Having originally appeared in The Paris Review‘s 2009 Summer Issue, a photograph of an ornate shirt board that Gay Talese used as a notebook for his now legendary 1966 Esquire story, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”, was heavily circulated via social media networks in February. In a special anniversary edition of Esquire that also featured Talese’s marked-up boards, the editors in 2003 called his artful profile of Sinatra the best story that the magazine had ever published.
It’s long been filed among the early examples of what Tom Wolfe championed in his 1973 anthology, The New Journalism. Wolfe declared that Talese’s was the kind of journalism practiced by a “little league of feature writers” who employed “scene-by-scene construction,” and really “any literary device, from the traditional dialogists of the essay to stream-of-consciousness, and to use many different kinds simultaneously or within a relatively short space to excite the reader both intellectually and emotionally”.
In Talese’s hands, something as ordinary and vanilla as mapping out a magazine feature morphs into a work of art. Knowing now that the writer perched over pages of multicolored marker scrawls for more than a month in late 1965 — piecing together a story about a sickly Frank Sinatra edging toward his 50th birthday, reluctant to speak with a reporter — absorbing the framework for his Esquire article can offer a nearly hypnotic experience. Not unlike the lively collages that fill his writing bunker on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the outline for “Frank Sinatra has a Cold” is the sort of rich visual you might have been shown when you were learning to read, when words and color mingled playfully in storybooks for the purpose of rendering appealing the very idea of reading, the idea of understanding and appreciating good narrative writing.
Before majoring in journalism at the University of Alabama in 1949, Talese was typing up sports stories in the home he was raised in, above the retail space that housed his parents’ dress-and-tailor shop on Asbury Avenue in Ocean City, New Jersey. A 2006 memoir called A Writer’s Life traces Talese’s work as a journalist, from covering his high school’s baseball games, to interviewing boxer Floyd Patterson as a New York Times sports reporter, to unwittingly playing a hand in revolutionizing magazine journalism in pieces for The New Yorker, Esquire, and more.
“I knew from watching my father at work that tailoring was tedious, time-consuming, and physically demanding, and that it often brought considerable pain to his back muscles and fingers,” he wrote. Joseph Talese had been explaining to his only son, then a junior at Ocean City High School, that it was important for him to learn about the tailor’s trade. An English class at the time was proving difficult for the budding writer and the elder Talese explained that “tailoring was ‘something (his son) could fall back on.'”
Even as his term papers stopped short of grade-A material, Talese was steadily filing stories with his school’s newspaper by then, and was doing local pieces for Ocean City’s weekly newspaper as well as a daily called the Atlantic City Press. In an essay called “The Origins of a Nonfiction Writer”, Talese attributed his listening skills to having spent time taking-in dialogues between his parents and their customers. “The shop was a kind of talk show that flowed around the engaging manner and well-timed questions of my mother,” he wrote, linking the art of interviewing to being a good eavesdropper. “My mother’s best customers were women less in need of new dresses than the need to communicate.”
In his interview with The Paris Review, Talese explained that he has been using cut-up pieces of shirt board — the cardboard slips that a dry cleaner will use to help maintain a stiff, somewhat unnaturally immaculate appearance to formal wear when readying it for pickup — to draft outlines of his work for many years. “I don’t use notebooks. I use shirt boards,” Talese told The Paris Review‘s Katie Roiphe. “I cut the shirt board into four parts and I cut the corners into round edges, so that they can fit in my pocket. I also use full shirt boards when I’m writing my outlines. I’ve been doing this since the ’50s.”
He went a bit deeper for an audience at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism in 2011, recalling note-taking as a Times reporter. “(S)hirt boards have been around longer than I have, people throw them away – they’re trash in most people’s estimation,” he said. “When I first started there were no tape recorders and reporters carried rolled up copy paper, and I found the copy papers too floppy. And there were also notepads, but the notepads I didn’t like because they had wire and it would always get caught on the inside of my jacket. So shirt boards were perfect because it slips right out and they’re smaller than a pad, and no little wire to catch.”