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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.
By Mervyn Rothstein | From Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012

Gay Talese, holding a glass of water in one hand and nothing in the other, sits on his living room sofa facing a writer from Cigar Aficionado magazine who leans forward waiting for him to say something. There was a time when many a night, in some fashionable New York dining spot, those empty fingers would be wrapped around a cigar, most probably a Cohiba. No more.

“I long for the lust of cigar smoking,” Talese says. “People like me, at this point we’re nostalgia smokers, who look back in fondness at the glory days when after dinner at a restaurant, several restaurants, in Manhattan you had the option of taking out a good, or not so good, cigar and enjoying it and not arousing the passions or rancor of the fellow patrons and the restaurant owner.”

Over the last 20 years, since the first issue of Cigar Aficionado in September 1992, Talese has been a cigar advocate for the magazine.

In that issue, he wrote “Walking My Cigar” about the pleasures of lighting up while taking his two Australian terriers for an after-dinner walk near his townhouse on Manhattan’s East Side. Things have changed much in that time, and cigar smokers, Talese included, are having an increasingly difficult time finding public, sometimes even private, places to smoke.

In New York City, smoking is prohibited not only in most restaurants and bars, but in city parks, in pedestrian plazas and on city beaches. Some buildings are even banning, or considering bans on, smoking in apartments. Talese will talk about the effects that those changes have had on his light-up life, about the antismoking culture that most if not all cigar smokers face these days. It is a conversation filled with memory, a kind of remembrance of cigars past, and regret about the present day.

“One of the great tragedies of my lifetime was the death of Elaine Kaufman,” Talese says. Kaufman, who died in 2010 at age 81, was the proprietor of Elaine’s, a renowned and star-studded Upper East Side eatery that for decades was home to writers, performers, athletes, socialites and other celebrities—among them Woody Allen, Michael Caine, George Plimpton, Joseph Heller and Mario Puzo. And Gay Talese. “Before the edict against smoking, she had one of the great cigar ambiences in the city. She liked smoking. Cigar smoking when you’re with other cigar smokers in a place such as Elaine’s was almost 40 years of joy. It was the way to end an evening. You had a dinner—even if it wasn’t a great dinner, because you knew at Elaine’s you weren’t going to have a great dinner. You knew what you were getting. You paid for ambience.”

Elaine’s wasn’t the only place, he says. “Many, many restaurants throughout the city allowed you to smoke cigars. Gallagher’s was one that comes to mind.” The 21 Club “was also a great cigar-smoking place. It was fun. We’d discuss sports, and we’d discuss cigars, and argue ring size and you’d argue about a certain label. It was like wine tasting.”

One of the things Talese has “come to miss so much in my senior years is the prerogative of opening my jacket, reaching in for a cigar, unwrapping it, lighting it with these big kitchen matches I’ve always saved, smoking it and sharing my cigars. The positive side is at least I had more than a half century—I’m 80 now, and I started smoking cigars when I was 19—of the pleasure of cigars.”

One joy, he says, “was having dinner, having a brandy or a Cointreau. A Galliano. Something sweet, and have a cigar with it. Plus a little ice cream on the side. Maybe a few strawberries on top of a scoop of vanilla. Galliano. That was the perfect ending of the day.” Then the law changed. “We still had the streets. But it’s not the same. Smoking in the streets is not companionship with fellow cigar smokers, fellow appreciators.” Cigar smoking, he says, “was more fun when you’re with other cigar smokers. It was always possible to enjoy a cigar in solitude, and I have, of course. But it was really great when you’re in a social gathering.”

Just as the interview was beginning, he had received a brief phone call. He really wanted to speak, he said, but he was busy and would call back. “This guy that just called was A. E. Hotchner. I used to go out with him. For years and years. He was a pal of Ernest Hemingway. He wrote Papa Hemingway,” a 1966 biography of the writer. “Hemingway taught him about smoking as well as fishing, and maybe something about writing as well. Hotchner wrote pretty nice books—one on Doris Day, one on Sophia Loren, some novels. So the call was from a guy who used to share with me these cigars. We would go to Elaine’s or 21. It was camaraderie in a cloud of smoke.”

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.”

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.

And he has also been about good cigars. Past, present and future. However inconvenient it may be. And however difficult.

Mervyn Rothstein first wrote for Cigar Aficionado in the premier isssue.