy afterwards. But Ungaro is an exception. Italian tailors never become very rich. They are little artisans working in the shadows, ordinary and isolated people. They sew, again and again, in their little corners. And who pays attention to this? Few people, like few people are interested in poetry. Tailors are underestimated artists. They do not have the respect they’re owed. My costumes come from Cristiani, obviously, but also from Brioni, Smalto, or Zegna, large Italian firms. They are not like today’s suits. They have been engineered to go with the past, the present and the future. They are timeless pieces, unique. One of my Cristiani suit, for example, has a very special collar, called ‘a la pelle’ in French. Nobody else does that. It’s art.
E. There’s something of fetishism in your relationship to nice clothes?
G.T. Obviously. In addition to all my suits,I own a lot of hats - a man is not fully clothed if he doesn’t wear a hat. I own about forty Fedoras, which I wear exclusively in winter. They’re blue, orange, brown, caramel. Most are made by an artisan that has a shop in Miami and a workshop in Bogota, in Colombia. This man comes to New York once a year. I invite him to my place and we discuss potential hats he could do for specifically for me. Bruno Lacorraza - that’s his name - mostly makes his living by making series of large Borsalinos for Orthodox Rabbi. I also have about twenty hats, lighter, for summer. There’s some fetishism but I’m not an eccentric. I’m not David Bowie. I’m simply proud of wearing well made clothes.