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Gay Talese talks with David L. Ulin

October 15, 2010 |  3:34 pm

Gaytalese_2006 In this Sunday’s Arts & Books, book critic David L. Ulin talks to Gay Talese about "The Silent Season of a Hero,"a new collection of his writings on sports. Talese has long been one of our most interesting journalists, the author of groundbreaking books about such subjects as the Mafia, sexual mores and the New York Times. Here are some additional comments from the conversation.

Jacket Copy: How did you get interested in sports?

Gay Talese: My interest in sports, big-time sports, began when the New York Yankees came to Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was in 1944. The Yankees were the champions; in 1943, they won the World Series against the Cardinals. Wartime years when you couldn't go to Florida because of gas rationing and everything else, came spring training and the Brooklyn Dodgers were in Bear Mountain and the Yankees were in Atlantic City. I was 11. I'd take the trolley, which was 11 miles, and I started going to spring training. It was in an old high school gravel sandlot field. They had wooden bleachers around it that you have at high school games.

And here were the world champion Yankees, and many of them were wartime ballplayers, but some of them were not. Snuffy Stirnweiss, who was the second baseman, he was a full-time player. Wartime, peacetime, he was a major league starting player. And old timers were there. In World War II, a lot of people who were famous in the 1920s ... there was one guy named Paul Waner; he played against Babe Ruth with the Pittsburgh team of 1927. This guy was in the Yankee outfield in 1944. So I was seeing these legendary characters who, because of wartime conditions, had a job -- and because it was on a high school field, you really got close to them. There was no security. You could practically walk out in the middle of the inning and get an autograph, and the pitcher would sign it and then go back to pitching. It was crazy informality.

There were also sportswriters from New York. This was when I first saw sportswriters. All the New York papers sent writers down. And I read their stories. That's where it began. So I started writing when I was about 14 for the town weekly, the Ocean City Sentinel.

JC: You were sports editor of the University of Alabama student paper, then wrote for the New York Times. But your real breakthrough came with Esquire.

GT: In 1960, I did my first piece for Esquire. Then in 1963, there was a big newspaper strike, and that's where I discovered freedom. Prior to that, I didn't have time to research, and moreover, working for a daily paper, I couldn't travel. I couldn’t go far.

So Esquire was a big thing for me because I had space, but the strike was even bigger. For the first time, I had a sense of what it was like to be a freelance, where I could go out of town and didn't have to be back Sunday night in time for Monday work. I had written a little book called "The Bridge," about the building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but that was right here. I didn't have to go anywhere. But when I started traveling, during the strike, I went to London to write about Peter O'Toole. It was a big thing, to go to London on expenses.

JC: Perhaps your two most iconic Esquire pieces were about Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra, who, like you, were sons of Italian immigrants.

GT: Yes, but to what degree did I have, by being a son of Italian immigrants myself, an in with these guys? I was not respectfully welcomed by DiMaggio, that's for sure. And the other guy didn't even talk to me. I didn't want to talk to him, to tell you the truth, but Harold Hayes was the editor and he insisted. I had that contract, and I needed money, and I had a pregnant wife, and I wasn't going to tell Harold Hayes I wouldn't do it. But I didn't want to do Frank Sinatra because he was too famous. DiMaggio's moment was over, but Sinatra was still in his moment.

JC: What’s the legacy of your upbringing?

GT:If you're a child of store owners, if you're brought up in a store, you learn good manners. You have to be genial, well-liked. You're not going to sell a customer if you're rude. You also get with different age groups, and different types of people. So be respectful. Being respectful is very important. You have to learn this.

Another thing is appearances. If you’re the son of a tailor, you dress well because it reflects badly otherwise.

If you're not really secure as an American, you pick up stuff in one generation that I think is very valuable. You're an outsider, and sometimes it's good to be an outsider, especially as a journalist. But you have to also know how to get inside other people, and that requires patience and trust and manners and making a nice appearance. This is important.

JC: You have to be able to navigate.

GT: This is what I tell students: You should be proud of your profession because there's less lying in journalism than in any other profession. They lie in education, they lie in politics, they lie in banking, they lie in labor; there's liars all over the place. Sports? Full of liars. And there are liars in journalism, but if there are liars, journalism will out them. They do. When you're Jason Blair, the New York Times pointed the finger and got rid of him. They got rid of the editor. This is integrity.

So be proud. Dress up. What you're doing is more important that the trillionaire who is running the society ball this year or some movie star.

-- David L. Ulin

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