My old morgue mate Gay Talese stepped in it recently because he told the truth.
The 84-year-old Talese was the “headline” speaker this month at the Power of Narrative Conference at Boston University, an apt billing for a grand master of the New Journalism born in the 1960s.
During a Q and A session, a woman identified as the poet Verandah Porche (I’m not making up the name, she did) asked: “In addition to Nora Ephron, who were the women who write who inspired you most?”
“I would think, of my generation, none,” Talese replied.
That one word – none – flashed across the gender divide into a wildfire of condemnation.
None of his critics parsed the words “of my generation.”
Antisocial media branded him sexist, misogynist, and an out of touch old fart
Newspaper headlines were equally harsh and clichéd:
- “Gay Talese has a lady problem – he can’t think of any female writers that inspired him” – L.A. Times
- “Gay Talese can’t name a single female writer who inspired him. Thankfully, Twitter has a few suggestions” – Washington Post
His former employer, the New York Times, ran a long and mostly sympathetic piece under the headline “Gay Talese goes through the Twitter wringer,” allowing the writer to further explain that in his formative years there were few prominent women journalists.
But this was followed by an extraordinary statement from the Times’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, which concluded: “Too often, we are clumsy in handling issues of race and gender and this story was another unfortunate example.”
Like other guardians of the culture, Baquet, born in 1956, after Talese began as a reporter at the Times, bowed to the political correctness of the moment trumping history or context.
Talese left the Times in 1965 to write magazine articles, mostly for Esquire, and books.
I arrived the next year as a copyboy. One of my major duties was running to the morgue – copyboys always ran – to fetch clip files for reporters and editors.
I ran into Talese often, sitting at the tiny, round table in the tiny morgue vestibule, thumbing through clippings.
Everyone knew he was researching a book on the Times. But he was granted full access to the building and its treasures.
He was always dressed to the nines, in a finely tailored suit, silk tie and matching handkerchief.
We never spoke. But he’d offer a courtly nod when I turned to leave.
I quit the Times to pursue a reporting career on the West Coast before The Kingdom and the Power was published in 1969, lifting up the Gray Lady’s stiff petticoat to expose her internal power struggles and petty politics.
The book contained few mentions of women at the Times because there were few women in the newsroom. There was a separate women’s department on a separate floor, putting out the women’s pages.
Not much inspiration for Talese in the reviews of the latest ball at the Plaza or the opening of the social season in Palm Beach.
Which brings me back to Verandah Porche, the poet from Vermont, via New Jersey, born Linda Jacobs, and her question: “In addition to Nora Ephron, who were the women who write who inspired you most?”
First, though they apparently became friends and inhabited the same literary/celebrity circle in Manhattan, Ephron was much younger than Talese and later to the dance.
And anyone who’s read their work can see their subjects and style are worlds apart.
Dear Clueless in Boston,
Would you ask Scorsese which women directors inspired him?
Would you ask Obama which women presidents inspired him?
Would you ask Willie Mays which women centerfielders inspired him?
Would you ask Joan Didion which men writers inspired her?
It all gets back to Talese’s response to the question: “I would think, of my generation, none.”
His contemporaries, those in the 1960s who made journalism read like a novel yet stick to the facts, were mainly men.
Of the 23 pieces, including one by Talese, in Tom Wolfe’s 1973 collection titled The New Journalism, only two are by women.
Creative inspiration comes from making a connection with the words, the story. It’s also a matter of time and taste.
What women writers inspired me?
Do I have to explain myself?
What do I think of the Twitter campaign with the hashtag: womengaytaleseshouldread.
Who the hell tells others what to read?
Even Amazon is polite enough to say: “Recommended for you, Ken.”