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Q&A: Gay Talese (cont.)

Posted: Thursday May 25, 2006 1:19PM; Updated: Thursday May 25, 2006 3:33PM
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SI: Your 1965 Esquire piece on DiMaggio is considered by some to be the best-ever magazine profile on an athlete. There's a seminal quote in the piece from Marilyn Monroe ("It was so wonderful, Joe. You have never heard such cheering. Yes, I have."). How did you get it?

Talese: That was published. It was buried in some magazine piece and no one seemed to notice it. In my piece it was like this little rough diamond of a quote, set up in a way that made it a seminal quote. It's the context in which it was placed, because it was within the realm of celebrity as personified by Marilyn Monroe and the fated old famous man that was Joe DiMaggio to a degree. And the marriage of yesterday with today and the yesterday being the great DiMaggio but he never forgot the cheering.

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SI: Your friend David Halberstam called the piece the best of sportswriting of the 20th century. Did you think afterward that you had captured DiMaggio honestly?

Talese: I never think much about that when I'm doing it. I don't write about the straight-on main guy. It's not DiMaggio. It starts off with the Fisherman Wharf, which is the tradition and the history of the immigrant DiMaggio family, which made its living as fishermen. And at the Wharf I see this blonde. I don't know her name. She's good-looking. What was she doing? She's probably a tourist and looking at the beautiful body of water that is near the DiMaggio restaurant. And then I go into the restaurant, as I described, and some people didn't know it was me in the story. But it is me, obviously. I went third-person because I didn't want to intrude. It's not Garrison Keillor pluming into this or some first-person Jimmy Breslin goes to the circus or Norman Mailer goes to the Pentagon. The first person with those guys is natural. But I'm a quiet intruder with good manners, and I go into the restaurant and see to my surprise that it's DiMaggio looking out of a window and standing there, smoking a cigarette. I didn't move in at first. I didn't have an appointment. I had a letter exchange with him. The reason I got to DiMaggio was that there was an old-timers game some months before. I met DiMaggio through a photographer name Ernie Sisto. DiMaggio said I could come out when we were in the locker room. So [in the restaurant] then he kind of walked away and I never talked to him. I went back into the entrance where I had entered the restaurant and I ran into this guy. I didn't know it was a DiMaggio relative. I said, "Is Joe going to come back?" He says, "Joe who?" I'm like, Jesus Christ, how stupid do they think I am? What's going on here? I saw DiMaggio. I know what he looks like. Then I leave and DiMaggio comes back, and all that stuff is in the piece. I was walking to my rented car and this damn car pulls up and the window goes down and there's DiMaggio's face. "Do you have a car?" "Of course I have a car," I said stupidly. He says, "Well, I would have given you a ride." Then he drives off. Oh, Christ. Here's an opportunity to be in a car with the guy who I flew across the country to see and who is not known for being open for interviews. I built my way back. I hung around with people who knew DiMaggio: Lefty O'Doul, the old manager and baseball player, and Reno Barsocchini, who was the guy at his wedding when he married Monroe and who after the breakup of the marriage helped DiMaggio pack in L.A. and come back to San Francisco. I went to the bar and hung around. I was beseeching these guys to build a bridge from DiMaggio to me. The allowance was made that I could go around a golf course with him. You have to be well behaved if you are around people who don't know you and give you the benefit of the doubt. And I am. I was raised in a store and I had parents who had a sense of decorum.

SI: Many years later you saw DiMaggio again at Time magazine's 70th-anniversary celebration. What happened?

Talese: When people say they liked your piece, you write them back, you call them, whatever. But when they don't do that, people like Barry Bonds, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Michael Jordan, Frank Sinatra, they don't write fan letters. You don't solicit or elicit from them. I never got a fan letter from Floyd Patterson or Muhammad Ali. I didn't seek out DiMaggio. If somebody from his family or he would have written, I would have been very happy. Then I ran into him at the 70th anniversary. I sat next to [former Time Inc. editor-in-chief] Norman Pearlstine at his table and I was surprised to see DiMaggio. He came up to me and said, "Are you still writing for that rag?"

SI: You write fondly of the Yankees. What is your earliest memory of the team?

Talese: When I was 11 years old and trying to escape my no-fun father who was not a sports fan, I was able to escape into the modern world by trolley to the spring training site of the Yankees in Atlantic City, which was only 10 miles from where I was born. It wasn't any Donald Trump town then. It was a has-been city, a period of decline. This was the wartime 1940s and the Yankees were the champions. So in 1944 I'm seeing the world champion Yankees within truancy range of my high school. It wasn't at a stadium. It was just a bunch of grandstands. And it wasn't a grassy field. The fans were practically able to go on the field. So I saw Joe McCarthy, the great manager of the Yankees, and I got autographs from all of them. [Outfielder] Johnny Lindell was my favorite. The nicest guy. There was no security then. You could practically slip out there during the game and field some ground balls. You were on the field and then the game started and you went back on the grass. It was like a high school situation.

SI: Do you like this current Yankees team?

Talese: I like this team but I do worry about Randy Johnson. He hasn't been a blazing presence in the last couple of games. It seems like they get along. I like the recognition of Derek Jeter as definitely the captain. You don't have the great [Alex] Rodriguez or [Hideki] Matsui or [Gary] Sheffield or anybody having anything but the greatest respect for the greatest Yankee, which is Derek Jeter. It was not an appointment by Congress that Derek Jeter was the guy. It is the team that without saying so somehow communicated this by their respect and deference to Jeter.

SI: After the 1999 women's World Cup, you traveled to Beijing to track down Liu Ying, who missed a penalty kick in the final. Why did you become obsessed with this minor figure? Why is she the starting point for A Writer's Life?

Talese: China is the big story. It wasn't that she was going to get me the great story. No one has ever given me the great story. You want to find a story that has something to do with your lifetime or some aspect of an event. She was not even the star of the team. But the point was she is a women who in a male-dominated communist regime happened to get in the spotlight and was a focus of great attention, the Rose Bowl in front of 90,000 people. And then she flies back from California to this land of 1.3 billion and a lot of them are watching television in China. She is just this little old solitary figure in a gigantic sect of the world. Twenty-two percent of the whole living world is in China, and she is for a brief moment in the spotlight of the world. And I thought, This is the kind of person who will get married and perhaps have children and will be in the China of the future. She is part of the transitional China. Here's this little figure, a small girl in a big setting who enters one world, the West, the beautiful, sunny Rose Bowl, and it is the darkest moment of her life. Then she has to gather her inner resources, pack her bag, leave the L.A. hotel, go with her teammates to the airplane, sit probably in coach class all the way back. Now she's in China, hugging her mother and crying. Then she has to get up the next day and face the world. This time it's the world of East. And how does she do it? It's not that she is Joe DiMaggio or Madonna or Madeleine Albright. But she's Everyman, Everywoman. There's a grand story in the rather humble and not entirely successful people. Willy Loman wasn't a super-salesman like Lee Iacocca was of cars. He was just an ordinary, every-day guy, but what a great story, because it touches humanity. And that's what I wanted to do in this book and in previous books and when I am writing about sports. It's the same character I am looking for, the Willy Lomans.

SI: How will the Beijing Olympics come off?

Talese: I think it will be the most well-organized Olympics of my lifetime. I was in Atlanta and I went to Australia, which was fantastic. This thing in 2008 will be great. The Chinese will work so carefully to make everything precisely functional. And it is a dazzling time where the world is going to see an emerging China, which is composed of so many people who have a history of so much defeat. The history of China is the history of invasion and being set back and being isolated and having to endure. It is an amazing country. Whether you want to make it a political story is besides the point. I'm not talking about communism or imperialism. I'm talking about a people who without a lot of guidance or support from a central government have had to work and work and work and always with the idea that better days are ahead if not for them but for their children. So it is a great country of strivers and strugglers who do not succumb. The Olympics is all about that. The Olympics is being held in a place where the history of coming back is very much rooted in the great epic story of China itself.

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