“A TURNING POINT in my career took place after a disaster in Albany,” says Gay Talese, author of the controversial examination of American morals, Thy Neighbor’s Wife.
Photo by Joyce Tenneson
“I was writing what we called `human interest’ stories,” he explained, “and I was doing it well enough that they decided to let me cover the senate and assembly. The feeling around the Times was that I was a good feature writer, but that I should be more serious.”
His awe at the august chambers found a focus in the many spittoons Talese discovered beneath the seats of the senate. “They were in 48 of the 56 places, these lively-looking but empty brass bright spittoons. I thought, `This is going to be exciting.’”
The disaster occurred when the editorial desk rewrote story after story, eliminating all nuance of character and description. To fight back, he wrote shorter and shorter pieces, eliminating his byline (given only to stories of at least eight paragraphs), until an angry editor summoned him back to the city and put him to work writing obituaries.
This gave him the free time he needed to pursue magazine journalism, principally for Esquire, which in turn led to a book-length study of the New York Times titled The Kingdom and the Power.
All of which was a wittily roundabout way for Talese to introduce himself, give his background, and prepare the audience for an excerpt from a forthcoming work, an analysis of his own Italian-American ancestry.
Talese was an early practitioner of what’s come to be termed “new journalism,” a catchall that too often comprises the self-indulgent scribblings of dull egotists; in his case, he maintains a self-critical awareness that draws fuel from that sense of self.
It was evident in the brief excerpt, setting the scene in his boyhood town, Ocean City, NJ, in 1942; it was evident in his thoughtful responses to the many questions the audience was prepared with.
And that excerpt was the only document he worked with; he is what must be a minority among writers: articulate, witty, droll.
Talese explored Italian-American family relationships in another book, Honor Thy Father, which followed the Bonanno family of Mafia kingpins.
Thy Neighbor’s Wife, which followed several years later, took him from the proprietorship of a Manhattan massage parlor to the Sandstone retreat in California, where nudity was the mode of dress and jealousy was supposed to be banished.
Ironically, Talese was researching a book about Lee Iococca when he decided to write about his own family instead; “It turned out that Iococca had another writer in the wings, who did pretty well with his own book.”
He expects to finish this book early next year; the research took him to southern Italy for three years, to explore an area where “80 percent of the Italian immigrant families came from.”
His intention is “to stay within the area of non-fiction and report on family life in a way that will be meaningful to me – to explain myself to me.” And to explore what is was like “to discover America through the eyes of immigrants.”
The few pages he read prepare a poignant beginning, in which recently-arrived immigrants must make sense of divided loyalties: to a new country at war with Hitler’s Germany, and to an old country which, through Mussolini’s policies, was fighting side by side with the Germans.
Asked how long it took him to write the three pages he read, Talese responded, “Too long. English sometimes seems like a foreign language when I’m writing, and it takes forever to find a sentence that pleases me. So it took three, four, five months. I tell people that you have to be crazy to do this for a living. I should have been a singer. Or a fourth-rate actor. I could play a great gangster in some Scorcese movie.”
– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 15 October 1987