Portrait of an (Nonfiction) Artist (continued)

Once again Talese found his work welcomed and praised. Frank Jones set the tone in his "Library Journal" review, observing that "The Overreachers" was "written with a real flair for language and with an urge to be utterly realistic. It displays feeling for the meanings of life, the social and racial tensions that underlie the newsworthy, and the forces 'simmering in the smithy' of the soul" (1 February 1965). Charles Poore praised Talese's research methods, noting that Talese "not only knows the right questions to ask but also the revealing reactions and byplays to observe" ("The New York Times" 8 April 1965). And in perhaps the first use of the term "the new journalism," Pete Hamill lauded the style and grace of Talese's writing and saw the volume's articles as "examples of how really good the magazine article can be" ("Book Week" l2 June l965).

The positive response to his magazine and book forays helped Talese finally break with "The New York Times" in mid-1965 and leave newspaper writing forever. Ultimately, the break came over a column. As noted earlier, in 1958 Talese had written substitute "About New York" columns for the "Times'" Meyer Berger. When Berger died in 1959, Talese was his natural successor, a fact "New York/New York" and "New York-A Serendipiter's Journey" more than confirmed in 1960 and 1961. The owner of "The Times", Arthur Hays Sulzberger, however, was sentimentally attached to Berger. "To Sulzberger, Meyer Berger was Mr. "New York Times"," Talese recalls. "Sulzberger did not want anybody to take over Berger's column, just as a man whose wife dies doesn't want to get married again. I happened to be there at the wrong time, but I waited." In 1962 A. M. Rosenthal became the "Times'" new managing editor. "I'd like you to have a column," he told Talese, "but I don't own the candy store."

Tom Wolfe writes of the rivalry among New York feature writers in the early 1960s ("The New Journalism" 5-9). Talese says he does not recall this competition. All he wanted, he says, was a column. After all, a column had been part of his identity from his first days as a high school reporter. A column meant that his kind of writing would regularly appear. In 1963 Dick Schap, then city editor of "The New York Herald Tribune", invited Talese to join the "Tribune" staff. Talese was offered a Monday column, a column in the "Tribune's Book Review", and the opportunity to write for the "Tribune's New York" magazine. A salary increase was also part of the package, but negotiations faltered. Jimmy Breslin, then working with Schap, Tom Wolfe, Charles Portis, and other literary journalists at the "Tribune", wrote a column which appeared five days a week. Talese wanted his column to appear more than once a week. "Why can't you let Breslin write three days a week and me two days a week?" he queried Schap. Schap took this proposal to Breslin, but Breslin refused. "If Breslin would have given me two days and restricted himself to three, I would have gone over to the "Tribune"," Talese acknowledges. Talese went back to Schap and said, "What about letting Breslin write about the west side of New York and me the east side? Put Breslin on one side of the page and me on the other and call it 'East Side/West Side'."

But Breslin refused, and New York City never was framed by their juxtaposed views. Talese stayed at "The Times" until mid-1965, gaining freedom and good assignments from Abe Rosenthal-but never his own column. By then he was thirty-three. He had tasted complete freedom during the newspaper strike of 1963 and now felt whatever he had done at "The Times", he had done before. "I left "The New York Times" with a tear in my eye," he acknowledges. Talese accepted a one-year $15,000 contract from "Esquire" to write six articles. Ironically, his first was about "The Times", a celebration of "Mr. Bad News," the obscure man who wrote "The Times" obituaries ("Esquire" February 1966). Harold Hayes then suggested Talese write on Clifton Daniel, a more prominent "Times" executive. The tremendous response to this November 1966 "Esquire" article, "Kingdoms, the Powers, and the Glories of The New York Times" equaled that to Talese's now classic "Esquire" pieces "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" (April 1966) and "Silent Season of a Hero," the Joe Dimaggio article which begins with a quote from Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea" and includes the now famous exchange between Dimaggio and Marilyn Monroe: "It was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering." "Yes I have," he said (July 1966.)

When Talese finished the Clifton Daniel article, he said he saw for the first time the potential in "The Times" material. "I saw that Daniel was connected to other people," he recalled in a 1984 interview. He then decided to do his next "Esquire" piece on Daniel's friend, Harrison Salisbury. The opening of this May 1967 article, "Public and Private Wars of Harrison E. Salisbury," compresses the whole history of "The New York Times" into six italicized paragraphs. These articles, of course, were eventually woven into Talese's fourth volume and first bestseller, "The Kingdom and the Power" (1969), which is often called the first of the "media books."

This volume was Talese's most ambitious to that date. "The Bridge was a footbridge compared to "The Kingdom and the Power" which was a major suspension structure," asserted Talese several decades later. "The organizational problems of that book were enormous. Hanging from that suspension structure are all kinds of self-contained units, yet they all are linked by the wiring and cabling of the structure." The "Times" building itself becomes a stage for Talese's 20-chapter volume, for he retraces his steps as a copyboy from floor to floor, and section of the newspaper to section commemorating the lives and behind-the-scenes stories of the men and women who produce "all the news that's fit to print." Turner Catledge becomes the centerpiece of Talese's structure. "He was the man who bridged the old "New York Times" and the modern "Times"," notes Talese. "I dealt with him in the present and then went back to his Mississippi forbears, one of whom fought in the Civil War. I was then able to describe how "The Times" covered the Civil War, and from there write a little about the man who founded "The Times" fourteen years before the Civl War. It is through devices like this that writers can tell the story in a way that seems seamless. I was trying to write a human history of an institution in transition, a story that covered so much in terms of history and embraced the lives of so many personalities, yet seemed seamless-or almost."

For many readers, including myself, "The Kingdom and the Power" is the most artistically satisfying of Talese's volumes. It offers Talese's most complex vision of America's struggle with its legacy. He gives national dimension to his "institutional history" by subtly interweaving three father figures. Talese defines his central subject as the transmission of "The Times'" tradition from Adolph Ochs to each generation of his successors. This "Times" tradition is also depicted (through Talese's religious rhetoric) as a veritable patriarchal religion to Ochs and his fellow Timesmen. Finally, Talese equates "The Times'" tradition/religion with the secular vision of the U.S. Establishment. To the degree that Talese also continuously undercuts this Establishment, particularly for its indifference to the lower classes, his book arraigns The Times as an example of the American Dream gone wrong, of American idealism gone elitist.

In 1967, the World Publishing Company gave Talese an $11,500 advance to write "The Kingdom and Power". This was more than four times the $2,500 advance he had received for his first volume, "New York-A Serendipiter's Journey". Talese chose not to renew his contract with "Esquire" and proceeded to write the volume despite the fact that both World and Farrar, Straus & Giroux told him no one would want to read about newspaper people. Looking back, Talese recalls his publisher's discouragement when the first review of "The Kingdom and the Power" appeared. Christopher Lehmen-Haupt, "The New York Times'" daily book critic, had received an advance copy of the volume.

Disregarding the book's publication date six weeks away, he published an attack on the book in the "Times" (21 May 1969). "This review trivialized the book and, I thought, pretty much diminished me," recalls Talese. "I thought that would be the end of the book, for nobody would want to read it after reading that review, and there would be no voices countering this critic for six more weeks."

What happened instead was that "The Times'" action backfired. Its premature attack brought attention to the book, causing Murray Kempton of the "New York Post" to attack Lehmann-Haupt in a column two days later giving a lively defense of the volume. "I suddenly became the center of a controversy and was interviewed by magazines and invited on radio shows," recalls Talese. "I was given a forum to defend myself against "The Times'" attack, and the book sold very, very quickly." Most reviews, in fact, were laudatory, and to the surprise of Talese and his publisher, "The Kingdom and the Power" became a bestseller, staying on the bestseller list for six months. "It was number one in "Time" magazine and "Newsweek"," Talese recalls, "but it never got higher than number two on "The New York Times"."

The success of "The Kingdom and the Power" spurred a torrent of imitations: Brendan Gill's "Here at the New Yorker" (1974); Carl Bernstein's and Bob Woodward's "All the President's Men" (1974); Ellen Frankfort's "The Voice: Life at the Village Voice" (1975); Robert Metz's "The Today Show: An Inside Look at 25 Tulmultuous Years . . . and the Colorful and Controversial People Behind the Scenes" (1977); David Halberstam's "The Powers That Be" (1979), a look at CBS, Time, Inc., The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post; and even Harrison Salisbury's "Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times" (1980). Journalism's innner workings were now understood to be of surpassing public interest.