My only caveat about Still Writing After All These Years, this evening’s stage conversation with three eminent, lifetime writers is that it was too short. Moderator Budd Mishkin, just the right person for the job, is well versed on the history of his guests, appreciative without pandering, and a good listener. My title utilizes his quote.
Wardrobe appears to be by Central Casting, each author unwittingly personifying character and prose. Jane Kramer wears well cut, comfortable, practical black. Her answers are full of ancillary, factual detail; staccato hands emphasize. She addresses Mishkin, but reacts to all. Gay Talese, always meticulous in appearance, sports beautiful, undoubtedly bespoke, two-tone shoes. He watches his peers, replies thoughtfully, and gracefully mimes. Calvin Trillin, whose deadpan humor reminds one of Noel Coward, wears a camel sports jacket evoking gentlemanly geniality. Hands on his knees, all expression emerges in words.
Mishkin’s first question is whether the process of sitting down to write is the same now as it was early on. Kramer replies that as a published beginner, “you sit down delighted you’re writing and someone’s reading it….As you get older, expectations of oneself grow.” She uses a computer. Trillin says he tries to stay “three technologies behind,” but finally abandoned his veteran Underwood for the dreaded machine. Talese writes, as he always has, with pencil on a yellow lined pad “which the slowness of my writing requires…I’m 86, one of the reasons I’m still here is I haven’t changed anything in 60 years.”
“Is there doubt creeping in? asks Mishkin. “Not really, ” Kramer responds. Trillin quotes mentor, Mary McCarthy: The horrible thing about getting old is you’ve spent your entire life becoming wise in so many ways and nobody’s listening. Talese tells us he’d take 4-5 hours to write a 3 page article (for the New York Times), when he was just starting. “I wanted what I’d written to be the best I could write.” Neither standards nor fastidiousness has changed.
“What was the first time you thought, I might have something here?” the host asks. “I think self doubt for a writer is often well placed,” quips Trillin. “I do 2 or 3 kinds of writing (more, actually) …I was once at a luncheon with Isaac Asimov who had written some 350 books. The woman next to me commented Mr. Asimov is very quiet. I said, while we were talking, he’s written a novella.” Talese reflects “what’s so wonderful about non-fiction is that you’re not thinking about yourself…I’m endlessly curious about people who aren’t obviously interesting…”
After a career of political coverage, Kramer also finds herself interested in “people on the margins…and, recently, food.” Wherever she travels, she collects recipes.“I became addicted because I became a very good cook….and I enjoy the company. Produce is interesting to me now…”
Trillin has also written what Mishkin refers to as “a piece or two in which food is the star.” This began at The New Yorker when despite knowing nothing about comestibles, the author realized he could write lighter pieces on eating. Rather than approach the style he calls “La maison de la casa house continental cuisine,” Trillin concerned himself with “vernacular food…because it has to do with the place.” When people started calling to ask where to dine, he realized he was doing it too much. “At that point one of my daughters wouldn’t go to Chinatown unless she was carrying a bagel- just in case.”
Each writer is asked to talk about a specific work. Talese recalls Honor Thy Father the rise and fall of a notorious crime family of New York. Sitting at the mafia family trial in 1965, he became intrigued as to the nature of Salvatore “Bill” Bonanno’s family life. Talese introduced himself to the crime boss’s lawyer suggesting a piece, then wrote to him every 2 weeks for 5 years. Eventually the dogged chronicler was invited to dinner, and so it began. Sincere human interest is the greatest form of flattery, often garnering unusual openness from one’s subject. Talese possesses this in spades.
Kramer’s “Whose Art Is It?” centered on white sculptor John Ahearn who lived in and created art for The South Bronx. “We have to understand what it’s like to occupy someone else’s shoes.” Ahearn brought the neighborhood together making life casts, then bronzes in which local denizens saw themselves as heroes. This raised a furor over the political correctness of who might validly represent a people. “It’s not really thrilling to see another Prime Minister. This was thrilling.”
“Alice Off the Page”is Trillin’s tribute to his deceased wife. “I never read anything quite so beautiful and poignant about a spouse,” the host comments. Kramer concurs. Trillin had described Alice (and his family) before, but 3-4 years after her death, his New Yorker editor suggested different perspective. “I had written about her only as a wise, cartoon mom and I wanted people to see how much more she was.” Friends compared the couple to George Burns and Gracie Allen. Alice was George. The author’s daughters reviewed the article at his request finding nothing objectionable.
All of those on stage fell into journalism accidentally. None of the three ever considered another field, none acknowledge any other talent. Trillin pictured reporters in greasy suits with a bottle of bourbon in a desk drawer. “I assumed my father thought I’d be President of the United States and his fallback position was that I not become a ward of the county. After college, he suggested law school.”
Kramer was supposed to marry Stanley, the boy nextdoor. Instead, without saying goodbye, she hotfooted it to New York, registered at Columbia, wrote an article about Norman Mailer’s work in a handed-out student broadside, and was telephoned by her subject. “He told me I was a writer.”
Talese romanticized sports reporting at 10 when he visited temporary training grounds for The New York Yankees in Atlantic City during the war. He thought writers traveled with the team. Later, as a copy boy, the young man learned they “rip and read” i.e. get the news off wires and summarize. Still, the sports desk was his next stop. “To the present day, I find sports interesting. It gives the opportunity to see the story.”
The four discuss “fake news” and misinformation disseminated by the net. Trillin misses library research. Kramer references her publication’s fact checkers. Talese believes in face to face research. They all concede the electronic behemoth is nonetheless useful.
When Mishkin asks whether his guests think we’ll see the end of hard copy books, magazines, and newspapers, Talese notes “We need serious reporting and we don’t get that on the Internet…I believe reporting is not what it used to be. Bylines used to have a certain voice. Now, only The New Yorker does…”
“I envy every person in the country who finds a piece you have written for the first time,” Mishkin declares in parting.
The three writers are scary smart, accessibly articulate, entertaining and very much themselves. What more could one ask?
Jane Kramer – European correspondent for The New Yorker, author of 10 books.
Gay Talese- At The New York Times, 1956-1965 , he helped define literary journalism, myriad articles, 14 books.
Calvin Trillin- journalist, humorist, food writer, poet, memoirist and novelist.
Budd Mishkin – 40 years broadcast journalist; 2003 started One on 1 with Budd Mishkin on New York 1
Photo Courtesy of 92Y
Left to Right: Gay Talese, Jane Kramer, Calvin Trilin, Budd Mishkin
The 92Y presents
Still Writing After All These Years- (a nod to Paul Simon’s song “Still Crazy After All These Years”)
Jane Kramer, Gay Talese, and Calvin Trillin in Conversation with Budd Mishkin
February 22, 2018
92Y 92/93 Lexington Avenue