The Sunday Times

Gay Talese. Photo credit: Mary Henneson

Gay Talese. Photo credit: Mary Henneson

Writing about the trade of his Italian father in the 1989 essay ‘The Brave Tailors of Maida’, Gay Talese notes: ‘A tailor’s eye must follow a seam precisely, but his pattern of thought is free to veer off in different directions, to delve into his life, to ponder his past, to lament lost opportunities, to create dramas, imagine slights, brood, exaggerate - in simple terms, the man, when sewing, has too much time to think’. Talese attributes his sartorial elegance and meticulous approach to writing to his father.  'I essentially write like a tailor,’ he once said. 'My idea as a writer is to make the stitching last. The writing, the shape of the story, the seriousness with which it is approached, the sense of craftsmanship.’  I first heard of Gay Talese in 1981 when I was a shallow manchild grudgingly serving an apprentice as a London tailor. He featured in a magazine story following the publication of  'Thy Neighbour’s Wife’. Talese spent the 1970s writing this experiential take on the so-called sexual revolution; attending orgies and nudist colonies, managing a massage parlour in the name of research.  It was his look that struckme; the writing hit me much later. Along with Tom Wolfe - the best-dressed pioneers of the new journalism of the 1960s - he sports hats, bespoke suits and hand-cobbled shoes. Dressed as though heading for Wall Street, he leaves his five-storey town house on New York’s upper east side to descend into a former wine cellar below. The windowless-room where he works is surrounded by floor to ceiling shelves containing…….everything: ‘I want to report on what I have seen and heard and people I’ve known, and what I’ve done, because I think it’s connected to history. I keep records to testify to the fact that I’m alive’. 

At 84 he’s still stitching those stories together. The subject of his new book ‘The Voyeur’s Motel’ has been with him since ‘Thy Neighbour’s Wife’, when the owner of a Colorado motel first made contact. Gerald Foos confided that he’d been conducting his own scientific research on the sexual lives of Americans, by spying on his paying guests and documenting his findings. Talese signed a confidentiality agreement and visited him, essentially becoming an accomplice to the voyeurism, and later, privy to the details of a murder that Foos witnessed. In April, an extract from the book was published in The New Yorker. (Foos finally gave Talese the go ahead to tell the story). In a reprise of the response to the publication of his book on the sexual revolution, certain critics are questioning the author’s ethics.  Those that aren’t include Stephen Spielberg and Sam Mendes, who will be taking on producer and director roles for the film adaptation, since Dreamworks bought the rights for a reputed £1 million dollars.

Foos is the latest in a line of figures that Talese has written about - the mafia among them - that appear at odds with polite society and whom he attempts to redeem in some way.  Like so many others I came across his celebrated masterwork ‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’ (1966), several years after the event - 15,000 words on the author’s thwarted attempt to interview a fellow Italian-American. Vanity Fair has described it as the greatest non-fiction short story of the twentieth century.  ‘Many Italian-American boys of his generation’, he writes of Sinatra, 'were then shooting for the same star - they were strong with song, weak with words, not a big novelist among them'.  Gay Talese became the exception to the rule. He was strong with words, and elevated non-fiction to the standard of the novel. Tom Wolfe has credited him with inventing the new journalism in which the devices of fiction were brought into play: scene-setting, point-of-view, interior monologue.  Talese has always been emphatic about using real names and real dialogue.  Something that began with the stories he wrote as a copy boy at the New York Times (its staff became the subject of his 1969 best-seller ‘The Kingdom And The Power’). He has written of his family history, and the major work in progress is the story of  his 57-year marriage. 

In his essay ‘Origins Of A Non-Fiction Writer’ from 1997 he writes: ‘Each of my books draws inspiration in some way from elements of my island and its inhabitants’. He was referring to his formative years in New Jersey, watching his father at work and eavesdropping on the conversations at his mother’s dress shop. Here he learned the ‘store manners’ and charm that served him so well as an interviewer. It is the story of those customers, and similar figures he has come upon since that are central to his best pieces of writing: 'the overlooked non-newsworthy population that is everywhere, but rarely taken into account by journalists and other chroniclers of reality’.

These were the words that stayed with me when I set about telling a similar  island story that I’d been a witness to, in the book ‘The Likes Of Us’, a decade ago. The overlooked population here was the British white working class who became newsworthy when cast as a caricature or called on to play the patsy. To me these figures were as ‘dateless’ as the characters Talese has described in his brand of journalism, which he believes, rightly, is redundant in an age when celebrity soundbites and Twitterhave become the authorial voice.