Gay Talese: A Work in Progress

The life and struggles of a brilliant writer.

  • Editors' Pick
  1. On the morning of July 13, 1993, The New York Times published an article about a man whose wife had cut off his penis while he slept. Appearing in the Science section, surrounded by clinical diagrams and a discreet headline (“Artful Surgery: Reattaching a Penis”), it introduced its readers to the tabloid saga of Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt in the most tasteful, Timesean manner possible (“Hmm, let’s play this as a medical story,” you can hear the editor saying).

    Soon after, a rumor circulated through the literary world that Gay Talese was writing about the incident for Tina Brown, who had a year earlier been named The New Yorker’s editor. New Yorker traditionalists were aghast. Could it be that the woman charged with revving up the venerable weekly had assigned an article about genital mutilation to America’s foremost journalistic chronicler of sex?

    Like most rumors, it turned out to be true (“Okay, you’re on for the penis chopper,” Brown confirmed to Talese by fax). The summer passed with no sign of the piece, as did fall and winter. Knowing Talese was a famously dogged reporter, I dutifully scanned each issue for his byline. Tina eventually left The New Yorker, Lorena reclaimed her maiden name, and John reinvented himself twice: as a porn star, then as a Vegas act. But I never heard more about the article.

    On a sweltering August afternoon, a decade after l’affaire Bobbitt, Gay Talese greeted me wearing a stylish, three-piece suit and led me to the office he keeps ben...