Bartleby & Me
This week, Don reviews “Bartleby & Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener” by Gay Talese.
In Melville’s story Bartleby, the scrivener in a law office, when asked to do perfectly reasonable chores, declares he would prefer not to. Talese never refused to write; he just insisted all through his 60-year career, that he would write what he preferred to write about, in his own way, at his own speed. He might seem to be a slow writer but there are now 16 Talese books.
This volume has three long sections. In section one Talese explains how he chooses his subjects. Right from the start, before even his first days as a reporter at the New York Times, he says “I wanted to specialize in writing about nobodies”—not celebrities or famous people. (He does not mention it here, but even while a student at Alabama, class of ’53, writing his sports column “Gay-zing” for the Crimson White, Talese found the story no one else noticed. He focused on a locker room attendant, not the star players.)
At the Times, Talese wrote about dozens of nobodies. He profiled the writer of the large, important but anonymous obituaries and some copyreaders, and the man who maintained the New York Times’ 15,000 light bulbs on the 380-foot electric moving news sign. He was curious about the lives of doormen, bank tellers, waiters, handymen, counter clerks. These unfamous people had their own unique lives and often had a point of view on events around them—especially doormen—not available to others.
The middle section of this volume is truly extraordinary. Talese was assigned by Esquire Magazine to go to LA and interview Frank Sinatra for an extended profile. Sinatra, grumpy, not feeling well, never agreed to talk with him. Talese persevered, however, observing Sinatra at work and play, talking with people who did interact with him. The article, 36 pages long, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” was later chosen by Vanity Fair as “the greatest literary-nonfiction story of the twentieth century.” In “Bartleby and Me,” Talese details, in 100 pages, the story behind that story. He recounts every day, almost every hour of that assignment. He watched; he listened. And finally, Talese captured Sinatra, the monarch of all he surveyed. Talese, like a determined literary magpie, made a beautiful nest out of the bright bits and shiny quotes he noticed and picked up along the way.
In section 3, Talese becomes infatuated, obsessed with an empty, rubble-filled lot at 34 East 62nd street, near his apartment. What was the story here? Talese, still filled with curiosity in his late ’80s, carefully, patiently learned, it seems, all there is to know about Nicholas Bartha, a hard-working physician, and gives us a detailed biography of, essentially, a nobody. After an unfair divorce judgement, rather than sell his beloved brownstone and give most of the money to his ex-wife, Bartha filled the building with gas and blew it and himself up. This nobody decided to end his world, not with a whimper but with a great big bang.