BARTLEBY AND ME: Reflections of an Old Scrivener, by Gay Talese
Gay Talese has a tic. I want to get this out of the way because in general I have such tremendous admiration for the man: that debonair eminence of ye olde New Journalism who is both a living landmark of Manhattan and his own best character.
It’s a writerly tic, the retro habit of referring to women by the color of their hair, but as noun rather than adjective. “A slender and attractive brunette.” “A slender and stylish honey blonde in a ponytail.” “A gregarious young brunette.” “A perky and heavily perfumed brunette in a red cocktail dress.”
At least silver foxes, of which the natty Talese, 91, is a prime example, get the courtesy of being compared to a clever animal.
If occasionally feeling as if you’re trapped in a Peter Arno cartoon is the price of admission to a new work by Talese, sign me up. But only one chunk of his latest book, “Bartleby and Me,” from which the above quotations are drawn, can fairly be called new. That is Part 3, the story of Nicholas Bartha, the Romanian émigré and doctor who blew up his multimillion-dollar Upper East Side townhouse in 2006, killing himself in the process, rather than sell it and let his ex-wife have the proceeds, as a judge had ordered.
What happened after the resultant 900,000 pounds of debris were cleared away involves “a glamorous 40-year-old Russian-born blonde named Janna Bullock,” the real-estate developer and fixture of Page Six whom Talese, also an Upper East Sider, refers to, more originally, as “the contessa of flippers.” It’s a plot for the ages, and right in his own backyard.
Named in homage to the classic short story by Herman Melville, “Bartleby and Me” alludes both to Talese’s own status as a self-described “old scrivener” and to the humbler figures that have most captured his interest over a long career: doormen, chauffeurs, cooks, clerks, cleaners, cops, alley cats, the last marcher in a parade. (This is a writer who seems to assemble biographical files even for pieces of limestone.) Jack Vergara — a veteran waiter at the neighboring Links Club who noticed the smell of gas emanating from the doomed townhouse, called Con Ed, and insisted only a cold breakfast be served to club members that morning — is the kind of indelible “subsidiary character” in which Talese specializes.
Indeed, Talese’s relative indifference to celebrity is what ensured his own. Long before “quiet quitting” there was Bartleby’s phrase “I would prefer not to,” and that’s the essence of what Talese first replied to Harold Hayes, the editor of then-mighty Esquire, when asked to write the profile that would become perhaps the most venerated in magazine history, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (1966). The article would inspire countless lesser talents to circle whatever famous subject they couldn’t corner for 40 minutes over a Cobb salad and contort the result into a florid narrative for the glossies.
Part 2 of “Bartleby and Me” is the story behind the Sinatra story, and even the story behind the story behind the Sinatra story: a chart of Talese’s notes published in the same issue, wherein the author cusses out and expresses his mistrust of Hayes.
Revealed are a few tools and tricks of the Talesian trade, among them the 7-by-3 cardboard squares, salvaged from his laundered dress shirts, that he uses for notetaking, sometimes from the privacy of a bathroom stall. (Talese’s habit of neglecting to use a tape recorder, along with special interests that could be called prurient — massage parlors and motel voyeurism among them — has led some journalism watchdogs to bark.) Another, more compelling tic: his familiar method of linking disparate individuals in a sort of baton-passing from chapter to chapter.
Part 1 is about Talese’s tenure at The New York Times, where a more seasoned reporter once advised him, “Young man, never interview anyone over the phone if you can help it.” (Compared with email, text and Gchat, of course, the phone now seems like a holy relic.)
Renowned for his epic book about this newspaper and its leaders, “The Kingdom and the Power” (1969), an ur-text of media studies, Talese here pans over its underlings and undersung — the linotype operators and printers, a substantial number of them “deaf mutes,” who would repair for drinks to Gough’s Chop House in actually ink-stained four-corner hats; and copyreaders, those “private, pensive and pondering individuals.”
He zeros in on one of them, Alden Whitman, who became a chief obituary writer (he called himself the “happy oarsman on the Styx”), whom Talese also profiled for Esquire, with considerably more access than Sinatra gave. The piece got Whitman a seat next to Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” These were different times.
Talese has tried, and by many lights failed, at straightforward memoir before, namely the 2006 rambler “A Writer’s Life.” “Bartleby and Me” is more of an ambler, in which he appears to give his finger to the form by filigreeing a couple of his ironclad hits and then tacking on a new gargoyle of a tale. He’s done it his way, and one can imagine him and Sinatra’s ghost sharing a song-and-dance number, a couple of satisfied sailors on the town.
BARTLEBY AND ME: Reflections of an Old Scrivener | By Gay Talese | 320 pp. | Mariner Books | $28.99