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Gay Talese’s Address Book

A new short film chronicles the celebrated writer’s 50-year habit of never throwing away a phone number or the story that went with it.

I first came across mention of Gay Talese’s address book last year, in a magazine interview he’d done. According to the piece, he’d had the book since the 1950s and had never erased a name from it. It was presented as a fairly unremarkable thing, but it struck me as just the opposite.

Hardly anyone keeps an address book anymore, at least not the kind in which names and phone numbers are jotted down in pencil. And this was Gay Talese’s address book; in the 1960s, he helped pioneer what became known as New Journalism, writing what is widely considered to be the greatest of all magazine stories (“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” for Esquire) and maybe the first runner-up (“The Silent Season of a Hero,” about Joe DiMaggio, also for Esquire) before writing celebrated books on the Mafia, the media, and the sexual revolution. Beginning as a sports reporter for the New York Times in the mid-1950s, Talese has interviewed and rubbed shoulders with thousands of people — some famous, some not (some famous and then not) — and rarely let a story get past him. To me, his address book seemed like the closest thing there was to a scorecard of his career.

When Talese and I met, he pulled out the maroon leather-bound volume and took me on a tour of its pages. The A’s had TV pioneer Desi Arnaz and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sharing space with the composer David Amram. The B’s included Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, and Carl Bernstein. Francis Ford Coppola, with multiple addresses listed, loomed large in the C’s.

By the time we got to the D’s (Deneuve, Didion, Dunne …), I realized the book was more than a repository of old friends and past assignments. It was the embodiment of Talese’s reporting method. (“I like to wander off,” he says. “Through one person [find] another person … learn [something] more interesting than anything I imagined before.”)

“Do you really think you can make a film out of this?” Talese asked me, somewhere around the F’s. Absolutely, I told him. 

Gaspar González is a documentary filmmaker. His films include the national PBS release Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami.