The Norman Pearlstines…Nora Ephron…Nicholas Pileggi…Barbara Walters…Senator John Warner Arthur Sulzberger…” Thin lips pressed conspiratorially to the telephone, Gay Talese is engaged in a favorite activity: name-dropping. An anxious hostess has called to discuss this evening’s party for his new best-seller, Unto the Sons, and Talese clearly relishes compiling this litany of celebrated guests who’ll be there. Having satisfied his hostess, he calls to test the list on his book’s publicist, aware that he is also entertaining an eavesdropping reporter. ”You know,” he says, tapping an elegant sole on the red carpet, ”the new publisher of The New York Times, the young one…and that’s Senator John Warner, Barbara Walters’ new date.”
Who is this son of an Italian tailor to muster a gathering of the famous and powerful? In the early ’60s, Talese made his own name as an architect of the New Journalism — a brand of high-energy writing that incorporated the subjective point of view of fiction. ”He had an enormous impact on young journalists at a time, after Watergate, when everybody wanted to be a journalist,” says writer Nicholas Pileggi (Wiseguy). A talent for voyeuristic reporting enabled him to enter the lives of Frank Sinatra, Floyd Patterson, and Joe DiMaggio, to drop only a few names from his best-known magazine profiles. ”I am interested in these people because they do say something about America,” Talese says. ”They are all part of this worthy religion of overreachers.”
His own tendency to overreach has produced eight controversial books — notably his 1971 portrait of the Mafia (Honor Thy Father) and his 1980 study of sex and pornography in the U.S. (Thy Neighbor’s Wife). Unto the Sons is Talese’s chance, after more than a decade of silence, to reclaim his place in journalism (the book now stands at No. 5 on the New York Times best-seller list). The writing of it was also a personal challenge for Talese, who recently turned 60 — an attempt to bridge the gap between his famous present and his obscure past. ”When you get to a certain point in life,” he says, ”it’s interesting to ponder where you’ve been and what put you there.”
Though he has risen beyond his origins in Ocean City, N.J., Talese is still a product of the Italian tribe whose name he bears. Its legacy is etched in his thin lips, sharp cheekbones, and aquiline nose. His forefathers’ training as tailors is stitched into the conspicuously beautiful $2,000 suits, made for him by Italian cousins. Beneath the cultivated bella figura, however, there is a darker side to the Talese legacy — a conflict between fathers and sons that has driven him to overreach but left him ambivalent about success. ”You were supposed to leave home, go out and achieve something. But keep your ties to your background,” he says. ”I know what it is to have a close-blooded bond with a father — and to be trapped by that bond.”
Talese’s career has been driven by a rebellious disregard for institutions and traditions. ”I never played by the rules that would get me a Pulitzer Prize,” he says. As a reporter for The New York Times in the early ’60s, he distinguished himself by challenging authority. After spending several years in ”the Times doghouse,” in 1965 he quit to write his best-seller about his former bosses, The Kingdom and the Power. His literary rebellion then took on a more personal cast. Honor Thy Father was a jab of sorts at his family. ”I had a father who was embarrassed by the Mafia all his life,” he admits. Thy Neighbor’s Wife was even more controversial. ”I was trying to deal with my Catholic background,” he says. ”I grew up fearful and also fascinated by sin.”
To research Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Talese enjoyed the same massage parlors as his subjects. The final chapter described his experience at an Ocean City nudist camp where he shed his clothes and, some critics thought, his objectivity. By transforming him into ”a literary philanderer,” as one critic put it, the ensuing controversy freed him, briefly, from his conservative roots. ”I became so vilified that I became the sinner I was looking for,” he says. In the end, however, Talese was still the scion of a tailor. ”You know what?” he says, assuming a confessional tone. ”When I was living as a nudist, you know what I really couldn’t wait to do? Get dressed in one of my fancy suits.”
”Let’s walk,” he commands. Leaving the brownstone he shares with his wife, Nan, an editor at Doubleday, he strolls along a tree-lined Upper East Side street. The walk is a variation on one described in Unto the Sons — a Sunday passeggiata taken around the village square. But for the modern cut of his suit, Talese might be mistaken for one of his lesser-known relatives.
So what do fame and notoriety really mean to Talese? This question is the only one that cracks his formality. ”Success is something people think they perceive in others,” he answers, hesitantly. ”I’m not so sure…internally… that the experience is that different [from failure].” Still, celebrity has its special benefits. Feted once again tonight by Manhattan’s literary luminaries, this son of a simple tailor has distinguished himself through a remarkable trick of ambition, talent, and circumstance: Seated among the Pearlstines, Arthur Sulzberger, and Barbara Walters, Gay Talese will be the most important name in the room to drop.