Besides learning there to listen and observe, he learned to inquire occasionally. What were you thinking when you did such-and-such, his mother would ask, and so would he, eventually, collecting just what he needed for his innovative use of interior monologue. As he looked back decades later, it occurred to Talese that "many of the social and political questions that have been debated in America in the second half of the twentieth century -- the role of religion in the bedroom, racial equality, women's rights ... all were discussed in my mother's boutique as I grew up during the war and postwar years of the 1940s." He discovered there that "large events influence small communities in ways that are uniquely illuminating." He wanted to write about ordinary people, "the overlooked," those not usually the center of attention.
This last may sound contradictory, for many of Talese's best articles are about celebrities. Yet these are celebrities seen in a distinctive way. These are stories about famous people's private lives -- lives caught often in moments of struggle or decline, lives never mythologized. These are also stories in which Talese never formally interviews the subject. Nowhere does this work to better effect than in "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold."
The genesis of this legendary profile is itself the stuff of legend. In the winter of 1965, Esquire sent Talese to Los Angeles to interview Sinatra, but the night he arrived he learned that Sinatra, suffering from a head cold and upset by new allegations about Mafia connections, wouldn't see him. So instead Talese spent weeks interviewing all the people who surrounded Sinatra. He rarely removed a pen and pad from his pocket and never used a tape recorder, for he was after inner thoughts, not direct quotes. Soon he came to realize that all these people had something in common -- their pressing awareness of Frank Sinatra's cold. One night in his hotel room, writing his daily chronicle, Talese found his story: "Sinatra was ill. He was a victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Sinatra it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage. Frank Sinatra had a cold. Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel -- only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice ... and it not only affects his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability." Talese never did get the chance to sit down and talk alone to Sinatra; instead, he watched Sinatra in assorted settings, many of them stressful or private. "What could he or would he have said," Talese later mused, "that would have revealed him better than an observing writer watching him in action ... listening and lingering along the sidelines of his life?"
This method of collecting scenes that reveal character, so much a part of the New Journalism, depends of course on the dogged, tireless legwork of the Old Journalism. Talese is too modest, though -- or disingenuous -- when he contends that he was essentially pounding the streets, wearing out shoe leather. He is a reporter, true enough, but one with the eyes and ears of an artist. This anthology puts the gloss back on the term "New Journalism." *