GAY TALESE talks and is interviewed by Sandra Martin at the Premiere Dance Theatre on Saturday (October 21), 2 pm. Rating: NNNNN
NEW YORK CITY - Gay Talese is incredulous when I tell him I went to Elaine's the night before, got a great table and even logged some face time chatting with the bristly Upper East Side doyenne immortalized not only in Woody Allen's Manhattan, but also in Talese's sprawling new book, A Writer's Life.
Talese, one of the world's best English-language non-fiction writers, helped create the New Journalism long before Tom Wolfe could hang a name on it.
"Did you get a reservation or just walk in?" he wants to know as we chat in his stylish townhouse just steps from Park Avenue. It's clear questions will be flying from both sides of the coffee table, since Talese proves at least as interested in getting a fresh story as in being the subject of one.
"Where'd they put you?"
Aware that Elaine and her staff take great pleasure in burying nobodies in the back, or "Siberia" according to Talese's book, I proudly announce, "Right up front, under the picture of JFK and LBJ at the ballgame."
The two presidents stare out of the frame in the ball park that will one day be named after Robert F. Kennedy, like two Dallas policeman looking aimlessly up in a book repository windows.
He shakes his head, amazed, and keeps lobbing questions my way with an easy urgency that makes me just the latest in a 50-year-long cast of characters happy to give him answers.
Like Wolfe, Talese is a stylish dresser, sporting an immaculate camel-coloured suit and matching fedora when we meet on his doorstep. He developed his taste for fine clothes by watching his tailor father make suits and his mother sell fancy dresses to their Jersey coast customers. Safe to say the expensive white cloth of Wolfe's clothing was not cut by clan.
Despite the duds, Talese is a roll-up-his-sleeves kind of guy with an everyman's energy. He's Get Off My Cloud Stones to Wolfe's Penny Lane Beatles. If the Italian American had penned The Right Stuff, Wolfe's legendary look at the Apollo program astronauts, he'd have focused on the assembly workers who built the rockets and the crews who mopped up the launch pad after liftoff, not the space jockeys.
"I like to put my little flashlight in places that are not over-lit," says Talese, explaining his preference for telling big stories about small people. "I'm leaving little footprints into obscurity as I walk toward my grave."
More probing than prolific, Talese's deeply researched books have pulled the covers back on American sexuality (Thy Neighbor's Wife), the Mafia (Honor Thy Father), the New York Times (The Kingdom And The Power) and a construction crew (The Bridge).
A Writer's Life is not a memoir but a dissection of a writer's process, or non-process when blocked, illustrated with amazing stories and character studies, each of which could form the basis of its own book.
Straight-talking Elaine Kaufman is revealed, along with Lorraina and John Bobbitt, the Chinese soccer player who missed a penalty kick and cost her team the gold medal, and a sad-sack Manhattan building where 11 restaurants have so far gone belly up.
I have lunch at the latest attempt before meeting Talese, and tell him this one, Haikara, is going down, too.
"The Japanese one? How do you know? It's true."
I can tell because it breaks one of the four rules for a successful restaurant that he explains in his wide-ranging but surprisingly cohesive book.
"The maitre d' looked bored," I say, and he nods knowingly.
Restaurants are important in Talese's book - and his life. In A Writer's Life he reveals his hard-working father was happiest relaxing in a restaurant and his mother was one of the few Italian mamas not comfortable in the kitchen.
A peak inside Talese's own fridge reveals a refrigerator that's only cooling white wine, some champagne and a piece of butter and a freezer with a few ice cubes and a couple of frozen martini glasses.
A cool, glass-covered terrace at the back of his home features six cocktail bar tables and chairs to match and could easily be a fine Manhattan resto's patio dropped into a house that's only missing the wait staff.
And restaurants are a source of characters for Talese, who shamelessly eavesdrops whenever he's out - which is often.
And it's an easy task at Elaine's where the conversation is as loud as the old-school red and black paint that covers it.
I tell him of my great time in the loud and friendly spot and try to be polite about the less-than-amazing fare.
"But you don't go for the food," he agrees as if to the obvious.
"And Elaine wasn't there then right? So you sat there by yourself..."
If you're in the main room of Elaine's, you're never really sitting by yourself even if you are officially alone. Diners table hop as giggling groups of formally gowned young girls fresh from the opera, plop themselves in empty seats at adjacent tables in front of silver-haired charmers in Steve Allan tuxes.
As a table of 12 teases a late-arriving pal, smartass cracks come from all corners of the room.
"Are you a writer?" One group demands of me and I haven't even pulled my notebook.
"Yes," I answer a little surprised, wondering if I have a pen poking out of somewhere.
"Well I win the bet," declares Deborah (de-BOAR-ah) Gregory, herself a writer, author of the Cheetah Girls teen fiction series, to the approval of her gorgeous table mates as their attention drifts away from their food to a somewhat startled stranger.
"It's a great gig but I'd love to write books for grownups. I wish my next book talked about blow jobs."
When I say, 'Why not?' she rubs her index finger and thumb together, the international symbol for bling, and sighs.
The walls are covered with books by writers who have bagged some bling, their books like celebrity 8 x 10s in other places. Charming TV actor Federico Castelluccio, pony-tailed Furio Giunta on The Sopranos rolls in and after I discreetly ask one of his table mates, "Is he the guy?" we are quickly introduced.
Like freshly met strangers at a neighborhood cocktail party, parked on the arms of overstuffed couches, we quickly exchange Toronto tales and he assures me he reads NOW whenever he is in the city. He was up for the year's film fest because of his role in the latest J-Lo flick (El Catante) and he swears an uncle in "Wop-bridge" Woodbridge, is the inspiration for his Sopranos accent.
"So what happens when Elaine walks in?" Talese wants to know.
I get a waiter to connect us. Depositing me at her table as if for an audience. A Mama Cass presence, Elaine oozes over-stuffed elegance and regards me skeptically as she turns away from a now ended conversation.
"I'm here from Toronto to interview Gay Talese," I announce quickly, aware a final "thumbs down" is just one conversation lag away.
"About the new book."
"I wish he had written more about Selma and civil rights," she announces confidant that her opinion matters.
"What did you think of what he wrote about you and this place?" I want to know.
"It was fair", she says, her nose pointed skyward, clearly feeling she's letting him off too easily.
"She must not hate the book because she's got it up on her wall," says Talese after hearing the story. Throughout our interview Talese takes occasional phone calls as he readies for his latest night on this topmost of towns, searching for more conversations and characters in the bars and boulevards.
A Writer's Life may be one of the greatest achievements of writer's block ever. The talented Talese writes a book to avoid writing a handful of other books. It's held together not just by consistently compelling and beautifully written character studies, but also by the window it offers into a writer's process.
"What ties the characters together is the curiosity of a wandering writer who perseveres enough to get to know people who didn't necessarily, in the beginning, want to know me," he says, graciously offering to refill the scotch he poured me upon arrival.
"Twelve years to write a book seems like an awfully long time, but it isn't really when you spend at least six years getting to hang out with people. It takes me a long time to know the people I want to write about. I call this kind of non-fiction the art of hanging out.
"You really have to establish a trust that allows you to be with that person. It's like courting, like dating, but it's not a one-night stand. It's a relationship. I'll take the time, I'll take years. I will dedicate myself to the dedication of doing justice to you, to your life, because I think your life is significant. That's my deal."
But few writers share Talese's taste in writing/dating subjects. He's more compelled by John Bobbitt than by his knife-wielding wife, for instance, though he writes extensively about both in A Writer's Life. Bobbitt's tale exemplifies Talese's skill at finding relatively insignificant people whose stories are very telling about their time.
"There's the sensational story of John Bobbitt, but then there's the deeper one, and there are many John Bobbitts. White guys like Bobbitt who don't have an education are really at the bottom of the social pecking order now. Nobody gives a shit about these guys, because they have no excuse.
"John Bobbitt was a character of his time. His time was 1993. There was no war, and he was a Marine. He was a tattooed brute, undereducated, barely got through high school, and was it not for the Marines he wouldn't have known what the hell to do with his life.
"Feminism was rising as Bobbitt was sinking, and when he got dropped from the Marines after four years he got various minimum-wage jobs. When he put on his uniform, it was for Burger King and not the U.S. Marines.
"Fiction writers have written about white trash, but I want to write fiction without writing fiction. I want to write short stories with real names, but use the techniques of the fiction writer.
"I wanted to write about people who were not necessarily well-known because it would be like the fiction writer. it's like fiction because you are creating characters, people you have never heard of, but you read it because the writing is good."
Even when he was scrambling for assignments as young reporter at the New York Times -"the only real job I've ever had" - Talese was drawn to the outsider stories. One editor claimed he was always looking for the "rag picker" take.
"And the editor would say, 'Who the hell wants to read this? This is supposed to be a newspaper and there's no news.'
"I wanted to be a newspaper guy that wasn't writing news. News, more often than not, is perishable. If you're a political reporter, and I never wanted to be, you are so dependent on the topicality of who you are covering. You could spend a whole year covering the campaign of someone like George McGovern and then he never becomes president.
"How'd you like to have to write about Joe Bidden?" he says with a 'not on your life" shake of his head. Daily deadlines may have chased Talese out of the newspaper game decades ago but he thinks the business has only gotten worse since he left.
"These guys are being so manipulated for almost six years by this administration because the press likes the access, because they are on the edge of power - 'Oh boy, you're on Air Force One.'
Journalists aren't outsiders anymore as they were when I was a young guy coming up. They're practically all Harvard classmates. They're better educated, they're members of society in good standing, socially acceptable. Journalists were not all that socially acceptable when I was coming up.
"The whole American press establishment in Washington has done a terrible job, in part, because they became so imbedded with the powerful people - not just the army. And I don't think newspapers should ever allow war correspondents to be in an armored personnel carrier moving with troops. Then you become a flak even though you don't think you are. You're a mascot, you're moving with the military and you're like a mascot. Hell, these guys are keeping you alive, you're supposed to be detached."
It doesn't take the sight of a picture of his wife Nann with Jimmy Carter perched on top of the TV to pick up Talese's progressive leanings. That kind of humanism is apparent in all of his work and it's not surprising to hear of frustration with the ineffectiveness of the American left.
"The press has bought into this power and they are worried because they have owners. The owners are businessmen and no one wants to be thought of supporting anything but patriotism and, after 9/11, the whole press became emasculated and the mission became to battle terrorism. The Republicans took over the mission of battling terrorism. I
n terms of media, the people that are running the war are terrific, they've taken over the language, they come up with phrases that are bullet proof. They'll say, 'Cut and run." Who thought of that? We're not going to cut and run, the American people grab onto that."
He says Condelese Rice recently started using the word robust to sell the war effort and now it's showing up in sports reporting.
"The liberals are no good because look what happened to John Kerry. How he could be defined as a coward is a miracle. These pricks, none of them were in the army, none of them, and they were making this guy who really risked his life, look like a wimp. And our president bought his way out - it's amazing.
"There's no dissent, no dissent."
He laments the absence of the many antiwar voices of the 60s and 70s.
"I don't see any great rebellion on the home front."
Invoking Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Neil Sheehan Harrison Salisbury and more, Talese says Noam Chomsky is not filling the void, despite his recent endorsation by Hugo Chavez.
"He's boring - no one can get past page 16 of any of his books.
"I wish we had a draft because if we had the draft we wouldn't have the war because the wealthy people in this country. The powerful people aren't going to have their daughters and sons go out of Princeton and into the military. It wouldn't happen."
Contemplating this embattled post-911 world, Talese muses about the security guards he will pass to catch the plane that will bring him to the Author's festival and in a minute, he's processing another story.
"How much do they get paid, do they have car, how do they get there? When they get home, what the hell do they do? Do they watch the news, how long can you last in that job?
"Suppose something happened, suppose they miss a terrorist on their watch. A football player misses an assignment and somebody scores a touchdown. Okay, you fucked up and you lose the game. But if you're on security, it's no blocking assignment you're missing, it's more than that."
Talese squirms on his leather couch as he gets caught up in the story, his eyes sparkle and he speaks to himself as much as me as he considers the life of yet another person most of us simply pass by.
"It's a way of seeing, not an assignment. You just have in your head, 'I wonder what it's like, I wonder what it's like, I wonder what it's like.'
"What you're doing is intoning about your time. This guy who works in the airport security is of this time."
The front door opens and a dog walker comes in trying not to disturb the two men in the living room. After he unleashes the pooches and leaves, Talese starts riffing on the story behind his hounds' handler. He lights up, imagining his inside look at Manhattan lives.
"See, there's a story, the story is walking dogs. This guy Tim, he's very attractive, friendly and intelligent. He goes uptown, he goes downtown, he's got a girlfriend with him. I could certainly do a story about him, about what he knows, about the people whose dogs he walks."
And Talese excitedly daydreams about another story he could tell, another stack of questions he could ask of someone others might miss.
New journalism? He just says it's the ancient art of storytelling.