Happy Birthday, Gay Talese

Today is Gay Talese’s 80th Birthday. If you’ve never heard of him, Talese is one of the first writers to incorporate literary storytelling techniques into non-fiction stories. He would study subjects with keen detail over hours and hours, take meticulous notes and then recreate those scenes with vivid detail in his stories.

Back in 1966, Talese wrote a profile of Frank Sinatra entitled “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold.” It is widely considered to be one of the best magazine articles of all time and also happens to be my favorite. The story helped me get past a barrier in my mind, that journalists and writers were somehow disconnected, that you had to choose one or the other. But because of the intense reporting — and it’s important to note, Sinatra wouldn’t submit to an interview for the article, so it’s mainly based on observation — Talese is able to build a beautiful story about a complex man, who we see transform from a shut-off individual in the opening scene to a powerful man with a kind heart, and to a broken body, bordering on depression, who doesn’t have it in him to trade attention for happiness.

Today, you might read about how Joe Actor got in an altercation with someone in a club, which becomes a very vague truth. The details (altercation? was it a fight? did he win? did he lose? was he drunk?) are filled in by gossip, and we tend to assume the worst. But Talese gives us numerous clear scenes and plenty of rich background, and by the end of the story, we feel we know Frank Sinatra ourselves — all of him.

And so, in honor of Talese’s 80th, I hope you’ll read one of the great profiles of all time.

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