What could be better than a Taylor Swift interview?
Plus: two lovely film oddities, Martinis in literature, and the 'myth of the writer'
When I first joined GQ Magazine in 2016 age 23, I was given two pieces of advice by my editors. The first was to get a subscription to the New Yorker (something veteran broadcaster Trevor McDonald had told me when I interviewed him the previous year as part of application to City University, which, as you can read here, culminated in a humiliating rejection). The second, to read the 1966 Esquire piece ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.’ The piece is one of the most revered celebrity profiles, and yet the journalist Gay Talese never actually met Sinatra. Because he had a cold, and, as Talese writes: “Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel.”
And so, Talese having already flown to Los Angeles to meet with Sinatra, he decided to make himself useful. He spoke to Sinatra’s inner circle: actors, musicians, studio executives and record producers, restaurant owners and female acquaintances. He stayed in LA for five whole weeks, taking over 100 people out for lunch (which contributed to $5000 of expenses) while monitoring a grumpy Sinatra with a cold from afar – at the casino, at a bar, at a studio – then filed a first draft that ran to 55 pages long.
Talese built such a richly layered portrait of the man – “small pieces for a large mosaic”, as he would later describe it – that at times the piece reads like fiction, which is why it became a hallmark of what is known as ‘new journalism’. This was an intimate, vividly descriptive, character-led kind of journalism which, as fellow new journalism pioneer Tom Wolfe wrote, ‘dethroned the novel.’
As Talese – whose 1962 Esquire profile of the boxer Joe Louis, which opened with several lines of dialogue between Louis and his wife, Wolfe marked as the very beginnings of New Journalism – later reflected, not meeting Sinatra turned out to be the piece’s winning trick.
“What could he or would he have said (being among the most guarded of public figures) that would have revealed him better than an observing writer watching him in action, seeing him in stressful situations, listening and lingering along the sidelines of his life?”
You only have to read the scene in which Talese observes Sinatra across a poolroom to be sure of that. In a few vivid brushstrokes, Talese recounts a three-minute exchange between Sinatra and a young guy in a corner of the room wearing a pair of boots Sinatra didn’t like the look of. By observing the minutiae of Sinatra’s movements, tone and expression, all the while narrating the exchange, Talese gives the reader the measure of the star’s arrogance, pride, insecurity in just a few moments; we feel the weight of fame and mortality on a man who has just reached middle-age. Would an hour’s interview with Sinatra have captured these colliding emotions so effortlessly, if at all?
The reason why I’m thinking about all this now is that we are entering an era of celebrity journalism in which writers are going to have to get more creative again.
More and more celebrities, like Sinatra, though with a more figurative cold, are not available to interview anymore. They are scared of the press and more importantly they think they don’t need press. It’s now not uncommon to read celebrity ‘profiles’ in which old quotes are drudged up from the internet and reupholstered with new facts and detail, clearly to satisfy SEO demands rather than the curiosity of the reader. Certainly, they are not inspired by any of Talese’s tricks – there is little time to interview 100 members of a celebrity’s inner circle, and few editors have the budget to take anyone out for lunch.
But there are still ways to be inventive, as a recent Vulture piece by Rachel Handler for New York Magazine recently proved. Titled ‘She Eats, She Pays, She Gets the F– Out’, the 3375-word piece has Handler turn up to several Manhattan restaurants and bars recently frequented by Taylor Swift on the New York leg of her tour, in order to quiz the staff and clientele about everything from her order to how she tipped. And to answer the wonderfully frivolous question: “What motivates this militaristically busy, perennially stalked international superstar to put on a good outfit and leave the luxe confines of her Tribeca condo to dine alongside the unwashed masses and staked-out paparazzi, many of whom instantaneously sell her out to “Page Six” and DeuxMoi?”
It is a joy of a piece: silly, hilarious, genuinely insightful and with an unexpected twist at the end. At a time when so much of culture journalism has become predictable and repetitive – the same celebrities interviewed about the same things, critics, like me!, with the same opinion – this felt fresh. I’m not comparing it to Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, but its motivations are similar. Nobody can get an interview with Taylor Swift, and, even if somebody could, how revealing would it really be? What might the world’s most carefully media-trained, militantly protected superstar allow herself to say that we didn’t already know?
Recently I attended two talks on journalism by the Telegraph’s two brilliant magazine writers, Jessamy Calkin and Mick Brown. The lecture theatre was packed full of young writers hanging on to their every word, as they spun sparkling anecdotes about interviewing everyone from Bob Dylan to Aretha Franklin across the world, in their homes, backstage, in unexpected places, perhaps over several hours or even days.
It’s easy to romanticise ‘the good old days’ of celebrity journalism from the media’s perspective, when of course the reality is many celebrities were cruelly betrayed and exploited by journalists – and nobody should want to go back to that. But journalists there for the right reasons created space for conversations that were enlightening, stimulating and unifying. Sometimes, true friendships between interviewer and interviewee were formed. The details that stick out when I hear older journalists share these stories are never the quotes but the intimate little things inbetween; an intimacy that young writers, whisked in and out of a sterile hotel room for their 20-minutes of allotted time with a stony-faced celeb as a publicist lurks ominously in a corner, simply cannot access anymore. It is shocking how many publications now settle for email quotes.
Young writers ask what is the future for celebrity journalism and the answer is it will never go back to the way it was. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways around it. Gay Talese is 91 years old now. I wonder what he would do?
This week in links
I’ve been reading an interview with Tom Hanks’s highly controversial son Chet. On theme with this newsletter, this isn’t any regular interview – the writer John Hammond discovers Chet has set up a life-coaching business and becomes a client. Ultimately it becomes less about Hammond getting coached and, as he writes, “through a series of long phone calls and philosophical meetings, deep into the nooks and crannies of my and Chet’s psyches, slowly our time together turned into not so much a plan to fix my life but a way for Chet to share his.”
Also, I recently discovered Mikala Jamison’s Substack Body Type, which has an excellent, honest essay about how there is nothing wrong with wanting to look good for other people, and which included an insightful quote from one of my favourite Substackers Jessica DeFino: “Communicating with other people via aesthetics is normal and human and has been happening since the dawn of time! I hate this modern/Western view that everything we do should be purely individually motivated and 100% about the person as an individual.”
And this LithHub piece on writers and Martinis (and all types of alcohol really) by Dwight Garner is a lovely thing to read just before you pour your own cocktail this week. I certainly don’t think that people are improved by alcohol, but this from Dawn Powell is quite fun: “A person is like blank paper with secret writing, sometimes never brought out, other times brought out by odd chemicals.”
While this bleak Esquire piece on the ‘myth of the writer’ looks at how, unless authors strike gold with ‘a Big Book’ - that is to say a cultural phenomenon - they will likely sell under 5000 copies and can only approach writing as a side-hustle. Sigh.
I’ve been watching the new season of Time, based in a women’s prison, which I thought was utterly brilliant. Compassionate, heartbreaking, gripping, challenging, with a stand-out performance from Bella Ramsey as a recovering heroin addict and new mother. Tamara Lawrence as a woman who has done something other inmates decide is unspeakable was also excellent. Interestingly Camilla Long wrote in her Times review that these women seemed like caricatures, and that all the female characters seemed to “slip away” from writer Jimmy McGovern, which wasn’t the case for me at all (and McGovern had hired a female writer Helen Black to work alongside him).
Also, two odd films. The first, Toni Erdmann, a nearly four-hour, supremely odd German film from 2016 starring Anatomy of a Fall’s Sandra Huller as a straight-laced, 30-something consultant painfully dedicated to a thankless job. Her careerism is threatened by her prankster father, just retired, who comes to stay for a spontaneous visit, armed with a pair of joke false teeth, a hideous wig, purple suit and a whoopie cushion. His elaborate pranks on his daughter become so absurd that at some points I thought I was hallucinating. And, though it takes a while to get going, the film is a moving and thoughtful look at how meaningful relationships with those around us can be neglected as we race through our lives, focussed on the next achievement, the next meeting, the next presentation, without pause. Sometimes, you need your dad to turn up at your most important client drinks wearing a wig and false buck teeth to put things in perspective.
The second is Wild Tales, a Spanish anthology of six short films in which things go terribly wrong, all themed around revenge. My favourite was the one about a disastrous wedding. If anyone is in the administrative depths of planning their own, and perhaps in need of a little comic relief, then I thoroughly recommend it.
I’ve been listening to new BBC Sounds podcast A Short History of Girlbands, hosted by Saturdays star Mollie King and produced and written by brilliant journalist Kate Hutchinson.
I can’t stop thinking about the fried chicken at Japanese restaurant and cocktail bar Brilliant Corners in Dalston. Often I’m suspicious of ‘experiential’ restaurants, but Brilliant Corners has a DJ booth set up in its beautifully low-lit main room, where every night little-known DJs play unobtrusively, no louder than an average restaurant playlist, but with much better music, and a proper mood. The cocktails are also delicious – I don’t think I’ve ever had a winter Pina Colada in Britain before, but on this occasion I had two.