Back when I was studying journalism at college in the 1970s, Gay Talese was a larger-than-life figure. During my college years, I interned at The New York Times, so I was already familiar with The Kingdom and the Power, his 1969 book on the newspaper where he had worked. A stroll through the Times' editorial library stacks on the 10th floor revealed other non-fiction books by Gay: New York: A Serendipiter's Journey (1961), The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (1964), The Overreachers (1965), Fame and Obscurity (1970) and, of course, Honor Thy Father (1971).
Gay's prose was fluid, natural and seemingly free of effort, though clearly the guy did his homework. But Gay wasn't just a superb author and newspaperman—he was an engaging and enterprising magazine writer. His best-known piece was Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, a 15,000-word article he wrote for Esquire. What made this feature special is that Gay never interviewed Sinatra. It's not that he didn't try. He went out to Los Angeles and spent months trying to land an interview. Notoriously press shy, especially when he sensed a writer wasn't controllable, Sinatra balked multiple times, using the excuse that he had a cold.
In need of money after departing The New York Times and fearful Esquire would kill the assignment, leaving him holding the bag for his bills, Gay called the editor, Harold Hayes. Gay had a strategy he wanted to run by Hayes. While Sinatra was proving elusive, Gay said, he thought he had a way to land the story without him. Gay, who was movie-star dashing then, would interview everyone who knew Sinatra and put together a mosaic profile.
Today, this is almost standard work practice among magazine writers when a celebrity won't cooperate. But back in 1966, when the profile was published, the approach was unheard of. It was like reviewing a museum exhibit from pictures in a book. But Gay pulled it off and, in the process, invented an entirely new form of journalism. As his article proved, you really didn't need the subject if enough people with firsthand knowledge went on the record and a skilled tale was assembled.
But how did Gay get the job done in an age before cell phones, voicemail and the web? How did he track down everyone he needed? For my "Playlist" column, I spoke to Gay about his favorite song—Sinatra's It Was a Very Good Year, which he first heard in 1965 on a jukebox in Los Angeles. During our conversation, Gay told me how he did it (go here). He also said he hated the cover illustration, which, he said, made Sinatra look like a rat. In jazz terms, this is magazine journalism's Body and Soul by Coleman Hawkins: A reinvention that resulted in a new and improved model. To read Gay Talese's Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, go here.
Also in the Wall Street Journal—When Alvin Ailey was in high school in Los Angeles in the 1940s, he was shy. The person who dragged him off to dance school was Carmen de Lavallade, who would become one of the finest modern dancers of the 1950s and beyond. As an actress, she was in Carmen Jones (1954) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959); she appeared in TV's Duke Ellington: A Drum Is a Woman (1957) and was prima ballerina in productions of Samson and Delilah and Aida at New York's Metropolitan Opera. Today, I interview Carmen for the "House Call" column in the Mansion section. Carmen's voice is as elegant and as poised as her voice, and she is an eyewitness and participant in the rise of American modern dance. She also loves the moon. To read my piece, go here. [Photo above of Carmen de Lavallade in her New York City apartment, with paintings by her late husband, Geoffrey Holder by Erin Patrice O'Brien for The Wall Street Journal]
In case you missed my Arts & Review essay on Robert Herridge, the CBS producer who was responsible for The Sound of Jazz and other jazz TV specials that treated the artists and music like other high-culture presentations, go here. For the article, I spoke to Nat Hentoff, who was Herridge's consultant and brought the musicians aboard, and Chiz Schultz, the special's associate producer. I also relate a fascinating Thelonious Monk moment.