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Gay Talese: I Wanted to Write About Nobodies

Gay Talese: I Wanted to Write About Nobodies

When I first spoke with Alden Whitman, the chief obituary writer for The New York Times from 1964 to 1976, I was stunned to hear him say that he did not expect to live much longer. I didn’t reply, thinking that this 52-year-old man must be kidding—he was being melodramatic or had spent so much time writing about death that the subject was consuming him.

“I’m really not well,” he continued softly. “I’ve recently returned from eight weeks at Knickerbocker Hospital following a major heart attack, and I’m concerned that the next experience could be fatal.”

He was sitting on a sofa across from me in the living room of his apartment on the 12th floor of an old brick building on West 116th Street. We were surrounded by shelves packed with books, and there were even more books stacked below on the floor. He shared the apartment with his third wife, Joan, 16 years his junior. They had met seven years earlier, in 1958, at the Times, where she was an editor in the Style department.

I was interviewing Whitman for Esquire, my first profile in a series on reporters and editors, and part of my long-standing interest in writing about “nobodies.” The term media was not yet such a popular part of the lexicon as it would become later, sparked by Watergate. Editors generally assumed that there was not a great deal of general interest in, nor much of a market for, lengthy stories about journalistic endeavors and personalities. Indeed, journalists were not supposed to have personalities. Who they were, what they thought, how they felt was deemed irrelevant. They were coverers, copyists, and the scriveners of other people’s doings and deeds. Yet, knowing them as I did, I believed that they had personal and professional stories to tell that were as worthy of attention as the stories of the so-called news makers whose names and photographs appeared every day in the paper.

Before becoming the chief obituary writer, Whitman had been a copy editor for the newspaper. I never talked to him when I worked there in the mid-1950s, but the time I saw him in the cafeteria stuck in my memory. He was a short, stout man who’d walked in smoking a pipe and bearing a serious, if not dour, expression that contrasted with his sprightly attire. He was wearing a red polka-dot bow tie, a yellow pinstriped shirt, and a rakish double-vented tan hacking jacket. After selecting his food at the counter, he walked to an unoccupied corner table and began reading for the next half hour, carefully feeding himself with one hand while holding his newspaper with the other, positioning it within an inch or two of his nose and then squinting at it through his horn-rimmed glasses.

Despite what Whitman had just told me, he did not look like a dying man. He was much as I remembered him from the cafeteria—jaunty in a colorful bow tie, puffing a pipe, no signs of emaciation, weariness, or inattentiveness. He spoke in a strong and clearly modulated tone of voice, and his manner was as casual when discussing his ailments as it had been when he had greeted me earlier and asked if I’d like something to drink.

As I sat across from him, pen in hand, I could hardly believe what was happening. Here I was doing what he usually did, having an antemortem interview with a candidate presumably ready for a funeral. I had heard that Whitman had already written dozens of advance obituaries of noteworthy elderly people, who in some cases he had traveled great distances to meet in person and describe at close range before it was too late—Charlie Chaplin, for example, and Vladimir Nabokov, Graham Greene, Charles Lindbergh, Francisco Franco, and the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow, who was known to have referred to Whitman as the Times ghoul.

Although he was an isolated member of the reportorial staff, the only one whose published writing did not carry bylines, Whitman nonetheless possessed considerable arbitrary power within the paper. It was primarily up to him to decide who was, and who was not, newsworthy enough to warrant an obituary. In Whitman’s world, the recently deceased was either a “somebody” or a “nobody.”

Growing up in a small town on the Jersey Shore in the late 1940s, I dreamed of someday working for a great newspaper. But I did not necessarily want to write news. News was ephemeral and it accentuated the negative. It was largely concerned with what went wrong yesterday rather than what went right. Much of it was, in Bob Dylan’s words, “good-for-nothing news.” Or it was “gotcha journalism,” in which reporters with tape recorders got public figures to make fools of themselves trying to answer tricky questions.

Nevertheless, news continues to be made every day based on the statements and activities of newsworthy people—politicians, bankers, business leaders, artists, entertainers, and athletes. Other people are ignored unless they’ve been involved in a crime or a scandal, or suffered an accidental or violent death. If they have lived lawfully and uneventfully, and died of natural causes, obituary editors do not assign reporters to write about them. They are not newsworthy. They are essentially nobodies. I wanted to specialize in writing about nobodies.

Harold Hayes, the editor of Esquire, liked my pitch for a series of articles on reporters, copy editors, and editors with whom I had worked in the newsroom at The New York Times. In 1965, he offered me a contract to write about my Times people, as well as other subjects of his choosing, while being guaranteed an annual salary of $15,000.

On the downside, however, I had to please Hayes occasionally by interviewing a movie star or other celebrity. When he proposed that I write about Frank Sinatra, I tried to talk him out of it. I reminded him that there had already been several recently published pieces about Sinatra, and I wondered what more could be said about him. I preferred to not write about celebrities because I knew from experience that few of them had much respect for writers, they were often late for interviews (if they showed up at all), and they regularly insisted that their press agents or attorneys sit in on interviews and review the articles prior to publication.

I would never agree to this kind of review, nor would any newspaper or magazine of which I was aware, including Esquire, but Hayes still desired a big piece about Sinatra in his magazine and wanted me to do it. He reasoned that it was only fair that I sometimes try to help him increase newsstand sales with celebrity covers since he was allowing me to publish stories about journalists whom few Esquire readers had ever heard of, like Alden Whitman. We eventually came to an agreement. I would write about Sinatra if he published my story on Whitman first.

From his start as chief obituary writer, Whitman expanded the scope of the assignment beyond the practices of his predecessors. The older Times staffers had produced advance obituaries largely based on information obtained from news clippings; or, if the subject was a very prominent individual, there might be magazine profiles or even biographies and autobiographies upon which to draw.

Whitman convinced the top editors to allow him to travel around the nation and abroad in order to conduct face-to-face interviews that provided closely observed details: For example, after meeting with Pablo Picasso at the artist’s studio in Paris, he wrote that Picasso “was a short, squat man with broad, muscular shoulders and arms. He was most proud of his small hands and feet and of his hairy chest. In old age his body was firm and compact; and his cannonball head, which was almost bald, gleamed like bronze.”

After compiling a list of people he hoped to interview, Whitman would write them flattering letters explaining that the Times wished to update its files on the lives of such distinguished individuals as themselves, seeking their biographical insights and reflections, and therefore a request was being made for a brief personal visit. Although there was no mention of advance obituary or death in these letters, nor was it explained that such interviews were slated for posthumous publication, the letter’s purpose was still fairly obvious to most recipients; and, indeed, after being granted an interview in Missouri with Harry Truman, Alden was greeted by the former president with: “I know why you’re here, and I want to help you all I can.”

Though there were some who turned down the interview request—for example, the writer and literary critic Edmund Wilson, the French minister of culture André Malraux, and Viscount Bernard Law Montgomery, the British World War II general— Whitman himself refused to interview many people who were not sufficiently notable. Who did, and who did not, meet the “notability” standard was largely his decision. The editors and reporters in the news department devoted their days to the coverage of the living, while it was his prerogative to deal as he wished with the dead and the almost dead.

He also made it clear—in a statement published in the monthly trade-news magazine Editor & Publisher—that he was not receptive to any solicitations from public-relations firms or from other influence peddlers, who might have clients desiring an antemortem interview with him. “This is strictly a business where we call you, don’t call us,” he said, adding, “The Times will place its own value on an obit, and I refuse to talk with anyone who calls up to suggest that so-and-so, still living, would make an interesting obit, and I can have an interview … I simply refuse to speak with anybody trying to guarantee immortality before he dies.”

In completing my own interview with Whitman for Esquire, one of my final questions concerned his own termination, especially because during our time together he had emphasized his failing health. As I wrote in the article:

“But what will happen to you, then, after you die, Mr. Whitman?” I asked.

“I have no soul that is going anywhere,” he said. “It is simply a matter of bodily extinction.”

“If you had died during your heart attack, what, in your opinion, would have been the first thing your wife would have done?”

“She would first have seen to it that my body was disposed of in the way I wanted,” he said. “To be cremated without fuss or fanfare.”

“And then what?”

“Then, after she’d gotten to that, she would have turned her attention to the children.”

“And then?”

“Then, I guess, she would have broken down and had a good cry.”

“Are you sure?”

Whitman paused.

“Yes, I would assume so,” he said finally, puffing on his pipe. “This is the formal outlet for grief under such circumstances.”

Three months after I had finished interviewing him, my article about Whitman appeared in the February 1966 issue of Esquire. Hayes, the editor, liked it and published it under the title “Mr. Bad News,” with the subtitle “Death, as it must to all men, comes to Alden Whitman every day. It’s a living.”

I began the piece by re-creating a scene that Joan had described during our lunch:

“Winston Churchill gave you your heart attack,” the wife of the obituary writer said, but the obituary writer, a short and rather shy man, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and smoking a pipe, shook his head and replied, very softly, “No, it was not Winston Churchill.”

“Then T. S. Eliot gave you your heart attack,” she quickly added, lightly, for they were at a small dinner party in New York and the others seemed amused.

“No,” the obituary writer said, again softly, “it was not T. S. Eliot.”

If he was at all irritated by his wife’s line of questioning, her assertion that writing lengthy obituaries for the New York Times under deadline pressure might be speeding him to his own grave, he did not show it, did not raise his voice; but then he rarely does.

The article drew a favorable reaction from the magazine’s subscribers as well as from some top editors at the Times, and they soon reversed the paper’s anonymity rule for obit writing and began attaching Whitman’s byline to his work. As he continued to produce his well-written and informative memorials, he became a mini celebrity within the journalism profession and subsequently took a bow in front of millions of viewers while discussing his job with Johnny Carson on NBC’s The Tonight Show.

He not only continued to write obituaries for the next 10 years, but he also contributed book reviews and conducted interviews for the paper over lunches with many well-known novelists and poets; he usually showed up wearing a cape. He also had his photograph taken by Jill Krementz, who specialized in shooting literary figures and was the wife of the writer Kurt Vonnegut.

In 1976, he left the Times. Others would inherit his position, of course, although none would be so singularly identified with it. With his retirement, Joan quit her job in the Style department and the two of them moved to Southampton, Long Island, where she hired college students to read books and newspapers daily to her husband. She meanwhile worked as a freelance book editor, co-authored a few books on cooking, and helped edit big best-selling books written by a Times food critic.

Whitman died of a stroke in 1990. The Times published a 23-paragraph obituary accompanied by his picture and the headline “Alden Whitman Is Dead at 76; Made an Art of Times Obituaries.” It carried no byline.

This article has been adapted from Gay Talese’s book Bartleby and Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener.

Bartleby And Me – Reflections Of An Old Scrivener

By Gay Talese

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