SPORTS OCTOBER 25, 2010
edited by Michael Rosenwald
Walker & Co., 320 pp., $16
In the spring of 1964, Gay Talese was on assignment for Esquire at Floyd Patterson’s upstate New York training camp, when the former heavyweight champion of the world got a phone call from his wife Sandra. The Pattersons lived in Scarsdale, and they were heroes of the liberal imagination, but it was only 1964 and they were still racial pioneers. Their seven-year-old daughter, Jeannie, was the only black student in her class, and—as Sandra told Floyd—had been harassed by some white boys at school who had teased her, and lifted up her skirt. The boxer was incensed, and he interrupted his training—for a rematch with the thuggish titleholder Sonny Liston—and left immediately. He flew back to Westchester in his private Cessna, through heavy smoke that came wafting up from a forest fire, determined to put things right. We know both the detail of the forest fire and the champion’s political state of mind because Patterson also brought with him a first-rate reporter, Talese.
The champ arrived at his daughter’s school a few hours later, muttering all the way. “Really can’t understand these schoolkids. This is a religious school, and they want $20,000 for a glass window—and yet, some of them carry these racial prejudices, and it’s mostly the Jews who are shoulder-to-shoulder with us, and…” Patterson found his daughter, who pointed out the boy who had lifted up her skirt. Confronted by the former heavyweight champion of the world, the child confessed not to lifting Jeannie’s skirt but to “touching it a little.” Talese records the champion’s response:
The other boys stood around the car looking down at Patterson, and other students crowded behind them, and nearby Patterson saw several white parents standing next to their parked cars; he became self-conscious, began to tap nervously with his fingers against the dashboard. He could not raise his voice without creating an unpleasant scene, yet could not retreat gracefully; so his voice went soft, and he said, finally: ‘Look, boy, I want you to stop it. I won’t tell your mother—that might get you in trouble—but don’t do it again, okay?’
Hours later, Talese writes, “It still seemed to bother him—the effrontery of the boys, the realization that he had somehow failed, the probability that had those same boys heckled someone in Liston’s family, the school yard would have been littered with limbs.”
Perhaps Talese is projecting a little bit here. But it is hard not to notice the author’s presence—not distorting the moment, but illuminating it. The tragedy of Patterson’s life, in Talese’s account, is that he was slightly ahead of his time—humane and self-conscious before these virtues much profited a working-class black man. Talese returns, again and again, to a single detail. When Patterson entered the ring for his championship fight with Liston, he carried a secret bag holding a disguise (a false mustache, a hat, a “beatnik beard”) so that if he lost the fight he could escape in private. If Patterson had been born two decades later, he would never have become a prizefighter.
Talese is, famously, one of the founders of the movement of lively and literary reportage known as the New Journalism, and one of the most imitated journalistic craftsmen of the last century. His writing about sports, mostly at the New York Times and Esquire, is particularly fine, and it is good to have it collected in this fascinating book, which is full of elegantly observed moments like these.
For Talese himself, and for his editor Michael Rosenwald, in their side-by-side introductions, it is the writer’s sensitivity to the nuances of character that make comparisons of his work to fiction meaningful. “If anyone was to be credited for giving shape and direction to my writing style it was those fiction writers,” Talese writes, “Carson McCullers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Irwin Shaw.” Talese’s signature, Rosenwald writes, was “incorporating into his stories the tools of a fiction writer—scene, characters, dialogue, narrative.”
But all of this talk about style, and the grasping allusions to better writers, misapprehends Talese's achievement, and at once overestimates and underestimates him. The journalist's vanity is always that his genius lies in the elegantly selected detail, the perfect anecdote, the writer's touch. But what elevates the story about Patterson at his daughter's school is not his description of the wafting smoke from the forest fire or the champion's fingers tapping on the dash. It is rather that Talese was alive to the truth that, in a culture that had recognized the terms of its coming transformation but had not yet transformed, Floyd Patterson could always take a heroic position and always end up diminished by it—"the probability that had those same boys heckled someone in Liston’s family, the school yard would have been littered with limbs." Journalism without understanding is just anecdote.
Newspaper hacks say that the best beats are sports and obituaries, because both have a natural narrative—a beginning, a middle, and an end. The decisiveness of a game's verdict is a gorgeous thing for the writer. A knocked-out boxer concedes what happens; you can begin by asking him why he lost, and how it made him feel. Talese was born in 1932 in Ocean City, New Jersey, the son of an Italian tailor, far from high culture. But he had discovered these basic, enduring newspaperman’s charms, the seduction of the beginning, middle and end—by high school—and he stuck to them even when he had become a celebrated literary figure.
Rosenwald makes an odd curatorial choice, which is to spend a quarter of the volume on Talese's apprentice pieces—his early brief efforts at the Times, and his earlier, briefer efforts at the University of Alabama's Crimson-White and even some stuff he wrote in high school for the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger. There is a straining insistence here that newspaper writing is every bit the art that painting is, or music. Rosenwald's point is that Talese had a remarkable eye for detail and tragedy at an extremely early age, which is true; but he is also promoting a strange idea of journalism: that its style is what is most enduring about it, rather than the substance of its insights.
But the collection picks up steam—and we start to see what all the fuss is about—in the profiles that Talese was writing by the 1960s, mostly for Esquire. This was the era of Talese's brilliant study of the mafia, Honor Thy Father—about another group falling out of step with modern American life. Here, we have the long sequence of Patterson studies, remarkable in its perceptiveness, but also a sharply-etched portrait of Joe DiMaggio, the title of which gives this collection its name. The long first section of the piece describes the efforts of a visitor trying to meet the Hall of Famer for a scheduled appointment.The Yankee Clipper, moody and self-isolating, turns away reporters, flirting women, even his own siblings: "Now will you please leave me alone." The trick of the piece’s long opening comes when it becomes evident that DiMaggio’s thwarted visitor was Talese himself.
This is the kind of thing that the advocates of the New Journalism love—intimacy, the first-person immersion, the trompe-’l’oeil narration—but it does not actually reveal much: confusion and misdirection in the course of pursuing a story is Tuesday for most reporters. But over the course of the story—an elegant and reserved story—Talese’s mind, and his sense for the shifting culture, goes to work. DiMaggio, surrounded by sycophants, never even goes to the movies—still unsure of himself at the age of fifty, he struggles to pick up young women in bars. "Look at that," he and his pals are forever saying to each other, watching another woman walk by. The slugger, a few years removed from his sad and true relationship with Marilyn Monroe, knows that the world is passing him by, but he would prefer to wall himself than change with it. DiMaggio watches Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, aging golfers themselves, lose their putting precision, and their nerve. "It's the pressure of age," DiMaggio says knowingly.
Talese, as his career wore on, began to suffer from a different pressure of age. The conventional description is that the journalist's relevance collapsed when he lost himself in a ten-year book project about the aftermath of the sexual revolution. The result, Thy Neighbor's Wife, is an engorged trip to sex clubs, nudist camps, and other sexual culs-de-sac that seem to diminish in relevance with every page. The slow turn of the 1960s was the story Talese had mastered, and he stuck with it even as it abandoned its grip on American life.
None of that work is included in this volume, but you can see some of the same problems emerging in one of the pieces that is reprinted here, an account of a trip that Muhammad Ali took to Havana in 1996. Rosenwald writes, in his introduction to the piece, that Talese considered it his greatest magazine piece, but in fact it is the slightest thing in the volume. Ali had Parkinson's by the time of his trip; Castro was less infirm but old, too; and the piece dissolves into quotations of the formalized banter of people who hardly know one another. Castro several times asks Ali's wife about the cities in which they changed airplanes, en route from Michigan to Cuba, and Ali and the retired Cuban heavyweight Teófilo Stevenson shadowbox for the cameras. There is a long opening scene in which a member of Ali's entourage barters for a better price on some cigars he is buying.
I could not make out exactly what Talese wanted the reader to take from this. That Cuba had its own quiet, vibrant economy that veered towards capitalism? That Ali's entourage were corrupt and overly sure of themselves? But none of these conclusions qualified as news. Muhammad Ali visiting Fidel Castro in Havana in 1996 is a writer's event, full of symbolism and history and scenery. But it was also fundamentally a meaningless event, and no number of cute observations or clever sentences can conceal that empty exercise in journalistic cool.
There is a vanity here, and it is the characteristic vanity of the New Journalism. One reason that the new style was so exciting was that, during the long 1960s, its methods revealed more than they obscured, capturing the internal tumult of those years, the exuberance of building a new culture and the fear of watching something strange loom up around you. But the propaganda around New Journalism confused methods for insights, and suggested that a great reporter’s mind must be creative and sexy rather than empirical and analytic. The hype was so strong that Talese, by the end of his career, bought it, too.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation