When I came to New York in the Spring of 2017 to write about Gay Talese by being Gay Talese, it was inspired by the way he wrote about Frank Sinatra in 1965 for Esquire magazine. Through the simple act of hanging out, Gay managed to redefine the way celebrities were profiled, without ever talking to his subject. I hoped to create something just as epic, by acting as my subject instead of interacting with it.
Instead of writing something as definitive as Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, I wrote Being Gay. A long, complicated, weird, and probably illegal, half plagiarized, unpublishable story about David Look and Gay Talese. But I think it also tells a larger story about success and failure, the thin wall between person and persona, and truth. The harder you chase it, the more elusive it becomes.
It was February. Under the high sun of a late afternoon in Waikiki, I decided to be someone else. Not a reinvention of who I was, or a resolution to be a better version of myself. No. I wanted to be someone else entirely. I wanted to dress like someone else, live in someone else’s neighborhood, patronize someone else’s favorite places, order drinks someone else regularly ordered, introduce myself to strangers as someone else, and maybe even call someone else’s wife my wife. And the someone else I decided to become from a chair, on a lanai, in a hotel, surrounded by hundreds of other hotels in the middle of the south pacific was the 85 year old Italian, Jersey-born, New York-based writer, Gay Talese.
I was in paradise. I was in a sore spot.
I had just spent $500.00 of my own money so I could write a 2000 word essay about a night I spent at a Trump hotel that had just opened beside my apartment in Vancouver, Canada. It was rejected by every editor I submitted it to. After that bomb, I decided to spend more money I didn’t have so I could go sulk in a budget hotel room in Hawaii with a kitchenette. I thought some sun might help.
I took my girlfriend of five years, and the 2006 book, A Writer’s Life, by Gay Talese. Three days into the trip, or location 7101 of Gay’s book on my Kindle — where he describes his June 1959 marriage to a Random House employee named Nan Ahearn in Rome, which started a legendary literary relationship still in the making — my girlfriend told me she didn’t love me anymore.
That’s when I realized I didn’t want to be me anymore.
I brought A Writer’s Life to Hawaii because it was an autobiography of stories behind the stories Gay failed to get published. I thought commiserating with a celebrated author on their shortcomings might improve my mood. It only made me feel worse. I quickly realized that despite the many unpublished works it chronicled, A Writer’s Life represented a life and lifestyle in stark contrast to mine.
By the time Gay was married at 27, he was already a regular voice in the New York Times. He defied the limitations of his first role there as copy boy by getting an uncredited piece published, and after spending two years in the army, came back to the paper as a sports reporter. After the Times’ sent him to its Albany office with a promotion to cover state politics, he was sent back to the city desk with an assignment to write obituaries because he annoyed his editors for holding them to his precise style. When Nan showed up in Rome with the news that she had, unbeknownst to him, told both their families they were getting married in Italy, he was writing features for the Sunday Times Magazine and living on an expense account.
Gay’s writing was rooted in the principles of journalism, but the biggest influence on his work were writers of fiction. His ability to blend the two disciplines stepped into the dry heat of California during the winter of 1965, shortly after he left The New York Times to write for Esquire full time. A flight to Los Angeles, where he was to write about Frank Sinatra was one of his first assignments.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” appeared in Esquire’s April 1966 issue and is now recognized as one of the most influential American magazine articles ever written. It introduced the name Gay Talese to the world as a pioneer of then unheard of terms like new journalism and creative nonfiction. Bestselling books that allowed Gay to shadow and submerge himself into the lives of the people he was writing about, often for years at a time, followed. So did a seat at the table of New York’s cultural elite for both him and Nan — who crafted her own career atop America’s literary world by getting her own publishing imprint in 1990. And this entire trajectory was orchestrated and performed while wearing a uniform of hand stitched Italian suits that Gay had been wearing since his days as a schoolboy; a byproduct of his father’s profession as a tailor.
Instead of contemplating the broken vision of myself reflected back at me from the dark sunglasses and impenetrable gaze of the woman I was losing, I fell for the liquid crystal smirk of Gay Talese on the cover of A Writer’s Life, and the life he was telling me about every time I turned my Kindle on under the hypnotic sway of Hawaiian palm trees.
Gay seemed to have it all: a rich immigrant family history, health at a late stage in life, a long and lucrative career, a dynamic and lasting marriage to a woman that stood by his obsessive and sometimes excessive journeys into the worlds his stories took him, and he had New York. Not just any New York, but a passport to parts of the city that were as much a part of his literary identity as his impeccable sense of style.
Upon my return from Hawaii, I was forty-six, unpublishable, and alone.
I couldn’t stop comparing my situation to his success. The hope of achieving even a fraction of what Gay Talese had achieved by the time he was in his mid-twenties seemed hopeless. As February came to close, my sense of self worth was so low that after I finished A Writer’s Life, the only pleasure I took in my day-to-day existence was extending my reach into the well documented, often written about world of Gay Talese even further. His domestic life and background, his working methods, the subjects he wrote about, where he played tennis, the kind of car he drove and where he parked it, the restaurants he visited, and drinks he enjoyed, all of it was consumable through books, articles, interviews, YouTube videos, Yelp reviews, Wikipedia pages, and walkabouts on Google StreetView.
By the time spring arrived, my life had become so entwined with Gay’s, that booking a flight to New York with an untapped line of credit seemed like the next logical step in augmenting my unhappiness with his success even further. And after a confirmed itinerary arrived in my inbox, I felt the benefits of his presence immediately.
My inability to get the last thing I wrote published. The dismal trip to Hawaii. My failed relationship. Now it all seemed to have happened for a reason. It had purpose. And now, it had a logical next step.
New York would be my home for as long as I could afford it. And when I got there, I would put my mind inside of Gay Talese’s as far as I could humanly get it. Every day in Manhattan I would copy Gay Talese’s writing, working habits, and lifestyle, down to the way he dressed. I would work the same hours as Gay, walk the same streets as Gay, and visit the same places so I could see what Gay sees, and hopefully feel what Gay feels. Eventually, it would all come together in the kind of character study of Gay Talese that Gay Talese was famous for.
After everything that had happened, it was hard to believe that I was undertaking yet another expensive, convoluted, self-assigned assignment. But this. This would be different. My past failures were about to be sidestepped by overturning my life for a new reality. By being Gay.
At least that’s what I hoped to achieve. Gay says that you never really know what you’re writing until you’ve written it.
JJ Hat Center—310 5th Avenue
After boarding a direct flight to New York with every shirt, suit, tie, pocket square, and pair of shoes that had piled up in my closet from years spent attending funerals, interviews, weddings, and christmas parties, I wanted to get into costume and assume my new life as soon as possible. But a key ingredient to my wardrobe was missing.
Gay Talese has over 30 hats made specially for him by a Cuban-born hat maker named Bruno Lacorazza under the label Puerto Fino. They’re sized at 7 and ⅛ of an inch, and inscribed with the byline, MADE ESPECIALLY FOR GAY TALESE. I needed one. After ruling out a trip to Miami, where Bruno lived, I thought a hat shop operating in Manhattan since 1911 would be a good place to find my signature fedora.
I stepped into JJ Hat Center on 5th Avenue where one of its employees named Philip greeted me. Phillip had a long beard, and was wearing a dark long-sleeved shirt with black jeans and a wide-brimmed, blue panama hat that sat atop his head in proud contrast to his quiet demeanor. The shop was tall, long, and lined with dark wood shelves and cabinets that were filled with hats. My voice sounded meek and muffled by the felt and fur that surrounded us when I muttered to Philip that I wanted a Puerto Fino fedora with my name, Gay Talese, inscribed on its interior. I’m sure he knew I didn’t know what I was talking about, that I was some kind of mountebank — maybe he even knew who Gay was, and who I wasn’t — but none of this could be detected in the simplicity of his response when he said Bruno’s hats had not been seen around the shop in awhile. Instead, he would help me find something similar, but if I wanted to leave with a hat on my head that day, I would have to forgo the personalized inscription.
While I faced Phillip in the time-abandoned hat center, he quickly placed a series of hats on my head to gauge its size, then handed me a house brand, camel coloured fedora made by hand in Spain. I pulled the beautifully supple hat down over my head and turned to face the mirror. Months of anticipation had culminated into the moment I looked up at my reflection. I was in midtown Manhattan, wearing the quintessential Gay Talese outfit of suit, shirt, tie, and newly added wide-brimmed hat. I had hoped to see him standing in the mirror, but the reflection of the person staring back was still just me.
Confusing the look of disappointment on my face for the fedora he picked, Phillip tried to comfort me with the analogy of new hats being like new shoes. He said it would take some time to work it in before it felt like mine, and belonged on my head
Instead of asking him if trying to be someone else worked in the same way as new oxfords, I feigned a smile, thanked him, said it looked fine and that I would take it. I had just started this adventure, and already the ridiculousness of my intentions had been fully realized.
There was little doubt, standing in the cold hustle of a late-afternoon in Midtown Manhattan, under the dark shadow of the Empire State Building, that I was ushering myself toward another costly run of rejection, and thousands of unpublishable words.
This was a mistake.
My feet felt like cement blocks, but I pulled them uptown, along the path of absurdity anyway.
I wanted to stop.
I couldn’t stop.
I had invested too much. Had travelled too far. And although the familiar feeling of defeat had already begun to present itself, going back to being me didn’t seem like an option because it didn’t seem like there was a me to return to. I had to leave that person behind, and all the baggage of uncertainty and anxiety that came with it so that when I stepped onto East 61st Street, I could be Gay Talese.
Lenox Hill — Upper East Side
I don’t like change. I’ve had the same job, the same wife, and the same home in Lenox Hill since I first moved here in 1958. I was twenty-six back then. Nan and I had been dating for just over a year when I took a sublet on a one-and-a-half-room apartment in the 1871-built brownstone we now own on East 61st Street.
It was in pretty rough shape when I moved in, and when Nan first came over from where she was living at the Barbizon Hotel for Women on East 63rd, she didn’t think much of it. But after we were married she moved in anyway, and with some patience and a bit of luck, we wound up renting the entire building as each of its suites became available. We bought it in 1973, two years after my book about the Bonanno crime family, Unto the Sons, was published and became a bestseller. We paid $175,000 for it back then, fifty-thousand of which was used for some much needed repairs.
The way I write hasn’t changed much either. My morning starts with the selection of a suit, socks, shoes, shirt, tie, cufflinks, and hat. The way I dress pairs well with the precise attention to detail my writing requires, and when I’m out researching a story, it adds a formality to my interactions with others so they feel I’m a trustworthy individual in whom they can confide.
By 8am I’m out the front door of my townhouse where I descend 14 black iron steps that wind down to the street. Another set of fewer stairs leads me off the sidewalk, and down to my office door. When I open it, there are a few more steps to descend before I reach the depths of my sunken office.
The place I work used to be a wine cellar. It has no windows, no phone, and its soundproof. But that doesn’t mean it’s not comfortable. It’s carpeted. There’s a bathroom, shower, kitchen, some couches, and table with chairs.
I feel removed from the world down there. As comfortable as it is, the feeling that you’re underground never subsides, which helped to inspire its nickname of The Bunker. But I think it’s more like a living, breathing think-tank that absorbs, rather than repels all the handwritten notes, instructions, clippings and correspondence that surround my writing table on cork boards, in bookshelves, and boxes that I decorate myself with collage-like representations of the subjects they contain. The only thing I throw out is my own writing.
Just because a book or article I wrote ends, doesn’t mean the story is finished, so I’m never really done collecting and organizing data on the people and places I’ve written or plan to write about. I’ve been doing this for 65 years, and just like all my clothes, most of it is made without the use of machines.
When noon arrives, I’ll take a break for a quick walk, some lunch at a cafe or restaurant, or a set or two of midday tennis. By 4pm I am back at my desk revising, discarding, or adding to what I had written earlier until about 6pm
That’s when I make the transformation from subterranean hermit to man-about-town with a pre-dinner, dry gin martini at one of a few places in the neighborhood I trust to do it properly. Which is why you’ll often find me at a French restaurant just one block away on East 60th Street, called Le Veau D’Or.
Le Veau d’Or — 129 East 60th Street
The lights on my townhouse painted a glow of yellow on each side of my office door as I crossed the street for the simplicity and comfort of Le Veau d’Or, which translates to The Golden Calf in English. I have dined there since the 1950s, but when I stepped into the small entranceway, and its owner, Catherine Trebaux, turned to greet me, it was obvious she didn’t know who I was.
Instead of whisking me to my usual table, she asked if there was something she could help me with. The routine I had so perfectly constructed over so many years fell apart at the front door.
The small dining room with the intimate charm of a Parisian cafe on East 60th Street has changed little since it opened in 1937. Dressed in dark woods, accented by red leather booths, and anchored by a small U shaped bar, it sits a step or two down from street level, where time seems to have forgotten about it. The menu is full of classic French dishes that that have fallen from the repertoires of many contemporary chefs working in New York today, so the food is as historic as the room it is served in. It has a dedicated following of which I’m considered part of, but for some reason, on that night, Catherine thought otherwise.
I could tell something was off right away, but I went through the motions of removing my hat, and presenting myself to her with a request for a cocktail anyway. Cathy, as most regulars called her, had been working in Le Veau d’Or since she was 10. A few years before her father died in 2012, she took over and continued his adherence to a classic French menu, and maintenance of traditions that are designed to cater to a carefully curated and loyal clientele instead of trying to fill the room every night.
Which is why I was expecting to be at my usual table with little fanfare, but instead, she stood her ground, and wanted to know if I was planning on having dinner. I told her I didn’t much feel like a meal yet, but was willing to order an appetizer if she liked. It was early, just before 6pm, and it looked like she had just opened. This was weird.
“Sorry it’s more of a full course thing I do,” she said, looking me up and down in confusion “were you just walking by?”
“No,” I said, standing slightly above her on the steps of the entrance in a brown, tweed suit, blue oxford shirt, and blue striped, square bottom knit tie. “I live around the corner. Haven’t you seen me before?”
She had not.I stood in the awkward silence of rejection for as long as I could stand it, hoping she would relent. She did not.
Pierre Hotel — 2 East 61st Street
The wrinkle in my routine was completely unexpected, but I was well prepared for it. There are a handful of places in the area like Le Veau d’Or that I frequent because they meet a particular criteria I look for in a go-to spot. I like places that don’t change, that know how I like my food prepared, that have no music playing, and when I order a martini, the shaker gets left on my table so I can get an extra drink out of it.
The Pierre Hotel, on East 61st in front of Central Park is one of them, but after being turned away by Catherine, I took a seat at the black granite bar of Perrine, the restaurant in the back of the hotel, with an edge of nervous tension in dire need of the soothing effects of cold gin served up. When Manny happily welcomed me from behind the bar with familiarity, my evening was quickly righted.
“Man, I’ve seen you all over. On 5th, 3rd, Park,” Manny said, as he placed a martini in front of me and sat the frosted shaker it came out of beside my glass, “everybody here talks about you!”
While I sipped at the dryness of my martini I told Manny how much I loved the hotel’s lamb chops, and the way its Georgian-style skyscraper looked from Central Park. The Pierre opened in 1930, and was one of the first hotels to blur the line between residential apartment and hotel by building grand suites designed for permanent residence that Elizabeth Taylor, Mohamed al-Fayed, and Yves Saint Laurent at one time called home. The women’s apparel designer, Tory Burch, has occupied three adjoined apartments in the tower for over 15 years. In addition to Perrine, the Pierre also has a piano lounge called the Two E Lounge on the other side of the hotel from where I was sitting, and an oval shaped, Rococo-themed dining room at the heart of it, called the Rotunda.
After Manny left me alone at the bar for a moment, I noticed a woman across the room. She was sitting at a table by herself, in a taut dress, taupe patent leather heels, and gold accents of jewelry on her wrists and lobes of her ears, that complemented her lightened, long ringlets of hair falling about her shoulders. When our eyes met, she flashed a quick, admiring smile before returning her gaze to the safety of the glowing device she was holding near the lip of her table.
In the morning I lock myself away from the world to write, but come dinner time, I need to be around people. That’s why I dine out almost every night, to observe and eavesdrop among the city’s inhabitants. It’s like going to the movies, but it is real. That is how I wrote about Frank Sinatra, just by watching him interact with his entourage. Chronicling someone’s actions from afar often reveals more about a person than they would be willing to reveal in conversation.
Throughout the 70s, I needed to observe the sexual behaviors of the average American, and realized it would require more that having a meal in a restaurant.
I was working on a book called Thy Neighbour’s Wife. My research had me spending time with singles, couples, pornographers, prostitutes, free love enthusiasts, and First Amendment advocates to learn about their sexual habits and the personal histories that helped to form them. It was one of the hardest books I wrote and took almost 14 years to finish.
During its research, I managed two massage studios — one just over on Lexington, and another just by Nan’s office at Doubleday — lived in a nudist colony called Sandstone, and took part in the orgies and sexual liberations that helped me create an intimate portrait of a pre-Aids America that was in the midst of shifting sexual identities and boundaries.
Writing Thy Neighbour’s Wife put a lot of strain on my relationship with Nan and our family. One night, I brought a masseuse and her doctor boyfriend home for dinner from one of the parlors I was managing. After our meal together, the doctor made a pass at Nan in the kitchen when she was doing the dishes. Then he got drunk and passed out on the floor. When they left, Nan told me I was free to continue my research but I was not to involve her in it anymore. One of the main reasons my wife and two daughters were able to support me at that time was because I approached Thy Neighbour’s Wife with the same all or nothing way I researched all my other books. But it wasn’t easy on any of us. I don’t think anything I’ve written can be described as easy. Nothing worth spending time on with or on should.
I’m consistent. A lot of the journalists that wrote about me when I was working on Thy Neighbour’s Wife seemed to miss that point. During that time, it was nothing out of the ordinary to be calling Nan in the nude from a payphone at a sexuality resort for swingers with Dr. Alex Comfort’s head between the legs of a woman across from me. I’m a watcher. A voyeur and chronicler. It’s what I do.
When I write a story, I need to be true to that story and the subjects associated with it. The best way to do that, is to step into the world I am researching with as much conviction as possible. I’ll do whatever it takes. But when you go that deep, it can be difficult returning to the surface of your own self after the book is published.
Manny was back. I turned to look at the ombre ringlets and taupe heels of the woman I had shared eye contact with earlier. She had gone. Her table at the Pierre sat empty, already prepared for another character to enter the scene that now just featured Manny and I. When he looked at my empty martini glass and asked if I wanted another round, I said yes.
It wasn’t like me.
Donohue’s — 845 Lexington Avenue
It was less of a walk from Hotel Pierre, and more of a dreamy glide back down East 61st Street towards Lexington where I came upon my townhouse again. I stopped for a moment in front of it and stood in the muddled pattern of light and dark created by the trees intermingling with the tungsten beams of the street lamps above me.
It was so quiet and peaceful, I thought of calling it a day, and climbing up the twisting staircase of my home to get into bed with Nan, but the curiosity of seeing what was going on at Donohue’s Steak House — one of my favorite places in the neighborhood for a steak — eventually moved me from the thought.
Once I stepped into Donahue’s tiny foyer, I stalled my order into the kitchen so I could continue my out of character pursuit of another martini. Johnny was tending bar with the sleeves of his white collared shirt rolled up to his elbows. When I sat down at one of the few remaining seats, he paused to lean in towards me with one ear cocked forward, waiting to hear the words that would put him back into action. Bombay. Martini. Twist. It was my third.
Donahue’s is run by Maureen Donahue-Peters who, like Catherine Trebaux, inherited her namesake dining room after her father died in 2000. I guess I’m attracted to places run by maître d’s with big personalities because Maureen’s iron fisted warmth is as much a part of the cuisine at Donahue’s as the steak on your plate.
It was busy, but Maureen, Johnny, and just one other waitress kept everyone civil. It was all Maureen. When anyone is seated or standing in her dining room they are treated as equals. Not an easy thing to do when the small, wood panelled space, with checkerboard floors, and black vinyl, button-tufted booths with coat racks at the end of each one, has to play host to a regular clientele that includes anyone from couples that have been dining there since it opened in 1950, to a list of celebrity regulars like Matt Lauer or Jimmy Fallon. It doesn’t matter who you are though, once you open the door to Donahue’s, you’ll have to wait your turn for a table, the same as anyone else. It’s one the few places where New York’s class structure seems like they’re all part of the same club.
But when my martini arrived, just as it had at the Pierre, in a glass beside its cold, steel birthing vessel, I knew Johnny was honoring our history together. And when Oliver, a luxury market analyst I had not met before, introduced himself as he leaned into the bar between me and another guest to get his cocktail, I felt the democratic power that made Donahue’s seem like more than just a place to eat.
“I’m Oliver” he said, just loud enough to be heard over the ambience of people dining, “I like your hat.”
“Thanks, I’m Gay,” I said.
As much as I was flattered by Oliver’s compliment, I knew I shouldn’t have been wearing a hat indoors. I almost never did, but there was something about the evening that left me with an anxious feeling that taking it off would unhinge me from who I was, and where I happened to be.
“Oh. Cool,” Oliver said, just as I was telling Johnny how I wanted my sirloin steak done, “what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a writer,” I said, while I leaned back to shake the hands of Oliver and his art dealer dinner companion who were both standing at the bar behind me, waiting for a table amongst the gathering crowd.
Throughout dinner, and the wine I ordered with it, Oliver and I talked at the bar about tailoring, art, living in New York, and the rich family history of the restaurant we were sitting in. We discussed our own heritages and Unto the Sons, the book I published in 1992, which traced the lineage of my Italian background, and the new book I’ve been working on for over 10 years about my marriage to Nan.
When the rotary phone on the back of the wall rang with a sound at once familiar and outdated, the sharp tone broke my mind free from the conversation we were having. When I turned to watch Johnny taking notes in the reservation book with the phone in the crook of his neck, I caught sight of myself in a mirror directly across from where I was seated.
The metal brackets and shelves holding bottles and glasses above the back of the bar at Donahue’s ran vertically through my reflection, distorting my image into a representation of humanity that looked like a Picasso painting that had been hung upside down by an unsuspecting curator.
Oliver was talking, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying anymore because I was too absorbed by the distortion in front of me. That’s when I realized that after leaving the Pierre in such a jubilant mood of handshakes and well-wishes from everyone working in the restaurant, I walked away without paying my bill.
Arlo Hotel — 231 Hudson Street
It was April Fools Day when I woke up on the edge of the West Village in my hotel room’s king size bed with an immediate need to piss. Once I reached the toilet and was forced to spend a few moments holding my penis in a moment of static solitude, I realized I was still fully dressed in a suit, and colossally hung over.
Everything crashed into my head at once.
I flushed the toilet, went back to bed, and wondered what the hell I was doing.
I was sure that if I just knocked on Gay’s door and asked him for an interview, the guy would likely oblige. His generosity with other journalists was well documented. Instead of trying to write a groundbreaking celebrity author profile as their half-assed doppelgänger, I could have just taken Gay around his Upper East Side neighborhood, bought him dinner and spent a couple days compiling a tidy, 900 word, reader-friendly feature about his favorite restaurants, dining habits, impeccable dress, and anything else that happened to be on his mind.
But I was no journalist. Actually, I was everything Talese disliked about writers. I often wrote in the first person, and made myself the focal point of my work, and even worse, everything I had done up to that point had subverted the single virtue Gay Talese had dedicated his entire career to: the truth.
I knew introducing oneself to others as someone else was fraudulent. But in the spirit of escaping my own misgivings for the emulation of someone else’s strengths, I was ok with it. What I hadn’t realized was how difficult it was to capture and replicate my experiences with the accuracy and commitment to details Gay Talese was famous for.
Looking at my near incoherent notes that revealed little more than basic location descriptions, a few first names, and some notes about what I was feeling — which were mostly reduced to self-affirming statements like “I’m Gay Talese,” or “people think I’m Gay,” and “I’m in Gay Talese’s favorite bar, drinking Gay’s favorite drink” — I realized they wouldn’t be much help when it came time to write about being Gay Talese.
It was only a matter of time until I would be forced to lie by filling in details with the precarious nature of memory.
I lay there in my disheveled brown tweed suit. American Psycho was playing on the tv at the foot of my bed while I tried to put the first of what would come to be many nights spent as Talese back together in my mind.
The look on Catherine’s face at Le Veau d’Or when I barged into her empty restaurant that wasn’t even open yet. Marching up and down 61st street in my cheap brown tweed suit, past the Talese’s brownstone over and over again, trying to time my appearance in the frame of my Canon point-and-shoot set to a 10-second delay on top of a nearby mailbox, hoping to look as much like Gay Talese as possible. When Nan came up the street with groceries in hand, I had to run across 61st Street up to Park Avenue to hide around the corner like a child playing a game.
I turned over, held my knees to my chest in a fetal position and cringed once my replay turned to the Pierre Hotel. In addition to being a fraud, and a liar, I could also add petty criminal to the list after leaving the check unpaid at Gay Talese’s favorite spot for lamb chops.
I fell back asleep, and woke again near noon. The want of food and water finally forced me from bed and into my suitcase for something to wear. Before long, I was once again looking in a mirror — this time in a navy blue Brooks Brothers suit and pocket square, with a striped collared shirt and matching Yves Saint Laurent tie — straining with difficulty to see any resemblance to the subject I was supposed to inhabit.
The buffoonery of stepping into the streets of New York in the costume of a well known, octogenarian writer was more difficult than I had imagined. The first few days after my arrival often found me leaning against one of the buildings in Gay’s neighborhood, hyperventilating before having to open the door to one of the places he was known to frequent. But as days turned into a week, the discomfort and fear of detaching myself from who I was lessened with the regularity and ritual of getting dressed in the style and manner of another person.
The Building — 206 East 63rd Street
I was on my usual midday stroll one afternoon when I decided to take Lexington up one block from my bunker to East 63rd Street. There’s a parking garage there. I used to keep a 1957 Triumph TR-3 in its bowels, and if it wasn’t for the repetitious act of driving up out of its concrete tunnel so often, and for so many years, I do not think I would have ever noticed the building across from it at 206 East 63rd Street.
The instinct of routine led me off Lexington where the garage still sat, beckoning me into its familiar tunnel. When I reached its first floor of sub-level parking, I slowly doubled back, up towards the surface so I could see 206 East 63rd Street just as I had in the late-50s when I was researching my book New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey.
Back then, I was on the hunt for places or people that symbolized the unbreakable drive to persevere in a city as ever-changing as New York. And 206 East 63rd Street’s Renaissance-style, four story facade of impenetrable brick and arched windows, was a perfect candidate.
I was in a blue Brooks Brothers suit and loafers instead of sitting in my Triumph, but as I entered daylight again, with 206 East 63rd Street filling the square end of the tunnel, the effect was the same as it had been so many years ago when the building began to occupy, and eventually consume, my thoughts.
When the publication deadline for Serendipiter’s Journey fell without enough time to fully research the story of 206 East 63rd Street, I decided to leave the building out of the book. I had other plans. Having more time to get deeper into its history would allow me to start developing a stand alone work that I had given a working title of The Building.
When this all started, I saw 206 East 63rd Street’s unassuming presence as a personification of Willy Loman, the 63-year old Brooklyn salesman that time caught up with in Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman. But over the course of the almost 40 years that I followed the building’s story, I came to learn it was no fading self-deceiver like Loman was. It took a long time, but I would eventually find out that 206 East 63rd Street had an unyielding reputation for casting misfortune onto the many characters that came into contact with it. Including myself.
The most tameable portion of the building’s history was in the service of moving and warehousing merchants at the outset of its existence. It was contracted for construction in 1927 by Frederick J. Schillinger, a German-born furniture mover who succeeded at the address for twenty-five years. After Frederick sold it to a similarly positioned fellow named Frank Catalano in 1952, it continued as a warehouse for thirty-one more years of drama free service under the moniker of Dard’s Express and Van Co. But when Frank Catalano wanted to retire, he sold his warehouse to a real estate developer named J.Z. Morris in 1973, which began a run of bad luck that would stretch into the next century.
As soon as he took over the lease, J.Z. spent $700, 000 renovating the upper three floors of his new property into rentable offices. Then he sublet the bottom two floors to a restaurant that planned to open under the name of Le Premiere. It was owned by Robert Pascal, a dashing, young French immigrant who arrived in New York in 1968. No expense was spared. It would take Le Premiere four years to ready for opening night in 1977, and only a year to be sold and renamed Bistro Pascal by another group of investors. Four years later, Bistro Pascal closed too.
The openings and closings kept coming. Next up, in 1983, my favorite waiter from Elaine’s — the literary focused, celebrity hangout immortalized in the 1978 Billy Joel song Big Shot — Nicola Spagnolo, opened Gnolo in December of 1984. After floods and lawsuits, Nicola deemed the building cursed and closed Gnolo eight months later after its opening night.
Marvin Safir, an ambitious lover of food, came in over the winter of 1986 and opened a restaurant at 206 East 63rd Street called Moon’s. Two years, and 2 million dollars later, it closed.
John Clancy’s East was the fifth restaurant to test the wrath of 206 East 63rd Street. It opened during the holiday season of 1988, and closed in 1991.
After successfully running her own Caribbean restaurant on West 22nd Street, Yvonne Bell, who was often referred to as “Lola” by her friends and loyal customers, opened a Caribbean restaurant called Lolabelle at 206 East 63rd Street — it closed in 1994.
Spring of 1995 saw a food-loving investment banker named Michael Toporek try his luck with the seventh restaurant to open at the unluckiest address on 63rd Street. He would call it Napa Valley Grill. It would have a for rent sign hanging in its window by November of that same year.
In January of 1996 a Portuguese-American chef named Cliff Pereira, along with a group of financiers behind him, opened Tucci at 206 East 63rd Street. The now predictable troubles began five months later, when Chef Pereira was fired by his backers for trying to upstage his status in the dining room by mingling with the guests at their tables. He was replaced by another chef named Matthew Hereford. It was about that time that I started working in the kitchen at Tucci.
After it opened, Michael Padian, one of Tucci’s financiers I became friendly with after dining there so often, called me into his office and asked me if I would be interested in coming on board as one of the Tucci’s investors. I had always dreamed of owning a restaurant, so when I said that I would need to inspect the business further by working there, I’m not sure if I was actually serious about investing, or was more interested in using the opportunity for The Building, which by then had been in the works for almost three decades.
Regardless of my reasons for doing so, I swapped out my three-piece suit and fedora for a kitchen uniform with great enthusiasm, and started the next day working the pasta and salad stations, and the grill at Tucci.
I enjoyed the work, and quickly fell into the rythms and lives of my coworkers. But five months later, I too fell victim to the ill-begotten fate of 206 East 63rd, like so many before me. I was tipped off by a friend of Tucci’s original chef, Cliff Pereira, that it had been sold to new owners and was about to close. My foot was forced out of the restaurant industry’s door earlier than I had anticipated, and from that slippery slope of uncertainty, I decided to check in with my editor, Jonathan Segal, about my plans for publishing The Building.
I took Jonathan through the outline. The premise took its inspiration from the narrative of the 1932 film, Grand Hotel. I wanted to use 206 East 63rd Street as the connective tissue that brought together the disparate stories of the many characters that passed through its doors. Jonathan turned me down flat. He didn’t think it would sell.
I was distressed by his response, but not deterred. Instead, I audited my outline, and deemed it too fragmented for its grand cast of characters. I decided that what was needed was focus. A central figure to tie everyone and everything together. The candidate for such a role was Jackie Ho, a slender, jet set Chinese woman who, through a former marriage to J.Z Morris, had been connected to 206 East 63rd Street for over 20 years.
Jackie was reluctant to participate. But I’m not one to give up easy on getting people to share their story. But she would eventually prove as formidable as the building she helped to manage. So with attempts of wrangling a mostly unresponsive Jackie into an interview progressing into 1998, and Tucci’s newest owners finally closing its doors, I took a firmer hint from Jonathan to give up. Thirty-eight years after it was conceived, I met defeat with open arms. It was time to drop the book about the building idea.
It wasn’t easy. Later that summer, Marla Maples who was newly divorced from Donald Trump was getting ready to open the ninth restaurant at 206 East 63rd Street with a partner named Bobby Ochs, the son of a Bronx dentist. It was going to be named after Marla’s nickname, Peaches. The story was hard to resist, but before I could make any errors in judgement by returning to my building book, Peaches closed.
As the century set to end, Il Patrizio, the tenth restaurant at 206 East 63rd Street opened. After its brick pizza oven burned through a water hose that flooded the place, it closed not long after. The building was relentless. I kept my distance while a Japanese restaurant called Haikara Grill survived for two years, and Smokin’ Q died after just one, making it the twelfth and currently final restaurant to call 206 East 63rd Street home.
Leaning against the entrance to the garage in the sun, looking at the Zen Buddhist temple that a seventy-year-old monk named Samu Sunim opened after purchasing the entire property for $5.6 million in February of 2011, I still didn’t have an answer as to what made 206 East 63rd Street the worst restaurant address in New York city. Nor did I understand why I invested so much time in its history. All those years spent researching The Building amounted to a 960 word essay I wrote six years ago for the New Yorker called Past Lives.
Strand Bookstore — 828 Broadway
When I’m working on weekdays, I’ll spend my evenings just about anywhere an event, meeting, or dinner with a colleague or friend might take me. Weekends are different. I don’t venture too far, and spend most of them in pursuit of mundane tasks like a visit to Lexington Hardware for a new filter on my air conditioner, or some string to tie up all the newspapers for recycling that accumulate in my townhouse because I don’t read news on the internet.
It was sunny and warm. It was a Saturday. Maybe it was a day when everything was in order, or maybe I just convinced myself it was. I was sitting on the patio of an Italian cafe called Sant Ambroeus, just on the other side of Park Avenue from my place, when I spontaneously packed up my copy of the Saturday Times and headed to 59th Street Station for a downtown train to Union Square where my favorite bookstore, the Strand, is just a short walk from the station.
I don’t use Uber, and try to take taxi cabs as little as possible. There’s something very democratic about the camaraderie of a train car filled with people as it bangs along its course while you stand in the personal space of a stranger to the sound of screeching steel.
While I precariously balanced myself with a hand on the rung of a 6 train car barreling straight down Lexington, then Park, then Broadway, I folded the Times Arts section into a readable format and perused the movie listings. I often follow a visit to the Strand with a movie at Cinema Village because it is right by the bookstore and they are always showing something interesting.
Although it is as much a part of New York’s identity as a hot dog cart, I was disappointed to see the Strand still held in the grip of a sidewalk shed that obscured its first floor entrance with scaffolding that made its appearance during a weekend visit over a year ago. I started to wonder if I would have to pass through its cacophony of criss crossing metal support beams instead of 828 Broadway’s simple and stately architecture forever. After mandatory and regular facade inspections in New York were initiated as law when a pedestrian was killed by falling debris in 1980, scaffolding has been used as more of a temporary solution to costly repairs instead of a layer of protection while they are completed. Once the poles appear it can be years before you see the building behind them again.
Once I crossed broadway, the maze of metal made navigating the crowd out front difficult, so I decided to take refuge in the stacks outside instead. There are few things more satisfying than browsing used books in the open air.
Really, it was nothing new. I’ve been dealing with people like Gerald Foos for my entire career. From gangsters and killers, to prostitutes. No matter how terrible they are, I need people to trust that I will keep my word, and Foos knew he could trust me. I guess you could say that in a sense we had something in common. He was a voyeur, and at its essence, that is what a journalist is.
After my encounter with the lady and her dog, I decided to recede from the midday sun, and into the darkness of Cinema Village for a documentary film about an American blues and roots band called the Nighthawks. Cinema Village has a bit of a reputation for being a bit run down and attic-like, but I like it that way. I found a seat, and took my hat off during that short interstitial of nothingness, when the lights are dimmed but the trailers have yet to start. I was surrounded by people, but felt entirely alone as the screen faded to black, and the story began.
Stewart Hotel — 371 7th Avenue
After moving to a cheaper hotel that was bigger and closer to Gay Talese’s Upper East Side neighborhood than the 120 square foot room in the West Village I was initially using as my version of a bunker. After waking each morning to write until late afternoon, when it was time to leave for the Upper East side so I could use Lenox Hill as a starting point for a walk around the neighborhood, visit to the Strand Bookstore, or evening out. After many martinis and dinners at 21 Club, Donahue’s, the Pierre Hotel, PJ Clarke’s, Minetta Tavern, and Sardi’s. After two Broadway musicals, three plays, and one movie at Cinema Village. After listening to jazz at the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, and Birdland. After countless subway rides up and down Manhattan Island. And after doing it all dressed in a variety of suits, hats, pocket squares, and hard heeled shoes in the style of Gay Talese, I didn’t know who I was anymore.
Sitting in my suite on the 13th floor of the Stewart Hotel — one of what must be hundreds of grand old hotels in Manhattan whose interiors have been refurbished over and over to keep up with current taste — I pulled up one of its many windows so I could stick my entire head out over 7th Avenue to think about where I had come from, where I was going, and what, if anything, I had gained by being Gay Talese.
Mimicry is the primary way we learn. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, American school children were taught how to write by imitation. Several writers we now consider as definitive voices of western literature copied other writers just so they could feel what it was like to have words they could only dream of wrangling together flow from their fingertips.
Jack London copied Rudyard Kipling, Hunter S. Thompson rewrote both The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms while working for Time magazine, and Robert Louis Stevenson copied the prose of his contemporaries word-for-word. Even Benjamin Franklin, after coming upon a peculiar volume of the Spectator, “thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it.”
I just took the idea beyond words on a page.
So did Gay Talese.
But Gay doesn’t want to write like another writer. He wants to write in the voice of the people that trust him to act as their avatar in the world of journalism. Instead of imitation, he steps into and absorbs the lives of others through a kind of osmosis, so he can write their actions and dialog as if they were characters in a novel. Few writers have the ability and resources to achieve that level of commitment. I wasn’t one of them.
If Gay Talese was writing about Gay Talese he would have spent months, maybe years, befriending, socializing, and interviewing his subject and everyone connected with it. I didn’t even attempt a meeting with the guy. Instead, I took an approach that engaged with the life Gay Talese projected through his work and to the media, instead of the one he was actually living behind the closed door of his townhouse in Lenox Hill. The persona Gay Talese autobiographically described in A Writer’s Life was the character I wanted to pursue, and use as an agent to tell his story, and my own. I found all sorts of discrepancies in the way other writers described Gay’s meticulous habits and typical working day, which forced me to confront the limits of language and communication.
Was the Gay Talese I became so obsessed with even real?
Few of us ever get to see, or even care to see, who we really are. Gay Talese has committed his life to the arena of writing that peels back the layers of representation until he gets to the core of the person he’s writing about. But is what he finds there really the truth? Does ultimate truth even exist? Those were the questions I often pondered in the solitude of an evening martini in New York, while the dining room or bar I was in swarmed with activity around me.
We live in a time where fiction reigns over reality. I enacted upon Talese’s commitment to the principle of truth, by engaging with the world — his world — just outside the door to his townhouse, where the dividing line between what is real and what is not commingled on the pages of his novels and years of interviews and features about him..
Regardless of how Gay went about gathering information for one of his stories, there would always come a time when the data would run dry, and he would have to come home to his family, and himself. Eventually he would have to return to the bunker to make sense of it all. And so did I.
After almost thirty days in Manhattan I was out of money, and out of credit. I had no other choice but to return home to Vancouver.
A Writer’s Life made Gay’s life look easy. Ideal. I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you it’s not. His reputation as a fastidious journalist has come into question lately, and he took a beating in the press for comments he made at a speaking engagement about female writers. After arriving in New York, I found all kinds of references peppered throughout his many interviews and correspondence with others that referred to his time in the bunker as a kind of torture and battle with himself, of deep depression, and writer’s block.
Being Gay Talese amidst the backdrop of New York did provide a certain euphoria, but it also engaged me with the struggles Gay deals with on a daily basis: foremost being the difficulty of routinely writing. Much of my time in New York was spent sitting in my bunker of a hotel room, staring at a near empty screen, unable to write a single word. Unable to leave for the masquerade that was waiting for me outside. Being Gay wasn’t any easier than being me.
And it would only get worse.
Back in Canada, I spent most of the summer in bed, finishing my story about Gay Talese in a kind of purgatory between his life and what was left of mine. I never heard from the woman who left me in Hawaii again. I stopped going out. I stopped seeing friends. And when I needed to leave the house, I didn’t feel comfortable unless I was wearing a suit or hat.
But what I didn’t know, looking out over the crowds and yellow taxis of midtown Manhattan from the window of my room at the Stewart Hotel on my last evening in New York, was that my return to Vancouver would be short lived. I would finish being Gay, and finish this story. And fate would find me once again on a flight to New York, but this time without a return ticket. I would resume the life I had started there, a writer’s life. And this time I would live it by being me. But not before putting on a beautiful, cream colored linen suit and white Panama hat, for one last evening on the Upper East Side, as Gay Talese.
I knew just the place to go.
Le Veau d’Or — 129 East 60th Street
Catherine welcomed me with jovial fervor in the landing of Le Veau d’Or. Still smarting from our last interaction I was sure to make a reservation, and planned to stay for dinner because I had a photographer in tow. I could only imagine the headlines for the story he was assigned to get photos for if I was not recognized or welcomed in a place I had a reputation for dining at for almost a century.
It would not have done me any favors. After I published an excerpt of The Voyeur’s Motel in the New Yorker, the Washington Post found a lot of discrepancies in Gerald Foos’ timeline that I should have uncovered. He trusted me. I trusted him. It was a mistake. It threw the book’s credibility into the toilet, and although I wavered on whether or not I should promote it until I could make edits to future editions, people became fascinated with the story anyway.
The truth is elusive. I’ve dedicated my career to pursuing it to the best of my ability, but the second you begin to string words together in a narrative, you start to create a kind of fiction that can take on a life of its own. I finished writing The Voyeur’s Motel, its first edition was published, but the story has not ended.
Steven Spielberg wanted to pay a million dollars for the rights to make it into a feature length film, but backed out after he learned it would be competing against a documentary about the book that was shot over three years.
I never really know what I am writing until I have written it. The Voyeur’s Motel began as a book about Gerald Foos and his hotel, but what I learned was that the story is also about me, Gay Talese, the complex relationship between storyteller and subject, truth’s ambiguity, and who the voyeur really is.
“Where would the monsieur like to sit?” Catherine said. It was a strange question since I almost always took the table at the front of the room, just under the front window where she had been watching my photo being taken outside before we came in. The inquiry inspired me to step outside of my usual routine for a table towards the back of the restaurant where it was more populated with diners. The opportunity to listen in and watch the people around me, while my dinner guest took some photos, was too delicious to pass up.
Within minutes we were seated and ordering. I started with theMussel soup, with sautéed leeks in white wine and cream, followed bySole fillet with almonds and lemon, served with boiled potatoes and sautéed spinach, paired with a bottle of Stella Artois, and finished with a Lemon Sorbet.But before any of that was devoured, I ordered my usual pre-dinner, after work cocktail.
At precisely 6:08pm, I tipped a martini glass full of gin towards my lips, and just before the shutter on my guest’s camera snapped in my direction from across the table, I looked into its lens and said, “This is the life.”