Discovering the Extraordinary in Ordinary Lives: Gay Talese’s Journey to Spotlight Unsung Heroes

When I first had the opportunity to speak with Alden Whitman, the former chief obituary writer for The New York Times (1964-1976), I was shocked to hear him confess that his own mortality was looming. At first, I thought that this must be some sort of joke coming from a man who was only 52 years old. It seemed like he was being melodramatic or perhaps his constant exposure to the subject of death had begun to consume him.

“I’m not well,” he whispered. “I’ve recently returned from eight weeks at Knickerbocker Hospital after suffering a major heart attack. I fear that the next one may be fatal.”

We sat in his apartment on the 12th floor of an old brick building on West 116th Street. The room was lined with shelves overflowing with books, and even more books were scattered on the floor. Whitman shared the space with his third wife, Joan, who was 16 years his junior. They had met seven years earlier while working at the Times, where she served as an editor in the Style department.

I was conducting an interview with Whitman for Esquire, the first in a series of profiles on reporters and editors. It was part of my ongoing fascination with writing about “nobodies,” a term that wasn’t yet popular at the time but would later gain traction, especially following the Watergate scandal. Most editors didn’t believe that there was much interest or market for lengthy stories about journalists and their work. Journalists were seen as mere observers, not important enough to have their own stories. But I firmly believed that they had stories to tell, both personal and professional, that were just as deserving of attention as the stories of the famous figures whose names graced the headlines every day.

Prior to his role as chief obituary writer, Whitman had worked as a copy editor for the newspaper. Although I had never spoken to him during my own time at the Times in the mid-1950s, I distinctly remembered seeing him in the cafeteria. He was a short, stout man with a pipe in his mouth and a serious expression, which contrasted with his vibrant attire. He wore a red polka-dot bow tie, a yellow pinstriped shirt, and a tan hacking jacket with double vents. After selecting his food, he would settle at a corner table, newspaper in hand, spending the next half hour reading. He skillfully balanced his meal, fork in one hand and newspaper in the other, holding it inches from his face as he peered through his horn-rimmed glasses.

Despite his recent revelation, Whitman didn’t look like a man on the verge of death. He was as sprightly as I remembered him in the cafeteria, donning his colorful bow tie and puffing on his pipe. There was no sign of frailty or weariness. He spoke with strength and clarity, discussing his ailments with the same casual demeanor he had when greeting me and offering a drink.

Sitting across from him, pen in hand, I could hardly believe the situation I found myself in. Here I was, doing what he usually did, conducting an interview with someone who was seemingly ready for their own funeral. I had heard that Whitman had already written dozens of obituaries in advance, visiting notable individuals in person and observing them closely before their demise. He had gone to great lengths to meet with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Vladimir Nabokov, Graham Greene, Charles Lindbergh, Francisco Franco, and C. P. Snow, the British scientist and novelist who had coined the term “Times ghoul” to describe Whitman.

Though he worked in solitude as part of the reporting staff, without a byline to his name like other writers, Whitman held considerable power within the paper. He was the one who decided who was newsworthy enough to warrant an obituary. In his world, the deceased were either “somebodies” or “nobodies”.

Growing up in a small town on the Jersey Shore in the late 1940s, I had always dreamed of working for a prestigious newspaper. However, I didn’t necessarily aspire to write about breaking news events. News, after all, was fleeting and often accentuated the negative aspects of life. It focused more on what had gone wrong rather than what had gone right. As Bob Dylan put it, it was often “good-for-nothing news” or “gotcha journalism” where reporters aimed to trick public figures into answering difficult questions.

Despite this, news continued to be made every day, based on the activities and statements of newsworthy individuals such as politicians, businessmen, artists, entertainers, and athletes. Others remained unnoticed unless they were involved in a crime, scandal, or met an untimely death. Those who lived ordinary lives and died of natural causes were simply ignored by obituary editors. They were essentially nobodies. It was precisely these “nobodies” that I wanted to specialize in writing about.

Harold Hayes, the editor of Esquire, was intrigued by my proposal for a series of articles featuring reporters, copy editors, and editors I had worked with at The New York Times newsroom. In 1965, he offered me a contract to write about these individuals, as well as other subjects of his choosing, with a guaranteed annual salary of $15,000.

However, there was a catch. To please Hayes, I would occasionally have to interview celebrities or movie stars. When he suggested that I write about Frank Sinatra, I tried to dissuade him. I reminded him that there were already numerous articles about Sinatra and wondered what more could be said. I preferred not to write about celebrities due to my past experiences, where many of them lacked respect for writers, often arrived late if they showed up at all, and insisted on having their press agents or attorneys present during interviews and article reviews before publication.

I refused to comply with these demands, just as any reputable newspaper or magazine would, including Esquire. However, Hayes still wanted a major piece on Sinatra for his magazine and convinced me to write it by promising to publish my story on Whitman first.

When Whitman assumed the role of chief obituary writer, he expanded the scope of the job beyond what his predecessors had done. The older Times staff members had relied on news clippings to write advance obituaries. In some cases, they would use magazine profiles or biographies if the deceased was a well-known figure.

Whitman, on the other hand, managed to convince the top editors to let him travel and conduct face-to-face interviews for his obituaries. This allowed him to gather detailed information and observations. For example, after meeting with Pablo Picasso in Paris, Whitman described him as “a short, robust man with broad, muscular shoulders and arms. He took great pride in his small hands and feet, as well as his hairy chest. Even in old age, his body remained firm and compact, with a cannonball head that almost gleamed like bronze despite his baldness.”

After compiling a list of individuals he hoped to interview, Whitman would send them letters filled with flattery. He explained that The New York Times wanted to update its files on distinguished figures like themselves and requested a brief personal visit to gather their insights and reflections. The letters made no mention of obituaries or death, nor did they disclose that these interviews were intended for that purpose.

Despite the extensive efforts Whitman put into his work, meticulously gathering information and personally meeting with notable individuals, he remained an isolated figure within the reporting staff. His written work lacked a byline, but he held significant authority within the paper. It was up to him to decide who was deserving of an obituary. In Whitman’s world, you either left your mark on the world and were remembered, or you were just another nobody.

My dream of working for a great newspaper had now become a reality, and I had the opportunity to write about people who often went unnoticed. I wanted to bring attention to the lives of average individuals who lived and died without making headlines. These were stories worth telling.


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