This was further reinforced when he entered his school years because he wore hand crafted suits from his father's shop which, he later reflected in his memoir Origins of a Nonfiction Writer (1996), caused him to appear to be older than his classmates. He recounted his early years in his book "Unto the Sons".
Talese graduated from Ocean City High School in 1949.
"On the mistaken assumption that relieving the athletic department of its press duties would gain me the gratitude of the coach and get me more playing time, I took the job and even embellished it by using my typing skills to compose my own account of the games rather than merely relaying the information to the newspapers by telephone."
No matter how random this beginning, Talese soon showed he was no ordinary 15 year old high school reporter. He quickly (after only seven sports articles) was given the job of covering not only the goings-on at the school, but also given his own column for the weekly Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger. By the time he left for college in September 1949, Talese had written some 311 stories and columns for the Sentinel-Ledger.
Talese credits his mother as the role model he followed in developing the interviewing techniques that would serve him so well later in life interviewing such varied subjects as mafia members and middle-class Americans on their sexual habits. He relates in Origins:
"I learned [from my mother] ... to listen with patience and care, and never to interrupt even when people were having great difficulty in explaining themselves, for during such halting and imprecise moments ... people are very revealing--what they hesitate to talk about can tell much about them. Their pauses, their evasions, their sudden shifts in subject matter are likely indicators of what embarrasses them, or irritates them, or what they regard as too private or imprudent to be disclosed to another person at that particular time. However, I have also overheard many people discussing candidly with my mother what they had earlier avoided--a reaction that I think had less to do with her inquiring nature or sensitively posed questions than with their gradual acceptance of her as a trustworthy individual in whom they could confide."''
Perhaps reflecting the still pervasive bigotry at many universities of the era, Talese was rejected by dozens of colleges in New Jersey and nearby states. He eventually was accepted at the University of Alabama, where his selection of a major was, as he described it, a moot choice. "I chose journalism as my college major because that is what I knew," he recalls, "but I really became a student of history."
It was here that he would begin to employ literary devices more well known in fiction, like establishing the "scene" with minute details and beginning articles in medias res (Latin for "in the midst of things"). In his junior year, he became the sports editor for the campus newspaper, Crimson-White, and started a column he dubbed "Sports Gay-zing." For a column entitled "Sports Gay-zing" ("Crimson-White" November 7, 1951) he wrote:
Rhythmic "Sixty Minute Man" emanated from the Supe Store juke box and Larry (The Maestro) Chiodetti beat against the table like mad in keeping time with the jumpy tempo. T-shirted Bobby Marlow was just leaving the Sunday morning bull session and dapper Bill Kilroy had just purchased the morning newspapers.This was before Lillian Ross did the same in Picture (1952) or Truman Capote used the technique in The Muses are Heard (1956). More importantly, Talese included among his subjects both the "losers" and the unnoticed. He was more interested in those who did not attain the glory of winning and less so in hero-worshipping the winners.
While at the University of Alabama, he had been required (as all male students were at the time owing to the ongoing Korean War conflict) to join the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and had moved to New York awaiting his eventual commission as a second lieutenant. He was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to train in the Tank Corps. His mechanical skills found lacking, he was transferred to the Office of Public Information where he found himself once again working for the local paper, Inside the Turret, and once again soon had his own column, "Fort Knox Confidential."
Keeping in touch with his former employers at the Times, when Talese completed his military obligation in 1956 he returned to New York as a full-fledged sports reporter. As he would later opine, "Sports is about people who lose and lose and lose. They lose games; then they lose their jobs. It can be very intriguing." Of the various fields, boxing held the most appeal for Talese, undoubtably because it was about individuals engaged in contests and those individuals in the mid to late 1950s were becoming predominately non-white at the prizefight level. He would write 38 articles about Floyd Patterson alone.
For this, he would be rewarded with a promotion to the Albany Bureau to cover state politics. It was a short-lived assignment, however, as Talese's exacting habits and meticulous style soon irritated his new editors to the point that they recalled him to the city, assigning him to write minor obituaries. He puts it, "I was banished to the obituary desk as punishment--to break me. There were major obituaries and minor obituaries. I was sent to write minor obituaries not even seven paragraphs long."
Talese wrote The Bridge (1964), a reporter-style, non-fiction depiction of the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York City. Talese's 1966 Esquire article on Frank Sinatra, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," is one of the most influential American magazine articles of all time, and a pioneering example of New Journalism. With what some have called a brilliant structure and pacing, the article focused not just on Sinatra himself, but also on Talese's pursuit of his subject.
Talese's celebrated Esquire piece about Joe DiMaggio, The Silent Season of a Hero,—in part a meditation on the transient nature of fame—also appeared in 1966. When a number of Esquire pieces were collected into a book called Fame and Obscurity Talese paid tribute in its introduction to two writers he admired by citing "an aspiration on my part to somehow bring to reportage the tone that Irwin Shaw and John O'Hara had brought to the short story." Honor Thy Father (1971) was made into a feature film.
Talese is married to Nan Talese, a New York editor who runs the Nan A. Talese/Doubleday imprint. Gay and Nan Talese's marriage will be the subject of Talese's next book, the third in a series published by Knopf. The first two books, Unto the Sons and A Writer's Life, were published in 1992 and 2006, respectively.