The man had to be 85-year-old Gay Talese, legendary grandaddy of ’60s New Journalism who left the New York Times to pen signature pieces about Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio for Esquire, later producing bestsellers with biblical names like Honor thy Father, about the Mafia and Thy Neighbor’s Wife, a controversial book about the sexual revolution in which he took a decidedly personal interest in the research. Then there’s High Notes, a collection of his work out this year.
Yesterday, I left a message for him at his East 61st Street townhouse which he shares with Nan A. Talese, his glamorous and accomplished wife of 58 years, whom he met while living on MacDougal Street. She has her own imprint at Doubleday and has published literary lions like Ian McEwan, Antonia Fraser and Margaret Atwood. “I married above me,” said Talese modestly when we finally spoke over the phone during a rushed conversation late in the afternoon. He was in his basement office, called The Bunker, and asked if I had seen a recent Vanity Fair piece about his wife.
But I didn’t call him to discuss either his marriage (he’s been working on a book about it) or the forthcoming new paperback edition of The Voyeur’s Motel, a book about a peeping-tom motel owner whose credibility was called into question along with the author’s own. I was much more interested in Talese’s published comments earlier this year praising Republican president Donald Trump as “inspiring” and characterizing him as “The Face of America.” It all seemed very strange coming from a celebrated non-fiction writer who has been described as a lifelong Democrat.
As it turns out, Talese knew Trump back in the 1970s when the rising Manhattan real estate developer from Queens would drive him home in his limo after both had been in George Steinbrenner’s box at the Yankee Stadium. He also saw Trump at parties given at Le Club, a popular night spot back then for the glitterati, and at his casinos in Atlantic City that were not far from Talese’s family home in Ocean City, NJ. When Talese was vice president of PEN, the writers group, he went to Trump Tower with Norman Mailer, PEN’s president, to ask a favor of the mogul. “Norman wanted [space] for 200 writers coming [to New York] from all over the world and Trump said: ‘Got any money?’ I said, “No, we don’t have any money, so why don’t you give us a place at no cost?’ He said, ‘Okay. I’ll give you 200 rooms for nine days’ at his St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park South and 59th Street [now the Ritz-Carlton].”
That was an offer few writers could refuse–or forget. Talese says he hadn’t seen Trump for years when he ran for president and hadn’t voted for him. He was a fan of Bernie Sanders– “I lost hope when he didn’t become a presidential candidate”– and was stunned when the bumptious GOP nominee, a political newbie, won in the electoral college against Hillary Clinton on Nov. 8.
“It was a miracle,” he says. “I had thought, ‘This guy doesn’t have a chance. He’ll never make it.’ I couldn’t believe it. After eight years of Obama, which was like eight politically correct years with Harvard Law School, here comes this ruffian Trump with his rough manner. Then he starts offending people with his tweets. The press hated him because of eight years of No Drama Obama and now here’s this redneck from Queens. He starts saying what he thinks. He’s outspoken, a little brash. It’s the arrogance of big-time New York.”
His own personal feelings about Trump? “I’m enthusiastic about a brash New Yorker,” he says at one point in our conversation, later saying he hopes he doesn’t sound like a “crazy” Trump supporter.
“I like these offbeat characters,” Talese explains. “I’ve written about them. People like Al Goldstein [the late publisher of Screw magazine] and Mafia. I’ve written about nobodies. Trump grew up with guys who had work gloves and hard hats. He understands them. He finished Wollman Rink [in Central Park] in no time,” Talese continues, referring to the ice skating rink that Trump renovated in three and a half months in 1986 after six years of botched efforts by the city of New York.
But isn’t Talese, the son of an immigrant tailor from Italy, worried about Trump’s harsh views on immigration? He admits that he is. But he claims to have hope for the country in spite of the president’s numerous shortcomings. “I better have hope. I want the country to succeed. I don’t want him to fail. I don’t want the government of the United States to fail. I’m the son of an immigrant and I’m neither left nor right. I don’t see people in black and white. Shades of gray are where I live.”
The subject turns to journalism and Talese makes it plain he favors the Old School way of legging it and interviewing people face to face rather than on the telephone. “The idea of a journalist is to show up. Look at the faces. Look at the gesture. If they give you an answer to a question, ask, ‘What do you mean?’ I’m now now 85 and I still have the same attitude I had at 24. You can’t google your way through life.”
He also believes that journalism has become “so one-sided” in its attacks on Trump. “This is my opinion. I believe that after eight years under the deity that was Obama with his sainted wife, the journalists were frustrated. They couldn’t be disrespectful. This was a gentleman and the woman was a wonderful lady. Now we don’t have that. Now, after eight years of political correctness, we’ve got this blustering bloke from New York and now they have a piñata they want to bash. Donald Trump wants to run the US like Steinbrenner ran the Yankees, hiring, firing and winning. Winning at any cost doesn’t make him popular.”
Talese also takes issue with journalists using unnamed sources to attack Trump and his administration, particularly stories involving the various investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. “I’ve interviewed gangsters and sex freaks and always named a source. I have never used an unnamed source.” He calls such unnamed sources “propagandists. They’re not sticking their name where their mouth is.”
Even so, he regards Trump and company as a gift that keeps on giving to journalists. While Talese has nothing good to say about about fired national security advisor Michael Flynn– “Donald Trump should never have shook hands with this guy”– he views Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner as his kind of character. “It’s like The Godfather or The Sopranos. Kushner’s father goes to jail and the son goes to Harvard and visits him when he’s in jail. You can’t make this up. We should thank Trump for giving us great stories.”