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Talese's advice for writers: Skip the phone, keep the suits

April 26, 2008 |  2:39 pm


At his midday panel, Gay Talese (shown here at a past Book Festival) spent the better part of an hour talking with Los Angeles Times writer Tim Rutten about his memoir "A Writer’s Life" and about coming up through the bustling newsroom of the mid-century New York Times.

Twenty-three years old when he started working for the New York Times, Talese described the news room of the 1950s as "an enormous open space. With no cubicles." Telephones were "the new technology" and he recounted that the first thing his editor told him was to "never use them."

Nattily dressed as always, Talese entered the room wearing a dark gray suit, red shoes and a creamy, black-ribboned hat, probably identical to the one pictured above. Sadly absent, however, were the thin-rimmed, fire engine red-colored reading glasses he’d worn to emcee Friday night’s Book Prizes at Royce Hall. It’s a safe bet that the glasses matched the shoes.

Word also circulated that Talese attended last year’s Festival of Books dressed in a full suit of white with a white straw hat, perhaps stealing a cue from the bleached-out style of Tom Wolfe.

"One thing I always had going for me was good tailoring," Talese quipped, his elbow resting on the table, cozying up to the microphone. Born into a family of Italian tailors, Talese spoke about the importance of a reporter who shows up well-dressed. "If you show up in a three-piece suit with a hat, and you look like you might have taken a bath recently, they don’t kick you out as fast."

Talese spoke about what he described as the "art of hanging out." Never one to show up with a tape recorder, he addressed the fact that a writer’s life is often concerned with keeping one's own hours even though sometimes "those hours give nothing back to you."

Much time was spent recounting the origins of Talese’s famous article for "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." The result of four weeks spent in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, far away from his native East Coast, Talese interviewed members of the Tommy Dorsey Band, Sinatra stand-in Johnny Delgado, Sinatra’s toupee carrier, even a mid-20s Harlan Ellison in cowboy boots; nearly everyone except Sinatra.

Sinatra, the world-famous crooner, it was said, couldn’t be interviewed because he had a cold. Now regarded as a classic of wayward reportage, Talese noted that, at the time, big waves were not made. "I didn’t get any fan mail for the piece, and I certainly never heard from Sinatra again." 

-- George Ducker

Photo: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times