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Still Walking His Cigar

Journalist Gay Talese’s essay on his ritual of a cigar stroll, in our premier issue, set a tone. We catch up with him two decades later.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012

(continued from page 1)

It isn’t only the restaurants where cigars have faded away, he says, though perhaps not in a puff of smoke. “You don’t even have the comfort of smoking at dinner parties in your own home,” he says, “because there were always one or two who were affected by the promise of early death that they had ingested from watching too much television and reading too many articles written by too many people promising the worst if you smoked. The guests’ feelings, if not expressed by facial gesture, would be made known by actual words: ‘Would you please put that out?’ This was troubling at first, and then you become resigned to it. And that’s unfortunately who you’re talking to now. A resigned figure.”

The home of those dinner parties is a multistory town house on East 61st Street that Talese has shared for several decades with his wife of 53 years, publisher and editor Nan Talese, who is senior vice president of Doubleday and publisher and editorial director of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. (They have two grown daughters.) The house has that comfortable lived-in look, with brown leather sofas, sizable white bookcases that reach to the ceiling, and a stunning black-and-white photo of Central Park in the snow that sits above Talese on this spring day. The books are grouped according to author, though not alphabetically, with Philip Roth sharing a shelf with Robert Caro.

Talese, svelte and fit and looking at least 10 years younger than his accumulated 80, is dapper as always, attired in sports jacket, dress shirt, tie and vest, with a white handkerchief emerging dashingly from his jacket pocket. His devotion to clothes was inherited from his father, an Italian-American immigrant and tailor who settled in Ocean City, New Jersey, where the young Talese grew up. There’s a photo of him at age eight or nine walking on the boardwalk in Atlantic City with his parents and his sister in which he is wearing a dressy overcoat and a jaunty fedora.

He was a reporter for The New York Times from 1956 to 1965, an experience that led to his 1969 best-seller, The Kingdom and the Power, which told of the struggles for dominance in the high reaches of the Newspaper of Record. 

Honor Thy Father, in 1971, delved into the inner depths of a Mafia family. In 1981, Thy Neighbor’s Wife uncovered the concealed and rapidly evolving sexual attitudes of post-World War II and pre-AIDS America, creating much controversy because Talese had a sexual relationship with his neighbor’s wife as part of his research.

He has been hailed as a founder of “New Journalism,” a type of modern-day reporting and writing that uses literary methods and became popular in the 1960s through works by Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote, among others. Wolfe himself has knighted Talese as the genre’s creator. Talese’s April 1966 profile of Frank Sinatra for Esquire, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which the magazine chose as one of the best articles it has ever published, is considered a pioneer example. It famously starts: “Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something.”

Talese, empty-handed in his living room, says he still smokes cigars— but “maybe once a week.” And almost exclusively at home.

“I have to smoke here, anywhere in the house. There’s no place I can go. I have cigars in abundance upstairs. I have some fine Cohibas. I’ve always had abundant cigars. The only difference is I don’t consume them as I once did. I used to smoke a box a month. I never had just one cigar in my pocket. I always had two or three. The reason is I never knew who I was going to run into.” He has a cousin, he says, “who’s always been, through his professional life, connected to mobs. So we get stuff out of Cuba no matter when. His name is Nick Pileggi,” (who wrote the book Wiseguy, as well as its screen version Goodfellas, and the book and script Casino). “He’s married to [the late film director] Nora Ephron. He knew a lot of people in Las Vegas and a lot of people in Miami. Organized crime. He knows more about crime than the mob does. He always supplied me with the best of cigars, even when they were hard to get.”

Talese has cigars and cigar accoutrements, he says, “that I look at that remind you of the time when you were a free man. I look at my cigars, my humidor, my wonderful cigar ashtrays, tailored for cigar users, and they take me back to the time when there wasn’t such pressure to resist what you enjoyed. Little by little, I guess the world is closing in on us.”

As he is talking, the sound of his dogs barking emanates from upstairs. “Those are my Australian terriers,” he says. “They’re the descendants of the originals.” Does he still walk his dogs and smoke? “Sometimes I still ‘walk my cigar.’ But not as I did before. I have an admission one probably shouldn’t make in this time of austerity, but we have a dog walker. My wife and I go out every night, sometimes we get home late, and when we get home at midnight, we’re too tired to walk the dogs.”

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