It’s hard to think of a single magazine piece that exerts as world-historical an influence upon its genre as Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” the 1966 Esquire profile that redefined the way that long-form journalists write about celebrities. And it really is that good. Almost half a century later, there are men’s magazines that still haven’t escaped the story’s shadow. The voice in which Talese wrote about Sinatra – equal parts intimate and mock-heroic, with a dash of irony – is now the industry standard.
But I’m not here to talk about Talese – rather, I bring up “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” as a point of reference for dissecting “The Biggest Event This Year,” a minor gem by a writer whom I’ve often thought of as an underappreciated anti-Talese: George W.S. Trow.
Trow, a New Yorker writer who died in 2006, is best remembered for “Within the Context of No Context” (published in that magazine in 1980 and later as a book), an idiosyncratic cri de coeur against the hollowing out of the American social landscape wrought by late-20th-century popular culture. Trow was unique among his generation of Media Age critics in that before he inveighed against popular culture, he spent more than a decade reporting on it, often brilliantly. It’s hard to imagine one half of his career existing without the other. Just as Trow’s astringent criticism is tempered by fascination, the peculiar genius of his reporting is a function of his ambivalence toward his subject.
“The Biggest Event This Year,” published in the New Yorker in 1974, is a deceptively straightforward account of the soul singer Sly Stone’s wedding at Madison Square Garden. It begins like this:
On Friday, May 3rd, in the late afternoon, Sly Stone, the sleek black singer, called the office of Epic Records, his record company, and talked with Stephen Paley, his main man there. During the conversation, Sly announced to Paley that he planned to marry Kathy Silva, a striking young Hawaiian girl, who has been an actress in California, and who is the mother of his eleven-month-old son. Sly said he planned to marry Kathy almost immediately. “I might do it in Hawaii,” he told Paley. “Or I might do it when I come to New York.”
“Why don’t you do it in Madison Square Garden?” Paley asked facetiously. “Before your concert.”
“Yeah,” Sly said. “I could be my own opening act.”
This is a PR stunt of the highest, most decadent order, and a clever vehicle for exploring one of Trow’s great fascinations: the back end of celebrity.
If Talese presents Sinatra as the unknowable center of a small human solar system held together by the gravitational force of his fame, Trow does the opposite: He presents Sly Stone as an almost inert body, which but for the efforts of his attendants would plummet out of the firmament of popular culture. Trow’s subject is not the force that a star exerts on his retinue, but the Sisyphean effort required to keep the star aloft.
Trow is inverting the conventions of celebrity reporting in more ways than one. All narrative nonfiction relies on a certain sleight of hand, but the business of writing about famous people – actors, musicians, athletes, politicians – relies on it more than most. Writers are expected to spin the most artificial and controlled circumstances into a tissue of simulated intimacy; they are supposed to deliver a fully human portrait of larger-than-life figures despite the best intentions of their subjects’ minders. Trow instead tacks boldly in the opposite direction, embracing the artificiality of the whole enterprise.
As the wedding planning begins, he writes,
Several complicated sets of expectations began to be felt. There was Sly’s expectation that his wedding would be an event—perhaps, indeed, the event of the year. There was the expectation among some people in the fashionable world that it would be a perverse event—perhaps the perverse event of the year. There were commercial expectations of a grand sort—that the wedding and the publicity generated would give Sly’s career new energy and a new direction. And there were commercial expectations of a petty sort—that news of the wedding would help fill the house. From the start, the meaning of what has happened seemed to be tangled—except that two rules seemed to hold true: When fantastic black expectations intersect fantastic white expectations there is fantasy and energy but no real event, and when, in America, commercial expectations enter any equation they determine the result.
Postmodern asides like this abound. At one point Trow describes a PR flack as “a Yale man, dressed in a tan suit and aviator sunglasses, [who] seemed to represent, at different moments, intensity, sincerity, compromise, and exhaustion.” The effect is more Donald Bartheleme than Talese, and the fact that it comes off as daring rather than pretentious is a testament to Trow’s gifts as a writer and a reporter.
He nails all the particulars, from the problem with Sly’s recent music – “people don’t dance to it” – to his lamé-draped mid-’70s milieu. (“You know what I see? For the opening shot?” one of the event planners, discussing lighting design with a stage production artist, asks. “Triangles within triangles. Soaring. Very modern. All in gold. Ten different gold colors.”) The dialogue is snappy – suspiciously so, in keeping with the era’s flexible standards for magazine writing – and Trow is a deft observer of the psychology of fame. Of Sly’s late arrival to a meeting, he writes, “Sly uses small, benign delays in the way that a lion uses small, un-deadly nips—to indicate affection while calling attention to his teeth.” Trow catches Paley opting for local champagne over the real stuff for Sly’s lavish reception at the Waldorf-Astoria, and deciding to serve it only with the wedding cake – which tells you everything you need to know about an artist who, in 1974, was still famous but no longer quite on top of the world.
“The Biggest Event This Year” dutifully touches on Sly’s biography and music, but the main character here is really Paley, Sly’s handler, who is in charge of the dizzying logistics. We see him attempt to arrange – with varying degrees of success – for a flock of white doves, flying models in angel costumes, and the recording of a funky wedding march overseen by legendary producer John Hammond. Sly, in his intermittent appearances, is mostly just a particularly irritating variable in Paley’s calculations, one who skips studio sessions, changes plans on a whim, and demands to be paid more money for whatever he happens to be doing at the moment.
In the end, the titular Biggest Event This Year is something of a McGuffin. Trow spends all of one paragraph on the wedding itself, describing it with a flat society-page affect:
At nine-fifty-one, Kathy Silva came onstage with her father. At nine-fifty-three, Sly came onstage. Eula gave him a hug and sent him out to the front. At nine-fifty-five, Bishop B.R. Stewart, of the Church of God in Christ, in San Francisco, began the ceremony, first demanding quiet. By ten-two, the ceremony was over (Sly and Kathy had exchanged the rings that Mrs. Ryan had bought at Lamston’s), and Sly turned to the crowd, ready to begin his concert.
Trow undercuts the ostensible climax further with an awkward postscript: There is a question about the legal legitimacy of Sly’s wedding, which is quickly resolved. Most writers would have cut this bit after the first draft, but for Trow it serves to reinforce what has by now emerged as the point of the piece. The story has built inexorably toward Sly’s big moment, but in his baroque accounting of the unsexy details involved in putting on the event, Trow has conjured up a sprawling celebrity-industrial complex in which such moments are wholly artificial and the stars at the center of them more or less interchangeable.
This is a truth known to the beleaguered Paley – who, as a skilled mechanic in service of the star-making apparatus, is adept at keeping it running but no more able than anyone else to direct its course – but not to Sly, who believes himself to be the center of the universe. When the lights go up, the singer steps onto the stage at the Garden, surrounded by laser projections and models carrying gilded palm leaves. He is wreathed in a haze of machine-generated fog.
Charles Homans (@chashomans) is features editor of Foreign Policy.