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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A day with Gay Talese

Gay Talese has a great fondness for Alabama, home to the University of Alabama, which he claims was the only college that would accept him back in 1953. His affection for the state and its people is genuine and was first glimpsed during a luncheon yesterday.

Annually The Anniston Star has a banquet celebrating its "star" writers of letters to the editor — a positively wonderful idea. Part of the lunch program included reading of excerpts from letters this year. As Editor Bob Davis later explained to me, the letter writers who are honored have received a star by their letter based on clarity and a number of other subjective factors.

As Gay Talese got up to give the audience a little glimpse of his lecture later in the afternoon he captured the theme of his visit here and the secret to his writing genius:

"My debt to Alabama has not been stressed enough," he said. As he listened to the letters written from people in little towns all over Alabama, he was reminded of driving his old Desoto all over Alabama. And he was reminded of "the forthrightness of people who would not otherwise be in the news. Letter writers are essayists. They state their position and then go one to sign their name and put their town on these these letters."

He called them "voices of the south." But then he went on to engage those who were in attendance, asking them about their first letter that was published, what drove them to write, how many letters they get published, what they're working on now. It was a fascinating exchange and showed his skill as an interviewer. It should be noted that whenever someone stood to ask him a question, he first asked their name and where they are from.

(As an aside, I re-read "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" on the plane ride to see if it still holds up today—and it does, emphatically.)

The last letter writer talked about the need to get out of the war in Iraq. Without engaging in a political discussion, which he made clear is not his thing, Talese told a story from his arrival the day before at the Atlanta airport.

"I got on the train and road six stops to baggage claim. And while I was on the train to baggage claim—that sounds like a musical—I saw a young soldier, hanging on to a pole. He was deep in thought. An elderly man got up and said, 'I just want to shake your hand.' He did so and went back to his seat and I went on to baggage claim."

He guessed the elderly man was probably a World War II vet and that he's probably remembering a time when everyone cared about the war and there was so much support on the homefront as well as the battlefront.

Talese is a master of observation, but he is also able to take what he sees and write about it in a way that puts you on the train to baggage claim or in a smokey bar in LA.

He was referred to as a dandy, and he is impeccably dressed in a gray three-piece suit. His double-vented jacket is cut beautifully and he later reveals that all his clothes are made in Paris by his cousins. He is the son of an immigrant tailor. The suit he was wearing is 28 years old. "It still looks great, doesn't it?"

While his fashion sense was honed by his father, Talese learned about talking to people through hanging around his mother's very successful dress shop in Ocean City, N.J. "She was selling herself as much as her dresses. She had a way of asking questions without being intrusive or nosey. She was seriously curious. As a boy of 10, 11 and 12, during World War II, I would hear my mother talking to the women who ran the society of our town."

He regaled us with the story of his first visit to The New York Times, a bold yet naive move suggested by one Jimmy Pinkston, who claimed to be related to the managing editor. And of his job as an office boy that allowed him to get a visual sense of the paper, shuttling information from foreign correspondents to the foreign editor, managing editor, Sunday editor, Week in Review editor, publisher and ad manager.

"Why is this important? I wrote a book in 1969 called 'The Kingdom and the Power' about the New York Times. I would not have been able to write it unless I had the picture of how it all works," he said.

During Bloody Sunday in Selma (March 7, 1965), Talese spoke about realizing that television was telling this story to the world in a way that print journalists could not. "Those cameramen who caught that clobbering of demonstrators brought to the whole of America the pervasive, powerful injustice of America. Selma was only the scene. In the aftermath I wrote more about who was not hurt, not who was hurt. I went to Selma Country Club and talked to those on the putting green."

It was one of the last stories he wrote as a journalist. "I wanted to write more deeply and my books are grounded in journalism. I'm an old-fashioned reporter who loves to write and to get to know people. I thank you for being so nice to me when I was first a student here and for being so nice to me now at 75."

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