Gay Talese is an American journalist and a nonfiction writer. He wrote for The New York Times in the 1960s after working for its copy and obituary sections. In the 1950s, he was one of the first writers to add minute details, use literary flairs, and begin articles in medias res. These techniques became the foundation of the revolutionary “New Journalism.”
He has written many non-fiction books, beginning with 1964’s The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. His 2006 autobiography A Writer’s Life focuses on his trials and failures as a writer, such as having a profile piece rejected by The New Yorker, which ironically reviewed the book positively and said it had a “distinctly moving” quality.
Gay Talese was recently named the winner of a George Polk Award for career achievement. The awards, presented by Long Island University, are considered among the top prizes in U.S. journalism. Born in 1932, Talese graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in journalism.
Question: Who influenced you?
Gay Talese: Well, I think both parents had a role in my life. My mother, as a assimilated American, much more than my father who was a tailor, and while a great craftsman, to this day I wear a lot of the suits that he made for me decades and decades ago. And I have cousins, Italian cousins and French cousins. There is a mixture of French and Italian in my background because my first cousin on my father’s side went to France in 1911 years before World War I and so I have a lot of tailoring connections, my relatives. So my father impressed upon me a pride in craft and so a pride in crafting a sentence is what I am now connecting to my father’s pride in craft in the way he sewed, the way he shaped a garment, the way he made something that lasted. Clothes made by him or the other people that I mentioned who are related who are tailors for four or five generations beginning in Italy are people who identify with their work and take pride in the fact that their work sometimes lives beyond them. And I feel that way as a writer. It may sound arrogant of me, but I’m not really arrogant about it, but I’m very prideful and caring about what I do and I get this from my father. Victoria Brown: Now I read somewhere that you initially felt that the suits sort of were not becoming as a young person or you didn’t necessarily feel that you liked wearing them because you didn’t fit in. Was there a time as a young person that you actually thought, “I like what I’m wearing,” or was there a certain stage later that you realized these are great clothes?
Question: Why do you dress up?
Gay Talese: Well, when I was young, I was not fully formed so I wasn’t wearing the clothes that I would wear when I was in my 20s when I came to New York. I came to New York to stay in 1956. My history is, as you know, I was born in the ‘30s and I went to college in 1949 and 1953 and then I went into the army for a couple of years. And in 1955, out of the army, I came to New York, so it’s been more than a half a century that I’ve lived in the city. And I became aware of the contemporary mode of fashion. But even as a reporter, I had my own sense of fashion. I was on The New York Times. Tom Wolfe was on The New York Herald Tribune at the same time and he certainly had a sense of fashion. And we were the two people who were in daily journalism, contemporaries in New York in the mid ‘50s and stayed in journalism until the mid ‘60s when both of us went on to write magazine pieces and then later on books. We always had a sense of wanting to, as I put it, dress up for the story. And what I mean by that is I thought what I was doing was very important. When I was a daily journalist, I thought that’s really important. I thought it was really important because I believe that the people who worked with me as colleagues on The New York Times were least likely to lie than anybody else in New York. I thought the politicians were definitely liars, I believed most business people were liars. I had a real cynical sense of the integrity of people and I had a real lofty sense of what we journalists in the New York Times building were. Later on, I was of course dismayed by some of the lying journalists that came to forebear upon the paper’s reputation such as Jayson Blair some years ago and other people you might have heard about on other newspapers as well. But by and large, I believed that being a journalist was a very honorable profession because the American public was less likely to be lied to by our group than by public officials or business people or lawyers. Oh god, the lawyers. Lead us away from that subject.