Thursday, February 6, 2014

Frank Sinatra had a cold in 1965 and we're still reading about it

Years ago I was vacationing at a little hotel in Desert Hot Springs, just north of Palm Springs. The place had a bar and several hot spring pools, and during the afternoon happy hour, people would buy their drinks and soak with the other guests in one of the pools.

People get to talking in such a situation, one guy, a local, talked about what it was like to grow up in Palm Springs. He told a story about going to Frank Sinatra's house one afternoon while he was in high school, and a girl knocked over one of Frank's knickknacks, which was part of a set and actually a valuable ceramic. The girl was terribly embarrassed and sorry about it, but when Frank found out about it, he told her not to worry about it and  knocked over the other one.

"Wow!" I said. "Frank! What a guy!"

A few days later, I realized that I had actually heard that tale before. Actually, I had read it; it was one of the dozens of anecdotes in Gay Talese's classic 1966 Esquire Magazine story, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. Had my hot-springs friend actually been there, or had he, like me, just read that story?

Fifteen years after his death, Sinatra remains an icon (fedoras look ridiculous on everyone but Frank), and this story remains one of the greats for reasons both journalistic and cultural. First is the fact that Talese creates a detailed portrait of Sinatra while actually never directly speaking with him. (See the Nieman Storyboard conversation with him about this, below. It's surprising!)  Second, it conveys the kind of L.A. cool that embodies that time in the culture. Plus, it's fun to read.

After all, there aren't many magazine stories that people are still reading decades later, or that have their own Wikipedia page. 

There's also a cottage industry around dissecting this story because there's so much interest in it. All the pieces below add up to a portrait of the work and the changing nature of magazine journalism over the past 50 years. A writer would have a very difficult time producing a story like this today, given the power of publicists and their ability to dictate access and terms of stories.

In his introduction to The Best Essays of 1987, Talese writes about the piece, and anyone who's working as a freelancer today will envy the amount of time he had to report and write...and the size of his expense account.

The folks at the Nieman Storyboard sat down with Talese last year and went through the story, asking the question every writer asks while reading it: "How did he get this?" Here's the piece. It's terrific!

And here is a really interesting writing artifact: the dry cleaner's shirt board that Talese mapped out the basic outline for the story (!)

The pool room scene looms large here.

Well, you've just got to read it.

But here's what Talese told Katie Roiphe about the scene:
That night I’m sitting at a bar around ten o’clock, watching people, and sure enough I notice Frank Sinatra sitting down the corner of the bar with two blondes. Sinatra goes to play pool and I witness a scene between Sinatra and a guy named Harlan Ellison, and I write it down on a shirt board. But I don’t get it all, so I go up to Ellison and ask him if I can talk to him the next day. He gives me his phone number and address. When we speak in person I ask him not just what everyone said, but what he was thinking. I always ask people what was on their mind. Were you surprised by Sinatra? Had you met him before? Did you think he was going to hit you, or did you want to pop him? 

That exchange and that reporting led to one of my favorite sentences in this story:
 And three minutes after it was over, Frank Sinatra had probably forgotten about it for the rest of his life -- as Ellison will probably remember it for the rest of his life: he had had, as hundreds of others before him, at an unexpected moment between darkness and dawn, a scene with Sinatra.

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