Portrait of an (Nonfiction) Artist (continued)

Talese's college days had unfolded during the Korean conflict; in preparation, all male University of Alabama students trained in the Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Talese graduated from Alabama as a second lieutenant and sought work in New York knowing the Army could commission him at any time. The commission came in 1954, and he was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to train in the Tank Corps. Maladroit mechanically but verbally savvy, he managed to get himself transferred to the Office of Public Information where he quickly reinstituted a column titled "Fort Knox Confidential" in the local newspaper, "Inside the Turret". Talese had quoted Red Smith in his college "Sports Gay-zing" columns and written parodies of Shakespeare and Edgar Guest. He continued his literary exercises in his "Fort Knox Confidential" columns, beginning with a scene of a blonde in the PX among comic book reading GI's (20 May 1955), and progressing to an account of a parachutist's miracle survival written in the style of Jimmy Cannon ("You're Stanley Melczak and you do everything the hard way"; 10 June 1955). The climax of these literary exercises was a tour de force telling of one story in five different styles, including Hemingway's (24 June 1955).

Talese kept in touch with "The Times" during his military service, even forwarding a characteristic behind-the-scenes story of William Faulkner in the press box during the 1955 Kentucky Derby. When his tour of duty ended in mid-1956, "The Times" invited him to return, not as a copyboy, but as a reporter assigned to bring style to the "Times'" sports pages. Those who know Talese only through his later bestselling volumes on "The New York Times", mafia families, sex and censorship in America, and Italian immigration are invariably surprised to learn that he spent nine of his first eleven years (l947-l958) writing primarily on sports. Talese himself insists he was never interested in sports per se, just as he was never interested in traditional journalism. Talese cared passionately about human character. Journalism and sports merely provided the vehicles for its exploration. Fortunately he found sports to be the ideal place for the "behaviorist." "Sports is about people who lose and lose and lose," he mused in the late 1980s. "They lose games; then they lose their jobs. It can be very intriguing."

Of all the sports, boxing proved most suited to Talese's human and literary studies. It was an individual sport culminating in dramatic, potentially life threatening, scenes. Prize fighters also tended to be minorities, outsiders often derided by society--as was boxing itself. Boxers, nevertheless, were striving for the prize. Talese could show their humanity in scenes such as this one which would strike most readers as the opening of a novel or short story rather than the lead of a "New York Times" sports article:

A wallop to the jaw and a smack on the eye was all the blond fighter could take. So he turned his back on his adversary, leaned his head against the ropes--and cried. He was 15 years old. This was the second time he'd met the tough, little l4-year-old who was now punishing him, and this was the second time he'd turned away and cried. "Hey, sissy, what's the matter with you?" yelled his father, a large, flabby man standing at the ringside. "Can't you hit him back?". "No," cried the blond boy, smearing his tears with a glove. "He won't let me." (15 November 1959)

Through boxing, Talese was able to introduce scenes and dialogue to a journalistic establishment wedded to fact plus substantiating quotation. Even dialogue designed to reveal mood (rather than information) might pass:

Movie cameramen, lugging their equipment into the living room, tried to press [Floyd Patterson's manager, Cus] D'Amato for a picture with [Ingemar Johansson]. "No," said D'Amato. "But, Cus," they pleaded, "please----" "No," D'Amato said. "It would look like we've agreed to the fight." "Cus----" "No," said Cus. "But, Cus----" D'Amato turned, pushed his way past the sink, and soon was lost in the crowded hall. (27 November l958)

Talese experimented with a diary structure within one "Times'" boxing story (l6 October 1959), and with Joycean stream-of-consciousness in an article on bare-knuckle fighter Billy Ray:

When recalling his prime, the old man closes his eyes a bit and rambles: ". . . Lillian Russell . . . beautiful. . . Only cost a dime for a haircut in the Eighties. . . . They threw Florence Burns out of the Sheepshead Bay race track for smoking . . . . Irish women would smoke clay pipes at wakes. . . . Oh, I used to go down to Fourteenth street and hear Maggie Cline sing 'Throw 'Em Down, McCloskey.' . . . (23 November 1958)

Ray's musings continue for two more long paragraphs. That Talese was systematically applying the techniques of fiction to nonfictional subject matter in these l950s "Times" sports stories is an understatement.

Talese further expanded traditional journalistic practice in his efforts always to delay a story's "news peg," the factor which made the story "news," until as late in a story as he could manage. This, of course, was the reverse of standard journalistic teaching which called for the peg to be as near to the beginning as possible. Talese was happiest when he found a way to dispense with the news peg altogether. He did this, just as he eased names to the background in defiance of the venerable journalism maxim "names sell newspapers" because he sought to make his stories universal rather than specific. Talese had no wish to be timely; he was writing for eternity. His "Portrait of a Young Prize Fighter" (12 October 1958) represented a special triumph over newspaper convention, for he managed to withhold Jose Torres' name until his story's twenty-first and final paragraph.

It is rare for a journalist to write more than one feature story on a given celebrity; three or four stories over a span of years might seem excessive to some. In l957, Talese wrote the first of 38 separate articles on boxing's heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Talese is often cited for his impressive use of interior monologue. He insists that his frequent return to his subjects makes this feat possible. By the time Talese penned his celebrated "Esquire" article "The Loser," with its two extended monologues (March 1964), he had lived with Patterson at his training camp and had jogged beside him during roadwork. "I had become almost an interior figure in his life," Talese recalls. "I was his second skin."

Talese did well as a "Times" sports writer. He did so well, in fact, that in 1958 the "Times" gave him the plum baseball spring training road assignment and allowed him to write three substitute "About New York" columns for the vacationing Meyer Berger. By 1959, the editors thought he was doing so well that, as a reward, they transferred him from sports to politics. He was dispatched to Albany to cover Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the New York General Assembly, a move which nearly proved fatal to his career. "I found for the first time that I had no freedom as a writer," he recalls. "The editors had different standards for athletes than for political, military, or business leaders. Sports figures are not considered serious. They are the only people not accorded 'Mr.' on second reference in "The Times". If I were covering City Hall and the Mayor picked his nose and drank a lite beer, I could not write this. However, if a boxer picked his nose and drank a lite beer, it could all go in the paper."