Looking for Gay

By | Apr 7, 2021 | No Comments

Ever since I read Gay Talese’s collection of nonfiction writings in Fame and Obscurity, he has been one of my favorite authors. His meticulous attention to detail and deft, almost artisanal approach to selecting the ideal words or phrases to characterize the people or settings that were his topic were frequently arresting—layered but straightforward, and wholly his own. His nonfiction writing had a literary quality. In fact, he practically invented the genre. Along with writers like Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, and Joan Didion, Talese was at the forefront of a writing movement called the New Journalism, which combined literary approaches with strict reporting, in the 1960s and 1970s. He published one of the most well-known pieces of magazine journalism ever, “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold,” in 1966 for Esquire Magazine, and he did so without speaking to Frank Sinatra.

Gay Talese
Gay Talese

After that introduction to his writing, I was hooked. I was on a swift path to consuming everything he had written. I read his longer works, such as Honor Thy Father, Thy Neighbors Wife, The Kingdom and The Power, and Unto The Sons, and sought anything else I might discover in magazines like Esquire or The New Yorker. Talese had become my religion. Even his book titles had biblical-like overtones. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to finally meet him.

I first met Talese in person at Spread, a restaurant I had opened around 2000 with my then-partner, Bobby Ochs. Bobby had previously owned a very successful restaurant on the Upper East Side called Mulholland Drive Cafe with actor Patrick Swayze that Talese used to frequent. So, when we opened it on East 24th Street in the Marcel Hotel, Bobby invited Talese to the launch party.

Gay Talese
Gay Talese at home

When I introduced myself, I told Talese how much I loved his work and shared a cringe-worthy story from my undergraduate days. I was so moved by Thy Neighbor’s Wife after I finished reading it that I immediately wanted to phone the author to express how much I enjoyed it. He was living in a townhouse on East 61st Street. At the time, I lived with my uncle in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and had taken the trip to the city to visit his home instead. When I arrived, I circled his block a few times just to take in all the majesty of my oracle’s environment. But I didn’t have the courage to ring his doorbell. I went to the corner payphone and rang him instead. When he answered the phone, he simply said, “Hello,” and I said nothing. I just wanted to hear his voice and perhaps add another dimension to the overall Talese experience I had constructed from reading his work until then. Talese then repeated, ”Hello. Who is this?” Again, I said nothing. He repeated one last time, “Hello,” and then hung up. After I told Talese the story, he chuckled and said, ”You’re not alone. I still get calls just like that.”

After that occasion, I would often run into Talese on the streets of New York, usually around his neighborhood. We’d acknowledge each other in passing and continue on our merry way. One evening, I was invited to a book launch party of my friend, Andy Summers, former guitarist of The Police, and his co-author photographer Ralph Gibson at a gallery near Talese’s home. My friend, singer/songwriter Jon Regen, had joined me. After an hour at the party, we decided to leave and take a stroll. As we were walking down 61st Street, I noticed Talese, dressed to the nines as he usually was (his father was a tailor), shooing away a drunken vagrant who was loitering in front of his townhouse. I volunteered to help and finally got the derelict to move on. Talese thanked me, and when I mentioned we had met before, he said, “I know who you are. You’re Bobby’s friend.” I said, ”That’s right.” We talked for a few more minutes and then left.

In 2009, I called Talese to ask him if he’d be interested in doing an interview on Ernest Hemingway for a publishing company I had launched in 2007 called Simply Charly. He generously accepted and responded to a list of ten questions I had faxed to him because at the time he didn’t have email. I then followed up and requested we do a companion filmed interview on Hemingway at his home, and again, he agreed. When he saw the finished piece, he told me it was one of his favorite interviews and added it to his website.

My last few encounters with Talese happened when I bumped into him again on the street and told him I was promoting some jazz nights at a beautiful bar in town called Palio, in the Equitable building on 52nd Street between Broadway & 6th Avenue. It was a perfect place to take a date and relax in one of its cozy banquets and hear live music. So, Talese would call me occasionally to reserve a corner booth as he would have a friend (usually a woman) in town with whom he wanted to mingle. I knew he had been married to the editor, Nan Talese, but I paid no mind as long as my literary hero was happy.

Today, Talese is still writing—primarily magazine pieces. He was never a prolific author. He typically took about ten years to produce each of his books, as he probably spent half as much time researching his subject before writing. But what masterpieces they are!

RECOMMENDED READING

Leave a Reply