Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” published in April 1966, has one of the best back stories in journalism. Talese travelled to San Francisco to interview the great music legend for a profile piece. Sinatra, approaching 50, out of popularity, growing old and suffering from a cold changed his mind and refused to be interviewed. In a great moment of lemonade making out of lemons, Talese began to instead interview everyone around Sinatra:
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?
The result is a Sinatra without the Sinatra’s editorialising. We get a view of the man rather than the man Sinatra wishes to tell an interviewer he is. The whole thing becomes a vivid story about the hero’s superpower weakening (his voice), the fight against his enemies (the media) and his glorious victory. If it were not an essay it could be a play or a poem. Look how he describes Sinatra’s cold:
Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel — only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.
That paragraph makes me want to start the whole thing all over again.
Talese skill was to write slowly and deliberately, while knowing his subjects to such a depth that he could reliably ascribe them with thoughts and feelings rather than just words and actions.
Often a negative review is a put-down of my technique. They don’t believe me. They think I’m faking. Talese writes so-and-so was thinking this. How do we know this person was thinking that? The reason I knew is that I interviewed them over and over again.
(The Paris Review)
This all makes Talese a father of New Journalism – the movement to introduce unconventional techniques borrowed and stolen from fiction into journalism whilst trying to maintain journalism’s objectivity. As with most things that call themselves “New” it is rather old now. Almost every newspaper these days will have some story in it with techniques that would have once been thought of as very cutting edge New Journalism and are now readily accepted. You will seldom, however, have read New Journalism written quite as well as this. Esquire recently named it as one of their greatest stories of all time. You can find a copy on their website. Enjoy!