It is every journalist’s dream: Publish an article and movie producers start chasing the film rights. That’s the situation Gay Talese finds himself in, but there’s a twist: He wrote the article for Esquire over 50 years ago. It was called “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” – not a very promising title, but the piece acquired its own mythology, becoming a model for a breakout genre called “The New Journalism.”
I came upon the Talese-Sinatra deal saga (details later) in a conversation with Talese last week about the sorry state of the news business. Reporters today, Talese believes, are locked to their lap tops and cell phones, chasing web traffic. The mantra is to hunt for “gotcha” stories rather than taking the time to pursue in-depth news and trends. “I could never survive as a reporter today,” says Talese, “because I’ve always wanted to get out of the office, to meet people and learn from them. I wanted to hang out with sources.”
In criticizing newsmen, to be sure, Talese distances himself from Donald Trump (“the redneck from Queens”) and his incoherent forays against the media. Still he is uneasy about the system now imprisoning ambitious newsmen.
Talese started as a reporter for the New York Times and later wrote for Esquire, pioneering a sort of “hanging out” journalism. He wrote about everyone from Muhammed Ali to Joe DiMaggio to stars like Sinatra. In the case of the Sinatra story, he spent weeks in Hollywood talking to myriad denizens of Sinatra’s entourage, from the make-up girls to pimps to bit actors. Sinatra felt ill and under siege at the time, and declined to sit down with Talese, but the writer discovered a far richer vein by plunging into the intrigues of the Sinatra universe. As for Sinatra’s health, “Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, a Ferrari without fuel…only worse,” Talese wrote.
Ironically, while Sinatra declined to see Talese in 1966, I was seeing much more of Sinatra than I wanted (I was a Paramount executive at the time), finding him alternately cranky and charismatic. Sinatra was confronting both wife problems and script problems at the time. But when I read the Talese piece in Esquire I admired its style and accuracy. Indeed, it was a perfect example of the creative benefits of “hanging out” journalism, replete with color and anecdote. By contrast, as Talese points out, celebrity journalism today consists of a carefully choreographed 20-minute interview, with a wary press agent in attendance to prevent deviation from the talking points.
The Sinatra piece was republished this week in a new book of Talese works titled High Notes (his 14th book). Though Sinatra himself felt the original article was “a hatchet job” (as conveyed to Talese), Sinatra’s daughters, Nancy and Tina, have optioned rights through Sinatra Enterprises and asked Talese and Nick Pileggi to write a screenplay based on the article. Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair and HBO also are reported to be pursuing a prospective film based on the Talese-Sinatra interaction.
There have been a lot of Sinatra-focused projects developed in past years, of course. Martin Scorsese’s projected Sinatra biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio never got levitated due to script and legal issues, nor did another biopic funded by Peter Guber’s Mandalay Productions. Scott Rudin wanted to produce a film based on the Talese article, and Scorsese was interested, but a script by Michael Chabon did not get before the cameras. A similar fate awaited Pileggi’s biopic about Sinatra’s pal, Dean Martin, which was supposed to be a Tom Hanks caper. HBO’s documentary on Sinatra aired last year, of course, to very positive reactions.
Talese’s writings themselves have had a complex history in the movie business. His nonfiction bestseller about sexual infidelity, Thy Neighbor’s Wife, was acquired in 1981 for $2.5 million by United Artists, but both the script and the studio promptly hit rough waters. The movie never got made and the studio went under. A year ago, another Talese book, The Voyeurs Motel, was acquired by DreamWorks in a widely publicized deal, with Sam Mendes set to direct, but that project, too, was set aside when a documentary based on the same character was put into production. Talese, who cooperated with the doc at first, later withdrew his support.
Perplexed by these machinations, Talese remains very much a creature of New York, not Hollywood, and continues turning out books and articles. At 85, he has earned a certain renown for his sartorial presentation. When interviewing public figures, or even their apparachiks, he is always attired in his impeccably tailored suits, complete with vest, tie and hat. Still people love to talk with him — ordinary people, not just celebrities — because he is not just “hanging out” but reporting, albeit the old fashioned way.