Gay Talese Outlines His Famous 1966 Profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” on a Shirt Board

shirt board 3

Click image once to enlarge, and yet again to enlarge fur­ther.

The assign­ment was impos­si­ble: a sub­ject that refused to be inter­viewed, research that took over three months, and expens­es that reached near­ly $5,000 (in mid 1960s mon­ey). The result: one of the great­est celebri­ty pro­files ever writ­ten.

Recent­ly hired by Esquire after spend­ing the first ten years of his career at The New York Times, Gay Talese’s first assign­ment from edi­tor Harold Hayes was to write a pro­file of the already icon­ic Frank Sina­tra.

Accord­ing to Esquire:

The leg­endary singer was approach­ing fifty, under the weath­er, out of sorts, and unwill­ing to be inter­viewed. So Talese remained in L.A., hop­ing Sina­tra might recov­er and recon­sid­er, and he began talk­ing to many of the peo­ple around Sina­tra — his friends, his asso­ciates, his fam­i­ly, his count­less hang­ers-on — and observ­ing the man him­self wher­ev­er he could.

In an inter­view last month with Nie­man Sto­ry­board, Talese explained that he didn’t want to write the sto­ry in the first place. “Life mag­a­zine just did a piece on Sina­tra,” he recalls. “What can you say about Sina­tra that hasn’t already been said?” How­ev­er, for a writer who has writ­ten many bril­liant pieces, the result­ing pro­file, “Frank Sina­tra Has a Cold,” is his most indeli­ble.

Above is Talese’s out­line for the pro­file. Instead of note­books, Talese used shirt boards to write down his obser­va­tions. As he told The Paris Review in 2009, “I cut the shirt board into four parts and I cut the cor­ners into round edges, so that they [could] fit in my pock­et. I also use full shirt boards when I’m writ­ing my out­lines.”

What is also vital to Talese’s process is his per­son­al obser­va­tion. If you read Talese’s out­line (click on the image above to enlarge), you will uncov­er more of what Talese thought and felt dur­ing that day than facts about Sina­tra. “What I’m doing as a research­ing writer is always mixed up with what I’m feel­ing while doing it,” Talese notes, “and I keep a record of this. I’m always part of the assign­ment.”

This style goes to the heart of what became known as New Jour­nal­ism, which, among oth­er things, estab­lished the right for a writer to use his or her imag­i­na­tion to make a scene come alive. While the style was adopt­ed by Talese, along with Tom Wolfe, Joan Did­ion, and oth­ers, it was first born out of neces­si­ty to com­plete the Sina­tra pro­file. “The cre­ativ­i­ty in jour­nal­ism is in what you do with what you have,” Talese says.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gay Talese: Drink­ing at New York Times Put Mad Men to Shame

The Ten Best Amer­i­can Essays Since 1950, Accord­ing to Robert Atwan

Watch Frank Sina­tra Play “Snarling Mad Dog Killer” in 1954 Noir Sud­den­ly

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.