Portrait of an (Nonfiction) Artist
by Barbara Lounsberry

Gay Talese is known for his daring pursuit of "unreportable" stories, for his exhaustive research, and for his formally elegant style. These qualities, arguably, are the touchstones of the finest literary journalism. Talese is often cited as one of the founders of the 1960s "New Journalism," but he has always politely demurred from this label, insisting that his "stories with real names" represent no reformist crusade, but rather his own highly personal response to the world as an Italian-American "outsider."

Talese was born 7 February 1932 on the small island of Ocean City, New Jersey, a resort town just south of Atlantic City. The lives of his parents, Joseph Talese, a southern Italian tailor who immigrated to America in 1922, and Catherine DePaolo, a buyer for a Brooklyn department store, are chronicled in "Unto the Sons" (1992), Talese's memoir and history of Italian immigration to America. In "Origins of a Nonfiction Writer" (1996), Talese writes that he comes "from an island and a family that reinforced my identity as a marginal American, an outsider, an alien in my native nation" (1). Talese was a minority within a minority, for he was an Italian-American Catholic in an Irish Catholic parish on a Protestant dominated island. Always a lover of history, he soon learned that his island home had been founded as a religious retreat in 1879 by Methodist ministers who wished "to secure the presence of God on the beach, to shade the summer from the corrupting exposure of the flesh, and to eliminate the temptations of alcohol and other evil spirits they saw swirling around them as freely as the mosquitoes from the nearby marshes" ("Origins" 1). Talese's later exploration of "forbidden" subjects in such works as "Honor Thy Father" (1971) and "Thy Neighbor's Wife" (1980) is rooted in his rebellion against his island's prohibitions.

Talese's profound identification with the unnoticed and his celebration of "losers" throughout his writing career stems from his own feelings of failure as a grade school and high school student, as well as from his outsider, minority status. "I was variously looked upon as 'aloof,' 'complicated,' 'vague,' 'smug,' 'quirky,' 'in another world'--or so I was described by former students years later at a class reunion," Talese acknowledges. "They also recalled that during our school days I had somehow seemed to be 'older' than the rest of them, an impression I attribute partly to my being the only student who came to class daily wearing a jacket and tie" ("Origins" 8). Talese remained a walking mannequin, a mobile advertisement of his immigrant father's tailoring artistry, to the end of his college days.

Journalism was to provide escape and the first success for the undervalued but always curious Talese. As often happens with life-changing events, it came in the most off-hand, serendipitous fashion. One afternoon after his sophomore year in high school the assistant coach of his baseball team protested that he was too busy to call in the account of the games to the local newspaper, and the head coach asked Talese to assume this chore. "On the mistaken assumption that relieving the athletic department of its press duties would gain me the gratitude of the coach and get me more playing time, I took the job and even embellished it by using my typing skills to compose my own account of the games rather than merely relaying the information to the newspapers by telephone," Talese wrote in "Origins" (9).

Once started, however, Talese was no ordinary high school reporter. From his first article as a fifteen-year-old in June 1947 till his "Swan Song" column in September l949 as he left the island to attend the University of Alabama, Talese wrote 311 articles and columns for the weekly "Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger". After only seven articles, his role as a "Sentinel-Ledger" sports writer was expanded to that of high school reporter and columnist as well. His "High School Highlights" column, which premiered l7 October l947, enabled Talese to become the Balzac of his own miniature culture. "Although I continued to forgo asking young women to dances, I sometimes did go alone in my new role as a social columnist," he recalls. "For individuals who were as shy and curious as myself, journalism was an ideal preoccupation, a vehicle that transcended the limitations of reticence. It also provided excuses for inquiring into other people's lives, asking them leading questions and expecting reasonable answers" ("Origins" 12).

In "Origins of a Nonfiction Writer," Talese pays tribute to his mother for modeling the listening and interviewing skills he came to practice as a literary journalist. Catherine DePaolo Talese ran the "Talese Townshop," the fashionable women's dress boutique over which the family lived. Talese recalls the shop as: "a kind of talk-show that flowed around the engaging manner and well-timed questions of my mother; and as a boy not much taller than the counters behind which I used to pause and eavesdrop, I learned [from my mother] . . . to listen with patience and care, and never to interrupt even when people were having great difficulty in explaining themselves, for during such halting and imprecise moments . . . people are very revealing--what they hesitate to talk about can tell much about them. Their pauses, their evasions, their sudden shifts in subject matter are likely indicators of what embarrasses them, or irritates them, or what they regard as too private or imprudent to be disclosed to another person at that particular time. However, I have also over-heard many people discussing candidly with my mother what they had earlier avoided--a reaction that I think had less to do with her inquiring nature or sensitively posed questions than with their gradual acceptance of her as a trustworthy individual in whom they could confide."

Perhaps more than any other artist of nonfiction, Talese has made it his credo to return again and again to his subjects. This patient and unfailing solicitude has enabled him to gather and to verify information, to observe change over time, and to know his subjects so well he can describe, not only their actions, but their thoughts and feelings with confidence. Equally important, the trust he has cultivated has permitted him to be the first writer to enter the world of the Mafia and break its "code of silence" and to report on the private sexual lives of Americans--with their permission.

Talese wrote 55 "High School Highlights" columns and general stories during his junior and senior years, and 258 sports stories or columns. During his senior year he became a double columnist for the "Sentinel-Ledger" when he inaugurated his "Sportopics" column. In his "Origins" essay, he tells the heartening, Dickensian story of his acceptance by the University of Alabama following his rejection by dozens of colleges in New Jersey and surrounding states. He has described his college years as the happiest four years of his life. Once away from the insular confines of home, Talese flourished for the first time as a student. "I chose journalism as my college major because that is what I knew," he recalls, "but I really became a student of history."