Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Crafting profiles when the main character won't speak

Joe DiMaggio stood alone in his restaurant, staring out a bay window at the San Francisco wharf where tourists watched the fishermen repair their nets. One pretty blue-eyed blonde brushed her hair back and took some photos. DiMaggio, holding a cigarette, followed her with his gaze as she walked down the street before returning to his table where he finished his tea. DiMaggio, at age fifty-one, no longer played before fifty-thousand fans at Yankee Stadium, but people still flocked to see him. Only DiMaggio never felt comfortable talking with people, least of all a writer who wanted to delve into his private life, something he guarded at all costs. DiMaggio sneaked into a back room when the writer entered the restaurant, spoiling any chance for an interview.

Gay Talese never had a chance to interview DiMaggio, but that did not stop him from writing a profile that has set the standard for all others. In fact, “The Silent Season of a Hero,” was named the greatest sports article of the Twentieth Century by David Halberstam and Glenn Stout, editors of The Best American Sports Writing of the Century.

I've read way too many profiles where the only person interviewed was the person featured. That's a terrible approach. The person profiled should be the last person you speak with. Instead, gather stories from others who are less guarded in offering information and insights. Friends and family are usually more than willing to gab about one another -- even if the stories are embarrassing. (And embarrassing stories can reveal much about a person, just as stories that show the bad side of someone yield much. Remember, nobody is all good or all bad, so do not create a person who is so one-dimensional. You might, though, if you only speak with the person interviewed.) More than a few years ago, I read a wonderful profile on Patrick Ewing that did not include a single quote from the Knicks all-star center. I believe the great Gary Smith wrote that piece for Sports Illustrated. (I'm about to start Beyond The Game, a collection of Smith's wonderful stories through the years.)

In the piece on DiMaggio, Talese found a way to write about his subject in ways that, ultimately, proved superior to the traditional manner in which so many reporters approach profile stories. (He also wrote a tremendous profile on Frank Sinatra, another person who refused to speak with him, that is featured in The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters, a book that offers many lessons in how to write a profile story. One should observe, research and interview. That Talese did not interview the protagonists of these stories does not matter. (In fact, this is a strength of these pieces. Who cares what Sinatra and DiMaggio say about themselves? What insights can they offer that hasn’t been stated before? Plus, can we really believe what they say? Their disdain and distance makes these stories all the more appealing and intriguing.) Talese interviewed countless others who know these men instead.

Talese is a keen observer, taking in details others might have missed, like DiMaggio lighting up his fifth cigarette in the past half hour. In addition, Talese clearly researched these people, as any good reporter, by reading what others had reported on these two men. These other articles and interviews help inform the main story, supplying insights into how these men had acted in the past. Finally, though, it is the writing style that sets these stories apart. Talese tells the stories through the eyes of others, shifting the mind’s eye from fishermen to waiters to fetching middle-aged women to press agents.

Talese researches well. He find stories that essentially fill in the blanks, that help to explain and convey ideas and points. So when Talese talks about Sinatra’s personal touch with friends, readers can see Sinatra in action. Talese could have stopped after the first sentence; instead, Talese finds examples to illustrate his point:

“Sinatra does things personally. At Christmastime, he will personally pick dozens of presents for his close friends and family, remembering the type of jewelry they like, their favorite colors, the sizes of their shirts and dresses. When a musician friend’s house was destroyed and his wife was killed in a Los Angeles mud slide a little more than a year ago, Sinatra personally came to his aid, finding the musician a new home, paying whatever hospital bills were left unpaid by the insurance, then personally supervising the furnishing of the new home down to the replacing of silverware, the linen, the purchase of new clothing” (Talese 24-25).

Talese does not always cite his sources, but it is clear that he speaks to many people, everyone from friends of those profiled to those who are more distant, like an acquaintance or a golf club manager. In “The Silent Season of a Hero,” for example, Talese writes that DiMaggio works hard to keep in shape. Talese shows this through the eyes of others.

“He tried hard to remain as he was – he diets, he takes steam baths, he is careful; and flabby men in the locker rooms of golf clubs sometimes steal peeks at him when he steps out of the shower, observing the tight muscles across his chest, the flat stomach, the long sinewy legs” (Talese 109).

Had Talese stated these facts himself, the story would have been far less interesting. The fact that others see DiMaggio in this manner (especially that they steal peaks in the shower) shows how DiMaggio looks in a more fascinating manner. Talese does not rely on his own point of view when creating these portraits (not that he remains silent. He invokes the first person a few times in both pieces), telling the reader how to think. Instead, Talese shows. He shows DiMaggio through the eyes of the fishermen on the famous San Francisco wharf. He also shows Sinatra through the eyes of his agent. And he even shows what New York is really like through the eyes of a popular masseuse and a cop talking a potential jumper from the George Washington Bridge in another story, “New York is a City of Things Unnoticed.”

Talese feels comfortable hanging out and revealing what he sees. He is also skilled in doing the leg work that reveals so much back story. And he also seems at ease allowing others to tell some of these stories. Talese does not need to speak with those he profiles. Instead, he can talk to those who really know the score.

-30-

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