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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 2)

Even when he wrote “Walking My Cigar,” he notes, “there were the early stages of complaints. I remember when I went over to Madison Avenue, I passed this restaurant called Marigold—it’s something else now—women would hold their noses when they saw me with a cigar.”

Even if New Journalism has brought Talese more fame than his love of cigars, it is still a connection with which he is not fully comfortable. “It’s not that I don’t like the term,” he says. “The journalism I like was journalism that was literary but factual. Let’s broaden it—it could be book-length, it doesn’t have to be just for magazines or newspapers. I wanted to hold everyone, whether it was Norman Mailer or Joan Didion or Gay Talese or Tom Wolfe or David Halberstam,” to the same standards.
“If you’re writing nonfiction, you have to play by one rule—the facts have to be verifiable. They have to be true, or try to be true. I mean yes, you cannot maybe be 100 percent, but you cannot have composite characters. You cannot make up dialogue. You can’t make up situations. You can’t make it more convenient for yourself to be a literary writer. It should be inconvenient to be a literary writer. It should be hard. So I want real names. I don’t want to read and I have no respect for those who write where they change the names. They’re writing fiction.”

He was honored by Wolfe’s citing him as the pioneer, “because I like Tom Wolfe. He’s been a friend. He brought more attention to me, probably more attention than anybody else, because when he was writing in the 1970s about New Journalism, which I had never heard of, and made me the Godfather of the New Journalism, at first it was very nice. But here’s what happened. When the popularity of the New Journalism reached the campuses, because professors of journalism began teaching courses called New Journalism, or Literary Nonfiction, or Narrative Nonfiction, which is the phrase that’s used now, or Literary Journalism, it’s the same thing, so many of the young people then in college never learned or never had anybody emphasize enough about legwork. Tom Wolfe practices legwork as much as anybody. He does a lot of research.”
Talese says he believes that “a lot of the young practitioners of so-called New Journalism were people who wanted to give their point of view but didn’t want to do any homework or legwork. They’re on the lazy side. I didn’t want to be mentioned with those people. I wanted the writing to be on the level of a fiction writer, to be as good as fiction. The reason I wanted to write nonfiction more than fiction was because I thought there were not many good nonfiction writers. I wanted to be a good nonfiction writer.”

Talese should never be grouped with anyone who might be called lazy. Yes, he’s 80, but he’s still very much hard at work, and what he does gives a perfect example of his methods. Hard work. And attention to details. And good writing.

“I just yesterday turned in a 15,000-word piece to The New Yorker that I’ve been working on for probably, on and off, mostly on, for six months. It’s about the manager of the New York Yankees, Joe Girardi. The way the story begins is when Girardi was nine years old, he was at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. An aunt took him to a baseball game in the middle of summer. The year was 1974. The St. Louis Cardinals were playing the Montreal Expos, a team that doesn’t exist any more. This Girardi kid is screaming from left field near the foul pole for one of the players on the field to throw him a ball. Between innings, he’s trying to get a ball. No one gives him a ball until the seventh inning—somebody from the Montreal team tossed him a ball. And this nine-year-old kid catches the ball and drops it. It hit his hand and fell off, he didn’t hold on to it. So the left fielder from the Montreal Expos, a guy named Bob Bailey,” who had thrown him the ball, “picked the ball up, looked at the kid, walked it over and said, ‘Listen kid, you want a ball, you got to learn to catch it.’ The kid was embarrassed, and Bailey didn’t rub it in too much because Bailey had a son about the same age.”

After Girardi told Talese this story, Talese decided he wanted to try to find the player. “Seventy-year-old Bob Bailey. I didn’t know where the hell he was. It took me months to track this guy down. Why? I wanted to try to get him to remember that kid. I thought, of course he couldn’t. It was all those years ago.”

Talese found him. “You don’t know how much work you have to go through. It’s not like he was a Yankees old-timer. This guy was Pittsburgh Pirates and Montreal Expos.”

Finally, though, “I found some woman in the Pirates front office—she said, ‘I know somebody who knew him.’ Took me about a week, and I got this guy’s phone number. He was in Long Beach, California. I got him on the phone and he said, ‘Yes, I went over to that kid and I said, ‘Listen, kid, you want a ball, you got to learn to catch it.’ 

“I said, ‘You know that kid? That guy is the manager of the Yankees.’ ‘No!’ he said. The point is it’s nice that he remembered. But just to get confirmation from Bob Bailey, and have him recall. It’s about the spirit of baseball and the generational remembrance, how people remember forever a ballgame you saw when you were nine years old.”

It’s also about good reporting. Detail. Facts. Good writing. What Gay Talese has always been about.

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