Gay Talese annotated his famous 1966 Esquire profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” for Nieman Storyboard, revealing tidbits about the magazine classic and his craft.
The 15,000-word masterpiece ushered in the era of so-called “New Journalism” and is widely considered one of the best celebrity profiles ever, despite (and perhaps because of) Sinatra’s refusal to talk to Talese.
Here are a few choice bits from the legendary journalist, now 81 years old:
1. Talese spoke to “at least a hundred” people for his profile. Sinatra, of course, wasn’t one of them.
2. Talese got his tip that Sinatra wore a toupee from an actor who’d worked with the singer, who gave him the number of the woman in charge of carrying them around. Sinatra’s widow, Barbara once told New York Times Magazine that her husband didn’t wear a hairpiece. Talese didn’t appreciate that at all: “Totally made up! Totally fiction! This prick published it. I called the Times right away. This was in the damn magazine. They issued a correction. I had her in my notes and I’d interviewed her. Fortunately, I save all my notes.”
3. Talese was supposed to interview Sinatra’s first wife, Nancy, for the piece, but Old Blue Eyes’ press agent, Jim Mahoney, got to her first: “I was looking forward to it because not only would she be a terrific interview, but she was there from the very beginning. In a way, she would have been the best interview I would have had. When I was scheduled to see her, Mahoney called me up and said, ‘Why’d you call Nancy?’ I said, ‘Well, I wanted to talk to her.’ ‘You can’t.’ ‘Well, she said I could.’ ‘Well, you can’t.’ ‘It’s scheduled already and she said I could go over at 1 (o’clock).’ ‘Well, you can’t. I just talked to her.’ I said, ‘Why’d you do that?’ I was really pissed off. This was like a breakthrough interview for me. So that’s the one instance. I never did see her.”
4. Mahoney stuck to Talese like glue throughout his reporting: “I was with Mahoney, as always. He was my minder. I didn’t go anywhere without him. “
5. Several details in the piece (and several other Talese articles) came from other sources. Talese is unapologetic about the lack of attribution: “If I had said, ‘Oh, Joe, you never heard such cheering,’ Marilyn said, according to Maurice Zolotow in Glamour magazine, it would kill it. So you take what is a part of the public record; that quote was probably published two or three years before. Now, if I had had an appendix, I’d have cited it. But it didn’t seem like I could put it in without messing up the whole atmosphere. You couldn’t do that. If you did it, you’d blow it. The quote wouldn’t resonate the way it did.” Talese said New Journalism deviated from formal journalism in taking certain liberties like that, calling previous reportage “part of the public record, like a big mass of material.”
6. He doesn’t record his interviews, either. He’d rather use his words than his sources’ — they read better: “The reason I don’t use a tape recorder is I don’t want the tape recorder to contradict what I think is potentially a better quote. My idea of interviewing is to get as best I can out of the mouth of somebody else their best thought — the most ideal representation of what they think, not what they say.”