This was a Christmas present from last year due to my interest in Frank Sinatra and other complicated mid-century men with bad tempers. It then sat for a while until I re-entered my interest phase, which only apparently took about a year. The titular essay is extremely well known as one of the main pieces of “New Journalism” and is hugely influential on celebrity profiles to this day. I used to get Esquire for many years and the profiles all sound like this. It was interesting to read it and the other essays in this collection to get an overview of Talese’s writing, as I had never read anything by him before.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” stands up to the test of time and will continue to. It’s a great piece of writing stylistically and a very incisive portrait of its subject. I enjoyed every moment of reading it and it helped to substantiate and flesh out my understanding of Sinatra. Given the complexity of Sinatra’s psyche, Talese really does a masterful job here in capturing him and all his little nuances. There are a couple of mistakes in it, but Talese didn’t have the perspective or resources of a biographer, so that was both understandable and forgivable. There was also a Harlan Ellison cameo, which was a surprise! The other essay I liked was “Origins of a Nonfiction Writer,” in which he details how he became a writer and his influences, which was informative to read after the rest of the book.
However, I didn’t like the first essay, “VOGUEland,” which I felt was dismissive and snarky — the portrayal of women throughout the book is pretty bare bones and sketchy, and the ingrained knee-jerk misogyny of the 1960s is apparent throughout that essay in particular. It reminded me a bit of Mailer, who was also in the New Journalism scene and whose opinions about women are similarly savage and repulsive. While overall I understand the influence of Talese and can appreciate his impact, I found most of the essays in general to not be that engaging or incisive. There’s a distance and superiority in these sorts of profiles where they claim to be showing us the true face of the celebrity, but I usually leave with the sense that the subject never actually let the journalist beyond the surface, no matter how much access they purport to give. You can spend two weeks with someone and never get to know the real them at all, especially when they are doing the profile as mandated press. I think that was my main takeaway here. I would just read the titular essay and skip the rest of the book if you want to get a taste of Talese’s writing.