BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Before Frank Sinatra had a cold, Bobby Hill had a brush.
At least that was the story Gay Talese was focused on at hand while writing about the student golfer for the University of Alabama’s student newspaper, The Crimson White. Talese, who attended UA from 1949 to 1953 and was sports editor of the CW, decided to write about how Hill, who won the SEC Championship in 1952 for Alabama, sold brushes in Tuscaloosa to make ends meet. In the piece, Talese told a different side to Hill in a style of writing that he would spend decades perfecting.
“He was becoming such an insatiable, fanatical golf enthusiast then that his Rochester sweetheart lowered the boom one night and said: ‘Bobby, it’s either me or golf. Which will it be?’ Bobby answered: ‘Golf, honey.’ She is now married to someone else,” Talese wrote in the April 14, 1953 edition of the CW. “To all this, Robert Hill retorts: “Brushes, anyone?”
There was also the story about George Howell, a third baseman for Alabama’s baseball team. Like his Hill piece, Talese found a different side to Howell to write about other than his game.
“When asked about his love life, the former president of Pi Kappa Alpha replied, ‘I’ve always had little time to fool with women I have found, however, blondes to be untrustworthy,'” Talese wrote in the April 3, 1951 edition of the newspaper. “A tongue-in-cheekish smile then covered his face as he picked up a baseball bat and began to hit again, grinning broadly.”
After graduating from Alabama in 1953, Talese got a job as a copyboy for The New York Times, eventually working his way up to sports reporter before embarking on a storied magazine and book career, where he would become part of the “New Journalism” movement of writers opening up the form to new literary heights. “Frank Sinatra has a Cold,” one such piece of Talese’s that was published in Esquire in 1966, is still regarded as a gold standard of the genre.
“What I always wanted to do was not feel like a second-class citizen because I was a journalist.” Talese said of his celebrated career. “I wanted to feel that as a journalist, I could be as good a writer as a short story writer or a novelist.”
On Tuesday, Talese’s latest book, “Bartleby and Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener,” was released, chronicling the behind-the-scenes stories of some of his most famous work, such as his Sinatra piece, or the story on Alden Whitman, an obituary writer at The New York Times that Talese considers one of his best.
A highlight of the book is a new piece of reporting on Dr. Nicholas Bartha, who blew up his home on New York’s Upper East Side in 2006 in order not to sell it, killing himself in the process. It was a piece years in the making.
At 91, Talese is far from done. He still has stories to tell.
“Every day, I see somebody that I think might be a story,” Talese said. “I mean, my curiosity is not limited by my age. I’m just as curious now at 91 as I was at 21 and I’m just capable of writing about it, too.”
For Talese, a major part of his early development as a writer came from his time at Alabama, which he chronicled at length in his 2006 memoir “A Writer’s Life.” For him, coming to Alabama not only gave him a fresh start, but a chance to see a side of American life he had never seen before.
“(People in the South) felt isolated and misunderstood by a majority of Americans in the North, and during the civil rights movement, the South was unjustly blamed for being racist while the North was just as racist as the South ever was and in fact, my contention was the North was more racist than the South,” he said. “When I went to Alabama as a student, I had more awareness of Black people who were part of life than in my hometown of New Jersey.”
Talese said going to school in Alabama, as well as traveling throughout the state and the South as a student, gave him a different point of view about life, something he continued to seek out throughout his career.
“I think it’s important to see things from different points of view,” he said. “Right now in the United States, the whole country seems to be directed at one point of view here: either you’re good or you’re bad, you’re out or you’re in, you’re this or you’re that and there’s no combination of things. That complexity of human nature is worth perceiving and writing about because it’s very complex and I always had a sort of complex sense of reality because I thought reality is very, very conflicted. I see many points of view.”
While living in Alabama, Talese occasionally contributed stories to the Birmingham Post-Herald, where he would write about the Crimson Tide football team under then coach Harold “Red” Drew. He would even contribute articles to it while he was at The New York Times, like the time he colorfully wrote about an upcoming visit to Alabama by Olin Downes, the music critic for the NYT at the time. In that piece, the literary approach that would become a trademark of Talese’s writing was already on full display.
“Olin Downes, the trenchant music critic of The New York Times, is white-haired, round-faced, has a gentle disposition, and aside from being probably the most respected critic in the business he is a bit absent-minded,” Talese wrote in the April 20, 1954 edition of the Post-Herald. “Characteristic Downesian lapses in the past have caused him to miss some important engagements. But, Mr. Downes declared with a nonchalant smile this week, nothing (-not even a mental lapse-) would stand in the way of his first visit to Alabama–on April 24, the day he is scheduled to take part in the Fifth Annual Regional Composers Forum at the University of Alabama.”
Hearing the story read back to him decades later, Talese was awestruck.
“Wow, that was in the Post-Herald,” Talese asked. “I had forgotten about that.”
Those at the Birmingham Post-Herald recognized Talese’s talent, writing a small blurb in the May 4, 1965 edition about him being named Alumnus of the Year by UA’s journalism program. By that point, Talese had already published two books: “New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey and “The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.”
“We’re glad that the U. of A. is turning out good men and that this paper has a part in getting this year’s honoree on the right foot,” the newspaper stated.
As Talese became a staple of literary journalism, many took to writing in his style over the years, his influence felt throughout the countless profiles of him.
“It’s very flattering and I’m delighted,” he said. “I mean, it signifies the fact that you lived a worthy life, I think.”
Talese feels how things have changed over the years, not just for the journalism industry, but his own limitations. As far as Talese sees it, there are few places–with the exception of The New Yorker– where he can fully do his brand of storytelling. In his days writing for magazines like Esquire or The New Yorker, Talese would travel far and wide for a story, like the time he interviewed actor Peter O’Toole in England or traveled with opera soprano Marina Poplavskaya to Buenos Aires for a performance.
One of Talese’s more famous travel stories involved the time when, on the spur of a moment, he traveled to Beijing, where he worked for months in 1999 to find and report on Liu Ying, who missed a goal that caused China to lose the women’s World Cup. The story was eventually published in “A Writer’s Life.”
These days, Talese is not sure he could do that kind of travel for stories anymore.
“Being 91 is not the same as being 61, and I can’t do at 91 what I did at 61 or even 71,” he said. “For example, I couldn’t now get on a plane and go to Beijing and hang out for six months, which I did in 1999. I was impulsive in those days. I didn’t think twice. Now, I would have to figure out how to get a ride to the airport, someone to help me with my luggage. At 91, it does impose upon you certain limitations, but I can still write.”
Nonetheless, Talese still feels like he has more work to do. Currently, he’s finishing up a book on his 64-year marriage to book editor Nan Talese.
“Since I left Alabama about 1953, I’ve worked every day,” he said. “I’ve been writing or researching every damn day, all these years. It’s almost 70 years. It’s a long goddamn time and I enjoy now what I was doing in a way that goes back 70 years ago. I have 70 years of it in the same thing: being a storyteller, being curious about the people who were unnoticed and writing about the unnoticed.”
In a way, it’s these “unnoticed” people’s stories that continue pushing Talese to do the work.
“They are the unobserved, the ignored,” he said. “People have a story to tell and I’ve always try to get their story. I was their calling card. I was the guy who did it, and there’s so many kinds of stories. There’s no end to these stories.”
Until he’s no longer able to, Talese has no plans of putting down the pen and paper anytime soon.
“I don’t feel like a marathon runner that finally gets to the finish line and now, I can take a bath and fall asleep. No, the race goes on until you’re dead,” he said. “And then if you’ve done your work well enough, your work lives longer than you do. They outlive you.”