BY HILLEL ITALIE
NEW YORK (AP) — A half century after completing a magazine piece that had frustrated and disappointed him, Gay Talese was honored at the 21 Club for his landmark Esquire story on Frank Sinatra.
Tom Wolfe, Robert Caro and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg were among those seated at the banquet table Monday night as toasts were offered to Talese, whose “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” has been reissued by Taschen as an illustrated coffee table book.
“That is a classic,” Wolfe said of Talese’s story, joking that his longtime friend included such rich and intimate detail in his work he would say to himself, “He’s making this stuff up.”
Talese’s stylish, 15,000-word epic was published in Esquire’s April 1966 issue and is widely regarded as a model for the expansive and self-consciously literary “New Journalism” of the ’60s and ’70s and as one of the greatest and most revealing celebrity profiles, even though Talese never spoke to Sinatra.
Before Monday’s dinner, the 83-year-old Talese told The Associated Press that Esquire had asked him to write about Sinatra, nearing his 50th birthday at the time. Talese doubted that he was up to the assignment, but he deeply identified with the singer, who died in 1998, as a fellow Italian and New Jersey native.
“He was the first Italian in my lifetime to really be accepted by Americans, and that meant a lot to a kid like me,” Talese said.
Talese flew to Los Angeles late in 1965 and for weeks followed Sinatra everywhere from the recording studio to a hotel nightclub in Las Vegas where comedian Don Rickles was performing. He was allowed proximity to the singer, but felt let down that he could not arrange an interview.
“It was awful,” Talese’s wife, the literary editor Nan Talese, told the AP. “Gay was worried about Esquire and spending their money on his hotel.”
Talese did speak with various people who knew Sinatra, from his son Frank Jr. to a favorite haberdasher to the woman in charge of carrying a satchel full of the singer’s hairpieces while he was on the road. He didn’t learn a lot about Sinatra at first, but was struck that all around him were aware of an affliction minor in most cases, but crippling for the man known as “The Voice”: Sinatra had a cold.
“Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel,” Talese wrote in the story’s opening section. “It affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability.”
The Taschen publication, released upon the centennial of Sinatra’s birth, has a list price of $200. Part of a planned series that also will feature writing by Wolfe and James Baldwin, the book includes photographs of Sinatra, an introduction by Talese and a letter he sent to his elusive subject in December 1965.
“Like yourself, I want all the advantages when I work. Regrettably I had few of them this past month,” Talese wrote to Sinatra, noting how everything from the singer’s schedule to his illness had prevented them from speaking.
“Even so, I hope to do justice in this Esquire profile, to present an exciting portrait of Sinatra the Man and the effect you have on your friends, your enemies, your era.”
Sinatra never responded.
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