Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in French in 2018, based on a 2017 conversation between Busnel, Talese, and Wolfe. Tom Wolfe died on May 14, 2018.
“You’re holding the most famous hat in the history of American literature.” Gay Talese grabs me by the shoulders and stares straight at me, his eyes shining with excitement. I have in my hands a cream-colored fedora with black trim from Jay Lord Hatters, the premier New York hatmaker.
Five minutes earlier, the owner of the aforementioned hat calmly walked down the few steps leading to East 61st Street, closed the wrought-iron gate behind him, and disappeared into a big black SUV that instantly dissolved into the flow of traffic. Tom Wolfe—a man who doesn’t overlook a single detail, whether in his books or his appearance, always the picture of a Southern gentleman in his trim white suit—without his legendary hat? The thought is outrageous. “Un-think-able!” our host harrumphs. I suggest a solution: “Maybe I could return it to him. My hotel is right near his place.” And this is how I end up schlepping Tom Wolfe’s hat through the streets of the Upper East Side.
A blast of hot air greets me on East 61st Street. A whole slew of famous people that no one’s ever heard of lives in this neighborhood that’s dead after 7:00 P.M.—the old New York, spared by the hustle and bustle of the rest of Manhattan. Walking north up Park Avenue, I remember how Tom Wolfe described it in the early 80s:
… kheew!—the sun blasts them in the eyes and there it is, wild, childish, bald, overpowering Park Avenue in the Fifties, huge cliffs of plate glass and steel frames, like a mountain of telephone booths. Hundreds of, jaysus, millions of dollars’ worth of shimmering junk, with so many sheets of plate glass the buildings all reflect each other in marine greens and blues, like a 25-cent postcard … the sheer incredible yah!—we’ve-got-it money and power it represents. The Rome of the twentieth century …
Wolfe and Talese, who have been New Yorkers for more than 70 years, have become masters in the art of uncovering Gotham’s countless secrets, and describe their city like no one else can. New York, “where millions of the wretched are washed up,” Wolfe wrote. “The heart of the whirlwind of money and power,” Talese added. “La crème de la crème,” they both aver, smiling.
Kings of New Journalism
It was Tom Wolfe who suggested we meet at Gay Talese’s home. The idea was to talk about the two of them, Trump, the American taboos they have been unearthing since they were old enough to hold a pen, and what literature can do in an era like ours. Plus, of course, “New Journalism,” which they invented and still represent today—especially since we’re all wondering how to write about what’s happening now, and how to separate truth from rumor in an age of what the president calls “alternative facts” and “post-truth.” Their influence is perhaps not quite as important as it once was, but their legend still precedes them.
Today’s most prominent American journalists—even if they may be skeptical of the pair’s recent literary output—recognize that these two transformed the profession like no one else. William Finnegan, who has written for The New Yorker for 30 years and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2016 with his excellent book Barbarian Days, sums up the status of Wolfe and Talese in a few simple words: “Their impact comes from their boldness. They both stretched the limits of fiction and reporting while holding up the truth as an insurmountable horizon. They are still absolute reference points and powerful landmarks.” What do these two princes of nonfiction have to tell us?
Wolfe, at age 86, and Talese, at 85, make one hell of a duo. They’re both dandies with exquisitely delicate manners. Talese is tall, with sharp features, a skeptical glower, and an irreverent attitude. His suit was tailor-made by his cousin Cristiani on Rue de la Paix in Paris. This Italian tailor’s son is dignified without being starchy. As soon as he can, he hijacks the interview and deluges his friend with questions about his life. Wolfe nods his head and replies politely, in a frail voice. Wolfe has aged a great deal since we last met, only a year ago. “Sometimes I tell people who see me like this that I just turned 104. They’re very touched. All of a sudden, they have more to say to me. . . .” With this remark, his steel blue eyes start to sparkle again and a smile appears on his thin lips, turning into a sharp little laugh.
“Sometimes I tell people who see me like this that I just turned 104. They’re very touched,” says Wolfe, 86.
To understand Gay Talese, you just have to stroll through the four stories of his elegant, bohemian building built in 1910, which should become a world historical landmark some day because of all the writers, editors, and journalists who have passed through it. In the huge living room, a portrait of Ronald Reagan hangs next to several photos of the master of the house. An entire shelf of his library is devoted to first editions of Tom Wolfe, along with several of Wolfe’s drawings in a somewhat psychedelic style. (Wolfe excels in self-caricature, and his artworks have already fetched staggering prices at auction.) In the basement, which Talese calls “the bunker,” there is a large room with a kitchen and bathroom where he retires to write—always by hand, with a Montblanc fountain pen.
“I was born in Ocean City, New Jersey, and I came to New York in 1953. I was twenty-one, and I got a job as a copyboy at The New York Times. I rented a room on the fourth floor for 60 dollars a month, then, over time, I bought the whole building.” During that time, Talese sublet his pad to William Styron, married an influential editor, and became a star journalist and the author of several bestsellers, including Honor Thy Father, the first narrative describing the life of the Bonnano Mafia family from the inside.
“Without that book, I never would have made The Godfather,” Francis Ford Coppola told me once. “And the producers of The Sopranos, the mythic HBO series, have publicly acknowledged what they owe to Talese.” With the success of Honor Thy Father, Talese became the happy owner of a residence that Tom Wolfe remembers as the site of many wild and glamorous parties: “I came here a lot because it was one of the only places in Manhattan where you could throw parties with a lot, truly a lot, of people.” Talese responds, “In his life, Tom has thrown fewer parties than I have but he’s written more books.”
“Without [Talese’s Honor Thy Father], I never would have made The Godfather,” Francis Ford Coppola told me once.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Tom Wolfe writes about whatever is disturbing, about injuries and taboos. In 1968, his first success, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the story of a nutty group of gallivanting hippies on bizarre trips (in both senses of the word), sealed his reputation as a master of literary non-fiction. Then came The Right Stuff. And, at age 50, Wolfe published his first novel, which was brilliant and bitter, The Bonfire of the Vanities. In his novels as in his nonfiction, Wolfe homes in on whatever goes unsaid and whatever people are afraid to say. As it turns out, these things are often the foundations of America: ambition, sex, the drive to be famous, the arrogance of the powerful, attraction to money, destructive selfishness, the place of athletes in a society obsessed with entertainment, the education of the elite, immigrant communities, racism. I ask him about unspoken taboos. “That’s where the raw materials of a novel can be found. But also in our daily lives,” he says. “I don’t look for controversy, despite claims to the contrary. But I refuse to let my thoughts be dictated by a dominant class, whatever it may be. Trends and ideologies make me sick.”
What he’s interested in, he says, is showing power relations that persist between groups. Could Wolfe have a touch of Marxism in him? He willingly admits it. “I came into contact with Marxism in high school, it’s true. But it was reading Max Weber that disturbed me the most: Weber was the first one to introduce the study of social status into sociology.” And studying those strategies that we poor mortals use to achieve and keep our position is exactly what captivates Tom Wolfe the most. “America runs on a very special fuel: the huge disparities in social status. That’s the source of ambition, greed, revolutions, and everything that upsets us today. Look at Balzac. That’s what the whole Human Comedy is about: the infinite variety of manners between rich and poor, the ambitious and the social climbers, nouveaux riches and losers. America hasn’t finished with what was at the heart of the nineteenth century in France. America is a battlefield.”
“America runs on a very special fuel: the huge disparities in social status,” says Wolfe.
Gay Talese’s style is less high-octane than Tom Wolfe’s, but his projects are just as picaresque. He has not written any novels—only true stories. Each time he had the same goal: to break the laws of silence. This is especially true of his two most successful books, Honor Thy Father and Thy Neighbor’s Wife. To tell the story of one of the families of Cosa Nostra, Talese did not rely on his imagination, as Mario Puzo did in The Godfather, but on his doggedness. For five years, he tracked down, contacted, re-contacted, followed, and interviewed Bill Bonanno, the son of one of the most famous New York mafiosi. “I was covering his trial, but he wouldn’t say a word in front of the judges. I was only able to get his story because I told his lawyer, ‘One day, before he dies in a prison somewhere or in a vendetta, I want this guy to tell me how someone can live being this kind of guy.’ And it ended up paying off. One morning, the lawyer called me and said Bill was ready to talk.” When it came out in 1971, Honor Thy Father hit like a bombshell. A journalist who had infiltrated the world of organized crime had obtained confessions that neither the police nor the judges had been able to get. Along the way, he had deconstructed the myth of the Mafia, revealing a human tragedy where existential crises were more powerful than social determinism.
Ten years later, Talese took on Americans’ sex lives. From the inside, once again. To research Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Talese explored all kinds of experiences. When I ask him to talk about them, a tired smile passes over his face. He dismisses the question with a flutter of his hand: “It’s all in the book.” It is, indeed. Wife-swapping, nudism, infidelity, orgies … In order to learn their secrets, he had to win the confidence of these couples, who would reveal their erotic and sexual histories in an avalanche of details. And to do this, there was only one way: “field research” is the euphemistic term Talese uses. What could have been as boring as a long documentary porno turned out to be a virtuoso piece of reporting and the sociological study of a country thirty years after its sexual liberation. A novel, but true. And a huge hit. The movie rights were sold for $6 million.
But the critics screamed bloody murder. It’s not that easy to go from Puritanism to Playboy.
Wife-swapping, nudism, infidelity, orgies … In order to learn their secrets, Talese had to win the confidence of these couples.
“Field research,” “telling the story from the inside,” “describing what you saw”—all this sounds like the basics of journalism, you may think. So what did Wolfe and Talese invent that was “new” and made them the founding fathers of “New Journalism,” something that is even more fascinating today, when the media settles for producing articles that are ever shorter and ever less informed? “This expression, ‘New Journalism,’ isn’t mine,” Wolfe warns. “And while no one can actually tell you whose idea this term was, I can, however, tell you who was the first one to practice it, and that’s Gay Talese.”
In 1973, Tom Wolfe published his first collection of articles and, while he was at it, designated Talese as the inventor of a new literary genre. The most brilliant representatives of “New Journalism” had been springing up for about ten years in all areas, from criminal investigations to gonzo journalism, along with “participatory athletics.” Their names were Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, and Joan Didion, plus Wolfe and Talese, of course. These giants of American literature have nothing in common except that their books look like fiction even though everything they describe is true.
“Our shared ambition was to reduce the distance between journalism and literature to the point of confusing them, while remaining factual—without inventing anything,” George Plimpton, the iconic editor of the Paris Review and another luminary of New York arts and letters, once told me. Wolfe expands on this idea: “We each did our thing, in the territory that interested us the most. ‘New Journalism’ is most of all about the angle and the circumstances. When I wrote my article on Muhammad Ali, he had no desire to be followed by a journalist for 24 hours, despite what he had originally led me to believe. Ali wouldn’t speak to me. He didn’t answer any of my questions. Then he decided to go for a walk through the streets of New York. So there’s the article! Circumstances: the subject you’re writing about won’t play along but suddenly wants to go for a stroll. Angle: how is the glory of a great boxer expressed on the faces of the people he passes on the street? And there you go, there’s your ‘New Journalism’–style article.”
The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Do
Before we part ways, we talk politics. “Trump, I guess?” Talese asks. “Everyone wants us to talk about Trump, Tom, old boy. And to say what? To say horrible things, I imagine?”
Wolfe and Talese have solid reputations as conservatives. In 2004, being deliberately provocative, Tom Wolfe stated that he was “the only Republican writer in America.” When he publicly acknowledged voting for George W. Bush, he was barraged with insults. “It was worse than being called a pedophile,” he recalls. “In this country, you cannot be a novelist and vote Republican. Sixty-two million Americans have the right to vote for Bush, but not a novelist. That’s how it is. So don’t expect me to tell you if I voted for Trump or Clinton,” he says with a slightly uneasy sigh. He deplores the two-party system, Republicans versus Democrats. And, even more so, political correctness, whose most insidious form, according to him, is outrage. “Most American intellectuals think you can only be profound if you’re outraged. So they’re perpetually outraged. It’s rather amusing to watch. Wasn’t it Marshall McLuhan who said that moral outrage is a common strategy for endowing idiots with dignity?”
That’s too good for Talese to pass up. “It’s true! It’s not like the Dreyfus Affair is happening every day in the United States! And Trump’s arrival in the White House is certainly no Dreyfus Affair. But American intellectuals claim to be above this idiotic government and its middle-class voters. They look down on them from the Olympus of their thoughts as if they were worms wiggling around in the mud.”
“We went through the same thing in the early 2000s with Bush Jr., and before that they made fun of Dwight D. Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan,” Wolfe observes. Talese doesn’t bat an eye: “It’s true that all they did was win World War II and the Cold War.” Wolfe refocuses the discussion: “I’m struck by the weakening of decision-making in America. This collapse is happening at a time when human and financial losses are mounting—war, economic crisis—but above all it’s an issue of identity and ethics. Should we be outraged, or should we observe? I prefer the second option by far. A writer isn’t there to say what’s good or bad. He’s there to say what is.”
“Most American intellectuals think you can only be profound if you’re outraged. So they’re perpetually outraged. It’s rather amusing to watch.”
Talese scowls, then suddenly becomes animated: “I don’t see what’s so shocking about making money the way Trump did. Trump talks exactly like thousands of businessmen all over the world. For that matter, you yourself described these kinds of guys in your novels. The traders in Bonfire of the Vanities and the hero of A Man in Full are like Trump: crude, aggressive, willing to do whatever it takes to get a deal done. So what? New York City was built by people like him. Sure, these guys are con men. But do you think you can build such an enormous city just being swathed in virtue? New York is the result of a history where scams and self-interest dominated virtuous little saints. This city is extraordinary, and it’s men like Trump who built it. And because Americans want to have a country that’s extraordinary again, they elected one of these men, Donald Trump, as their leader. It’s very easy to understand.”
Tom Wolfe says nothing at first, then begins to reflect: “It’s true, you can easily imagine there’s something a little shameful about the way Trump made his money. But in that way, he perfectly represents the American hero. Take Gatsby. Jay Gatsby and Donald Trump could be cousins: we don’t really know where they came from or how they got rich, but both are nouveau riche thugs who lie about their age and their income, throw parties for people who look down on them or hate them … and then there are these women around them.”
“That’s essential, Tom, the women!” Talese exclaims. “If I had to write an article about Donald Trump, I wouldn’t tell my memories of him, I wouldn’t get into analyzing his politics, I would tell the story of his three wives.”
With Tom Wolfe’s hat in my hands, I leave Park Avenue behind and turn onto East 78th Street, then Madison Avenue. I stop at the doorway and the doorman approaches. He receives the white fedora as if it were the shroud of Turin or a relic of the True Cross, then turns on his heels and disappears into the dark marble hallway without a word.
François Busnel is a journalist and the editor of the French magazine America