Getting Drunk at The New York Times
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.
His groundbreaking article "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" was named the "best story Esquire ever published," and he was credited by Tom Wolfe with the creation of an inventive form of nonfiction writing called "The 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 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. His latest book is High Notes: Selected Writings of Gay Talese.
Question: Is there a connection between alcohol and creativity?
Gay Talese: No. When I was young, I do remember there were a lot of drinkers who were known to be good writers. A lot of the great writers when I was a kid the names like William Faulkner was a big drinker, and a F. Scott Fitzgerald who was one of my favorite writers when I was a young man and reading fiction for the first time was a notorious drinking and his wife. There was a celebration of alcoholism almost within the creative arts and also even in journalism.
I remember my first time in the city, remember the New York Times. I remember one job I had was working late on what they called the rewrite desk. That was where you’re in a rewrite bank of typewriters, and people call in information. Well, some of those rewrite men some of them were so drunk. One time I saw a man whose head fell on his typewriter. This was the center of the New York Times, and he was just out for the drinking. He had a bottle in his drawer. I remember when I was a sports writer.
At one of the jobs I had in my early career was working in the sports department. One time I was sent out to Arizona to cover the New York Giants baseball team on the year it moved from New York to San Francisco to become the San Francisco Giants. They trained in Tucson or Phoenix, Arizona, and I remember I met sports writers from other newspapers, and there was a sports writer for the New York News and a sports writer for the New York Mirror which used to be a tabloid in New York, and these two guys who covered the New York Giants. And I was doing it for the New York Times – these two guys were pals, and one of them was a heavy drinker, a big drinker. He his name is Jim McCullough, and the guy his pal from The Mirror’s name is Kent Smith. Kent Smith because McCullough would always get drunk before the game was over would write both stories. He would write a story for the New York Mirror, and then he would write under the name Jim McCullough another story to cover up for his friend. His friend was never able – he was never sober enough to get into the game to write what happened. I mean this was incredible. I couldn’t believe this is journalism – the journalism that abounded in my time, and the presence of alcohol was part of it. There’s nothing like that today. City room in those days was full of smokers. The whole room was full of smoke and drinking. Now there’s a big series on television called “Mad Men” about the advertising agency – life of the 1960s and the ‘70s. Hell, the drinking that went on journalism was beyond that; drunken people all over. It’s a wonder the paper could ever get out. There were enough sober people at least for every issue to get a paper out, but another half of the staff was out of it.
Recorded on September 22, 2009
Gay Talese describes the tobacco-filled and liquor-drenched newsrooms of The New York Times in the sixties—where men passed out on typewriters, and no one was quite sure just how the paper actually got out.
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