Gay Talese, one of the pioneers and most well-known practitioners of literary journalism, has been an iconic New Yorker since he made a name for himself in the 1960s at The New York Times and Esquire. Among his most celebrated magazine pieces are profiles of Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra, which demonstrate an in-depth, narrative style that bears more resemblance to works of fiction than to everyday journalism.
Talese spoke with City & State Managing Editor Jon Lentz about the colorful field of candidates vying to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the decline of political reporting and what he thinks is one of his best stories.
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: What do you think about the New York City mayoral race this year?
Gay Talese: I’m a very senior citizen, and I’ve known every mayor since La Guardia. I came to New York to live in the 1950s. And because I’ve been, so much of the time, in reporting, for 10 of those years with The New York Times, and later on as a writer of magazines and books, I got the chance to meet people … I’ve known every mayor, some of them well, like Robert Wagner and Koch and Lindsay. I’ve known them as you can know them if you cover campaigns, or if you’re just a curious person who is out a lot and run into people in restaurants, as I do, and sometimes they are mayors. So I have a personal awareness of what they look like, and what kind of suits they wear and what they eat, and a little bit about how they govern, if they do govern. Sometimes you don’t know.
And I also know Mayor Bloomberg, to the point where I’ve even had him come to my house on occasion, such as on Christmas Eve, which he has the last three years, so I know him in a way—not just reading about him and watching him on television but actually sitting across a table or having a drink on a crowded cocktail floor with him. And now all that’s ending—and I feel the replacements are certainly not going to be bringing the sense of confidence that Mayor Bloomberg brought to the job, because he was independent of the job. Bloomberg’s 12 years, unlike all the other mayors that I’ve known through being a citizen of the city, this mayor, because he was so independent of mind and independent of pocketbook, un-dependent on the goodwill of unions, and a man who had the resources to do what he thought was right, not what he had to do because the votes were there or the votes were not there, or he was fearful of opposition. Even people who didn’t like the guy, I think, are going to miss him very much, because we never had to worry about him. Because he was so rich, you could never think he was corrupt, because sometimes people who are not rich are really vulnerable to the temptations of money. So we had for all these years a man who was not tempted by the power of cliques, whether they’re lobbyists or unions or ethnic groups or religious groups. He did what he wanted, and I don’t remember a mayor in my whole lifetime that could do what he wanted and could afford to do what he wanted and didn’t have to worry about the consequences—a unique personality for a municipal leader.
C&S: What are your thoughts on the candidates to replace Mayor Bloomberg?
GT: Now we have a group of very vulnerable people whose collective backgrounds are so at variance with Bloomberg, and in a way more interesting than Bloomberg because they carry a lot of individual experiences that are not shared by everybody. All of them have a kind of dark story to tell. We have the Asian accountant here, you know, Mr. Liu, who has a little bit of accountability for his campaign colleagues. And of course you have the big mouth of Christine Quinn sometimes getting in her way. She looks like a grousy woman you don’t want to have a fight with in P.J. Clarke’s. And you have the rather smooth Mr. William Thompson, who could have been the uncle of David Dinkins, because he’s a refined person. You wonder what is this refined person doing with this group? Dinkins was sweet, wonderful, just a gentleman, and I don’t know if Thompson is that much of a gentleman, but he’s in the mold of that kind of African-American—you always say that’s a gentleman, very special, very unique. Then you have Mr. Bucks from Gristedes—Mr. Cat—and he’s a bold, crude rich man, and while he’s self-made like Bloomberg, has none of the posturing and the smoothness and the self-assurance of Bloomberg. Rich as he is, I don’t think John Catsimatidis has a boat or houses in four cities or a private airplane—I don’t know. He’s certainly a man who talks about money and power and all that he made himself, and I like his boldness. I don’t know that he has a chance. And of course, Giuliani’s friend Joseph Lhota, he also has his missteps in the background, and of course de Blasio—well he’s probably the tallest candidate we’ve had since Lindsay—it’s wonderful, he’s this tall guy.
And I love the fact that all of them have these wonderful personal backgrounds. I love the fact that we have an interracial marriage, in the case of de Blasio and his wife, who’s had some experience of being with women in a private way, I love all that. I love that we have a lesbian. … It’s a wonderful thing about New York. I don’t know if other cities have the dubious distinction of having candidates and sometimes acting mayors whose marital life, if it exists at all, is never very predictable, as with Giuliani, his wife at the time learning through television that she was getting divorced. It’s just wonderful how the mayor’s office rises above or rises below what’s considered the moral norm. And I forgot Weiner. There was a wonderful piece by Hertzberg in The New Yorker about a month ago. This guy has committed no sin at all. This guy didn’t run off with anybody’s wife, didn’t get caught in the Oval Office with his pants down, didn’t do anything except play with technology in a way and play with his private parts in a way, but he didn’t do any harm to anybody, but here he is vilified as if he is the worst guy since Oscar Wilde. I mean, it’s crazy.
It’s really a campaign of backstories. None of these people, no matter what question is asked by newspapers or television interviewers, what they’re going to do, none of these people have a clue, and we don’t expect them to have a clue what they’re going to do. And they’re going to have to make it up as they go along. There’s no such thing as predictable policy. So what they’re saying they’re going to do is almost a back story. What their back story is is their front story. It’s really an age of image and it’s an age when people’s family can make a difference—who is your girlfriend, or who is your wife. In the case of Weiner, here’s a guy whose wife, people hoped that she was the candidate. And in the case of de Blasio, his wife, I haven’t heard her speak, but you think about the First Family of New York, in a time we have a president created out of an interracial marriage, we’d have a mayor, if he becomes mayor, being the sire in an interracial marriage and the father of two children of an interracial couple. It’s wonderful, in the sense that it represents the totality and the diversity of New York. They are the most politically correct group of candidates that we’ve had in that they meet the standards of diversity unlike any gathering of candidates for mayor that I remember in my lifetime. And whether or not any of them has the message for the future of New York is quite beside the point, because they’re going to have to make it up as they go along. But that’s true with most mayors. But it’s a really interesting campaign.
C&S: Does the focus on back story and personalities reflect a decline of political journalism?
GT: Well, the problem of political reporting, it’s always been a problem of political reporting. I was never a political reporter. When I was on the Times, I never wrote about politics and never wanted to be around political people, because the story was so filled with idle expectations and the whims of candidates that even they knew was unlikely to be realized. When you think about the sound bites, politicians have had to be so careful. One slip of the tongue ruins a career. I don’t think of New York, I think of the “macaca” candidate, what was his name? George Allen. Everybody is potentially going to be a macaca victim, saying something like that. They are very careful. What comes out of their mouth is hardly quotable. And the poor people who are reporters have to carry these tape recorders and are stuck with the words that come out of these people, so banal and meaningless, and so who cares what these people say? It doesn’t mean anything. Even our president, President Obama, we were when he first ran so mesmerized by the expectations and the virtue that was connected with his expectations—“Oh, he’s going to close Guantanamo, he’s going to do this”—and nothing happens. And so you don’t have to be very cynical to be rather reluctant to believe a word out of the mouth of a politician. So these poor reporters are stuck with the words coming out of the mouths of these horrible people.
C&S: You mentioned a piece by Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker. Are there any other writers or publications that you see as doing great political reporting?
GT: The problem is that when I was a reporter, the reporters I knew beginning in the 1950s who were political reporters, were correspondents who covered foreign politics, had more pride in what they were doing, because they did feel isolated from the people they were covering because the reporters that I grew up with were more of the underclass than the reporters who today have the main jobs. You see, reporters were of the underclass, and I was one of them. I wasn’t a political reporter, but I certainly knew my colleagues at many newspapers, not just The New York Times. We were the Irish and Jews and the Italians and blacks whose fathers and mothers didn’t go to college. This was true of my generation. My generation was post-World War II, and we had a sense of being outsiders, and the people in power—of course politicians are the people in power—whether they’re senators and mayors and governors, or whatever they are, were the people that the reporters that I grew up with were very skeptical of. Being that we were on the other side looking in, looking through the window, or we were outsiders and isolated, and as a result were independent.
When I was a young reporter starting out in 1956 on The New York Times, there was hardly anybody that I respected in the city room who went to Harvard, Yale or Princeton. They were people like my great boss A.M. Rosenthal, or Arthur Gelb, who were city boys who went to the cheapest city college you could get into. And we had, not animosity but certainly no affinity for and no affiliation with the elite type of people that constitute so much of the press corps today; people that went to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and went to boarding schools before that, and so they go to Washington, or to Albany, and they go to the same schools as the people they’re writing about. Because the country has been so in a formal sense part of advanced education, and the journalists of my time—we’re talking about half a century ago—were not formally educated except we were educated in the idea of our mission, almost ecclesiastical, almost like we were part of a clergy or a force of, if not of righteousness, at least moral standing and a sense that sin is always close, and very much at the heart of power. Today, in Washington and Manhattan, the journalists are almost as educated as who they are writing about, and there’s no social distinction. They are not of the underclass, as we were. Even my dear friend, David Halberstam, he had that anger and that “Don’t trust these bastards.” That’s why he wrote so greatly about Vietnam and his idea about “The Best and the Brightest” from my generation, distrusting people in government. Or Harrison Salisbury, you don’t know his name, but he’s one of the heroes of my life. And he challenged the government. Nobody’s challenging this government, whether it’s Obama or Bush or whoever. The new generation, nobody stood firm against Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz and the whole miserable weapons of mass destruction charade. If anything, one of our reporters was probably in bed with Chalabi. And forget her.
The Times bureau in Washington, the other newspapers in Washington dealing with foreign affairs or the president are more interested in saving or cultivating their sources than using the power of the truth or the power of good, deep, penetrating reporting. They’re not as tough as the guys I knew when I was young, or looked up to or aspired to be part of, like Halberstam. If we had a Halberstam in Iraq, we wouldn’t have gotten into [it]…. The idea of reporters being embedded, there is nothing more despicable than as in Iraq, reporters being in tanks with the American forces in 2003 and later in Iraq, and yet The New York Times allowed that. … This is really the example, this president here, I voted for him, we love him. This President Obama, what he’s doing is amazing, and not only that, he’s squeezing the press. The worst job I can imagine now is being a political reporter stationed in Washington. It’s the most stultifying, the most unredeeming, the most professionally unadventuresome and unfulfilling, and they’re worried about getting on the bus and getting sources. It’s awful.
C&S: You’ve worked at the Times and written a book about it. What do you think about its future after the sale of The Washington Post, which had been one of the other great family-owned newspapers?
GT: I was no fan of Katharine Graham, ever. She inherited her business. She was an overrated woman, and I never thought much of her, except when they had the great editor [Ben] Bradlee in there. That’s what made that paper great. They had a great editor, a great editor, he’s a wonderful person. And they had the great triumph of Woodward and Bernstein showing what could be done under a great editor. But as for the ownership, I know those people, and they’re not in any revered state as I see it. The Sulzbergers are different. They are very different. As far as families in journalism go, they’re all by themselves. And I think the paper today—I’m not talking about the day by day politics—I think the paper today is probably better than any paper I’ve read in my lifetime of reading The New York Times, which goes back 60 years. The paper today, every day there’s something not necessarily about a subject you thought was important that they make important because they do such good reporting. It might be in science, it might be in sports, it might be in theater, it’s just such a wonderful collection of imaginative assignments. The assignments out of most of the desks, foreign or art and even the magazine once in a while, they’re very good. It’s an amazing newspaper. It takes me two hours to read that paper. I really do, I need two hours, because I read everything. It leaves little time for the books you might want to read. But I only read that and The New Yorker, because The New Yorker is great too. Remnick’s a great reporter. He runs off to Lebanon, does a terrific piece. I don’t know how he can be the editor of the New Yorker and be the best reporter on the New Yorker, which he is.
C&S: Remnick also had a great piece on the Bolshoi recently.
GT: It was fabulous. Wasn’t that a fabulous piece? He just shows up, gets on a plane, lands on the stage at the Bolshoi, picks up one of these great stories, with wonderful characters. It’s a wonderful piece. Amazing. Now there’s a reporter of The Washington Post, when he left the Post probably fell down 15 degrees. They had great people there. The alumni association of The Washington Post is very impressive.
C&S: Your book “The Bridge” is often listed as one of the best books about New York. What do you think are the best books about New York?
GT: Of course, Caro’s book about Moses, “The Power Broker,” that’s a great book. He’s a great reporter, another one of my generation people. The Caros and Halberstams were dedicated and tough. Caro was really tough, a nice, honest guy, but he’s tough. I don’t know anybody who’s 35 now who’s really sort of isolated from the people they’re writing about. Because even though Caro went to Princeton, he’s really of an ethnic background, a minority man, and we were the last of the minorities because minorities ceased to be minorities as we got older and these younger people came and took our places on newspapers and magazines. Because the great egalitarian progressive movement meant that people who felt they were isolated or there was prejudice against them because they were Jewish or Italian, or black, well, that’s all been wiped out, so something is lost. When you really feel that you are not part of the system, it makes you a little more skeptical of and maybe hardens your attitude toward the system, and you become a little more alert to the flaws in the system, because you feel they were abusive to you in terms of giving you a fair chance, and you had to overcome that. Even people who went to Harvard, as Halberstam did, a Jewish guy, was probably part of quota. There was a quota system. Now if Halberstam had a son, which he didn’t, but if he did, a Jewish kid wouldn’t know what it’s like to be on the outside or be a minority. You could read about it in an Arthur Miller play or “Waiting for Lefty,” but you don’t get that sense of being an outsider that was so much a part of the McCarthy era in the 1950s, and people whose fathers and mothers didn’t go to college. We were the first generation that went to college, we were the first generation that elevated ourselves socially as well as professionally by seeing the world thanks to our press card. And every mayor I met, it’s only because I had a press card. I had access because I was a published person.
C&S: What are you doing these days? Are you still writing?
GT: I’m doing a long piece for The New Yorker. I don’t want to tell you what it’s about. I’m hoping to finish it by November. I’ve been working on it all summer. I’ve been out here, I don’t live in Connecticut but I’m here all summer. I live in New York, but I’ve been working on this piece and I’m also doing a book. I’m working hard. I’m not publishing a lot because what I’m doing is taking me a long time. But I’m probably going to finish this New Yorker article, which will be very long, by Thanksgiving or before.
C&S: Two of your most well-known works are your profiles of Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra. Is there a story you found most rewarding?
GT: You can be singled out for pieces, and you mentioned two of them. The pieces that I’m most gratified in having written and got published were pieces that weren’t about well-known people. I really like to get published while writing about people that aren’t famous, and that are only published because the writing or the scene-setting or something about the profile doesn’t require a recognizability on the part of the reader to the subject. What comes to mind, when I left The New York Times after almost 10 years, it was 1965. I worked for a year—those pieces you mentioned were done in 1966, in a one-year contract I had with Esquire—but the piece I wrote that year that I thought was the best I did was not either of those two pieces. It was a piece called Mr. Bad News. It was about an obituary writer. Now that piece is like a short story, but every word is reported word. It’s accurate, it’s reportage. But no one ever heard of this guy, Alden Whitman, he was an obituary writer for the Times. So it was like Melville writing Bartleby, a little scrivener in the city room whose specialty was obituaries. And that got published, and that stands up today, because if you’re writing about famous people, it could be politicians, if you write for magazines or books, and you write about well-known people who could be presidents or aspiring presidents or political leaders, those people are going to fade from the headlines and you’re going to be stuck with these faded portraits you wrote about. Your writing is going to die if you depend on the popularity of people or the recognizability of people. You’re going to be dealing with an ephemeral way of life. Politics changes from day to day, and the campaigns come and go. Suppose you spent the best part of your last decade in journalism writing about George McGovern. Suppose you covered George McGovern. Jesus! Could you imagine having spent six months of your life covering the George McGovern campaign and now you’re 80, and you’re in an old-age home, and somebody says, “Hey, what’d you do?” And you say, “I used to cover George McGovern.” Jesus! This is really Hell on Earth. I was smart enough even when I was young, that I knew I never wanted to cover George McGovern. I don’t want to cover the Senate. I don’t want to cover those people. But I would want to cover someone who maybe worked for the Senate, that maybe was in charge of the cafeteria in the Senate. That would be interesting.