NEW YORK – Gay Talese has a dental appointment, and he is dressed like a mafioso going to his daughter’s wedding. Egg yolk-colored tie, suede vest, brown jacket, gray trousers, cuff links, handkerchief, brimmed hat. In Talese’s world, it makes no difference whether you’re having root canal work or attending a presidential inauguration: You dress like a gentleman. In the 1950s, when he worked as a copy boy for The New York Times – and later as a reporter there – newspapermen came to work in tie and hat. Talese upgraded this to tailored suits, a habit dating back to his childhood in New Jersey, when his father, a tailor of Italian origin, sent him to school in three-piece suits.
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On the way to the dental clinic – walking distance from his Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan – he agrees regretfully with me when I remark that journalists today don’t dress as well as they used to.
“You know, when I was your age or younger, everyone dressed better than they do now,” he says. “When you look at photographs from 1960s sporting events, people wore a hat and tie. And of course, now, even in relatively good restaurants like the one down the street, the French place that we’re going to tonight, you and I will probably be the only two people in ties.”
A few days ago, I was in the Russian Tea Room, which is past its peak.
“I used to go there, it was a marvelous place. Were people wearing ties and jackets?”
People were in baseball caps and T-shirts.
“Oh, my God.”
In almost every sense – not just in his attire – Gay Talese, who will turn 85 next week, is a remnant of another generation. One of the greatest longform journalists of the 20th century, Talese, whom Tom Wolfe called “the father of the New Journalism,” is still with us and working just as he has for the past 70 years. Things don’t always his go his way, though. Last year, reality almost caught up with him. For example, when he was asked, as part of a panel discussion in Boston, which female writers had influenced him and he replied that not even one had.
He doesn’t use Google, he writes his articles and books by hand, then copying them with a typewriter before entering the texts into a computer.
“I didn’t understand the question,” he says now. “The discussion was about journalism, and the fact is that when I started as a sports reporter at the age of 14 there were no female journalists. I did actually note Mary McCarthy.” The explanations were of no avail: The Revolutionary Guards of Facebook and Twitter savaged him virtually.
Another head-on collision with 2016 occurred in the wake of a book, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” that he published last July. It’s the true-life story of Gerald Foos, an obsessive voyeur who bought a motel in Colorado and for 30 years spied on the guests and kept a meticulous record of their sexual behavior. Foos was also, by his own account, witness to a murder in one of the guest rooms. But Talese came under fire for collaborating with criminal and immoral activity while reporting the book, and allegations were also made about the protagonist’s credibility. In addition, a documentary filmmaker who had accompanied Talese announced that he would tell the story in a film of his own. Steven Spielberg, who had acquired the film rights to the book for $1 million and had planned to have Sam Mendes direct, was forced to cancel the deal – and lost the investment.
The scandals and the (partly) negative reviews of the book put a bit of a dent in Talese’s tranquil and stubborn facade. At one point he declared that he didn’t stand behind the book’s credibility, before backtracking and saying he regretted nothing. Reflecting on the events a few days before the end of 2016, he admits that he emerged from the year battered and bruised. But at least he’s still alive, and his suit is as wrinkle-free as if it just arrived from dry cleaning.
Talese is constantly in motion, working under the energizing specter of the next deadline. He doesn’t use Google, he writes his articles and books by hand, then copying them with a typewriter before entering the texts into a computer. He was compelled to buy a computer several years ago, when his editors at The New Yorker refused to accept typescripts from him and demanded that he email his work to them. He cursed, then cursed some more, then finally gave in and bought a computer, but he rarely uses it. He also doesn’t have a cell phone. Anyone who wants him has to use an envelope and a stamp and send a letter. If Talese’s curiosity is piqued, the sender will receive a fine letter back in an orange envelope, typed on Embassy Suites letterhead.
Talese is one of the most influential journalists in the United States and on the planet. He’s not well-known in Israel, but generations of journalists view him as the Godfather. The profiles and books he published, after years of research and in a style that reads more like literature than nonfiction, have earned him a velvet armchair in the VIP lounge of 20th-century journalists.
In 1965, Esquire magazine assigned him to interview Frank Sinatra. The singer declined to be interviewed, so Talese started to follow him around and interview his confidants. After a three-month investigation, he published a profile titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a mesmerizing magazine piece, written as though the world’s most articulate fly had perched itself on Sinatra’s lapel and started to type. It’s still considered a breakthrough article and one of the high points in its genre.
Subsequently he published comprehensive and illuminating books on The New York Times (“The Kingdom and the Power,” 1969), on the Bonanno crime family (“Honor Thy Father,” 1971), and his most famous – and controversial – work, on the sexual revolution in America, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” Published in 1981 after years of research, it tells the story of some of the people who took part in America’s transition from a long period of puritanism to sexual awakening during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and helped redefine the concept of “obscenity.”
One of the characters Talese writes about in “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” is Talese himself. In the third person, as though referring to a stranger, he describes the research he conducted for the book. He relates that he lived in a nudist colony, ran a massage parlor, took part in orgies, secretly taped conversations in bars, interviewed nude models, and investigated the lives of the people who were involved in the regimentation and subsequent liberation of sexuality in America.
Talese indeed spent time at Sandstone Retreat, a nudist colony on the California coast that operated in the 1970s on the seam line between cult, social experiment in human sexuality and pleasure temple. Writers and social activists, academics and bohemians, artists and feminist leaders stayed there. For a few weeks, Talese lived there too. He wrote during the day, fornicated at nighttime and interview his fellow nudists nonstop. After a long while, he returned home, to his two daughters, who were still in elementary school, and his wife, Nan, one of the top literary editors in New York. The writing of the book and his exploits while researching it rocked his marriage but didn’t shatter it. This year the Taleses will celebrate their 58th anniversary.
I met with Talese a few days before last Christmas in his Manhattan apartment. The living room is warm, padded with carpets and lined with books, has a fireplace, a mirror that covers an entire wall, along with photos of him in sports cars and with Muhammad Ali, among others. Talese and his wife have lived here for more than 50 years. His bachelor apartment had been in this five-story building, and over time he and Nan acquired its other flats, until they owned the whole structure.
During my short stay in New York I met with friends from my milieu – the liberal left in its extreme New York version. Every sentence they utter is measured, contained and carefully avoids falling into hegemonic, colonialist or patriarchal traps, calculated to offend no group. Gay Talese doesn’t speak that language. He launches verbal cluster bombs, each fragmenting into a broad swath of dozens of mines, and let the listener beware. A pleasant conversation with him over dinner at a French restaurant near his home is an extreme sport, at the end of which each of us is liable to find himself mounted on the wall or bleeding on his plate.
We’re meeting in the period between Donald Trump’s surprise victory and his sobering entry into the White House. Talese, a lifelong Democrat, refuses to be frightened by the new president.
'It’s the biggest hit in American politics, the black president Obama, like a beautiful musical, you know it’s beautiful but it’s a façade, it’s show business.'
It doesn’t seem to you as if he doesn’t really want the job?
“No, come on, he wants the job.”
He wanted to win the election, but to actually work?
“He doesn’t have to work.”
Seven days a week is a lot of work.
“It’s not a lot of work, all these people are helping him out. Don’t think Obama works hard. He didn’t work hard, he didn’t get anything done, he couldn’t even close a prison camp that he promised to shut down when he was a young senator running for president.”
On his first day in office.
“If you can’t even close a stupid prison camp in Cuba, what kind of power do you have?”
How about Obamacare?
Obama inspired people, didn’t he?
“Tell me something he accomplished.”
I’m talking about something spiritual, abstract.
“It’s like writing a hit movie. Let’s say you write a hit work, like [the play] ‘Hamilton.’ You know about ‘Hamilton’?”
Yes, but I haven’t seen it.
“Forget about it – you’ll never get tickets. Obama is like you created ‘Hamilton,’ it’s a feel-good chunk of history, it’s about black people dancing around in colonial uniforms, hip hip hip – it feels wonderful, isn’t democracy wonderful, and here are these black people playing racists. Every one of those guys, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, they’re all slave owners but the audience loves them. It’s the biggest hit in American politics, the black president Obama, like a beautiful musical, ‘Raisin in the Sun,’ you know it’s beautiful but it’s a façade, it’s show business.”
It’s hollow, you mean?
“Like it was a dream, like the movie ‘La La Land.’ I haven’t seen it, but you’re supposed to walk out in love with the world, before you return to reality the next morning and the world is shitty. That’s Obama-land. When we elected a black president in 2008, people thought we were going to have democracy, they thought racism was done with. I was so thrilled when this racist nation that I grew up in had a black president: Oh, my God, Moses is going to preach on a mountain, we’re going to go to heaven. Bullshit, we’re going nowhere. Eight years of nowhere. Racism is worse in 2016 than it was in 2012, worse than it was after 2008. For black people today in the city of Chicago, Obama’s city, whose mayor is an Obama former chief of staff, things are a lot worse than in Alabama. Black people are better off in the South today than in the North.”
Why is that?
'Trump’s success is an inspired moment in this very senior, senior citizen’s life. After the American press demonized this guy for a whole year, and he refused to quit.'
“Look, you are sitting with me on 60th Street right now, between Park Avenue and Lexington. I live a block away from here, and there hasn’t been a black person living in this block for 60 years. I’m talking to you in 2016. I’m 84 now, I moved here when I was 27, and I’ve never had a black neighbor. This is not Israel, this is not Alabama, this is not Belgrade, this is fucking New York, and I’ve never had a black neighbor. There are black rock stars, movie stars, baseball stars, basketball stars. I don’t see them here.”
“Because the real estate interests, Trump’s kind of people, control racism through real estate.”
Do you think Trump is anti-Semitic?
“I was watching Benjamin Netanyahu on ‘60 Minutes’ the other night, and he said, ‘I know Donald Trump, he’s a person that has respect for the Israeli nation, he likes Jewish people.’ It’s true, I think that’s true. I’m so angry at how easily the term ‘anti-Semitism’ is dispensed, unfairly. How many fathers are there who have a favorite daughter, and the daughter marries an Orthodox Jew, and their children are Orthodox I think how easily people call other people anti-Semites, they call him a racist, a misogynist, an anti-Semite – you know it’s so easy to label people, and the press does it, too.”
‘An inspired moment’
Talese’s words pour out in a torrent, as long, circular monologues that jump from one subject to another before returning to certain recurring themes. His anger at what he sees as the blindness that led to the failure of the two establishments that were once his home – the press and the liberal left – burns in him through all our meetings.
“Do you think I put the Democrats on a pedestal? This Italian tailor’s son, which I am, does not see the world like John Kerry or like Chelsea Clinton. You think I’m sitting shivah because Clinton lost the election? No way. Those people were not good. Obama was not good. Bill Clinton was not good, his wonderful wife from Radcliffe, his crazy little greedy daughter. Do you think I’m sitting here crying about this? No, and you know why? Because Trump was right. The people in this country didn’t care about anybody that wasn’t overly educated or privileged or spoiled. The Clintons are spoiled, the Obamas are spoiled. And maybe I’m spoiled, too, I don’t know. I’m not saying I’m an exemplary citizen.
“This crazy Trump, hustler, real estate tycoon, I think he’s better than Obama. We love to say Obama is Frederick Douglass, Obama is Booker T. Washington, Obama is Paul Robeson, the enlightenment. Well it didn’t work. I’m 84, do you think I want to live the last years of my life under Chelsea Clinton? Seeing her picture in the paper every week? Thank you very much. I’d rather have Chelsea Clinton go find a job somewhere. Hillary and Bill can make more speeches to Lehman Brothers or whoever the hell it is, Goldman Sachs.
“You know what Trump’s success means to me? Trump’s success is an inspired moment in this very senior, senior citizen’s life. After the American press demonized this guy for a whole year, and he refused to say ‘I quit.’ The story of Trump is a bit of ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘The Last Tycoon,’ it’s theater, it’s like ‘Atlas Shrugged.’”
So people voted for him because they discerned a story?
“No way. I’m telling you what I think.”
So you’re not talking about something that appealed to voters?
“I’m not sure if people saw him as the reincarnation of the Great Gatsby.”
Why did the literary or journalistic establishment miss the Trump story?
“Because they only saw the story from one point of view; I can see the same story from different points of view. I can see Putin’s point of view, because when I did a story on the Russian opera singer Marina Poplavskaya, I went to Moscow to see her grandmother. I saw this poor woman whose husband was killed at Stalingrad and she never recovered. Goddamn, that woman has to be respected. The Russian people have to be respected. My country sees things from one point of view, we don’t respect other people’s point of view. Who in the hell invited us into Syria? What right do I have to go into Assad’s backyard in Damascus and throw him out? Because Hillary says he must step down? What an arrogant woman she is!”
But isn’t that a humanitarian issue?
“Get out of here.”
There’s genocide in Aleppo.
“There are people on salaries in Aleppo. Don’t believe the propaganda. Aleppo has people who are on an American payroll. Those rebels are on the American payroll. And they didn’t want to let people escape because they have a vested interest in a revolution. You see, rebels are essentially on scholarships, rebels have to be paid. When rebels lose, they are suddenly unemployed, it’s like an auto factory suddenly closes down in the middle of Poland. Their factory was anti-Assad freedom fighters.”
'Do not covet thy neighbor’s wife. Adultery is a financial problem, it’s about fiscal responsibility regarding fucking. It’s fiscal, not moral.'
Do you think the administration in Washington was interested in having this war?
“Of course. Because they have these goddamn planes that cost $60 billion each. So now this real estate guy who is about to run our country will ask about prices, because real estate guys try to knock it down. Great. Because we are such thieves in our military industry, we need enemies, so we have to make Putin Attila the Hun or Adolf Eichmann, because we need more money for defense. And another thing: The army gives jobs to people who are poor. That’s why I respect Israel, because they have conscription. Were you in the army?”
“You know, I went into the army. And smart kids like you, privileged people, educated people like you, a few years mixed in with some farmer’s son doesn’t hurt.”
I’m a farmer’s son.
“Good for you. The tragedy of America is that Americans don’t know what it’s like to be in the military. Two years would be the best thing in the world for Americans. We have terrible citizens in this country. Once we had protest here, we had Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Dylan. Rich kids had to go to the army, so they went out to protest. Right now no one gives a fuck. No one cares but the poor people. We don’t care if they’re black or white or yellow or purple – they’re volunteers – and why are they volunteers? Because there are no jobs, because they barely get out of high school.
“You know, in this country people go to Harvard, then they go into Wall Street, then they work for the government, they work for Obama, shitty little people. They do all the hard work for Obama, but not for Trump. And they don’t care about the poor. That’s why Trump really appealed to them – I mean, he’s no example, because he’s a rich kid, his father was a rich kid, but at least he paid attention to the working people.”
You really think he cares about working people?
“Yes, and you know why? Because his father worked with people who worked, they built buildings, floors, walls, and this kid grew up seeing men with hard hats and gloves.”
But as an employer he doesn’t seem to have much affection for working people.
“George Washington didn’t have affection for working people, either. There was slavery. Our country is not exactly made up of a bunch of saints, as you know. It’s a bunch of hypocrites. Think about Franklin Roosevelt, he was the most aristocratic president in my lifetime and he cared about working people. He did the New Deal, which was a wonderful thing, yet he was an aristocrat.”
New puritan era
Talese’s book “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” documented America’s sexual awakening in the 1960s, following a protracted period of puritanism. Today, at the height of a new era of puritanism, the publication of such a book would be unthinkable.
Hasn’t the great sexual openness you wrote about been erased in recent years?
“My focal point is mid-20th century America. What drew me to the change was the realization that the power of religion is enormously influential. Religion told you how to think and what not to think. ‘Do not think evil thoughts, do not look at dirty pictures, do not read dirty books, do not say dirty things’ – or you’ll go to hell. Whether you’re Jewish or Irish or Arab – there are still many Arabs who are prohibited to look at a woman’s face. But what’s it about? Fucking. Everything is about fucking. Why? Because the economics of fucking are enormous.
'I was kind of a pervert. I hung around massage parlors. I was getting laid, I was having serviced massages. I hung around in the nude at Sandstone, and if doing that wasn’t bad enough, I wrote about it, too.'
“Every place in the world,” he continues, “when a woman produces a child, there has to be financial security or financial regulation. Someone has to pay for the child: food, education, clothing. The state doesn’t want to pay for that, so paternity must be clearly identified. It makes no difference if it’s China or Israel or Norway, the state doesn’t want to take financial responsibility just because some couple go to a disco and get drunk and fuck and a child is born. That child is going to live for 70 or 80 years – what an investment! The state doesn’t want to invest, so we need regulations. Who do we regulate? You can’t regulate the penis. As I said in ‘Thy Neighbor’s Wife,’ you can’t regulate the penis, because it’s a missile. You can’t control it. But women can say ‘No.’
“That’s why, when I was in school, girls were taught to be like the Virgin Mary and say no to sex. Women have the power to refuse a man, so the man has to be careful, because otherwise he will be accused of rape, and that’s a serious thing. The penis has to be controlled like in arms control. We’re taught to be with one partner for life, because then at least there’s a husband and he’s responsible for providing for the child. But if a woman has lovers, who is going to be financially responsible for the child? That’s what ‘Thy Neighbor’s Wife’ was about: adultery. Do not covet thy neighbor’s wife. Adultery is a financial problem, it’s about fiscal responsibility regarding fucking. It’s fiscal, not moral.
“ ... So we’re not in 1949 now, we’re in 2016, and we’re told that we have to learn how to control that weapon. How will you know how to control it when you’re 17? It just goes up in the air and there’s a relationship of some sort. But the government can’t be responsible for impulse joy. Impulse joy usually starts around 10 o’clock at night and lasts until about 1 in the morning. So, between 10 and 1, in New York, Chicago, Wyoming, San Fernando, Texas ... the penis rises like the moon. And it costs billions of dollars. An industry. The erection industry – terrible story.”
You took some serious flak for that book.
“The worst thing was that I was the father of relatively young daughters. If I’d been single I wouldn’t have cared what people said, but when you have girls of 11 and 13 and they’re in school, and I’m treated like I was Bill Cosby, a sexual predator, a pervert. Well, I was kind of a pervert. I hung around massage parlors. I’m not lying about it. I was getting laid, I was having serviced massages, I went as a customer. I hung around in the nude at Sandstone, and if doing that wasn’t bad enough, I wrote about it, too. People said I bragged about being there, but I didn’t brag, I was giving testimony as a journalist. I didn’t lie about being there as a reporter, because you’re either there or you’re not there. And when I write about something, I go there. If I write about obscenity, I look for obscenity.
“As a fallen Catholic – I was once an altar boy – I started hanging around with sinners, because I wanted to describe sin and how sin changes. One generation says this is a sin, two generations later there’s a modification of the definition of what is sinful, evil, obscene. I wanted to associate with and enter into diplomatic relationships with obscene people – more than diplomatic: intimate relationships with obscene people for the purpose of describing them firsthand and what makes them less or more virtuous than others. That was the theme of ‘Thy Neighbor’s Wife.’
Facebook as ‘sky writing’
Last month, an anthology of Talese’s important articles over the decades, titled “High Notes,” was published. But for nearly 20 years, he’s been working on a book about his married life. He writes in his den, which is actually his basement, a separate unit that has the aura of a bachelor pad, with sofa, shower and bar – even though Talese insists that he doesn’t drink while writing. There are piles of boxes in the room that hold research material for his many books.
You’re a journalist who can spend months or years researching an article or a book, while in five minutes someone else can write a Facebook post or a fake item for a news site that will have the same impact.
“It won’t have the same impact, because that’s sky-writing. Have you ever seen a plane up there writing ‘Drink Coca-Cola’ in smoke, or ‘Buy Alka-Seltzer’? It disappears, the clouds, the words. It doesn’t last.”
So you’re saying that in 50 years people will forget what was written in smoke and will remember what you or others wrote?
“You read Shakespeare, Hemingway, Amos Oz or people who inspired me, like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Guy de Maupassant. They’re alive! Maybe not in the line for Kentucky Fried Chicken, but among intelligent people.”
Aren’t you concerned about the fake-news sites?
'We have to protect ourselves from journalism, it’s so corrupt and ineffective and sucked in to the system.'
“No, what concerns me is the fake news that’s infiltrating the established papers. I’ll give you an example.” Talese springs from the sofa and bounds up to the top floor, two stairs at a time. A minute and a half later he’s back with that morning’s edition of The New York Times. The lead story is an investigative report seemingly showing that Russians hacked the computers of the Democratic Party and influenced the election results. The paper is covered with Talese’s penciled notations: underlined words, crossed-out bits, circles, notes. “Where did they get this? Who’s the source? It’s bullshit. Proof?” Like an editor who gives back the draft of a story and tells the reporter it needs more work.
“This article is bullshit,” he says, “there are no facts. This is The New York Times! I’m saying that this is suspect journalism, that fake news has now infiltrated this paper. This is supposed to be the paper of record, this is supposed to be the Bible. This story is totally unfounded in terms of hard, verifiable information. It’s funded and fomented by lobbyists, propagandists, people who have their own agenda – but a journalist is not supposed to give them a free lunch. He’s supposed to give more than one side to a story, but more important, to prove what he’s writing.
“I can tell you that the paper has gone political and is not a newspaper but an op-ed sheet. In an op-ed you can write what you want, because it’s your opinion, but this is supposed to be reporting. This story has around 6,000 words and has three bylines and there is not one fact in it. It’s all ‘somebody said,’ ‘somebody alleged, ‘according to somebody’ – there’s no hard evidence. What I want to know is whether Vladimir Putin knew that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was being infiltrated by Russians. It says here that it’s ‘possible.’ Sure it’s possible, but I don’t want to know if it’s possible.
“It’s also possible, that Hillary Clinton was married three times before to a Buddhist monk. I want to know where this information comes from. And I’m an Obama Democrat, I’m not a fucking Republican and I never voted Republican. I didn’t vote for Trump. But I’m saying that I’m still a journalist who believes that there are two sides, three sides, four sides to every story.”
Is it because of laziness or are they blinded by their political views?
“I don’t think they’re deliberately subverting the truth. ‘Blinded’ is probably close, but we have to find a better word, because ‘blinded’ suggests that they’re helpless. It’s this post-9/11 atmosphere, approaching jingoism or certainly nationalism, the economic conditions and the decline in advertising revenue, the financial uncertainty of the media world. Companies like The New York Times or television stations have to be so careful not to offend anyone. It’s not only in the politically correct sense, when you can’t say how good-looking this woman may be because that’s sexual harassment. What’s more important is that a proprietor cannot appear to be unpatriotic.”
Didn’t it used to be important to be patriotic?
“Harrison Salisbury, whom you never heard of, was the greatest correspondent of the Vietnam War. He was snuck into Hanoi in 1966 and exposed the American government’s hypocrisy. Forward to Baghdad, 2003, 2004. No journalist has done shit in Iraq. Not one. You know why? Because they were ‘embedded.’ These guys from the Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post put on their stupid flak jackets and flew like acclaimed warriors to report our bullshit war. So that’s how I’m supposed to celebrate journalism? A few nights ago I attended an event of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a black-tie dinner. Committed to protect journalists. But we have to protect ourselves from journalism, it’s so corrupt and ineffective and sucked in to the system.”
It’s also related to the fact that the objects of coverage, such as the U.S. Army, have become more sophisticated and have more control over journalists.
“Yes, but there’s more to it. I think that since 9/11 we have ceased to be interested, as an American nation, in others. That has a destructive effect on journalism and on the curiosity of the journalist. It’s essential to see things from different points of view. The great journalists and writers see things from different points of view. Our American journalism sees things through the point of view of the propagandists that run our country. ”
'That’s the real problem today: There’s no anti-Semitism. The Jews were the best journalists. You know why? Because they were pissed off.'
If you were a young reporter for The Times, how would you have covered this election?
“I would have been fired.”
Who would you talk to?
“I would get the point of view of the obscure. I always got the point of view of the people in the shadows of the system, the people who don’t have a voice: Show women, people who worked in the subway cleaning the tracks. I was never in the mainstream. Journalists like power, they want to be around smart people. Journalists today can’t talk to the average person, they don’t know the language to use. You’re the son of a farmer, but I would have a hell of a time finding a 35-year-old journalist here who’s a farmer’s son. They are so removed from the land and from manual labor, they are stuck in their computer life. Anyone who answers your mail in 20 minutes is a fuck-up, because it means they’re sitting on their ass instead of wandering around, discovering things. Journalists don’t know what the hell is going on.”
Because they’re too educated?
“Because they’re not outsiders. When I was your age or younger, you know who we had as journalists? Jews. Jews who were poor, or Italians like me. Some Irish, a couple of black people. We were the outsiders, we hated power, we didn’t identify with it, we didn’t want to join them. And what do we have three generations later? You know what we have? There’s no fucking anti-Semitism. That’s the real problem today: There’s no anti-Semitism.The Jews were the best journalists. You know why? Because they were pissed off.”
Do you have to be pissed off to be a good journalist?
“Yes. You think you’re going to be a good journalist if you have a gin and tonic in a country club with an ambassador by your side?”
Can you be pissed off if you’re a third generation WASP?
“You’re asking me if a third-generation WASP can be pissed off? Is that what you asked?”
“You’re going to give me a minute, because I’ve never been asked that question before.”
Talese holds his head in his hands and concentrates. While he’s thinking, I remember that in his book about The New York Times, he mentioned a story about Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, a scion of the Times publishing family, who in the 1950s was a young reporter on the Paris desk. One day he went to a car race for his pleasure and there was an accident: 83 people were killed in the stands. Talese wrote, cruelly: “Sulzberger saw the accident, and was horrified by the sight. But it never occurred to him to call the Times.”
Talese raises his head. “I don’t know a fucking third-generation WASP who’s a reporter,” he says. “They’re historians, they go to libraries, they write books about Hamilton, Jefferson, Jackson. I’m trying to think of street reporters, a man or woman who waits for the labor leader at 2 o’clock in the morning to say whether there’s going to be a strike. And has the patience to stay there and not worry about missing a Pilates class. I don’t know. The privileged class are not good journalists, they never were.”
‘I show up, I don’t Google’
Before we part, I accompany Talese on his way to the dentist. I ask about the times when the boundaries between Gay Talese the person and Gay Talese the writer have become blurred. He replies that there are no such boundaries, because it’s the same person. Even when the heads of crime families consulted with him in his living room after a hit attempt in Brooklyn and their bodyguards waited outside the door; and also when he risked his marriage and his relationship with his daughters to research firsthand the sexual possibilities that were open to men in 1970s America.
“I was just a very careful observer, a truth-seeker. Truth-seeking is precious. I want to get as close as I can to reporting to the readers what I think is really real. I try, I show up, I don’t Google this information.”
Aren’t you curious, as a journalist, about what happens in Facebook, in Twitter, the internet?
“I don’t even know what that is.”
But doesn’t it intrigue you, as a curious person?
“I want to see the people. I want to see their faces, like with you.”
But if I told you that there’s a whole world there, that’s maybe despicable but influences the real world, doesn’t that pique your curiosity?
“You know what, I won’t argue with you. You know why? Because I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
You don’t want to see what’s going on there?
“If I’m not there, it doesn’t matter. I have to be there. I am the reporter, Facebook is not a reporter. I don’t even know what Facebook is. You’re talking to a 20th-century cretin."
But people use Facebook as a source of information.
“Who gives a shit?”
People vote according to it.
“I don’t care. That’s why the journalists got this so fucking wrong. Their face was in their laptop, they had no idea what they were writing about. They should have got away from Washington, got out of their fucking Prius, got out of their blue jeans, got out of their bedroom, thrown the laptop into a safe, got on a bus or a train or a horse, and gone to find the story face to face. You don’t what the hell is going on through the technology. Skyping your way through life? Never. I don’t do that.
“But I’ll tell you something: You have to get off your ass, you have to show up, S-H-O-W U-P. That’s what I did in 1940, I did it in 1980 and I did it in 2016. Forget this laptop crap and show up. Archaic? Sure. Horse and wagon – fine. But I’ll be there, and I’m going to get the story right. Nobody is going to think I’m a secondary or tertiary source, some spokesperson. Because I saw it.”