Gay Talese didn’t want to write about Frank Sinatra. When the idea was first put to him by Esquire editor Harold Hayes, he demurred, reasoning there was little left to say about one of most famous men in the world. Talese's logic was difficult to fault. By 1965, Sinatra had by then settled into his reprise career and had released 'September of my Years' in the month of the same name.
In November, the anthology 'A Man and His Music' was released and there were plans for NBC to record an 18-song showcase of the same name. This was the prelude to Sinatra’s 50th birthday in December and it was understandable that Talese was wary of his own work falling victim to popular fatigue.
Despite these reservations, his room for manoeuvre was minimal. Talese had worked for the New York Times since 1953 when he secured a copyboy position shortly after graduating from the University of Alabama. By the 1960s he was seeking opportunities to emulate the likes of A J Liebling and Joe Mitchell at the New Yorker. As he later recalled: 'On the front page you’re stuck with the news. The news dominates you. I wanted to dominate the story'. So it was in 1965 that he signed a six-article contract with Esquire. He had written occasionally for the magazine, most notably producing a profile of the fragile heavyweight boxer Floyd Patterson. The terms of the agreement stipulated that Esquire would match his salary at the Times and, more importantly, that Talese and Hayes would each choose the subject of three articles. For his first article, Talese opted to write a profile of Alden Whitman, a pipe-smoking man whose diligence in preparing obituaries for the New York Times sometimes left him confused about whether famous people were alive or dead.
Talese wanted to shape non-fiction writing to accommodate his literary tastes, to elevate it so that it might stand alongside the work of the short story writers he so admired like Carson McCullers, Irwin Shaw and John O’Hara. He wanted, as he would later put it, to create a literature of reality using techniques such as scene-setting, dialogue, characterisation and interior monologue. These techniques would later come to be identified with New Journalism and Talese, a leading proponent, but it was a label, much like William McIlvanney and tartan noir, that made him itch. He still maintains that what he was attempting was nothing new: he just wanted to drag reporting into the ring with works of fiction. And it was still a form of reporting he was engaged in. Despite the literary ambitions, he never lost sight of the importance of the patient collection of accurate information.
Talese flew to Los Angeles in early November 1965 and checked into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Then 33-years-old, he left a wife and one-year-old daughter behind in New York but arrived with a promise of an interview with Sinatra. When he phoned Sinatra’s press man, Jim Mahoney, it transpired there was a problem: Frank Sinatra, a man of uncommon qualities, had a cold. Talese was told this would make an interview difficult. While not untrue, this was also being used as a convenient excuse. Sinatra and his entourage were in a state of heightened sensitivity when it came to media relations. Walter Cronkite was then finalising a documentary for CBS and rumours suggested the programme would explore Sinatra’s alleged connections with organised crime. When it was broadcast on 16 November, however, these rumours proved to be unfounded.
Faced with this uncooperative spirit, Talese telephoned Hayes to ask whether he should abandon the assignment. In a gesture all but unthinkable today, Hayes encouraged him to stay in Los Angeles and allowed him to draw on the resources of the magazine to wine and dine in the hope of getting some useful scraps. Talese, when not getting side-tracked writing about the Guatemalan maids who worked in his hotel, started to collect the materials for a story that would provide a fresh take on his subject.
In hindsight, the refusal of an interview played to Talese’s sensibilities. He was naturally drawn to the side-lines, to strange outsider figures who could be used to cast an unusual light on events. He had developed this inclination while working in his parents' shop in Ocean City and he was given an unexpected opportunity to indulge it. The Daisy Club would come to play an important role in his fortunes. Located at 326 North Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, the Daisy was a private discotheque owned by Jack and Sally Hanson. The Hansons doubly insured their position at the top end of cultural life in the city through ownership of the Jax boutique, famous for producing a fashionable range of female trousers. Sinatra’s two daughters, Nancy and Tina, worked there as salesgirls. Talese had first met the couple in 1962 while researching an article on Natalie Wood and he now sought access to their extensive contact list.
Moving through the networks around Sinatra, Talese managed to talk to around 100 people. By this means he was able to reassemble the man beneath the myth and populate his story with individuals like Johnny Delgado, Sinatra’s body-double, and his valet George Jacobs. There was also the grey-haired lady who was paid $400 a week to take care of the 60 hairpieces Sinatra owned. Talese got an interview after being told about her by a minor actor who had worked with Sinatra. Talese also knew a reporter in Life’s Los Angeles bureau who had gone to school with Sinatra’s daughter. She recounted for him the story of a party she had attended at the home of Sinatra’s ex-wife where she accidentally smashed a favoured alabaster bird – part of a pair. Sinatra flicked the other one off the table while 40 guests stood in silence: 'That’s okay, kid', he told Hoag in an attempt to put her at ease.
The Daisy was one of the first locations Sinatra was seen with his soon-to-be third wife Mia Farrow. He was a regular visitor but he was not representative of the clientele, which was a confluence of young Hollywood and the fashion world. Talese’s article opens at the Daisy where Sinatra, flanked by two blond women and holding a glass of bourbon, is in a pensive mood because of his cold. It was a minor ailment with disproportionate ramifications according to Talese: 'A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, sends vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a president of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy'.
More representative of the Daisy’s clientele was Harlan Ellison and his friends whom Talese described as a 'cool young group, very California cool and casual'. Perhaps the folk-rock playing in the club that night worked to aggravate Sinatra’s already darkened outlook. He confronted Ellison, demanding to know where his boots were from and criticising a film based on one of Ellison’s screenplays that hadn’t even been made yet. Talese, by chance, was in the Daisy that night having dinner with Sally Hanson. He was sitting about 40 feet from the bar which was more brightly lit than the rest of the room and he was able to record the encounter. Once it was over and Ellison and his group left, Sinatra commanded that no one be allowed in without coats and ties. It wasn’t mentioned in the exchange, but Talese tells the reader that Ellison’s game warden boots cost $60. He found that out because he got his details and interviewed him afterwards.
The timing of the article, coincidental though it might have been, forms a significant part of its appeal. Talese was sensitive to Sinatra’s position, remarking that he was one of the few pre-war icons still standing tall as the pace of cultural change quickened around him. In a small way, the confrontation with Ellison in the Daisy that night was a skirmish at the borders of Sinatra’s cultural influence, with Ellison the unwitting proxy for John Lennon or Mick Jagger. Talese explained a little later that Sinatra viewed his NBC special as an opportunity 'to communicate his talent to some rock-and-rollers'.
On his return to New York, Talese met with Jilly Rizzo, the owner of Jilly’s Saloon on West 52nd Street whom Talese had written about for the Times. The lounge acted as Sinatra’s court when he was in New York, with people queuing and jostling to be allowed to pay their respects. Some were just satisfied with setting eyes on Sinatra. As Talese described it: 'They were old actors, young actors, former prizefighters, tired trumpet players, politicians, a boy with a cane. There was a fat lady who said she remembered Sinatra when he used to throw the Jersey Observer onto her front porch in 1933.' Rizzo took Talese to meet Sinatra’s parents in New Jersey and his mother told Talese that her son still wore the same brand of underwear she bought him when he was young. Reflecting on this encounter in a later interview, Talese said he believed Sinatra must have given his blessing or else the encounter would never have taken place.
It’s hard to get a sense of where exactly Sinatra was drawing the line. Mahoney stepped in to cancel an interview Talese had arranged with Sinatra’s first wife but he was able to speak to their daughter Nancy. Mahoney also permitted Talese to accompany him to the filming of Sinatra’s NBC special. The article unfolds as a series of scenes, with Talese observing from a distance, that further heightens its literary tone. In addition to Sinatra at the Daisy, NBC and Jilly’s Saloon, there is also Sinatra hitting the town in Las Vegas and Sinatra filming a final scene for 'Attack on a Queen' with Virna Lisi.
Talese’s triumph was to convey a sense of the vastness of the Sinatra enterprise and the multitude of relationships upon which his position was maintained. He depicts its cultural textures as being Italian, specifically Sicilian, with Sinatra occupying the position of Il Padrone or uomini rispettati, a man of respect who is 'both majestic and humble'. Talese recounts acts of gift-giving, both mundane and generous, that are magnified because they are unexpected from a man of his status. The son of a tailor, Talese cultivated a reputation as a fastidious dresser and he was alert to the emphasis Sinatra placed on dress code within a larger code of honour. At one point Talese noted Sinatra had shoes that 'seemed to be shined even on the bottom of the soles'.
Since its publication in April 1966, 'Frank Sinatra Has a Cold' has been described as one of the most influential magazine pieces ever written. Some people might choose to contest this on the grounds of subject matter alone, noting in support of their case that the likes of John Hersey’s 'Hiroshima' and Hannah Arendt’s 'Eichmann in Jerusalem' first appeared in the New Yorker. Regardless of the merits of such arguments, the editors of Esquire selected the article as the best piece it had published in 70 years.
The article was beautifully and expensively repackaged by Taschen to mark the 100th anniversary of Sinatra’s birth. The set includes reproductions of manuscript pages, correspondence and the storyboards Talese used to structure his narrative. There are accompanying photographs taken by Phil Stern, while the pages were letterpress printed in Italy. The final product is presented in silk-screened hardcover with embossed paper case and each of the 5,000 copies has been personally signed by Talese. All this is to say that the article has now been elevated to the status of artefact, something to be presented and made beautiful. Family members invited Talese to a number of anniversary events but no one is sure if Sinatra ever read the famous profile.
The Taschen edition was launched at the 21 Club, a former speakeasy in New York. Talese’s old friend Tom Wolfe played host for the evening to guests including Michael Bloomberg. Towards the end of the night, Talese arranged a car for his wife Nan while he stayed behind to talk to some journalists. Talese could have been forgiven for curtailing proceedings because on that night he was the one with the cold.