The thrillsville of it all...
October 8, 2013 10:55 AM   Subscribe

Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold" appeared in Esquire Magazine in April 1966. Sinatra had turned down interview requests from Esquire for years and refused to be interviewed for the profile. Rather than give up, Talese spent the three months following and observing the man and interviewing any members of his entourage who were willing to speak -- and the final story was published without Sinatra's cooperation or blessing. In 2003, editors pronounced it the best article the magazine had ever published. Nieman Storyboard interviewed Talese last month about the piece and has annotated it with his comments.

"In fewer than 15,000 words Mr Talese managed to capture the man, the music, the life, the actor, the style, not to mention the booze, broads, brawls, the spills and, as the man himself might have said, the thrillsville of it all."

Additional background from Wikipedia.

Author and Journalist Tom Wolfe dubbed Gay Talese the founder of a "New Journalism," in which narrative literary techniques are incorporated into a journalist's reporting. "I respected [news writers] because they got it right, but I didn’t want to emulate them in any way because they were boring,” Talese said. "It is getting it right, and then being a storyteller. And that means you have to have characters."

Also from Nieman Storyboard: Why is this so good?

New Yorker: Notes from Underground
The Paris Review: Gay Talese, The Art of Nonfiction No. 2. They also have his outline for the story, written on a shirt board.
NPR (2003): Slate founding editor Michael Kinsley interviews Talese for Day to Day (audio)
Big Think: Gay Talese and New Journalism
posted by zarq (46 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Gay Talese on KCRW's Strangers.
posted by mykescipark at 11:00 AM on October 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thanks for posting this. I wanted to do a post worthy of it, but I, amusingly, have a cold and since I think Gay Telese is just about the best, I didn't want to mess it up.

The shirt board especially is just beautiful.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:03 AM on October 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Heh. You're very welcome. :)

And I hope you feel better.

MCMikeNamara: " The shirt board especially is just beautiful."

Isn't it? You can zoom a little closer into the image here. The full thing (it has a left side that's missing!) is here.
posted by zarq at 11:10 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, a link I missed on the main post: "Gay Talese has a Coke*: reflections of a narrative legend, in conversation with Esquire’s Chris Jones"
posted by zarq at 11:10 AM on October 8, 2013

Great stuff but those unclosed brackets in the annotation are driving me crazy. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
Ahh, that's better.
posted by exogenous at 11:14 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

For Frank Sinatra was now involved with many things involving many people -- his own film company, his record company, his private airline, his missile-parts firm, his real-estate holdings across the nation, his personal staff of seventy-five -- which are only a portion of the power he is and has come to represent.

His missile parts firm?
posted by three blind mice at 11:17 AM on October 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

This is a wonderful read. Frank, particularly in that era, is a fascinating and at times puzzling figure.
I havent much to add to this, but one of my favorite songs of the last year is Ben Fold's "On Being Frank", a somber tale told from the point of view of Frank's longtime personal assistant.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 11:23 AM on October 8, 2013

His missile parts firm?

That's certainly his reputation.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:24 AM on October 8, 2013 [13 favorites]

three blind mice: "His missile parts firm?"

Maybe I'm wrong, but I think it just says a lot about the World that Was in 1966 that that would be included as part of an explanation of Sinatra's wide ranging empire but not really require an explanation beyond that.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:26 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

My favorite Sinatra story is his meeting with Mario Puzo.
posted by exogenous at 11:28 AM on October 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

Cameo appearance by Harlan Ellison (who gets schooled by Sinatra).
posted by MartinWisse at 11:30 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

(As a sort of aside, this is odd because I vaguely remember another FPP about the "greatest Esquire stories ever published" and I don't remember it being the same list. I can't find the post, though.)

And YES, the Harlan Ellison part was great, especially the description of the outfit to which Sinatra objected.
posted by elizardbits at 11:37 AM on October 8, 2013

I seem to recall Harlan Ellison talking about his side of the story recently when he spoke at Cinefamily here in L.A. a while back. I recorded the whole thing, so I'll have to see if my memory serves me well...
posted by mykescipark at 11:43 AM on October 8, 2013

I love that Ellison was being a punk even then, even to a dude who could have had him dumped in the harbor with a gesture.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:52 AM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I read the original piece through longform a while back - nice to see the annotations. Interesting look back at the situation, glimpse into his process. Now I'm anxious to see the one he's been gestating for 30 years ...
posted by tilde at 11:56 AM on October 8, 2013

I'm pretty sure Harlan Ellison talks about his side of all stories whenever the opportunity presents itself.

The scariest thing that ever happened to me was one Christmas when I was off at relatives' for the holiday and called to check my voice mail and there's a message from Harlan Ellison saying "we have to talk, young man," and leaving a number.

I'd done a list piece for an SF media magazine about various projects that never got out of development hell, and the editor didn't want it to be all movies and TV shows, so to get something more literary in there he had me add Ellison's long awaited but never quite released anthology project "Last Dangerous Visions." It was just a five line blurb and didn't stick even a toe beyond the most obvious, public facts about the book, but it still caught his eye and there was that damn message.

Hell no, I didn't call him back. I'd seen the guy once, at a convention, when he had like 90 minutes to fill and started off by going, "I'm sure you've all got plenty of questions" and a picosecond later, some plant yelled "Tell us about X!" and Ellison joyously spent the whole damn panel going off about X. X in this case being some fandom figure whose name I don't recall, but it was someone Ellison had long been feuding with, and this person had-again if I recall correctly-gotten in some trouble in Arizona or someplace involving underage boys at a pool party. Ellison gloated with a gloaty glee that was frankly somewhat terrifying - wholly apart from the fact that this wasn't really what a packed room most wanted to know about the experiences of Harlan Ellison. I wasn't diving into that without a protective suit on.

So instead I called my editor and apparently my editor's wife, who was a long time friend of Ellison's, called up and basically told him, "Harlan, leave that kid alone. You know damn well he didn't say a single thing that wasn't true." And that was, thankfully, the end of that.
posted by Naberius at 12:00 PM on October 8, 2013 [28 favorites]

I think that's the only Harlan Ellison story I've ever heard with a happy ending.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:11 PM on October 8, 2013 [14 favorites]

For example, when one of his men brought him a frankfurter with catsup on it, which Sinatra apparently abhors, he angrily threw the bottle at the man, splattering catsup all over him.

As it should be.
posted by bondcliff at 12:36 PM on October 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

The best Sinatra story is the time Tony Clifton schooled him
posted by thelonius at 1:09 PM on October 8, 2013

Sinatra was never a slum kid, never in jail, always well-dressed. He had so many pants that some people in Hoboken called him "Slacksey O'Brien."
posted by Xalf at 1:16 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Man, what an odd name. I mean, just weird. What kind of man is named "Talese"?
posted by grubi at 1:23 PM on October 8, 2013

An Italian-American.
posted by mr. digits at 2:04 PM on October 8, 2013

(with a father of southern Italian origin)
posted by mr. digits at 2:05 PM on October 8, 2013

It occurs to me that there may've been some humor that I passed over in your query, grubi. In my own defense, I'm just home from work and have not yet decompressed.
posted by mr. digits at 2:09 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

exogenous, that link is solid gold:
Time has mercifully dimmed the humiliation of what followed. Sinatra started to shout abuse. I remember that, contrary to his reputation, he did not use foul language at all. The worst thing he called me was a pimp. I do remember him saying that if it wasn’t that I was so much older than he, he would beat the hell out of me. What hurt was that here he was, a northern Italian, threatening me, a southern Italian, with physical violence. This was roughly equivalent to Einstein pulling a knife on Al Capone. It just wasn’t done.
posted by letitrain at 2:21 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sinatra bashes The Oscar, a film Ellison wrote, and Ellison shoots back it hasn't even been released yet, and Sinatra repeats, "It's a piece of crap."

But to me the really bizarre part of this exchange is that Sinatra is in The Oscar. It's just a cameo and unbilled, but it's an important scene. The encounter between Ellison and Sinatra took place in November 1965 and the film was released in March 1966, so either Sinatra had already filmed his scene or else would film it in the next few weeks.

By the way, Sinatra was right about The Oscar. It is indeed a piece of crap.
posted by La Cieca at 2:37 PM on October 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've always wondered about the truth of that too. Fact is, Sinatra probably could have seen it -- or at least an early cut. But also wouldn't have Ellison known that?

I guess, though, neither one of them are known for their cool logical heads when it comes to conflict, so maybe I'm over-thinking this.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 3:01 PM on October 8, 2013

The best Sinatra story I've heard was about a time he was in a club where he was a regular and would frequently come with his entire entourage and drop thousands of dollars, back when that was incomprehensible money. A waiter tripped and dropped an entire tray of crystal glasses. The manager came out and started yelling at him, telling him he was fired. The guy pleaded for his job, he'd been there a long time, he had a family, etc. Sinatra saw the altercation and waved the manager over. "How much did those glasses cost?" The manager told him. Sinatra calmly peeled off twice that amount in crisp $100 bills. "Have that waiter bring out another tray?" The manager complied. Sinatra snapped his fingers and pointed at the floor. "Break 'em." The manager was aghast. "If I ever come back and that waiter's lost his job, my friends and I will take our money elsewhere and you'll never see us again. Understand?"

Maybe it's because I waited tables entirely too long in my life, but that makes him fucking Batman as far as I'm concerned.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 3:08 PM on October 8, 2013 [14 favorites]

Ah, wait a minute. here's the complete story. I had it mostly right. Great story, though.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 3:13 PM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ellison has talked about not seeing The Oscar until the premiere, so it is actually possible that Sinatra (who could probably do anything he wanted) had seen it and Ellison hadn't. Although it's funnier to assume he was just being an asshole.

The private club, by the way, is the the Daisy, a place that figures prominently in much 60s - 70s Hollywood lore. It was owned by Jack Hanson, a former baseball player who made his fortune with Jax Slacks, those tight pants that Marilyn Monroe and others popularized. Nicole Brown was a waitress at the Daisy --- that's where she met O.J.
posted by neroli at 3:16 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

It occurs to me that there may've been some humor that I passed over in your query, grubi. In my own defense, I'm just home from work and have not yet decompressed.

I was trying to be silly, yes. Kind of making fun of people who might make fun of Mr Talese's first name. But no biggie.
posted by grubi at 3:21 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

(with a father of southern Italian origin)

My grandfather (and his family) were plenty Southern Italian, too. Pudgy little Neapolitan. And I look like him, apparently.
posted by grubi at 3:32 PM on October 8, 2013

Sinatra snapped his fingers and pointed at the floor. "Break 'em."

This was a very Augustan thing to do. At least the waiter wasn't going to be fed to eels.
posted by thelonius at 3:57 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

He sounds like an asshole in that article.
posted by Omnomnom at 4:16 PM on October 8, 2013

(Um, the article in the first link.)
posted by Omnomnom at 4:17 PM on October 8, 2013

Funny thing, Mario Puzo dismissing Frank Sinatra as a "northern Italian" while Talese's article refers to Sinatra as Sicilian. Maybe Sinatra's mother being from northern Italy was sufficient for Puzo, despite Sinatra's Sicilian father.
posted by exogenous at 4:20 PM on October 8, 2013

His missile parts firm?

posted by gimonca at 4:48 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

i wonder if an impressionistic, strange, 15k word article like this will ever be published again, gay talese is a genius but that space and the money just doesn't exist anymore.
posted by PinkMoose at 5:39 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, PinkMoose, it seems that a lot of (mostly online) publications are focussing more on longform journalism these days. I do hope something with this amount of artistic license—but attributed quotes—will be written and published again.

There is definitely a market for it.
posted by flippant at 6:03 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

His missile parts firm?

Biographies indicate it was named Titanium Metal [Forming], but all I can find for that is Sinatra-related drive-by references and this business profile, status suspended (the age is right). In 1967 it was located in Burbank (naturally) and its president, one William E. Barcoff, had been "recognized by the Secretary of the Air Force for his volunteer ...." and that's how Google News Archive usually works.

But I'm intrigued that it may all be a typo and they really mean Titanium Metals Corp. which is still around as TIMET. Although it's now a NH-based subsidiary of something else, it used to be headquartered in Nevada, and definitely had aerospace connections, with USAF contracts from 1955. I'm sure it was one of those things like the line in The Graduate about "plastics" -- "titanium, Frank, titanium".
posted by dhartung at 3:27 AM on October 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

i wonder if an impressionistic, strange, 15k word article like this will ever be published again

I dunno about anything that long, but this article seems to be what Tom Junod has based almost his entire career around.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:39 AM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

It has been awhile since I read Talese's piece and I had forgotten Sinatra was bald. I had not forgotten that he comported himself as a big tough goon although google claims he was 5 foot 8 inches tall.

Mia Farrow claims in interview with Vanity Fair that her 25-year-old son Ronan may be Frank Sinatra's rather than Woody Allen's.
posted by bukvich at 5:42 AM on October 9, 2013

That is indeed one of the top 10 if not the best magazine articles ever written -- for so many reasons -- and makes me anachronistically nostalgic (I was still crapping in my diapers when it came out) for the combination of suave drollery and bigger-than-life amazeballs that nothing nowadays, no matter how well-researched and well-written, can touch. Just read the first paragraph to yourself out loud about half a dozen times and come back and tell me if you can think of any article written in the past 10, 20, 30 years that's that goddamn evocative.
posted by blucevalo at 1:40 PM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

What weird timing. I was just reading about the cancellation of two Hillary Clinton TV biopic projects which lead me to Ron Rosenbaum's article extolling the virtues of the write-around, which mentions the Sinatra piece.
posted by Rhomboid at 12:39 AM on October 10, 2013

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