Hello, Friends of Viva -this is SO charming on the writing process, I wanted to share. I for one will never look at dry cleaning boards the same again -Enjoy!
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I uncovered a good example of this recently when I was looking through some old files from the sixties. I had just gotten to the Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles to begin researching my piece on Frank Sinatra. I hear a knock on the door. It’s the night chambermaid. She comes in to turn down the bed and to place a piece of chocolate on the pillow. And this chambermaid is gorgeous. She’s a strong, lean woman from Guatemala, about twenty-two years old, who speaks English with a heavy accent and wears a wonderful striped skirt. I have a conversation with her. Then I find myself writing about these women who work for the Beverly Wilshire, many of them quite beautiful, and most of them from faraway places, who each day are immersed in the luxurious and privileged lifestyles of the hotel’s guests. So here I’m supposed to be working on Frank Sinatra, but this whole drama about hotel rooms and chambermaids, that’s in there too.
The tailor business never really worked out. The craftsmen were fine, but there weren’t quite enough people in Ocean City who wanted to pay for handmade suits. So my mother became the wage earner. All the money we made was because of my mother selling dresses. She was successful because she had a way of getting women to talk about themselves. Her customers were, for the most part, large women, women who did not go to the beach in the summertime. My mother would give them clothes to try on that made them look better than they thought they had any right to look. She wasn’t a hustler. She made her sales because they trusted her and liked her, and she liked them back. I was there a lot—folding the dress boxes, dusting the counters, doing chores—and I learned a lot about the town by eavesdropping. These women, telling my mother their private stories, gave me an idea of a larger world.
I didn’t fit in at high school. I didn’t look like the other students and I certainly didn’t dress like them, in their mackinaw jackets. My father made my clothes, and I was overly well dressed. But the column gave me an excuse to talk to others. It was not unlike my mother talking with the wealthy women in her dress shop. Doing journalism made me feel that, even if I wasn’t part of their group, I had a right to be there.
I enjoyed my time there and I passed. I was worried about keeping my grades up. If I flunked I would have lost my student deferment. I would’ve been sent to Korea.
The receptionist looked at me like I was some kind of lunatic, but I was dressed very well—in clothes made by my father—so at least I was a well-dressed lunatic. After six hours, I got in to see Mr. Catledge. He asked, What brings you to New York? I said, Well, I’m a friend of your cousin. He said, And who might that be, if you don’t mind my asking? I said, James Pinkston. Catledge looked at me and there was no expression on his face. I thought, That Jimmy Pinkston was so distantly related that Catledge never even knew he was his cousin. But he hired me anyway, as a copy boy. So that’s how I began: getting people coffee and sandwiches, running errands. And after a week and a half my first piece was published in the paper.
One of the good things about being a copy boy was that you got to know a lot of people on the staff. Especially if you were polite. I had good manners, thanks to growing up in the store—a reverential attitude toward the customer. So I approached Meyer Berger, one of the famous reporters on the paper at the time and a wonderful, generous man. He said I could write up the piece on his typewriter and show it to him. I did, and he liked it. He showed it to his editor, and soon it was published, without a byline, on the editorial page.
It had better be good too, because my name was on it. I’ve always thought that. I think this came from watching my father work on suits. I was impressed by how carefully he would sew, and he never made much money, but I thought he was the real thing. His name was on those suits—the buttons couldn’t fall off tomorrow. They had to look great, had to fit well, and had to last. His business wasn’t profitable, but from him I learned that I wanted to be a craftsman.
At the same time, in the mid-sixties, Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin were having fun at theHerald Tribune. They were able to write what they wanted to write and I wished I had that kind of freedom. I was getting a lot of freedom by the standards of the Times, but not compared to them. I wanted more room and I wanted to go anywhere I wanted.
I don’t put Breslin or Hunter S. Thompson at that level. I never felt competitive with Breslin. I thought he was unnecessarily rude. He’s turned that rudeness into a kind of marketable manifestation of his mentality. Thompson was out there. He was playing music that a lot of people understood, but I didn’t get it. I liked some of his work and I read some of his books. I met him maybe twice and I have no ill feeling toward him. I was watching a recent documentary about Thompson and a friend pointed out to me that he had a copy of The Kingdom and the Power on his bookshelf. So I decided that I should have thought more highly of Hunter S. Thompson.
Nonfiction writers are second-class citizens, the Ellis Island of literature. We just can’t quite get in. And yes, it pisses me off.
That night I’m sitting at a bar around ten o’clock, watching people, and sure enough I notice Frank Sinatra sitting down the corner of the bar with two blondes. Sinatra goes to play pool and I witness a scene between Sinatra and a guy named Harlan Ellison, and I write it down on a shirt board. But I don’t get it all, so I go up to Ellison and ask him if I can talk to him the next day. He gives me his phone number and address. When we speak in person I ask him not just what everyone said, but what he was thinking. I always ask people what was on their mind. Were you surprised by Sinatra? Had you met him before? Did you think he was going to hit you, or did you want to pop him? Then someone I knew had a secretary who had gone to school with Sinatra’s daughter Nancy. She told me this great story about how she went to this party at the Sinatras’ house. At the party she accidentally knocks off from the mantle an alabaster bird. And little Nancy says, Oh no, that’s my mother’s favorite. Then Frank Sinatra knocks the other one off.
I called Floyd Patterson, whom I’d written a piece about in Esquire, because I knew Sinatra was going to see him in a fight in Las Vegas. He got me tickets to the fight and I just followed Sinatra around. I was in touch with Floyd because when I finish a story, I don’t finish a story. I keep in touch with the people I write about. I did that even as a young sports writer just starting out, twenty-five years old. I keep in touch because I always think that there might be more. The stories go on.
So I was getting little things like that. I called Harold Hayes, my editor, almost every day. He asked me how it was going. I said, I’m out here getting things. Harold never asked me if I wanted to come home and I never thought of asking him if I could leave.
I turned in the piece at roughly a hundred pages. They didn’t change a word. When it came out it wasn’t like, Oh, this is one of the great pieces of all time. It was just another piece.
Click here to see Gay Talese’s outline for “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” To read the rest of the interview, click here to purchase this issue.