Bartleby and Me

From The Wall Street Journal:

Gay Talese and Frank Sinatra have enjoyed a rich, symbiotic relationship, one that has long outlasted the singer, who died at 82 a quarter-century ago. Back in 1965, Mr. Talese trailed Sinatra around Las Vegas and Hollywood for a profile for Esquire magazine. At his peak after a triumphant comeback, Sinatra brushed off the writer’s pleas for an interview, but Mr. Talese produced a piece anyway. The result, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” became one of the most celebrated magazine articles from the golden age of the slicks—and an enduring testament to Sinatra’s talent and fame.

Along with Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and others, Mr. Talese has been acclaimed as a virtuoso of the novelistic New Journalism. Now 91, he has published a short and charming second memoir, “Bartleby and Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener.” Once again, Sinatra takes center stage. But there’s more, especially the author’s take on the kind of journalism he’s practiced for seven decades, starting as a copy boy at the New York Times in 1953.

Mr. Talese takes his inspiration—and his title—from “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville’s 1853 short story about an inconsequential law clerk. “Growing up in a small town on the Jersey Shore in the late 1940s, I dreamed of someday working for a great newspaper,” Mr. Talese writes. “But I did not necessarily want to write news. . . . I wanted to specialize in writing about nobodies.”

His first published piece, carried without a byline on the Times’s editorial page, was about a “nobody” who operated the illuminated ribbon sign that announced the latest news around a lower floor of the old Times Tower in Times Square—a Bartleby for the age of Ike.

Thankfully for magazine journalism, Mr. Talese eventually overcame his original preoccupation, but before he did so he chronicled alley cats, bus drivers, ferry-boat captains, dress-mannequin designers, even those who pushed the three-wheeled rolling chairs along Atlantic City’s boardwalk. After two years of military service at Fort Knox—during which he contributed pieces to the Louisville Courier-Journal—he returned to the Times as a sports writer. (As a college correspondent for the Times in the late ’50s, I sometimes squatted at an empty desk near his in the uncrowded sports department.)

In 1965 Mr. Talese left the paper to join Esquire, then in its glory days under the brilliant editor Harold Hayes. The young writer promptly sold Hayes on a profile of figures at the Times, both obscure and heralded, starting with Alden Whitman. Whitman had revolutionized obituaries at the paper by conducting long premortem interviews with Harry Truman, Pablo Picasso and other luminaries. The lauded “Mr. Bad News” piece helped lay the groundwork for “The Kingdom and the Power,” Mr. Talese’s 1969 book about the Times—his first bestseller.

Bartleby’s murmurous response to the world was “I prefer not to,” while Sinatra famously belted out “I did it my way.” Still, the young Talese was drawn to him.

Fully a third of “Bartleby and Me” is a reconstruction of Mr. Talese’s frustrated pursuit of Sinatra—from his first glimpse of his lonely subject nursing a Jack Daniel’s at the bar of the Hollywood hangout The Daisy, to watching him pick a fight with a young writer because Sinatra didn’t like his boots, and at a recording session after an earlier one was aborted because the crooner had the sniffles. Sinatra genially blows off Mr. Talese’s requests to talk, so the writer interviews Sinatra’s entourage, including his sort-of-look-alike stand-in, as well as the little old lady who totes around his hairpieces, and his daughter Nancy. Mr. Talese even describes how he took his Sinatra notes on cut-down laundered-shirt cardboards.

The 14,000-word cover story ran in the April 1966 issue, was later published as a short book and, on the 70th anniversary of Esquire, was voted by its editors and staff the best piece ever to run in the magazine.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal