The Portrait Artist

Darryl Estrine 5Last week Longform ran a Guide to Gay Talese and gave me the perfect excuse to set aside my current reading projects and spend a couple of days revisiting my favorite Talese pieces. I’m not a big re-reader. Truth be told, my overwound internal clock–the part of my brain dedicated to keeping tabs on the time I have left versus the titles I’ve yet to tackle (Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick, To The Lighthouse . . .)–often leads me to tear through things much faster than I should. There are, however, a few writers I return to over and over again: Flannery O’Connor is one; Talese is another.

Talese is often referred to as the master of narrative nonfiction, and he is that, but in my view that label is too limiting. It threatens to cut him off from a broader audience that cleaves to fiction as if dipping a toe into the real world will somehow lead to a slow descent into mass market true crime. As a rule, I object to the segregation of fiction from nonfiction. Good writing is good writing. (For recent examples of this, see Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family and Katherine Boo’s Beyond the Beautiful Forevers to name just a couple.) That said, calling Talese a nonfiction writer does him a disservice, because his work, like fiction, is primarily dedicated to illuminating the human experience. What Talese really is is a short story writer who deals in the real.

If you’re new to Talese and only have time for one piece, people are likely to tell you to read “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” and, lord knows, you should. Widely believed to be the best magazine article of all time, “Frank” is absolutely masterful–a feat of writerly dexterity with no rival. The story stands on its own, but the sheer audacity of Talese’s accomplishment really isn’t clear until you know the backstory, which is that Esquire sent him to LA to write a cover story on old Blue Eyes and when he arrived he found that Frank had denied him all access. Rather than sit in his hotel room and get drunk on the magazine’s dime, Talese instead chose to report “around” Sinatra, interviewing everyone in his retinue and family who would agree to speak to him and watching Frank from a distance in an effort to collect as much information and insight as he could. The result is astonishing: a Technicolor portrait of giant in decline. In other words, you should really read it. But when you’re done with “Frank” I hope you will take the time to read my favorite Talese story: “The Loser.” 

If “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” is Talese’s showpiece, “The Loser” is, for my money, his masterpiece. Also written for Esquire, the story is a snapshot of Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson’s life in the wake of his second loss to Sonny Liston. Like “Frank,” it is a portrait of a man who wakes up to find himself on the other side of greatness and it is one of the most moving stories, fiction or nonfiction, I’ve ever read.

The technical hurdles Talese had to mount to write this article are quieter, but no less daunting. Rather than constructing a picture of someone out of scraps and gossip and inference, in “The Loser” Talese paints what is possibly one of the most intimate portraits of a public figure ever put on paper. In the article, Patterson reveals dark corners of himself that few of us would share with our nearest and dearest–and he does so with the full knowledge that this information is destined for print. Patterson tells Talese, for instance, that he is so horrified by the prospect of facing his fans after a defeat that he travels with a disguise–a false mustache and dark glasses–and he has been known to hide in the shadows of an airplane hangar to avoid being confronted post-fight. And the vulnerability is only amped up as the article progresses. By the end of “The Loser,” I felt I knew Patterson in the same way that I knew Maurice Bendrix at the close of The End of the Affair. I had seen his fatal flaws up close and, rather than condemning him, I understood that they were inextricable from his most noble nature.

How Talese managed to nurture the kind of trust required to write an article, like “The Loser,” is part sweat and guts and part magic. When I worked with Talese, he made no bones about what distinguished his reporting from other people’s: time. By the time “The Loser” was written in 1964, Talese had been reporting on Patterson for more than five years. He knew the man; he had worked tirelessly to cultivate his trust. I cannot imagine a portrait of a public figure like this one appearing today. This is, of course, partly because few reporters now have the luxury of putting in this kind of time with their subjects. But it is also because few are curious or steadfast enough to do the hard work. And it may also have something to do with the growing taboo against revealing one’s own weakness, the ongoing pathologization of human frailty. Regardless of the reasons, stories like this are in short supply and they are deeply important. They breed compassion by stripping off the layers and helping us see one another more clearly. Few fiction writers get as close to the bone as Talese manages to in “The Loser.” The fact that he was able to capture the essence of a real man is what makes him, in my mind, unparalleled in the world of nonfiction.