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Pick of the Day: A golden oldie

Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra has a Cold" is a narrative tour-de-force for the ages, a masterpiece of reportage and writing that inspired an untold number of journalistic careers.

In 1966, when Esquire dispatched him to profile Sinatra as he turned 50, Talese followed the singer from coast to coast, to a television studio in LA, a favorite gin-joint in New York, and a Don Rickles performance at a casino in Vegas ("Shaddup and sitdown," Rickles yelled at him). What resulted was a profile of astonishing intimacy--astonishing because Sinatra refused to be interviewed.

Talese didn't need him. He talked to the singer's pals, his hangers-on, his mother. Even better, he was allowed to observe Sinatra in his element, among his friends, recording his moods and snatches of dialogue that, more than anything that Frank could have told him, revealed the often less-than-glamorous reality of being a legend. Especially one who was fighting a case of the sniffles.

The money paragraph:

Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel -- only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.

The profile's strength is in the behind-the-curtain details, from the first sentence in which Sinatra is standing at the bar, glass of bourbon in his hand, smoking, between "two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something."

Or this exceptionally humanizing description of Frank's fingers, "nubby and raw, and the pinkies protruded, being so stiff from arthritis that he could barely bend them."

Another gem: Sinatra wore "a remarkably convincing black hairpiece, one of sixty that he owns, most of them under the care of an inconspicuous little grey-haired lady who, holding them in a tiny satchel, follows him around whenever he performs."

Maybe the best line is provided by his mother, Dolly, who told Talese that no matter how big a star her son had become "even today he wears the same brand of underwear I used to buy him."

Read the entire piece here in the Esquire archive.

By Paul Schwartzman  | January 6, 2010; 2:01 PM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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