Gay Talese’s Portrait of the Tallest Man in New York
“His knuckles are like golf balls and, when he shakes your hand, he envelops your wrist in lukewarm flesh.”
By Maria Popova
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.
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.
Published May 28, 2013