Portrait of an (Nonfiction) Artist (continued)
The editors in New York began changing Talese's stories. He had always been a painstaking reporter. In the l950s and even today his habit is to keep an article to the last available moment in order to polish and repolish the language. So concerned was Talese about the style and tone of his stories that even before the Albany assignment he would arrange to end his dinner each evening at 10 p.m. so he could pick up the "Times" when it hit the newstands. If the editors had tampered with his story, he would call them immediately from a phone booth seeking to restore his language for the next edition.
This tactic served him well in New York City. Albany, however, proved a different matter. Talese would file his General Assembly stories by Western Union, but the newspaper would not arrive in Albany until the following morning. "I found that the editors were taking out what was special about the way I saw something," Talese recalled more than a quarter of a century later. "I did not want my name on the stories the editors were changing." Talese's solution was ingenious. "The Times" had a policy regarding by-lines. A published story had to be at least seven paragraphs long for a reporter to earn a by-line. Talese countered the New York editors' encroachments by becoming the master of the six paragraph story. "If the editors wanted to publish that kind of ordinary, straight, boring political journalism, it was all right with me--as long as my name wasn't on it," Talese recalls. "I would write very tightly and would keep every story to six paragraphs."
This strategy might have gone unnoticed except for the fact that every "Times" bureau kept a word count. Talese was part of the four-man Albany Bureau and his three colleagues were regularly churning out fifteen or twenty-five paragraph page-one stories. His effort "not" to have a by-line challenged the whole value system of journalism, and within weeks he was summoned back to New York in disgrace. "In my place was sent a man who could do the job and be a credit to his bureau," said Talese. "I was banished to the obituary desk as punishment--to break me. There were major obituaries and minor obituaries. I was sent to write minor obituaries not even seven paragraphs long."
At this nadir of his writing career, Talese began to turn more and more to magazines and to books as offering the necessary freedom for his stories with real names. "I came out of disgrace after about a year," he recalls. "During my year of penance, Lester Markel, "The Times'" Sunday editor, took me under his wing and became my savior." In 1959, Markel's Sunday "Times" was separate from the daily "Times" presided over by managing editor Turner Catledge. "I always had a lot of ideas of what I wanted to write about," recalls Talese, "and every day I would send memos to the city editor suggesting ideas for stories. If an idea was rejected, I would take it right up to the eighth floor to the Sunday section. I wanted to do a piece on New York's forgotten second Statue of Liberty which stands on top of a warehouse near Lincoln Center. Turner Catledge called the idea an old chestnut. Markel, however, liked the idea and the piece which appeared in the Sunday "New York Times Magazine" was called "Miss Liberty--Uptown" (2 October 1960).
Talese wrote 12 "Times Magazine" articles for Lester Markel in 1959 and 1960, including one stressing, perhaps revealingly, a "New Look in Mannequins" (7 February 1960). Another paid homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "Winter Dreams" ("Caddie, a non-Alger Story," 12 June 1960). In 1960, another magazine editor stepped forward to offer Talese even greater freedom as a writer: Harold Hayes of Hemingway's own "Esquire" magazine. "Once I started writing for "Esquire"," says Talese, "I knew that was where I belonged." His first "Esquire" article, "New York/New York" (July 1960) was different from anything he had done before. It was a series of leads drawn from dozens of "Times" articles he had written on "the unnoticed," but now stitched artfully together:
This widely praised article, reprinted in "Reader's Digest" ("Offbeat Wonders of New York" October 1960), was the basis for Talese's first book, "New York-A Serendipiter's Journey" (1961). The title signals Talese's literary intentions. It links him to the eighteenth century English essayist Horace Walpole who coined the term "serendipiter" after reading the Persian fairy tale "The Three Princes of Serendip." According to Talese, the princes "in their travels were constantly finding valuable or agreeable things they did not seek." In "New York-A Serendipiter's Journey", Talese is a twentieth-century prince assembling the fortunate discoveries he has made tramping the streets and avenues of the city. Illustrated in its first edition with Marvin Lichtner photographs on almost every other page, the volume is divided into five sections: "New York is a City of Things Unnoticed," "of the Anonymous," "of Characters," "of Odd Occupations," "of the Forgotten."
Critical response to this volume was encouraging. "An altogether astonishing and extremely well-written book," wrote Orville Prescott in a "Books of The Times" article (26 May 1961). "Newsweek" followed suit three days later calling the book "a revelation and a pleasure to read" and Talese "one of the more gifted word-harnessers on 'The New York Times'" (29 May 1961.) "The New Yorker" reviewer saw the volume as revealing a "young reporter's natural passion for the odd fact," and while it found Talese's curiosity "generally conventional," it found his writing full of "a sense of pace, a crispness, and a precision that are anything but common."
Reviewers only differed in their interpretations of the overall tone of the volume. Francis Sugrue, writing in "New York Herald Tribune Books", saw Talese's New York as "a rather wonderful world of strange happenings (all true) and stranger people (all real)" (6 August 1961). Leo Lerman went farther in his "New York Times Book Review", calling the book "a year-round New York celebration" (23 July 1961). Others, however, saw the book as more sober and moody than celebratory. The perceptive "Newsweek" reviewer noted that "the colorful is most often melancholy" in "New York-A Serendipiter's Journey". Indeed, the reviewer suggested that Talese's "preoccupation with the rootless and the lost has a funereal effect." Only this reviewer noted where Talese chose to end his "Journey": in Potter's Field where twice a week the bodies of l50 or so of the city's terminally unnoticed were lowered into unmarked graves.
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