By the early 1990’s, Gay Talese was one of the leading nonfiction authors in the United States. He had first garnered national attention and a place atop the best-seller lists with his probe into the inner workings of The New York Times, titled The Kingdom and the Power (1969). Gossipy and rambling, the narrative took readers inside the operations of the paper to reveal the personalities and clashes that had shaped a great newspaper. This book made Talese a hot commodity in the world of publishing.
He had demonstrated his literary talents in a series of magazine articles on Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra that revealed his ability to get inside the skin of his subjects. Talese’s work was emblematic of the New Journalism of the 1960’s and 1970’s that went beyond the older style of straight reporting to infuse nonfiction stories with the insights and perceptions of the novelist. Talese found fascinating projects in the years that followed which resulted in a series of literary blockbusters. He had an uncanny knack of locating people and issues that the reading public wanted to know more about.
Even before the 1972 film version of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1969) sparked the Mafia to cult status, Talese had delved into the operations of the Bonanno crime family in Honor Thy Father (1971). He next turned to the phenomenon of freer sexuality and the lifestyles of the “swinging singles” and couples of the 1960’s and 1970’s in Thy Neighbor’s Wife (1980). Talese capped off this run of best sellers with his survey of how his own Italian immigrant family exemplified the experience of other newcomers to the United States in the twentieth century. Unto the Sons (1992) delighted readers as Talese chronicled with literate insights the record of how his father came to be an American.
By this time, Talese was close to a sure bet for his happy publishers. He and his wife, Nan Talese, were major figures in the New York literary world. He was the famous author. She was the gifted editor who could turn promising manuscripts into best sellers on her own. Authors such as James Frey (A Million Little Pieces, 2003) found her a sympathetic and encouraging presence. At the age of sixty, Gay Talese seemed destined to produce more commercially successful books and to maintain his place as the writing half of this New York City power couple.
Nonfiction writers of best-selling books are, however, dependent on their ability to find subjects that will persuade several hundred thousand readers to buy these books. Talese had shown that skill with his body of work, complete with biblical-related titles, for two decades. According to A Writer’s Life, however, his touch deserted him. One subject, for which he received a handsome advance, was to be a continuation of his family history started in Unto the Sons. When that vein did not prove productive and his deadlines went unmet, he looked for other topics that might produce the same magical results of the past. At bottom, this book is a record of his quest and the failures that ensued.
For readers interested in anything and everything about Gay Talese and his life, this book provides a trove of information. The absence of an index means that the nuggets of solid lore the book contains must be retrieved by the reader’s energy. There are some good stories about such figures as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; the publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Hays Sulzberger; and numerous other celebrities, large and small. A lifelong fan of the New York Yankees, Talese writes about that team with passion. As a graduate of the University of Alabama, he speaks with conviction about the Crimson Tide and some of its gridiron mentors of the 1940’s and 1950’s. So there are some good moments in the book for readers with affection for the author or the patience to stay with his meandering writing style.
For the most part, however, this book provides a narrative of false starts and dead ends for a troubled writer. Talese writes about how he writes, not a good sign of an author with something to say about subjects that matter. He is reticent about his own life and times. To discuss his marriage to Nan Talese, he reprints an excerpt from a Vanity Fair article about the couple and their children. There is a sense of deeper currents of unease about these personal issues, and...
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