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Posts Tagged ‘Gay Talese’

31 JULY, 2013

Gay Talese’s First Mac: The Godfather of Literary Journalism on His Secret Love of Typography

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The writing craft between an Olivetti typewriter, 512 kB of memory, and a pad of yellow legal paper.

Great writers seem to hold the physical act of writing with especial reverence — Susan Sontag with her soft spot for felt-tip pens, Mary Gordon with her love of notebooks and writing by hand, Maya Angelou and her blue pencil. That’s precisely why it’s at once disorienting and delightful to find out that Gay Talese — godfather of literary journalism, sage of the writing craft, chronicler of New York’s cats, man of creative discipline — harbors a secret passion for typography. In A Writer’s Life (public library), he recounts the story of how he acquired his first Macs, propelled by the love of typography — an anecdote particularly poetic given Steve Jobs himself famously revolutionized personal computers after accidentally dropping in on a calligraphy class at Stanford and falling in love with typography.

Gay Talese at his typewriter

Talese writes:

Although my portable Olivetti manual typewriters purchased during the 1950s are dented and wobbly after my having hammered out more than a million words through miles of moving ribbons (I have also secured several loose letters to their arms with threads of dental floss), I nonetheless continue to use these machines at times because of the aesthetic appeal of their typefaces, their classical configuration imposed upon each and every word.

But he was soon swayed to the dark side:

In 1988, influenced by writer friends who claimed that it is easier to write when using a word processor, I acquired two Macintosh 512Ks at a discount price through my publisher and subscribed to introductory courses in the new technology offered by various young college-educated people who made house calls and seemed to have no career ambitions of their own.

[…]

Often I saw myself as a Luddite, an old-fashioned, stagnating reactionary — and I particularly felt this way when I was in the company of fellow writers who raved aloud about their newly acquired “state-of-the-art” computers that were practically writing their books for them; even my wife, with whom I presumably shared a time-honored belief in the enduring value of slowly evolving, painstaking literary labor, was now smitten with the speed and facile efficiency of the cutting-edge technology available in her office and that she herself embraced with the devotedness and blithe sense of discovery often associated with late-in-life religious converts.

Macintosh 512K, introduced on September 10, 1984, at $2,795; memory: 512 kB; discontinued: April 14, 1986.

Armed with Macs for Dummies and a plethora of peer pressure, Talese set out to decondition his Luddite tendencies and fall in love with his new Macs. But it didn’t take long for Moore’s Law to burst the romance bubble as the 512Ks soon became near-obsolete. So, Talese upgraded, once again motivated in large part by his love of typography:

In 1992, however, about four years after I had bought the 512Ks — which, incidentally, I had recently recrated in their original boxes and stored under my desks — I finally did invest in a pair of au courant computers, the Macintosh IIci. Motivating this purchase to some degree was the substantial royalty check I had received that week from Tokyo, sent by a Japanese publisher who in the early 1980s had arranged for the translation of a book of mine about American sexual practices, which he predicted would become a perennial best-seller in his country because it would make the Japanese people feel morally superior. I first saw the Macintosh IIci while shopping for tennis balls in a New Jersey shopping mall. It was displayed in the front window of a computer shop, with a poster bearing the endorsement of a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of my acquaintance. The store manager allowed me to sit down and type for a while on a demonstrator model, and what I liked about the Macintosh IIci was, of course, its sizable screen (double that of the 512K) and also the fact that it offered a variety in fonts as bountiful as the ice-cream flavors at Baskin-Robbins.

Macintosh llci, introduced on September 20, 1989, at $6,269; memory: 1MiB or 4MiB, expandable to 128 MiB; discontinued: February 10, 1993.

Indeed, he remained mesmerized by the magic of type:

I continued to enjoy fiddling with the many Macintosh fonts as I composed, in varying type sizes and shapes, my personal correspondence, fax messages, shopping lists, folder labels, instructional notes to deliverymen, and the outlines for scenes and situations that might appear in a future chapter of my book.

But as the novelty wore off, Talese grew resentful of the planned obsolescence embedded in its proposition and found himself using the Macs less and less, returning instead to the joy of writing by hand:

Nevertheless in 1998, after one of my daughters’ friends who knew a lot about computers told me that my Macintosh model IIci was now a valueless antique, adding that Macintosh had just introduced the wondrous iMac — which was superior in all ways to everything currently on the market — my reaction to this young man’s information was one of unmitigated indifference. I had bought my last computer. The new technology got old so fast that it was constantly close to becoming a misnomer, I thought, but I reminded myself that this no longer mattered to me. I was now reconciled to accepting what I had experienced throughout my working life: Whatever serious writing I was capable of doing would be done most likely in my own handwriting, on a yellow-lined pad, with a pencil.

A Writer’s Life is excellent in its entirety. Take another taste with this peek at Talese’s daily writing routine.

Images: Macintosh 512K via Design History; Macintosh IIci via Wikipedia; portrait of Talese via Covenger & Kester

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03 JULY, 2013

Gay Talese’s Daily Routine, Plus a Money-Saving Tip from the Godfather of Literary Journalism

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“At 8:00 p.m. I am contemplating the numbing predinner delight of a dry gin martini.”

UPDATE: Talese’s routine is now included in this labor-of-love visual adaptation of famous writers’ sleep habits vs. literary productivity.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard reminded us in her beautiful meditation on presence over productivity. Indeed, we seem to have an insatiable appetite for the daily routines and rituals of famous writers and artists, either for the sheer voyeuristic pleasure of a glimpse into their private worlds or in the hope that it would somehow help us finally master our own creative routines.

In A Writer’s Life (public library), Gay Talese — godfather of literary journalism, sage of the writing craft, chronicler of New York’s cats — shares the practicalities of his own daily routine and working environment:

When I am writing, each morning at around eight o’clock I am at my desk with a tray of muffins and a thermos filled with hot coffee at my side, and I sit working for about four hours and then leave for a quick lunch at a coffee shop, followed perhaps by a set or two of tennis. By 4:00 p.m. I am back at my desk revising, discarding, or adding to what I had written earlier. At 8:00 p.m. I am contemplating the numbing predinner delight of a dry gin martini.

Whether I am at home in New Jersey or New York, I work in a single room behind a desk that is U-shaped, formed by three tables at right angles, and I sit on a firm-backed cushioned swivel chair that has armrests and rollers — and, as I shift about, the roller sounds (whether in New Jersey or New York) emit precisely the same squeaks. In both locations the workroom walls — or, rather, the walls that face and flank my desk — are covered with white panels of Styrofoam insulation material, each panel ten feet long, two feet wide, and an inch thick. . . .

Talese goes on to further remove the writer’s world from the realm of the romanticized, bringing it down to the daily grind with a delightfully pragmatic money-saving tip on storyboarding:

In my opinion, these Styrofoam panels are more desirable as bulletin boards than are the wood-framed cork examples customarily sold in stationery stores. Each panel, selling for three or four dollars, is much less expensive than a corkboard of similar size, which costs twenty or thirty dollars or more, and in addition to being light enough to be affixed to walls with heavy tape reinforced maybe by a couple of thumbtacks, the Styrofoam panels are softer than cork and easier to penetrate with the dressmaker pins that I use when hanging up instructional notes or reminders to myself, or, on those rare occasions when my work is flowing, the many manuscript pages filled with finished prose that dangle overhead like a line of drying white laundry, fluttering slightly from the effects of a distant fan.

A Writer’s Life, needless to say, is a treasure trove from cover to cover. Complement it with the daily routines of Charles Darwin, William S. Burroughs, Joy Williams, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and other famous writers.

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28 MAY, 2013

Gay Talese’s Portrait of the Tallest Man in New York

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“His knuckles are like golf balls and, when he shakes your hand, he envelops your wrist in lukewarm flesh.”

In 1961, 29-year-old Gay Talese penned New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey (public library) — the most glorious portrait of Gotham’s vibrant life since E.B. White’s Here Is New York, the same obscure out-of-print gem that gave us Talese’s illustrated taxonomy of the social order of New York cats. What makes Talese’s writing characteristically sublime are the nuances with which he examines New York’s living fabric through fascinating characters like a seventy-year-old George Washington impersonator, a cat psychologist, a professional mourner paid to cry at funerals, and the city’s only chauffeur who has a chauffeur, portrayed not with the gawking censoriousness of a freak-show spectator but with the sensitive curiosity of a humanist. Among them is the tallest person in New York — a young man of great humor and humility, whose physical givens have tossed him into an amplified, tangible version of the psychological paradoxes of which most of us are woven.

Edward Carmel (Photograph by Martin Lichtner, New York: A Serendipiter's Journey)

The tallest man in New York, Edward Carmel, stands 8 feet 2 inches, weighs 475 pounds, eats like a horse, and lives in the Bronx. His knuckles are like golf balls and, when he shakes your hand, he envelops your wrist in lukewarm flesh. He pays $150 for each pair of shoes, $275 for each tailor-made suit, and sleeps at right angles on a seven-foot bed. At the movies he either sits or stands in the rear, or tries to get a front-row seat so he can extend his legs. He was born twenty-five years ago in Tel Aviv, and at birth weighed 15 pounds. At 11 years of age, he was a 6-footer; at 14, a 7-footer; at 18, an 8-footer. “I never recall being shorter than my father,” he says.

The father of the Tallest Man in New York, an insurance salesman, is 5 feet 6 inches. His mother is 5 feet 5 inches. But his great-grandfather, Emanuel, stood 7 feet 7 inches, and was billed The Tallest Rabbi in the World.

So far, Ed Carmel has earned his living from six sources, although his yearly income from all is probably less than $10,000. He has acted in monster movies, been hired as a Happy Clown, appeared as a wrestler, delivered deep-voiced radio commercials, played the “World’s Tallest Cowboy” in the Garden for Ringling Bros., and sold Mutual Funds. … In his latest film, The Head That Would Not Die, which did not win an Oscar, Ed played the Son of Frankenstein. In this picture he chewed on a doctor’s arm, hurled a half-naked girl over a table, burned down a house, and would have committed even more mayhem except, he said, “it was a low-budget film.”

“A year ago,” he said, “a wrestling promoter spotted me and they immediately billed me as ‘Eliezer Har Carmel — World’s Wrestling Champion from Israel.’ I’d never wrestled before I became champion. All they asked me to do was appear at some wrestling shows, strangle the ring announcer, make like a real lunatic, and watch as all the other wrestlers jumped out of my way. So I put in a few appearances, but never did get a match. I retired undefeated.

Ed Carmel came to America with his parents when he was three and a half. “My childhood,” he said, “was awfully, awfully rough.” He was the butt of jokes, was reticent in school and reclusive out of it.

[…]

After his graduation from Taft High School in 1954, he attended City College, where he acted in the dramatic group, wrote sports for the campus newspaper, ran for vice-president of his class — and won. “After two years at CCNY, I thought I could go out into the cold world and get a job as an announcer or actor,” he said. “So I quit school, but everywhere I went they asked, ‘What have you done?’ I tried out for the lead in the Broadway show, The Tall Story, which was about a basketball player, but I was too tall.”

The only employment he could find on television was in monster roles, and his acting lines thus far have consisted of a series of grunts and groans. If he gets any comfort at all from his life, it is perhaps in his conviction that it’s better to be very conspicuous in New York than not to be conspicuous at all. “In New York,” said the Tallest Man, “I feel I’m somebody. I feel I have to give an illusion of prosperity in the subway, that I can’t go out without wearing a suit and tie. I know that everybody I meet in New York is going to be attracted to me — or repelled by me — because of my size.”

The Tallest Man in New York has a wry smile, is extremely intelligent, and possesses a sense of humor dipped in vitriol. “New York,” he mused, “is an exciting town. Every day represents a new challenge — a new step forward on the road to getting an ulcer. In this city you’re invariably waiting for some son-of-a-bitch to call — and he doesn’t.”

New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey, should you be so fortunate to track down a surviving copy, is the kind of treasure that tosses you into outrage over why we allow such books to go out of print. Complement it with the equally human Mapping Manhattan, Berenice Abbott’s breathtaking Changing New York, and the indispensable New York Diaries.

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25 MARCH, 2013

Gay Talese’s Field Guide to the Social Order of New York’s Cats, Illustrated

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A rare and wonderful 1961 taxonomy of Gotham’s feline fraternity from the godfather of literary journalism.

Cats, not unlike dogs, seem to have claimed the role of literary muses, from Joyce’s children’s books to T. S. Eliot’s poetry to Hemingway’s heart, by way of various other bookish cameos. In 1961, 29-year-old Gay Talese penned New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey (public library) — an obscure out-of-print gem, in which the beloved icon of literary journalism paints an immersive, vibrant portrait of Gotham’s secret life, from its 8,485 telephone operators to its 5,000 prostitutes to its one chauffeur who has a chauffeur, and the entire bubbling cauldron of humanity in between.

Among the singular subcultures Talese explores is the city’s feline fraternity:

When street traffic dwindles and most people are sleeping, some New York neighborhoods begin to crawl with cats. They move quickly through the shadows of building; night watchmen, policemen, garbage collectors and other nocturnal wanderers see them — but never for very long. A majority of them hang around the fish markets, in Greenwich Village and in the East and West Side neighborhoods where garbage can abound. No part of the city is without its strays, however, and all-night garage attendants in such busy neighborhood as Fifty-fourth Street have counted as many as twenty of then around the Ziegfeld Theatre early in the morning. Troops of cats patrol the waterfront piers at night searching for rats. Subway trackwalkers have discovered cats living in the darkness. They seem never to get hit by trains, though some are occasionally liquidated by the third Rail. About twenty-five cats live 75 feet below the west end of Grand Central Terminal, are fed by the underground workers, and never wander up into the daylight.

The roving, independent, self-laundering cats of the streets live a life strangely different from New York’s kept, apartment-house cats.

[…]

Social climbing among the stray cats of Gotham is not common. They rarely acquire a better mailing address out of choice. They usually die within the blocks of their birth, although one flea-bitten specimen picked up by the ASPCA was adopted by a wealthy woman; it now lives in a luxurious East Side apartment and spends the summer at the lady’s estate on Long Island.

Photograph by Martin Lichtner, New York: A Serendipiter's Journey

Talese goes on to illuminate the hierarchy of the feline social order:

In every New York neighborhood the strays are dominated by a ‘boss’ — the largest, strongest tomcat. But, except for the boss, there is not much organization in the street’s cat society. Within the society, however, there are three ‘types’ of cats — wild cats, Bohemians, and part-time grocery store (or restaurant) cats.

The wild cats rely on an occasional loose garbage lid or on rats for food, wand will have little or nothing to do with people — even those who would feed them. These most unkept of strays have a recognizable haunted look, a wide-eyed, wild expression, and they usually are found around the waterfront.

The Bohemian, however, is more tractable. It does not run from people. Often, it is fed in the streets daily by sensitive cat-lovers (mostly women) who call the strays ‘little people,’ ‘angels,’ or ‘darlings,’ and are indignant when the objects of their charity are referred to as ‘alley cats.’ So punctual are most Bohemians at feeding time that one cat-lover has advanced the theory that cats can tell time. He cited a gray tabby that appears five days a week, precisely at 5:30 P.M., in an office building at Broadway and Seventeenth Street, where the elevator men feed it. But the cat never shows up on Saturday or Sundays; it seems to know people don’t work on those days.

The part-time grocery store (or restaurant) cat, often a reformed Bohemian, eats well and keeps rodents away, but it usually uses the store as a hotel and prefers to spend the nights prowling in the streets. Despite its liberal working schedule, it still assumes most of the privileges of a related breed — the full-time, or wholly nonstray, grocery store at — including the right to sleep in the window. A reformed Bohemian at a Bleecker Street delicatessen hides behind the door and chases away all other Bohemians looking for hangouts.

Having just finished an advance copy of the inimitable Wendy MacNaughton’s forthcoming Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology — a heartbreaking, heartwarming, hopelessly hilarious treasure of a tale, penned by writer extraordinaire Caroline Paul and tenderly illustrated by Wendy herself — I couldn’t resist asking Wendy, a frequent collaborator, to illustrate Talese’s feline archetypes. She kindly and brilliantly obliged:

UPDATE: Lost Cat is here!

But, of course, this being Talese, we soon realize cats are but a vehicle for driving home a larger point about New York changing landscape and the era’s tectonic cultural shifts:

The number of full-time cats, incidentally, has diminished greatly since the decline of the small food store and the rise of supermarkets in New York, With better rat-proofing methods, improved packaging of foods and more sanitary conditions, such chain stores as the A&P rarely keep a cat full-time.

Wedged between E. B. White’s indispensable 1949 classic Here Is New York and Jan Morris’s 1987 literary travelogue Manhattan 45, New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey is exquisite in its entirety. Its title, aptly so, is an allusion to the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, who in their travels were constantly finding splendid and interesting things they didn’t expect or seek.

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