After 50 years in New York, Gay Talese has maintained the village mentality of his Ocean City childhood.
Question: How did your hometown shape you?
Gay Talese: It’s a town that was founded by Methodist ministers in the late 1800s and it was a town that carries some of the Victorian virtues and vices of the present day. So while I was born there in 1932 and grew up in the World War II years of the mid ‘40s, I think it shaped me in the sense of giving me a sense of the middle of America divorced from the urban sophistication of New York where I have lived the last 50 years and given me a sense of kind of small town or what Hillary Clinton would call a village mentality. I think that’s what I’ve always had. I’ve lived in New York, as I said, for most of my adult life and much of the time when I first arrived in New York, I was a reporter for The New York Times. That was from the mid ‘50s through the mid ‘60s. But no matter what kind of story I was doing or later on articles for magazines and still later books that I was writing, I always had a vision of where I come from when I measure the people I’m writing about or whatever it is I’m trying to describe from the vantage point of the people that I grew up with.
Question: What was it like to grow up Catholic in a Protestant neighborhood?
Gay Talese: It made me feel isolated in a spiritual sense, although I didn’t have much of a spiritual sense even when I was a practicing Catholic because I did have a sense of not entirely belonging, but that wasn’t due to the Catholicism so much so being an Italian. Well, I’m Italian in that my parents are from Italy and I had in this Irish Catholic parish a sense of being a minority person within the minority church in a protestant town. I didn’t feel I really belonged in any way fully. I didn’t believe I belonged in the United States in a full sense because when I was growing up, this is in the 1940s, and Italy was at war with the United States and my father’s brothers were all in the Italian Army fighting against the American Invasion which began in 1942 in that part of the Mediterranean. And so when I was growing up at age, you know, 11, 12, 13 in the war years of the ‘40s, I didn’t know entirely whose side we were on in a private sense. I knew in a public sense, yeah I was very patriotic and you had to be as immigrants very defensive people, many of them if not most, and I certainly had a sense of defensiveness about my origins. And also the Catholicism I mentioned before was not totally accepting of the Italians because they were in the lower level of the pecking order. The Irish were low enough, but we were even lower than that. And the Irish came to America in the 1840s, as you know your history, at least speaking the language. It’s very important when you’re of an immigrant class. If you come fortified with the language, you are a generation ahead of where the rest of ‘em are. The Jews or the Italians came about the same time in large numbers in the 1890s and up until World War I and they didn’t have the language. So there’s that whole generation that has to readjust not only in language, but sometimes- and beyond culture sometimes even changing their names to try to fit in. I mean many of the Italians and many of the Jewish people of the period before the turn of the 20th century changed their names, tried to be more readily accepted because their names were unpronounceable or they felt very foreign themselves. So language was a problem. I grew up in- I was born in ’32 and I never had the language problem, but I did have a sense within myself of being a fractured person which greatly helped me when I started writing about other people because I always had, from my early days as a journalist which started really in high school, I always had a sense of what is it like for other people to be other people and how are they different from me? So I had a detached sense of self which I think was very good.
Question: What language did you speak at home?
Gay Talese: Well, we spoke English and the reason being that my mother and father ran a shop on the main street of the town, a protestant town I emphasize, and the money was with the protestants. And the people who came to my mother’s dress shop, which was a very popular place on the main street, were of the WASP culture. They were the upper middle class or the upper class of the town. They were women whose husbands made most of the money in the town. They were the wives of the mayor and the lawyers and the superintendent of schools and the leading businessmen, the Ford dealer, the Buick dealer. And they would buy, these women in middle age, it was not a fashionable shop, but a shop for the refined, affluent middle class. And these women would spend a good deal of money on clothes, more than the more youthful shops on the other side of the street and they would be my mother’s favorite customers. And my mother would very much watch how they behaved and listened to the way they spoke and learned a lot about their lives as they converged over the counter in ways that was instructive for her. And as I was an eavesdropper, after school, after parochial school I’d hang around the shop and perform menial tasks, I would overhear these conversations. And I would get, as I would later as a journalist get, get a sense of other people and how they lived. It was a sociological experience.